A pink-themed illustration of Legally Blonde character Elle Wood.

Celebrating 20 Years of ‘Legally Blonde’: What, Like It’s Hard?

The popular film's legacy is one of feminine empowerment and 'overcoming adversity by being oneself' — both lessons to be celebrated.
July 30, 2021
8 mins read

It’s kind of inconceivable that the masterpiece that brought us the bend and snap, a bikini-laden Harvard admission video and a fondness for Prada shoes is already 20 years old — but it’s true. “Legally Blonde” turned 20 this July, a fact that is as impressive as it is unbelievable. In celebration of the film’s anniversary, its collection of A-list celebrity cast members united to share their secrets.

One of the most iconic scenes in the film has to be the bend and snap. It was a move that dominated pop culture and the film scene for many years following the film’s release, with viewers both enamored by its comical nature and intrigued by its novelty. However, actress Jennifer Coolidge, who played nail tech Paulette, revealed that the scene did not come without its struggles.

Coolidge recalled, “One day I said to [the choreographer], ‘I’m not Elle, I’m the other character, Paulette, and I wouldn’t be really good at the ‘bend and snap.’ That’s not who I am.’ And [the choreographer] said, ‘Jennifer, you need to learn this dance number and do your very best, because even if you’re trying to do your very best, you will still be the worst dancer.’ It was a very sobering moment. But she was right.” It’s a bit of a shock to think that such an integral scene was a source of worry for someone of Coolidge’s caliber. But to some degree, those nerves ended up reflecting in such a way that the bad dancing aligned with Paulette’s perfectly.

One dynamic that wasn’t an issue at all for Coolidge was her flirty, fidgety, tongue-tied interaction with her love interest, the unnamed UPS guy. Coolidge was actually enamored with him in real life, making her shy and flirtatious “hellos” as genuine as they could be. She explained, “I had a crush on [Bruce Thomas, who played] my UPS man, but he was married and had a beautiful wife and children, so I had to shut that off. I didn’t have to act or get excited when he walked in — it was all true to life.”

Paulette and UPS guy’s dynamic was also a huge asset to the film, bringing with it a casual play at innocent love that was, although not very nuanced, beautiful and relatable in its simplicity. Paulette’s immediate stuttering and fiery blush at her love interest’s mere entrance brought out a puppy love element that carefully balanced the more serious dimensions of the movie.

It definitely took some trial and error to reach that balance. A dazzling array of alternate endings have been revealed, which range from Elle and Vivian ending up romantically involved with one another to a musical number on the steps of the courthouse. Reese Witherspoon, who played main character Elle, even shared an alternate finale snapshot where Vivian ended up totally and fabulously blonde. There was also a possible ending where Elle and Emmett kissed in front of the courthouse, reflecting the much more crude vibe of the original script.

However, the film seems to have been reinvented for the better. Jessica Cauffiel, who played Margot, stated that “The first script was very raunchy, to be honest, in the vein of ‘American Pie.’ What we know now as ‘Legally Blonde’ and what it began as are two completely different films. It transformed from nonstop zingers that were very adult in nature to this universal story of overcoming adversity by being oneself.” The former is a very interesting picture to paint for the film, but one that was rightfully vetoed.

“Legally Blonde” was one of the first feminist films of its era to celebrate the femme figure as it exists. Sure, there were feminist films such as “Kill Bill” or even “10 Things I Hate About You.” But in all of those films, writers stripped the main female character of any femme characteristics in order to fully depict her as powerful. In these movies, when a woman is powerful, she is cold. Calculated. Manipulative. She only wears power suits, no makeup and her hair in a bun because in order for a movie to convince us that a woman is powerful, they need to make her traditionally masculine. They need to make her hard, make her unemotional and cynical, make her the furthest picture from the traditional femme figure. In regard to femme power, the embrace of Elle Woods was a game-changer for “Legally Blonde.” Elle Woods rallied behind her own feminine power in a way that was graceful, unapologetic and inspiring.

Had “Legally Blonde” retained its original script — kept that raunchiness and romantic element — it would have lost an incredible amount of impact in its story. Screenwriter Meredith Scott Lynn says that audiences rejected the alternate romantic ending: “They thought it wasn’t a story about Elle getting a boyfriend, which was really cool to have people say that.” And it’s true — “Legally Blonde” is a feel-good story about grit, friendship and proving your abilities, not only to others but to yourself.

In the wake of its 20th anniversary, “Legally Blonde” continues to build upon its legacy. We’re seeing not only female empowerment, but feminine empowerment. We’re seeing the definition of feminine power shift right before our eyes. Women can be leaders while also being soft and caring and happy. They can be powerful and still like dressing up in the morning. They can go to Harvard Law and still have expertise in fashion merchandising.

Femininity and power are not mutually exclusive, and though we can’t just give misogyny a manicure and teach it to do the “bend and snap,” we should all be like Elle Woods. Two decades years later, we should all carry ourselves with that unabashed confidence, that self-belief and that assuredness that we’re all here for a reason, even if we’re doing it in fluffy, pink, high-heeled Prada shoes.

Mariam Nasief, Columbia University

Writer Profile

Mariam Nasief

Columbia University
Biomedical Engineering

Mariam Nasief, originally from New Jersey, is currently a rising sophomore and self-proclaimed pop-culture connoisseur. Although she’s studying engineering, she loves to stimulate her creative side in whatever way that she can.

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