Review: Legally Blonde : Pop Culture Happy Hour Twenty years ago, Legally Blonde opened in theaters, and now it's available on Netflix. Reese Witherspoon plays a first-year law student named Elle Woods. She heads to Harvard Law School to win back Warner, who broke up with her for not being serious enough. But she learned that she was cut out for the courtroom, and she changed what it means to be a "serious" woman.

'Legally Blonde' 20 Years Later

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LINDA HOLMES, HOST:

Twenty years ago, a first-year law student named Elle Woods and her little dog, Bruiser, arrived at Harvard. Played by Reese Witherspoon, Elle wanted only to win back the boyfriend who broke up with her for not being serious enough. But she learned that she was cut out for the courtroom, and she met a new man as well. I'm Linda Holmes, and today we're talking about "Legally Blonde" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. Joining us is writer and editor Ella Ceron. Welcome back, Ella.

ELLA CERON: Hi. Thank you so much for having me.

HOLMES: Of course. And also with us is LaTesha Harris. She is an NPR Music contributor and an editorial assistant for the wonderful NPR podcast Louder Than A Riot. Welcome back, LaTesha.

LATESHA HARRIS, BYLINE: Thank you so much, Linda. Hi.

HOLMES: Of course. Hi. And also joining us is NPR Music's Lyndsey McKenna. Welcome, Lyndsey. Always great to have you.

LYNDSEY MCKENNA, BYLINE: Hey. Happy to be here.

HOLMES: So we are here with this spectacular panel of people who are, interestingly enough, all younger than me, to talk about "Legally Blonde." "Legally Blonde" is based on a novel by Amanda Brown. It was directed by Robert Luketic from a screenplay by Karen McCullah and Kristen Smith. Luke Wilson plays Elle's new love interest, a gentle-hearted young lawyer named Emmett. Matthew Davis plays her snobby ex, Warner, and Selma Blair plays her romantic rival, Vivian. Elle does wind up having a client in a murder case as well. She's played by Ali Larter. Jennifer Coolidge shows up as Paulette, a kind manicurist who becomes her confidant.

"Legally Blonde" led to a sequel and a Broadway musical, and it earned a couple of Golden Globe nominations. Despite its light tone, it was part of Reese Witherspoon's transition from precocious young person performances in movies like "Pleasantville" and "Election" to more adult roles in movies like "Walk The Line" and "Vanity Fair." Ella, I want to start with you. What is your relationship with "Legally Blonde" like?

CERON: I was thinking about this, actually, because I was blown that it's been about 20 years since it came out, which means it came out when I was in about middle school. And, full disclosure, I am from Los Angeles. I am a part-time Valley girl, so it just felt like representation in a very, very tongue-in-cheek kind of way. And when you're 11 years old and it's this very pink, girl-power, glittery movie, it's just everything you want even though half the jokes flew over my head at the time.

HOLMES: Sure.

CERON: And of course, over the years, then, you know, it's on E!, and you just, like, sit down and watch it every single time it's on syndication. So that's just - it's a very - it's rooted in nostalgia for me a lot of the time.

MCKENNA: Yeah. I was about 9 going on 10 in the summer of 2001, so I can't really remember a time in my life before "Legally Blonde." There is no pre-"Legally Blonde" memory, and looking back, this was definitely one of my first Reese Witherspoon experiences. I was way too young for "Election" or "Cruel Intentions," and she is sort of like a guiding star in my family. We - you know, if "Legally Blonde" is on and my family's all around, we're going to watch it regardless of what else is happening and what else is going on. Same goes for some of her other sort of lesser rom-coms, so we're just a pro-Reese Witherspoon family.

I was definitely too young also to unpack the relationship dynamics. I think it was also the first time that I was ever aware of what the culture vows announcements were. There's a prominent learning about an engagement through vows. And I think that a lot of the East Coast-West Coast dynamics were something that I didn't think about then but now are really interesting to me. And also just, like, the pedigree element of this film, that definitely was not on my mind at all, and now it's, wow, top of mind.

HOLMES: Yeah. Absolutely. LaTesha, how about you? What's your "Legally Blonde" general feeling?

