Inhale and Exhale: Legally Blonde the Essay

by Shelby, art by Livy

Do you ever have those moments where your breathing mutates? Because it happens to me a lot. My breathing turns from a handy automatic function to a process I’m aware of—instead of just breathing, I’m inhaling and exhaling and inhaling and exhaling. My lungs don’t work on their own. I have to force them. If I don’t I’ll collapse. Fall into a heap. But inhaling and exhaling stretches past my lungs, my intercostal muscles, my ribs, and my diaphragm. Wherever I am: brain, nervous system, eyes, nose, ears, mouth, tongue, hands—and whoever I am: human, girl, idiot—that person, trapped in a tangle of matter and limbs, needs to breathe too. I need to inhale the world around me and exhale my own reality.

Sometimes I can breathe OUT a whole heap of stuff, like art, fun science facts, short stories, and point of views, but other times what I really need is to breathe IN. And something what I need to breathe in, is this: Elle Woods strutting into Harvard, kicking butt, and being herself. What I need to breathe in is Legally Blonde.

At the right time Legally Blonde can be like oxygen to me—where oxygen atoms are made up of protons, electrons, and neutrons, Legally Blonde is made of uncompromised belief, unassailable femininity, and one of the best darn example of onscreen Shine Theory—the “I don’t shine if you don’t shine” approach to female friendship—to come out of the early 2000s. For a human-girl-idiot, it’s life-giving.

When Legally Blonde first came out in 2001 I was a very small, moderately blonde five-year-old. My interactive flipbooks were the talk-of-the-playground and I was severely underwhelmed with my teachers’ explanations for the extinction of the dinosaurs. It would be several years before I learned the meaning of ignorance, and another five before I understood the value of it. And when I say the value of it, I mean the value of HAVING IT.

WARNER:             YOU got into Harvard Law?

ELLE:                        What, like it’s hard?

Because, really, what’s the point in knowing how hard it is to get into Harvard? Isn’t it more valuable to know yourself and know that you’re capable of doing it? When Elle Woods is interrogated time and time again by Idiot Warner, or college councillors, or her parents, she doesn’t flinch away. She doesn’t question or devalue herself in the face of it. She says, “What, like it’s hard?”

If Elle Woods breaks conventions, she either doesn’t notice or doesn’t care. This ignorance probably comes from a place of privilege—why would the world deny her what she wants?—but when I breathe all of it in, I take Elle Woods’ belief in herself and I don’t ask permission to breathe out confidence. To be ignorant of boundaries, presumptions, or expectations. I don’t want to go to Harvard, but I COULD.

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When I graduated high school my principal gave a speech about how, crossing this finish line, we joined the journey of adulthood. She showed us an animation. In it our teachers’ heads were stuck, smiling, on dancing bodies. For some reason they were on a train—the journey of adulthood, the same train we were now on, sporting metaphorical caps and gowns. I suppose the train was there to symbolize the quote, unquote Real World we would be joining.

I’m still wondering, now, how much of myself can I bring into this Real World. Despite the underground counterculture of girly-ness now present in so many places, the world that I’ve grown into still squashes femininity like a faded piece of pink gum on the sidewalk. Sometimes I go along, digging the gum into the gravel with my heel, rejecting femininity, accepting the importance of the business handshake. But even when I try, I STILL can’t manage to chisel myself into the appropriate person for the working world. I can defeminise myself all I want, wearing neutral colours and deepening my voice, but short of being born a dude, I’m out of luck.

ELLE:            Chutney, why is it Tracy Marcinco’s curls were ruined when she got hosed down?

CHUTNEY:            Because they got wet.

ELLE:            Exactly. Because isn’t the first cardinal rule of perm maintenance that you’re forbidden to wet your hair for at least 24 hours after getting a perm at the risk of deactivating the immonium thygocolate?

But in a world that rewards individuality, originality, ingenuity—the world of San Francisco start-ups and New York networking—I wonder whether being a girl could be an advantage.

Elle Woods wears pink and Prada to the courtroom. The latter is a marker of wealth—she is in many ways the definition of privilege—but her appearance is also an outward expression of femininity, and her looks unkindly mark her, to others, as vapid and catty. People dismiss evidence of her intelligence in favour of predetermined labels. It’s like we’re conditioned to see pink and think, GIRL and UGH at the same time.

Elle IS a privileged white girl, but she’s smart, and determined, and kind as well. She takes her specialised knowledge (“The rules of haircare are simple and finite!”) and uses it to her advantage, bringing parts of herself to the classroom and to the courtroom that many of us shy away from showing anywhere we want to be taken seriously. It was watching Legally Blonde, all grown up, where I understood how sick I am of being told femininity is inappropriate for the workplace, and how frustrating it is to have to prove people wrong from the get-go. If I’M going to be shaped so heartily by my culture, then why can’t I use the things it has equipped me with?

ELLE:                 You look very nice today Vivian.

VIVIAN:             Thank you.

ELLE:                  You’re welcome.

Shine Theory is an idea dubbed by Ann Friedman, and it follows as thus: “When you meet a woman who is intimidatingly witty, stylish, beautiful, and professionally accomplished, befriend her. Surrounding yourself with the best people doesn’t make you look worse by comparison. It makes you better.”

Friendship is where Legally Blonde gives the most, and it’s what I take by bucket load. Girls are taught to hate girls and anything associated with girls—it’s a reaction of sorts. We’re made to believe there isn’t enough room for all of us. Elle Woods and her friends seem stoically unaffected by this idiotic paradox, where girls are pit against each other in a Hunger Games style show off, in order to prove that they aren’t what they hate.

I mean, when Elle passes her LSAT, her friends lift her above their heads—there’s silly string being strung and confetti being thrown. They were clearly prepared. And when Elle is treated with kindness, she acts as a mirror. She talks Cameron Diaz out of buying an ugly orange sweater. She befriends her ex-boyfriends “not completely unfortunate looking” fiancé, and by the end of the film they’re a step away from throwing a pyjama party to peer-review each other’s papers titled—respectively—Why Warner is a Crappy Person, and, Choose Harvard Instead.

Legally Blonde is a concentrated hub of positivity and good intentions. And it’s there when I need SOMETHING: the confidence to run head first into battle, the inspiration to be nothing other than me, and a reminder that there’s a hidden camaraderie between us girls that can take the best of us a while to see.

When I inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide, I am the means through which a change is made. And it’s the same with Legally Blonde and any other art I consume—I take it in, and I change its meaning, because I can’t help but bring feminism to it, and hopefulness to it. It’s a natural process, and it’s why some people hate what others love. We all bring something else to it, and everything we are, everything we have on the table, reacts in its own way to art and Legally Blonde, duh. But on the other hand, I want and hope that everything I get from Elle Woods and her story is intentional. Either way, it’s fuel.


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Shelby Traynor is a twenty year old writer from the suburban wastelands of Perth, Western Australia. She writes for radio, the internet, and zines, spending the rest of her time reading or looking up at the sky (in a totally punk rock and not at all whimsical way). Follow her on Twitter.



Livy is a 16 year old student from California, who likes to dance when no one is home. She is interested in making the world a better place, but has not figured it out yet.


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