How Elle Woods challenges the conventional signified meanings of being blonde and successfully breaks down the binary oppositions which impede her road to success in Legally Blonde
Structuralist theory argues that nothing can be understood in isolation and that a sign or object’s meaning is always created externally to the object itself. This is something which definitely applies to Elle Woods, the central character from the film Legally Blonde, particularly with regards to her ‘blondeness’.
Having blonde hair, or the act of ‘being blonde’ as a cultural sign, has several different constructed meanings in our modern society. On the one hand, it conveys traditional western cultural values of beauty and desirability; this applies especially, but not exclusively, when it comes to women. However, over time a secondary layer to this signified meaning has come into play, where if a woman is only valued for her looks, every other aspect of her character becomes understated, to the point where society forgets that it exists, or assumes that it does not exist.
The very first thing we see as the movie credits open is Elle’s blonde hair being brushed, filling the screen. This is her titular aspect, which lends its name to the whole movie. Elle has all the appearances of a girl who has it all in terms of western desirability – popularity, a higher education, friendship, acceptance and love. It is the very first thing we are forced to notice about her. Unfortunately for Elle, however, it has become the only thing that people notice about her, to the point where the rest of her character has been overlooked and dismissed.
The (dark haired) shop assistant at the shop where Elle considers dresses for her date assumes that she is a ‘dumb blonde’. Elle is able to dismantle her arguments and assumptions with relative ease, displaying her intelligence, which had been overlooked and dismissed in favour of a judgement based on her physical appearance. A binary opposition is created based on nothing more than Elle’s hair colour, the assumption that the attributes of ‘Blonde’ and ‘Intelligent’ are mutually exclusive.
A more detailed opposition is created when Warren breaks up with her in the restaurant. He claims that he needs to marry a ‘Jackie, not a Marilyn’, referencing First Lady Jackie Kennedy and the movie star Marilyn Monroe. While the most visible difference between Jackie and Marilyn is their dark and blonde hair, this binary opposition encompasses a lot of unspoken character traits, separating the East and West Coast societies, entertainment and politics, the traits of serious and fun. Blonde and dark hair have become short hand code for all of these differences and what is expected in terms of a woman who displays such characteristics.
The meanings that are applied to the description of ‘blonde’, the signifiers now widely accepted by society, including a lack of intelligence, an inability to be serious and a preoccupation with superficial matters. In a classic example of post-structuralism in action, Elle dismantles these definitions and signified meanings as the film progresses. She shows that while she is still a ‘blonde’, she does not have to embody and display the attributes which society, and in this case particularly the serious and established East Coast society, associate with being ‘blonde’, while still choosing to keep those which she values.
Once Elle has received her awakening to the requirements to succeed in her law course and decides to take action for herself, she sets about proving her serious capacity without giving up the aspects of her personality which made her into the popular and well loved Californian success. Rather than giving up her blonde status and cutting or dying her hair to rid herself of the central and misunderstood sign (as Mulan was willing to do in her own eponymous story), she defies the very existence of the binary oppositions and sets about challenging all of them. She constructs a new set of signified meanings without sacrificing her primary sign of being a blonde.
As a fashion merchandising major, Elle’s clothing choices, and the choice to keep and maintain her long blonde hair, cannot be seen as anything other than deliberate statements and expressions of self. This has been a trait of her character even since her California days. Excruciating attention to detail is ascribed to her choice of outfit for the date with Warren, as Elle seeks not only to look her best, but to signify her confidence and expectations and fit into the role that she believes is prescribed for her – to become Mrs Warner Huntington III. Her preparation for her first class at Harvard also focuses on her choice of outfit and her belief that she does ‘totally look the part’ is prized above the need to check or complete the required reading.