HARRIS: I will say I was probably, like, four or three when this movie came out, so I remember it just as, like, the subconscious, like, I love the color pink, and I love Elle Woods. So my relationship is more just, like, revisiting it now and, like, considering thematically, like, how the movie considers the idea of a serious woman and a serious wife, you know, that whole concept, calling back to, like, traditional values of marriage as an economic institution and just, like, overanalyzing (laughter) what the movie is saying when it probably isn't saying everything I think it's saying. But it's saying so much, especially, like, with the costuming. I love it. I think it's great.

HOLMES: Yeah. Well, so when this movie came out in 2001, I was out of law school, right? I was a couple of years out of law school. So I saw it, of course, in the most helpful way, which is based on how realistic or unrealistic it was about law school and being an attorney. But I really did think of it as that idea of who is serious and who is not serious. I think, you know, without really specifically mentioning Barbie, there's a lot of kind of pink, Barbie doll signaling in this. I think, as a couple of you mentioned, it was very much associated with California and Los Angeles and the idea, which predates some of you, of Valley girls and that idea, which really became such a cultural caricature. And what I like about this is it's not necessarily realistic that she gets into Harvard Law School the way that she does, but the way she gets into Harvard Law School is not any dumber than the way people do get into Harvard Law School. Do you know what I mean? It's not any more random than the number of people who get in there because of parents and money and other things that also have nothing to do with whether or not you're going to be a good attorney. So the fact that she gets in there making a video in a hot tub or whatever it is...

MCKENNA: Directed by a Coppola.

HOLMES: It's ridiculous. It's ridiculous. It's unfortunate. It's patriarchal, all these old, white dudes sitting around deciding to let her in on that basis, but it's not any sillier than those same guys deciding, well, this person is the son of so-and-so. So regardless of any other accomplishment or anything, you know, it would actually be nice if Harvard Law School and places like it were better at recognizing things like the organizing you did for your sorority and charity drives and stuff like that. So there's part of me that's like, yeah, it's not realistic, but maybe we'd be better off if it were. Now, my first question - like, my favorite - in some ways, my favorite dynamic in this film is that she becomes friendly with the Selma Blair character because the real enemy is Warner, the boyfriend, because I do not like Warner. Any Warner opinions?

HARRIS: I'm a big Warner hater. I didn't realize his name is Warner for the longest time growing up. I always thought it was Warren (laughter).

HOLMES: Doesn't matter. Could be Warren.

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: But I think that idea of like, Elle becoming friends with Vivian is just - like, this movie, like, barely passes the Bechdel test, but every scene that fails it, in a way, like, the man in question is made obsolete by the film's end. Like, Warner is discovered to be, like, a loser with no job. Callahan is, like, dismissed from the case. And the UPS guy is just, like, the sex object with no name.

HOLMES: Right.

HARRIS: So it's like what's more important in the film is, like, the community care amongst all the female relationships. And, like, Elle becoming Vivian is just, like, that testament to her being a girls' girl. And she's not shamed for being like - I don't know - embracing all the traditional, like, aspects of, like, white femininity, you know?

MCKENNA: And the scene that Vivian clues in Elle to the fact that Warner's father, grandfather had to make a call to get him off the waitlist - and, you know, the big sticking point, one of the big moments for Elle is, when she's at the party - that she's been made a fool at at the hands of Vivian. But in that moment, you know, she realizes that the real ire should be directed at Warner and his idea that she's less than, even though they got into the same school, went to the same undergrad. Like, their pedigrees - arguably, I think it's hinted at, you know, that maybe she had a better GPA going in. He was obviously, I would assume, in sort of the same social circles. Again, Elle being in a sorority, her extracurriculars and Warner's were probably quite similar.

In any case, I agree that I think that that's one of the most fruitful relationships. I also love the constant digs at Vivian for being so preppy. I just think it's great. I love that aesthetic and the aesthetic of, like, the preppiness of Vivian matched up against the pink and the over-the-top, like, some of the early 2000s identifiers - you know, the Tiffany necklace that's always around Elle's neck. It's just - it's such a beautiful juxtaposition of, like, what sort of fashions were aligned at that moment and then overcoming those differences.

