Picturing Justice, the On-Line Journal of Law and Popular Culture

Andrea Remington
is a second year law student at the University of Alberta in Edmonton


Read other reviews:

Legally Blonde:

Paul Joseph

- John Denvir
- Carrie Menkel-Meadow

- Paul Bergman

John Owens

Lawrence Friedman

- Taunya Lovell Banks

David Papke

- Internet Movie Database

- All Movie Guide

Laws of Attraction:

J. Howard Sundermann

Internet Movie Database

- All Movie Guide

Readers' comments




Were we, female law students, just like Elle Woods? One couldn't help but admit our gathering reflected similar gendered stereotypes that Legally Blonde effused. Yet, somehow, none of us wanted this comparison to be accurate.

Girlie Girl Lawyers

by Andrea Remington

Dressed in pink from head to toe, she strolls down the street and is met with catcalls and whistles. "I object" she declares. This is Elle Woods: Harvard law student in Legally Blonde. How far off is this image of the girly girl meets seriously smart law student? This is the question that consumed my group of friends just the other night as we watched Legally Blonde, feasting on goodies, drinking wine, dressed in our pink Juicy Couture™ sweatpants and other equally fashion-conscious choices. Were we, female law students, just like Elle Woods? One couldn't help but admit our gathering reflected similar gendered stereotypes that Legally Blonde effused. Yet, somehow, none of us wanted this comparison to be accurate. Which raises the question, why do we so readily consume popular culture like Legally Blonde, yet refuse the belief in any parallel? If a character such as Elle Woods has no influence or credibility in our worlds, why then do we see it reproduced and replicated as in the case of Audrey Woods in Laws of Attraction? It's not simply the shared last name - Elle and Audrey seem to be the modern gold standard for the representation of women in the law. As a divorce lawyer, Audrey Woods is not only exceptional in her intellect, but also her appearance - akin to her student counterpart Elle. This portrayal of women in the legal profession merits analysis considering not only the pervasiveness of popular culture but also the influence it has in informing our understanding of the world we live in and who we are as women lawyers.

The construction of Elle and Audrey as women in these films seems to supersede the portrayal of their capabilities in law. Although both attain outstanding achievements in law, graduating top of their classes at Harvard and Yale respectively, this is shadowed by the emphasis on their femininity. Placing this emphasis hierarchically, femininity reigns supreme while professional accomplishments rank inferior. The obvious implication being that the importance of a woman in law being stereotypically woman is not only desirable but necessary. Whether this stems from a North American culture that values outward appearances or a popular culture that perpetuates stereotyped roles is debatable. Less controversial is the message it sends - the premium on femininity is higher than that of legal intellect or professional accomplishment. Perhaps the clearest manifestation of this emphasis on femininity in both films is in the physical representations. Elle and Audrey are exceptionally beautiful women by modern (albeit stereotyped) standards. Both women have long flowing hair, excellent make-up, perfect teeth, slim physiques and clever fashionable outfits.
The association between the color pink and notions of femininity is neither subtle nor accidental in both films. Elle's and Audrey's dress offers the extreme in femininity - most of the wardrobe choices are pink. Pink is the ideal ultra-feminine color of choice. It is not surprising therefore to see it used and abused in Legally Blonde as well as, though less pervasively so, in Laws of Attraction. Whereas Elle's use of pink borders on the unpalatable, Audrey's wardrobe suggests the same affinity without the embellishment. This physical manifestation of the feminine serves to reinforce the very make-up of these characters. Make no mistake about it - these women are not seen wearing the traditional legal garb, yet at the same time they do not eschew traditional notions of femininity. On the contrary, their wardrobes embrace all that is feminine from the pink suits to the lacy undergarments.

The heightened physical portrayal of femininity in these films is without a doubt matched by the decidedly female characteristics of Elle and Audrey. Commonly held beliefs of the stereotypical women are often seen in contrast to the opposite sex: Women are more emotional than men, women are more concerned with fashion than men, women are more neurotic about food than men, women are more inclined to obsess about intimate and personal relationships than men and women are just simply less competent than men. These conceptions are clearly delivered in both films.