Being asked to leave that first class due to lack of preparation by a female professor, and seeing that the decision is supported by one of her female classmates, is the first turning point for Elle. It is the first clue that her own accepted structures and hierarchies of importance are not shared by the people around her, not even by the women. This realisation is compounded by her appearance in costume at Vivien’s conservative party and her subsequent interactions with her ex boyfriend. Her conversation with Warner about the work load, reading requirements and the possibility of taking on an internship fall on stony ground as he cannot see past her bunny girl outfit and still assumes that Elle is ‘not smart enough’. This is not the first time Warner has overlooked Elle. His assumption that she is visiting Harvard rather than attending it (compounded by his arrogant questions ‘Are you here to see me?’) and his unflattering shock when she corrects him as to her status and position in this new world (‘You… got into Harvard Law?’) have long since provided clues to the audience that Warner is never going to appreciate Elle’s strengths and abilities. However, the light now comes on for Elle too. For the first time, Elle points out the challenges to this binary opposition, the assumption that blonde and smart cannot co-exist as characteristics. Whereas in the restaurant, her assumptions had been that Warner was dumping her due to problems with her appearance (‘what, you’re breaking up with me because I’m too blonde? … Or my boobs are too big?’) she now highlights the factual discrepancies behind Warner’s assumptions rather than internalising the blame upon herself. She lists her successful application to Harvard, her success in the LSATs exams, all of which are comparable to Warner’s achievements but which are overlooked by him. She refers to her own strengths and achievements as supporting reasons to explain why Warner is wrong. In the past Elle would have lost faith in her appearance and assumed that she must be to blame for Warner’s incorrect assumptions and mistakes.
Elle begins to realise that her appearance is all that people see about her and that based on that alone, particularly upon her blondeness, they will constantly misjudge her. She realises that things will need to change if she is going to change those assumptions. It’s not enough to look the part, although that is still important to her. The work needs to be put in behind the scenes for the rest of the requirements, just as it is for her appearance.
Elle is willing to make compromises instead of sacrifices, which work towards dismantling the binary oppositions rather than conforming to them and ‘switching sides’. She changes from using paper notebooks to a laptop, but it is a shining and brightly coloured one rather than the matte black designs favoured by the other law students. She studies her law texts, but combines her studies with sessions at the beauty salon and time spent on the fitness machines in her room. She is not willing to sacrifice her interests in beauty and appearance, but she gradually combines them with her intellectual pursuits.
Her appearance begins to change significantly from her first day at the case meetings at Callaghan’s Law Firm. Elle arrives for the day dressed in a dark suit, carrying a briefcase. However, her suit is still feminine in the extreme. There’s a ruff around her neck, high heels on her shoes and her blonde hair is firmly on show, accentuated by a dash of bright red lipstick. In fact, the black and white effect is punctuated with dashes of red, which we already know from Elle’s conversations with her friends earlier is considered to be the ‘colour of confidence’. In contrast, Vivien’s suit with the flat shoes and plain black colouring looks almost masculine in comparison, perhaps indicating that she had been willing to sacrifice her femininity to fit into the male dominated world of practicing law.
As the film progresses and Elle spends more time at Harvard, she becomes more aware of the assumptions that people are making about her due to her hair colour. She discusses this with Emmet, noting that she is ‘discriminated against’ because she is a blonde. At first glance this sounds ridiculous and as if Elle is not aware of her privileges, but on closer inspection Elle is indeed right. She is subjected to a large array of negative assumptions due to her appearance, more so at Harvard but the seeds are sown even back in LA in terms of the expectations people have of her.
Prior to even submitting her application, Elle’s own mother assumed that coming second place in a beauty contest should be more important than her wishes to go to Law School. Her father assured her that she could never be serious. The sales assistant labelled her as ‘dumb’ on sight and even her guidance counsellor was reluctant to match Elle’s confidence that she will get into Harvard Law and insisted upon asking her ‘what are your backups?’.
Elle is mocked and ridiculed at Harvard. Vivien’s comment about how Elle had been ‘famous’ at their club calls to mind Warner’s own binary opposition between a Marilyn, the role Elle is cast into, and a Jackie, the position now occupied by the dark haired, serious and established Vivien, who is Warner’s fiancé. Warner had already warned Elle that ‘East Coast people are different’, but even this does not prepare Elle for the onslaught she receives from this point onwards.