HOLMES: Yeah. For sure.

CERON: I also really love the - there's a lot of subtext with Vivian's character and specifically when Professor Callahan is constantly asking her to get his coffee, to get a donut for him, to carry just a ton of depositions and basically be his lackey. And when you're 11 years old, you don't really realize the commentary that's at play as being a woman in these traditional male spaces. But then, you know, on rewatching it and rewatching it, especially for the show, it's like, oh, wait. This is actually really deep - and to really kind of contextualize that with experiences that you've either read about or experienced in real life across any industry and not just law. And so to see the way Vivian kind of parses that out, it's very subtle, and Selma Blair is very, very good in it. And Vivian doesn't know how to react. And she, in fact, demonizes Elle and accuses her of basically sleeping her way to the top. A few minutes later because this is a movie, and we're going in movie timeline, she admits her mistake, and she's very quick to realize that she was in the wrong.

HOLMES: Right.

CERON: So just - she's never really painted as the villain. She just doesn't know.

HOLMES: Yeah. And I think one of the things I really love about that sequence - it's so painful, that sequence where Elle is being sexually harassed by Callahan, the professor played by Victor Garber, because, you know, so often, I think, particularly at that time or before that, when you would have a man like that who would make this kind of clumsy effort to, you know, put his hand on the knee of the young woman who was working for him, you would get her anger or her offense or her kind of like, how dare you and the slap or whatever.

I really like how much they play her disappointment and her hurt in this movie that he doesn't take her seriously the way she thought he did, that she was looking for a mentorship and realized that she did not have the relationship that she thought she did with him. She felt respected by him. She believed she was respected by him. It's very smart in that way in addition to the way that Ella was talking about where you see that there is a real danger of her and Vivian winding up being sort of set against each other in that setting rather than them both understanding that this is all the operation of Callahan.

And I - you know, to the point we were making about the importance of the women's relationships, I think in general, you know, I used to talk in movies about the - what I referred to as the girly role wasteland, which is people writing kind of these roles for women that were sort of, you know, tangential and unimportant and somewhat underwritten. I think you can argue that the Luke Wilson part in this has a little bit of that quality, which I think is fine. Like, that's not a deeply built-out character. He's a nice guy who shows up on the horizon as a promise of the future for the woman who is the important character in the movie.

HARRIS: Yeah. I think when I was rewatching, I was like, oh, Emmett really is just there to be, like, a believer in Elle and to, like, show his, like, faith in Elle and, like, yell at people who don't believe in her. So it's kind of like he's turning this, like, whole manic pixie dream girl thing on its head, and it's just like, no, you're going to be, like, a useless man who, like, loves this woman and just wants to take care of her and respects her. And that's all you're good for, and I love it.

HOLMES: Yeah. You don't necessarily have to be, like, a super exciting, interesting dude.

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: You just have to be, like, the nice, new boyfriend.

HARRIS: That's the bar.

HOLMES: And, you know, the other thing, too, is, you know, I mentioned I'm very into this comment that Elle's father makes about who goes to law school.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LEGALLY BLONDE")

JAMES READ: (As Elle's Father) Oh, sweetheart, you don't need law school. Law school's for people who are boring and ugly and serious. And you, button, are none of those things.

HOLMES: And what I love about that is it's so funny to me because it's sort of true (laughter), and it's - but it's also like there are little insights about law and legal performance in this, even though, obviously, the courtroom scene is this ridiculous finale to the movie that - you know, none of it is realistic. But there's this little kernel of truth, which is that Elle is able to better represent this client because she understands the world that the woman lives in. There is a real issue of people being represented by attorneys who don't understand the places where they live, the communities that they live in, the realities of their day to day and therefore cannot represent them as well. So in this weird little way, this comical version of, like, the perm on this great character played by Linda Cardellini a million years ago, in real life, it wouldn't play out with these women in this way. But that dynamic is, like - that's a real thing. That's a real thing.

CERON: I think to that end, it's kind of like, you know, you watch "Grey's Anatomy," and you're like, yes, I could be a doctor. So when I was 11, I watched "Legally Blonde" and was like, yes, I could be a lawyer. And I think it's also aided and abetted by the fact that, you know, one of the core tenets of the movie is not necessarily feminism so much as it is girl power and a belief that you can care about Bravo and politics at the same time.

