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Legally Blonde is a feminist romance between a woman and her own best self

Elle Woods stands in a bunny suit next to laughing girls MGM
Tanya Pai heads the standards team at Vox, focusing on copy editing, fact-checking, inclusive language and sourcing, and newsroom standards and ethics issues. She’s also a founder of Language, Please, a free resource for journalists and storytellers focused on thoughtful language use.

Legally Blonde, the beloved Reese Witherspoon–starring comedy that spawned a big-screen sequel and a Broadway musical, turns 15 years old today. The story of Elle Woods (Witherspoon), a sorority girl who becomes a Harvard Law student in order to win back her aspiring politician ex-boyfriend Warner (Matthew Davis) and then unexpectedly finds her calling, is a lighthearted, bubbly film but also a hugely enjoyable feminist tale that still resonates even a decade and a half after its release. (Even Witherspoon still has a soft spot for it, judging from her Instagram feed, which has several Legally Blonde–related posts in honor of the anniversary.)

The movie’s enduring appeal might seem a bit odd. Elle, after all, is a somewhat unlikely heroine; the rich blond sorority girl is usually the shallow villain, not the protagonist. Still, her journey toward fulfilling her true potential is as satisfying as any underdog story, thanks to its emphasis on self-discovery and the importance of believing in yourself.

Indeed, one of Legally Blonde’s most uplifting moments comes at what would be a low point in most other movies: Elle overhears her romantic rival Vivian (Selma Blair) talking about a party she’s throwing, and Vivian, seeing an opportunity to humiliate Elle, lies and says that everyone will be wearing a costume. When Elle shows up in full Playboy Bunny attire, everyone else is wearing regular clothes, causing Vivian to do a spit take of delight.

But rather than turn cotton tail and slink away, Elle stands her ground: Her brief embarrassment is replaced with righteous anger, and she tells off Vivian, then uses her fury to push herself into proving all her detractors wrong.

At every turn, Elle encounters people who want to pigeonhole her into certain stereotypes, and time and again she refuses. She upends the trope of the snobby, bigoted sorority girl, the dumb blonde who only cares about fashion, the future trophy wife who’s just in school to get her "MRS degree." She’s proof that a woman can be, and often is, a great many contradictory things at once, and every attempt that other people make to define her only furthers her determination to rise above others’ expectations.

And she’s not the only character whose broad strokes are ultimately filled in in unexpected ways. Her sorority sisters, though mostly played for laughs, are also fiercely loyal and unfailingly supportive; the intimidating Professor Stromwell (Holland Taylor) is initially hard on Elle but becomes one of her biggest allies when she needs it most. Even Vivian starts off as a cookie-cutter villain but becomes a believably sympathetic character; she’s subjected to another aspect of their law professor’s sexist treatment as he marginalizes her while sexualizing Elle, and she realizes the guy she and Elle are competing for might not be as great as he seems.

Legally Blonde has a real sense of generosity and inclusivity that shines through at every turn. Elle is kind and compassionate toward even those who look down on her, and in a cutthroat environment like Harvard or a law firm internship, she finds room to nurture friendships with other women rather than competing against them. The world does not have to be zero-sum, the movie seems to suggest, and women are far stronger when they’re supporting one another rather than cutting each other down to get a seat at the boys’ table. In the world of Legally Blonde, the women’s table is the better place to be anyway.

Thus, while Legally Blonde has some of the tone and trappings of a romantic comedy, it doesn’t qualify as one in the traditional sense. There’s a love story of sorts between Elle and the rumpled Emmett (Luke Wilson), but it plays mostly like an afterthought, its resolution spelled out in a postscript while the action stays focused on Elle alone. Rather, the movie plays as an homage to the power of female friendship and of self-determination; its OTP is a woman and her own best self. That’s a love story that can truly stand the test of time.