Historically, women have been expected to dress, behave, think and talk in a certain way, and any deviation of this restrictive norm has been met with criticism, derision and social rejection. I mean, women wearing pants is a relatively new phenomenon. Joan of Arc wore a man’s armor back in the 15th Century in order to prevent rape, and in most of the 20th Century, pants were designated as casual wear for women, with dresses and skirts being the accepted standard. This Huffington Post article gives a brief history of how pants came to symbolize economic power and gender equality.
It has been a long painful struggle but we as women have finally begun to assert our place as equals to men in the corporate, grey pants-wearing world. Unfortunately, a by-product of this quest for equality has been the derision of what is considered the ‘traditional feminine’ look.
Think pink and frills.
With more women represented in capitalist systems across the world, we have come to associate success with traditionally masculine traits. What do you think of when you conjure a mental image of a woman succeeding in traditionally male-dominated fields?
When you think of a successful business woman, do you think of someone like this:
When you think of a competent female engineer – say, software developer – do you think of this:
I had to upload a cartoon because I couldn’t find a stock image on Google of a woman in a dress or frilly top coding. Maybe that says something, maybe it’s just a coincidence.
Think carefully – why does one image strike you as out-of-place and not the other? Sure, there is the stereotype of software engineers being basement dwellers who are perennially cladded in grey hoddies (though the advent of brogrammer culture is calling to question this stereotype, and not exactly in a way that seeks positive change).
But there is also the insidious bias against undeniably feminine success in male-dominated fields. Women are allowed to succeed in business, engineering, law, comedy etc – just as long as they are not too womanly.
I’ve experienced it myself — there is always a subset of people who will stare at me funnily, almost quizzically, when I walk into a CS lecture hall, the TA office hours building, or Gates (home to Stanford’s computer science department) in make-up, a floral dress and/or heels.
Now I understand the heavy connotations of the statement I’m making – oh, so now women and girls who don’t wear pink dresses are not feminine enough? That couldn’t be further from my point, although I can understand how centuries of being told how to be a ‘proper’ woman can make us hyper-aware of implicit biases.
But feminism doesn’t mean that every woman must deviate from the traditional norm of femininity in order to succeed economically. It doesn’t mean that we are to shy away from pink dresses and kitten heels in order to make it in our capitalistic society. Women are multi-faceted beings, and a dash of blush does not take away from our complex identities.
Which brings me to Legally Blonde.
Elle Woods is thin, blonde, pretty, pretty rich, and is a sorority sister. She is the embodiment of the ‘All-American’ girl, and is admired by many for her looks, yet her intelligence is grossly underestimated by everyone around her, including her douchebag, legacy admission boyfriend, Warner. When she is unceremoniously dumped at the beginning of the movie by Warner, who has been admitted to Harvard Law School, she is determined to get him back and decides that applying to Harvard Law School is the easiest way to go about it.
She doubles down on her studying and gets a perfect score on the LSAT. This, among other things (the leadership roles she holds in her sorority, for example) garner her admission into what is arguably the most prestigious law school in the country, much to the shock and disgust of aforementioned douchebag Warner.
I won’t narrate all the details of the movie, but Elle ends up impressing one of her professors, earning a spot in his Law office’s coveted internship program. Elle ends up winning a prominent murder case for the office, and earning the sweetest revenge on Sleazebag Warner:
So, why is Elle Woods a feminist icon?
She proved to us that you can be a walking stereotype of femininity and excel at what you endeavor to achieve, as long as you put in the time and effort. She proved that being boy crazy does not make you stupid, and is not an incurable disease. And while the movie is far from perfect, I will always appreciate Elle for her unashamed displays of cheer and bright pink.
Feminine women are not just cheerleaders — they are more than capable of carrying the game.