HOLMES: Mmm hmm. Mmm hmm. Mmm hmm.

MCKENNA: One of the things that I will say is as a person who read this message that being serious did require you to pursue a certain career, I did end up taking the LSAT, applying and deciding not to go to law school. Ultimately glad I took that trajectory, for obvious reasons, but at the same time, there is sort of this idea of seriousness. It's something that has frustrated me. It's not a fault of the movie but just what we sort of instill among young students. So it's funny that her father uses that as sort of the flip side.

HOLMES: Right.

MCKENNA: One other thing that I will admit to willingly is that my idea of self-care was definitely based in part on this film, that when I am in a funk, when it's not a global pandemic, I do go get a manicure. And I do think that it was partially based on "Legally Blonde."

HOLMES: Yeah. I love that community, as we talked about before, of women at the salon who sort of take care of her, even though, you know, out of all the things in this movie, I could lose the bend and snap business. I think it's a little forced.

MCKENNA: Amen to that.

HOLMES: Before we go, Ella, do you feel like this movie holds up after 20 years?

CERON: I think it needs a lot of asterisks, to be perfectly honest. I think it was perfectly of a time. You know, going-out tops and all, it - the costumes are perfect and really capture that era, but there's a lot of fatphobia. There's unfortunately some homophobia that really didn't sit right with me. Elle and Emmett effectively out the pool boy when he's taking the stand. And looking back on that, I didn't have the vocabulary when I was 11 years old to realize that was wrong. And now we know it is wrong. And it is something to keep in mind as you watch. It's not the rah-rah feminist moment, Elle's so smart, because it's incredibly violent, and it's really hard to reconcile that.

So I haven't seen the stage play. I hope they address it in some way because it came out so many years later. But I do think it is something to contend with and to also contend with the number of homophobic stereotypes that are in the movie and feel really flat and dated.

HARRIS: I just want to say real quick, the stage play does have this whole - it has a whole song dedicated to the scene where it's like, is he gay or European? And it really just doubles down on the homophobia, unfortunately. So I definitely agree that it doesn't age well in that aspect. And also, just, like, the racialized aspect of "Legally Blonde," like, even the pool boy being this, like, stereotype of this, like, gay, Latinx, LA macho dude is very interesting. So I think, like, that, in and of itself, is, like, a huge pitfall of the movie, unfortunately.

CERON: Yeah. I was also just curious, and I looked up the demographics of Harvard Law School. I think I got back as 2004, which I guess is Elle's graduating year. And it was about 50% non-Latinx white. So the fact that this movie is just strictly, entirely full of white people is, again, a product of its time but would be something to address going forward because we know that's not what this school looks like.

HOLMES: I agree. I think the general sense that they are all, like, sort of genius white hippies is a weird choice that would not hold up to real Harvard.

We do want to hear what you think about Legally Blonde 20 years later. Find us at facebook.com/pchh or tweet us at @pchh. When we come back, it's going to be time to talk about what's making us happy this week. So come right back.

Welcome back to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR. It's time for our favorite segment of this week and every week - what's making us happy this week. Ella, what is making you happy this week?

CERON: What's making me happy this week is the book "Fat Chance, Charlie Vega" by Crystal Maldonado. It's a very, very sweet YA novel about a girl who's typically cast as the fat best friend and just going through high school and navigating with how the guy that she likes likes her best friend - kind of, you know, coming into not necessarily body positivity but body neutrality and body acceptance and doing so in a multicultural way. And it's just very, very sweet. It's - it reminds me a lot of "To All The Boys" in just that purity. And it's just a very light, easy read, which is what I need right now.

HOLMES: For sure. So what's the title again?

CERON: "Fat Chance, Charlie Vega."

HOLMES: All right. Thank you very much, Ella. LaTesha Harris, what is making you happy this week?

HARRIS: What is making me happy this week? I've been having a week where I need to turn my brain off as soon as I get off. So I've been watching a lot of "The Nanny." And unfortunately, it hasn't been turning my brain off, but it still has been making me happy - the costuming, Fran's voice, Fran's laugh - Niles' so, so funny. I forgot how witty and how much Niles has influenced my life.

