The Women’s Liberation movement of the twentieth century opened up a number of avenues for women. They were no longer confined to their homes and families and could go ahead and achieve whatever they wanted to. By the end of the twentieth century, women had made their mark as doctors and lawyers. And yet, despite all these outwardly achievements, on the inside women continued to aspire for a husband, children and a home in the suburbs.
Even intelligent, successful women secretly aspired the same ideal that their mothers and grandmothers had fought so hard to get rid of. Popular media only fueled these aspirations by not only pointing out what they were missing but by even suggesting ways to get what they wanted. Movies like “Legally Blonde” reinforce the idea that a woman’s primary objective in life is to get a husband and get married and that a woman’s intelligence, capabilities and talents are of not much use if she cannot find herself a suitable husband.
Elle Woods, played by Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blonde, is an extremely intelligent women who can get anything she wants once she sets her heart to it. Her natural intelligence is showcased on a number of occasions throughout the movie. She manages a score of 179 in LSATs and gets herself admitted to Harvard Law School with apparently only a little effort.
And once she decides to apply herself, she out-performs her classmates. Elle Woods is a woman who can achieve anything she wants. Yet, the sole focus of her life is to get the man who had dumped her to realize his mistake and come back to her. Elle Woods is not an ordinary woman. But her ambitions and aspirations are that of a very ordinary woman and hence very limited.
If Elle’s lack of ambition seems strange, her insistence on hiding her intelligent mind behind a facade of expensive clothes and well manicured hands is downright bizarre. Elle does not dress like any ordinary woman. Instead, with her perfect hair, designer dresses and loud makeup, she looks more like a living Barbie.
Elle is not a dumb blonde and yet that is exactly how she chooses to present herself to the world. According to Greenberg, female preoccupation with getting married may “spring from some ‘natural’ feminine psychic thrust toward passive dependent gratification” (Greenberg 151). Although Greenberg goes on to denounce this explanation and suggests that it may have something to do with women being disillusioned with their lives, this does not seem to be the case with Elle.
She comes from a rich family and is a successful women in her own way. Yet, the only ambition of her life is to get married and become “arm-candy” to a successful man. The movie seems to borrow from the desire of real women to get married to rich, successful man and exaggerates these desires to form Elle’s character. It is disturbing that in the post-feminist twenty-first century, real successful women still desire to get married ultimately.
And this desire may have been influenced by hundreds of romantic movies released every year which show successful women getting weak in the knees when confronted by rich, powerful men exuding male charm. Greenberg’s assertion that women may have a latent desire to be dependent on men may actually be a result of women being conditioned through such popular media to look for gratification through male dependency.
The way Elle dresses and her preoccupation with her looks also furthers the popular image of women being frivolous. Of course Elle’s character is an exaggeration of all female frivolities but Elle’s Barbie like wardrobe remains every woman’s dream.
All over the US, women spend thousands of dollar on clothes, shoes and grooming so that they may look more like the models and actresses they see on television. In the last couple of decades, more and more women are choosing to go under the knife to achieve some imaginary perfect body. Characters like Elle Woods tell these women that such a perfection may actually be possible.
Elle’s tailored, form hugging dresses, perfect blonde hair and high heeled shoes is an ideal that many women want to achieve. When the movie shows the beautiful and perfect Elle Woods is also an intelligent and successful lawyer, she becomes the ultimate role model for millions of women.
According to Lancaster, “fans appropriate images not as a way to feed into an ideologically created image… but [to] enter a liminoid fantasy world in order to help discover who they are in the everyday mundane world” (Lancaster 127). If this is true, it is sad that women should desire perfect, mythical bodies in order to help discover themselves.
The other main female character in Legally Blonde, Vivian, is also intelligent and beautiful but not as preoccupied with her looks as Elle. Elle suggests that if she were to spend some more time on her grooming, she could become even more attractive since she was not all that “unfortunate looking” (Legally Blonde). In Elle’s world, being beautiful and intelligent is not enough. A women must also look attractive, since the ultimate aim of her existence is to get married.
However, Warner dumps her because he needs to marry “a Jackie, not a Marilyn” (Legally Blonde). The practical looking Vivian apparently fulfills this need. While Elle was a great girlfriend, for a wife Warner prefers Vivian, not because he personally prefers Vivian over Elle, but because his voters might prefer the plainer Vivian. This is the same voter that ogles over Elle’s perfect body or aspires to get one like hers.
But these voters, just like Warner and Elle’s father see Elle as a dumb blonde and hence not a suitable partner for to someone who is expected to run the country. In achieving the perfect Barbie like persona that seems to be the female ideal, ironically, she alienates the very people who make it the female ideal.
It is not that women have any biological or evolutionary need to be dependent on men. Yet, even in this modern post-feminist era, women continued to be preoccupied with finding a suitable husband. All the time and money that women spend on grooming themselves and the obsession with the perfect body is the result of this latent desire in every women, no matter how successful, to find a husband.
Gomes discusses an interesting aspect of Confucianism which requires women to “submit to patriarchy” (Gomes 139) and to know their “place in society, and behave according to the ethical codes of general virtue: not talk too much, be clean and make herself beautiful to men, and be a good housekeeper” (Gomes 139).
Although, Gomes is discussing a very eastern cultural trait, the fact is that women all over the world had been for centuries conditioned to submit to patriarchy and make themselves beautiful to men while being good housekeepers. The Women’s Liberation movement of the last few decades has had only limited success in negating centuries of conditioning. Even today little girls play with Barbies, which become their role models for physical beauty, and are expected to have mock tea parties.
It is no surprise than that when these girls grow up, they want to continue playing tea party hostesses dressed as Barbies. Female ambition, even in the twenty first century, is governed by centuries of indoctrination and furthered by movies like Legally Blonde that encourage women to spend more time on their looks, even when they are capable of a lot more.
A movie is a mirror to the society and yet at the same time the society derives its inspirations from popular culture including movies. When the images propagated by the popular culture are as regressive as those seen in Legally Blonde, they slow down the process of change which is so vital for any society’s growth.
It is true that a movie is but an entertaining commentary on the realities of our times. However, they need to shake off the baggage of the past if the society as a whole is to truly modernize. And a modern society needs for women to have bigger and better ambitions than simply getting married an having children.
Gomes, Catherine. “Crouching Women, Hidden Genre: An Investigation Into Western Film Criticism’s Reading of Feminism in Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.” Celluloid Dreams: How Film Shapes America. Eds. Chris M. Ramos, David T. Mayeda and Lisa Pasko. Dubuque, IA: Kendall Hunt Publishing, 2010. 133-140. Print.
Greenberg, Harvey Roy. “Re-Screwed: Pretty Woman’s Co-opted Feminism.” Celluloid Dreams: How Film Shapes America. Eds. Chris M. Ramos, David T. Mayeda and Lisa Pasko. Dubuque, IA: Kendall Hunt Publishing, 2010. 147-151. Print.
Legally Blonde. Dir. Robert Luketic. Perf. Reese Witherspoon, Selma Blair, Luke Wilson and Matthew Davis. MGM, 2001. DVD.
Lancaster, Kurt. “Lara Croft: The Ultimate Young Adventure Girl or the Unending Media Desire for Models, Sex, and Fantasy.” Celluloid Dreams: How Film Shapes America. Eds. Chris M. Ramos, David T. Mayeda and Lisa Pasko. Dubuque, IA: Kendall Hunt Publishing, 2010. 123-128. Print.