Often, Hollywood movies tend to glamorize the legal system. They portray it like a fairytale; the villain goes to jail while the victim gets served justice thanks to the hero, who is now basking in glory. The most prominent example of this trope would be the movie, Legally Blonde. A walking beauty standard named Elle Woods gets into Harvard Law School, combats the dumb blonde stereotype through her unapologetic feminity, and manages to even win her first-ever case as a first year. This begs the question, does this Hollywood film accurately represent our legal system, specifically women in and affected by how the system serves justice?
Elle Woods is the epitome of the traditional binary idea of femininity in liberal feminism. She represents the perfect balance between the private and public sphere- blonde, sensual, and educated, but devoted to creating the nuclear family with her traditional boyfriend. She’s at Harvard Law, a traditionally masculine space, as a force of opposition adorned in pink. Her presence opposes masculinity while accessing a position in a “man’s role” in academia. Elle’s character is refreshing since it shows that women don’t need to align themselves with masculinity to be successful. To viewers, Elle’s femininity gives her power and individuality, and more importantly, it’s what allowed her to win her first trial as a law student.
Although her character’s representation of being unapologetically feminine is important and necessary, it’s crucial to note that her ability to embrace her femininity comes from her whiteness and being the beauty standard. Elle Woods, regardless of her impact, is still this white, blonde, skinny, and pretty woman. Her whiteness allows her to still be a part of an exclusionary white liberal feminist group that gives her access to the privilege of “hating the correct people” and she has a social safety net. She’s the “acceptable” woman and “acceptable” disturbance. Her experience with her femininity still aligns with society’s conventional ideas of women. So for women of color, this can be perceived as just another example of white privilege.
For all we know, her identity with whiteness is perceived before her identity as a woman. If a woman of color were in Elle’s position, she would be shot down as aggressive or as an “affirmative action” case. An example would be Ketanji Brown Jackson, a successful Black Harvard Law graduate who’s more than qualified to serve on the Supreme Court. Her success story and transition into the public sphere as a woman of color were immediately met with racism and sexism. Mikki Kendall for Time Magazine writes, “Black women in American society are effectively expected to
fill two roles at work, the one they were hired to do and another role of making their coworkers comfortable at their own expense. It’s not enough to be educated, accomplished, and professional. To navigate the obstacles created by racist stereotypes... They cannot be too talented or assertive, lest they be perceived as a threat.” Unlike Elle Woods, Black women’s femininity doesn’t win them court cases, rather it’s seen as a threat.
Thus, that leaves us the question: what solution is there? What does change even look like? Hollywood feeds viewers tropes of white women sexily succeeding in capitalism and the white man’s game is overdone and frankly, a little boring. Viewers should also stop relying on and assuming that the media has the capability of producing intersectional identity representation. What would any of these white men in positions of power in Hollywood understand about race and gender? Truthfully, there may not even be a way to portray women in media outside the male gaze, when movies are being produced for the male gaze. Appeal, femininity, wisdom, and beauty are all standards built around and for men and their needs. The white male gaze is internalized and becomes the standard and expectation for women.
To think outside that would require society to think outside the binary and social constructs that we were taught before birth. Social justice and change, especially feminist theory, do not ever truly seem to have a solution. Even when fighting against these issues of systemic sexism and racism, those who are fighting it are pushing against the confines within the structures of violence, not outside. Systemic change would require legal change, but legalities are also run by the white man. What’s acceptable for change is ultimately what the white man thinks is acceptable, which once again makes us internalize the male gaze, rendering our voices futile. There is no simple answer or solution to this multi-faceted issue; it seems like an uphill battle that never stops. But, what we can do is question representation and question the narratives that are shown to us through different mediums.
While Legally Blonde serves as inspiration for many women, it romanticizes the legal system through a white liberal feminist lens that lacks the necessary intersectionality. Although it seems like a heartwarming movie that seems to be about women's empowerment in the legal field, it just reinforces the white lens and white liberal feminism that leaves minority women in the dark. It lacks inclusivity while ignoring the glaring issues of white privilege. Thus, people who watch films like Legally Blonde can also ignore those issues and believe in the over-glamorized Hollywood version of the legal system which sets a dangerous precedent. If viewers don’t see a problem with the racist and sexist structure of the legal system that can perpetuate social inequalities, they’ll also fail to engage with social justice. Acknowledgment of an issue is the first step to solving a problem, but movies like Legally Blonde glamorize an issue.
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