Having decided to challenge the binary opposition of ‘blonde’ versus ‘intelligent’ she is met with significant hostility from people who still subscribe to the established system of meaning. She is called Barbie even before she gets out of her car at the front door. Her classmate assumes that she must hold an abusive attitude towards gay people (“would that be before or after you voted against me and called me a dyke behind my back?”). Her professor assumes that Elle will be willing to sleep with him to further her career. The lawyers at Callaghan’s office mock Elle, asking whether a spa is her ‘mother ship’, subtly implying that Elle is so out of place as to be considered an alien. They also assume that Elle will indulge in the classic Californian girl pastime of gossip and be willing to divulge her client’s alibi in order to further her own career prospects. Ell proves them wrong on all points, which wins her grudging praise even from Vivian.
Elle is discriminated against because she is trying to find her place within another distinct set of semiotic meanings without sacrificing any of her own signs. Saussure maintained that the meanings of language are only maintained by convention and it is that convention which Elle is trying so hard to dismantle in order to succeed in studying law under her own terms and conditions. The language which describes her is, indeed, a system which exists separately to the world she inhabits. It reflects only people’s assumptions rather than Elle’s own inner character, her innate and natural ‘meaning’.
Throughout the film, Elle is trying to escape from the constructed myth of blondeness. Levi-Strauss maintained that a myth can only be understood by considering its position within a whole cycle and examination of the similarities and differences between that tale and others in the sequence. Elle can only be understood by her differences and by examining the ways in which she breaks free from the expectations around her. Elle’s existence as a myth changes meaning when removed from the myth cycle that is her LA/West Coast background and transplanted to Harvard/East Coast society. It takes her a considerable amount of time to find the places where appearance and character can be read and understood together.
The most significant of these occurs just before Elle is about to abandon her quest to challenge the binary oppositions which still contain her. After her professor propositions her for sex and Vivien assumes that this is the reason for Elle’s success at Harvard, Elle decides to quit and leave Harvard. She sobs to Paulette that she had hopes that ‘someone expected her to be more than a Victoria Secrets’ model’, making her living out of displaying and indeed exposing her body as an object. She is surprised by the appearance of her law professor, who has been having her own set of treatments at the salon. Elle is, for the first time, confronted with a female role model who values both academic and professional success and her own standards of beauty and appearance.
While the vocal message given to Elle is essentially a feminist call to arms, the refusal to let a man (‘one stupid prick’) ruin her life, the follow up statement of ‘or you’re not the girl I thought you were’ is more important. For the first time Elle meets someone who holds the same combination of values as her and confirms that there was a higher expectation placed on Elle, that someone DID expect her to be more than a vapid and objectified model. Elle returns to action with a new plan and new determination, and she does not shy away from arriving in court wearing not the dark masculine colours worn by the east coast girls, or the dash of red to inspire her with confidence, but her own ‘signature colour’, her pink dress, her declaration of her own sense of self.
Her hair is now flowing and curled rather than bound back from sight into the rigid pony tail which accompanied her previous appearances in court. Faced with the sight of Elle in her full pink and blonde glory, the audience and the other characters in the film are forced to accept how much Elle had been willing to compromise herself in order to succeed in her chosen progression and profession. With Elle’s victory in court, drawing upon her knowledge of hair care and appearance maintenance as much as her legal theories, we are also forced to accept how un-necessary this should have been.
The final scenes of the movie reveal the significance of the film’s whole title. Elle graduates having been selected as class speaker. Her speech is calm, collected and controlled, quoting her professor, referencing Aristotle and talking about the need for passion in the practice of law. Elle’s blonde hair is still in evidence though, and her excited squeak at the end of her speech and the appearance of her little dog and all of her old friends in the audience visually let us know that she is still the Elle we came to know and love throughout the film. She has finally managed to not just transverse but utterly dismantle those binary oppositions. She is still blonde, she is legally qualified, but more than that, she has proved that she is entitled to her blondeness without having to stand for the negative judgement which had conventionally gone hand in hand with that visual sign.
She is now legally blonde, accepted in her new world without having had to compromise her values or sacrifice her defining character signs. She has constructed a whole new convention, a new semiotic set of meanings where she is able to combine the importance of her appearance with her intellect and work ethic. The universal congratulations from her friends, parents, fellow students and professors, all of whom would have been separated and divided from each other and from Elle within the previous order of meaning and language structures, only serve to indicate how complete Elle’s final victory and her acceptance truly are.*[Got something to say? Submit to Project Shandy]*