But it's been interesting rewatching it because I've been also reading it in combination with "Work Won't Love You Back" by Sarah Jaffe. And I just got to the section about domestic work and, you know, how we ask people, domestic workers, to take care of kids and ask them to love them as well. And, like, it blurs the line between, like, personal and professional. So watching "The Nanny" and watching Fran, like, love these kids just, like - I don't know if I love this (laughter). But it's still making me happy.

HOLMES: Well, I agree with that. "The Nanny" is now available on HBO Max, and we are going to be talking about "The Nanny." We want questions from you about "The Nanny." You can email us a voice memo with your question to pchh@npr.org. Again, questions about "The Nanny" - send us a voice memo with your question to pchh@npr.org. OK. Lyndsey McKenna, what is making you happy this week?

MCKENNA: So I think at this point in the year 2021, it is impossible to call any of the members of the supergroup Boygenius underrated. But today I wanted to express my utter gratitude for one of the perhaps unheralded members, Lucy Dacus. What's making me happy this week is that she has announced her third album, "Home Video." It'll be released in June - on June 25. And with that announcement comes a new single. It's called "Hot & Heavy." And I'm a person who really loves music videos. And this music video got me, like, right in that just, like, soft spot. I'm pretty emotional thinking about it. And Lucy released a statement with the video. She said, I know that the teen version of me wouldn't approve of me now, and that's embarrassing and a little heartbreaking and even if I know, intellectually, I like my life and who I am. And as a person who feels like she's constantly reconciling younger versions of herself and older versions, God, it just got me good. Lucy Dacus has also released tour dates, so I am trying to allow myself a little bit of optimism because her date at the 9:30 Club here in D.C. will include one of my favorite artists of last year, Bartees Strange. So I'm hopeful that maybe, just maybe, I will be vaccinated, with a mask, enjoying Lucy Dacus and friends and maybe a beer and crying to this song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOT & HEAVY")

LUCY DACUS: (Singing) Even though I'm not a dancer. Ask me all the questions that your parents wouldn't answer. How could I deny a diamond in the rough? You let me in your world until you had enough. You knew that I wanted you to bend the rules. How did I believe I had a hold on you? You were always stronger than people suspected, underestimated and overprotected. When I went away...

HOLMES: Fantastic. Thank you so much, Lyndsey McKenna. What is making me happy this week? It's been a while since I called out a Twitter feed, but I have really been enjoying the Twitter work of Cora Harrington, who runs a feed called Lingerie Addict. And Cora writes about lingerie. And one of the things that she does the most is talks about construction and economics of particularly bras and lingerie that are of good quality and spends a lot of time explaining how complicated the construction is and why - you know, why does this cost so much, and why is this so expensive? And she'll go through the entire kind of creation of it - how much design it takes, how many panels there are, how many pieces there are in a well-made bra. And to me, it's such an interesting combination of kind of economics and fashion and design and engineering and kind of social commentary on what's valued and what's not valued. There's also just a lot of really interesting information about the creation of apparel in general that's just taught me a lot. And it's interesting to realize, like, you know, if you've been wearing bras since you were 12 years old, I think a lot of people don't think about them that much by a certain point. So, again, I really recommend Cora Harrington on Twitter at @lingerie_addict.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HOLMES: So that is what is making me happy this week. And that brings us to the end of our show. You can find all of us on Twitter. You can find me at @lindaholmes. You can find Ella at @ellaceron. You can find Lyndsey @LyndseyMcK. You can find LaTesha at @latesha_eharris. You can follow our editor Jessica Reedy at @jessica_reedy and our producer Candice Lim at @thecandicelim. You can follow producer Mallory Yu @mallory_yu. You can find producer Mike Katzif at @mikekatzif, K-A-T-Z-I-F. Mike's band, Hello Come In, provides the music you are bobbing your head to right now. Thanks to all of you for being here.

CERON: Thank you so much.

MCKENNA: Thank you.

HARRIS: Thank you.

HOLMES: And thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. We will see you all next week.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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