In Legally Blonde, Elle turns on the tears on several occasions, primarily in relation to her heart's affection - Warner. Their romantic break-up causes Elle to spin into the stereotypical emotional meltdown women go through after being dumped: Elle spends a week in bed, eating chocolates and watching soap opera's. Beyond majoring in fashion at university, Elle takes her wardrobe choices very seriously. From her dedication to manicures and Cosmopolitan magazine, Elle is always put together and chic. Yet, even Elle's mastery of fashion is trivialized in the film - her lavishness and colorful couture is only matched by her purse-pocket dog Bruiser who is seen wearing a barrage of doggy-sized outfits. Interestingly enough, as Elle begins to achieve academically, the film shows her toning down her otherwise gaudy wardrobe. This suggests that even femininity has its limits - but only to the extent that there can be too much of a good thing. As Naomi Wolf suggests in The Beauty Myth, "Femininity is code for femaleness, plus whatever a society happens to be selling". Current popular culture informs our ideas of femininity and what limits should be placed on a woman and her femaleness - we accept and embrace Elle's femininity, but as soon as she emerges as a contender in the academic game, we hold her to a different standard. Her over-the-top-ness is no longer acceptable - she must now exude control and togetherness in order for us to believe that she can actually think. Wolf continues to state that, "[women] are raised to compete like men in rigid male-model institutions, [women] must also maintain to the last detail impeccable femininity" This sentiment reinforces the importance of femininity, particularly in male centered institutions, the law being a prime example.

Elle's decision to go to law school stems not from her desire to become a lawyer, but rather to get her boyfriend back. And even when Elle eventually realizes Warner is not 'the one', he is quickly replaced by another man. Elle seems to gain credibility in the audience's eyes by fulfilling the popular stereotype of 'girl lands boy and they live happily ever after'. Again, it is not enough for Elle to have graduated law school, been Valedictorian of her class, and secured an articling position at a prestigious law firm - these truths are eclipsed by the importance of Elle's femininity.

In Laws of Attraction, Audrey attempts confidence and determination in the film yet her emotions get the best of her at several points. When opposing counsel changes in Audrey's case, we witness her in the bathroom at the courthouse, shoving a snowball (a pink sweet) into her mouth in a moment of anxiety and fear. Throughout the film, the audience engages in her struggle to maintain composure in and out of the courtroom with less than subtle hints as to what lies beneath the surface. These emotions emerge predominantly in her dealings with Daniel Raferty, the other divorce lawyer in the film. Audrey's emotional being is most obvious in contrast to her leading man. Daniel consistently fulfills the opposite stereotype - that of a cool and collected male whose emotions don't come as a sacrifice to his competence or control.

Audrey's fashion sense and the importance thereof is seen not only through her dress, but also in her remarks to Daniel. She frequently comments on his lack of attention to his wardrobe and at one point buys him a tie. And even though Audrey may appear to derive an element of capability from her fashion know-how, the film makes it clear that this doesn't really matter - dressing well does not win court cases. Audrey's neuroticism is portrayed through food, her weakness with sugar and sneaking of goodies, but also generally as in her rigidity in the courtroom needing to have her paper and markers laid out just so. Audrey's incompetence, particularly in contrast to Daniel, permeates the film. Initially she is clearly caught off guard by newly appointed opposing counsel (Daniel) and rightly so - her motion was ill-informed and embarrassing. The film continues this theme from Audrey losing her star client to Daniel to her inability to rent a car in Ireland (but of course she is later on rescued by Daniel). On the surface, the film could seem to portray a woman lawyer in a position of power at her firm, with great successes, loads of confidence who is all too happy to be alone. As the film unravels however, the audience is shown that this is all just a façade for who Audrey really is - a lonely, vulnerable woman who desperately wants the love of a man.

The roles of Elle and Audrey Woods in both films are not entirely devoid of positive factors. Both leading ladies are portrayed as successful, ambitious and professional women. While this has tremendous appeal for me and other women in law school, what is difficult to digest is the message these films are sending - that although academic achievements and legal prowess are important, it is more important to attain and display a certain degree of femininity. This is not to say that all women in law must be over-the-top feminine to reach their goals, but popular culture suggests that an element of femininity is necessary in and above any other successes. As Naomi Wolf points out "the more legal and material hindrances women have broken through, the more strictly and heavily and cruelly images of female beauty have come to weigh upon us" (1) . This is neither a new nor shocking message - cultural socialization taught us at a young age that women are supposed to look/be pretty not look/be smart. And even though the times are changing such that many women are entering traditionally male-dominated professions such as law, both Legally Blonde and Laws of Attraction make me wonder how far we've really come.

1. Ibid. 10

Posted February 25, 2005

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