Getting dumped sucks. Turning that pain into motivation to prove yourself worthy of your own self-assurance? Well, that’s making proverbial lemonade.
The 2001 classic Legally Blonde, which celebrated its 20th anniversary on Tuesday, understands the anguish of breaking up and confronting a loved one’s low estimation of you. Beyond that, it spins the experience into a story about a woman learning to define herself on her own terms. The movie resonates with audiences; it further popularized an expansive media franchise that includes the original hit novel, sequel films, a Broadway musical, and a reality television series. An entertainment reporter once wrote a 15,000-word university dissertation about it; Ariana Grande paid homage to the film in the “thank u, next” video. There’s lots to enjoy about Legally Blonde, but the standout element is the determination of Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon) to show up her ex and everyone who underestimates her.
Legally Blonde starts off as something of a revenge fantasy movie. We may not all have attended Harvard Law School, but many are familiar with the emotions that set Elle on her journey, feelings her friend Paulette (Jennifer Coolidge) also faces with a contemptible ex of her own. “That dynamic of trying to prove yourself or trying to make [a partner] want you back is very common, because it’s just trying to stop the hurt,” Alex Jones, couples therapist and CEO of the relationship consulting service LoveJones LLC, says. “Revenge comes from a place of hurt.” Joline Chen, an associate marriage and family therapist, uses the term “enmeshment” to describe the process, saying it’s like “when couples are divorced legally but still married emotionally.” Legally Blonde taps into this common tactic of processing emotional change.
The “show someone up, prove someone wrong,” strain flows throughout the film, albeit in different forms as Elle’s emotional journey progresses. One such moment happens early in the film, but has nothing to do with an ex: Elle shows off her smarts to rebuff a salesperson trying to con her. Broadly, there are three phases to Elle’s story: trying to get Warner (Matthew Davis) back; trying to prove her Harvard peers (and generally, everyone else who doubted she could go to law school, like her family) wrong; and trying to prove herself to herself … while also proving Brooke (Ali Larter) innocent of murder.
In the first phase, Warner dumps Elle because she’s not “serious” enough for his ambitions to go to Harvard Law and become a politician. Devastated and hurt, she forms a plan: She’ll also get into Harvard Law and show him how serious she can be, convincing him she’s a suitable life partner and winning him back in the process. The skepticism she’s met with—from her college counselor, her best friends who assume she wants to go to Harvard for vacation, her parents, the Harvard admissions board—compounds the feelings let loose by Warner’s rejection. Elle uses those feelings, along with her naturally sunny disposition and confidence (and privileged life she’s led), as fuel, and gets into the program.
At Harvard, Elle is an outsider. Her colorful outfits and accessories stand out as much as her perky personality. Warner and the rest of her first-year peers seem shocked that she’s even there. But Elle persists. When Warner again rejects her, in part because he’s now engaged to Selma Blair’s icy Vivian, the movie—and Elle’s motivation—pivot. Elle’s face falls then hardens as it sinks in that Warner still thinks she’s a joke; her presence at Harvard is no longer about getting back together with him. From that moment forward, she defines success as acing her classes and showing Warner and everyone else who doubts her that they’re wrong.
Elle’s motivation during this second phase is an improvement over her original desire to win back Warner, but still a reaction to how others perceive her. Jones says that in her experience as a therapist, this kind of impetus is “really coming from a place of still being hurt and wanting to get back at the ex … which really gets in the way of their own healing, because it’s still about the other person.” Even so, Elle starts to find purpose, using her work ethic, creative thinking, and yearning to help others to show she can hack it in law school.
The final pivot in Elle’s journey comes after her scummy professor, Callahan, hits on her, causing Elle to doubt the merit of a high-profile internship he chose her for. Elle consequently quits the internship and is reduced to believing that everyone was right to doubt her. Saying goodbye to Paulette, Elle makes it clear that she’s been defined and hurt by others’ expectations of her for too long. But another professor steps in with some well-timed words of wisdom, and suddenly, Elle’s determination is no longer centered around other people’s interpretations; it’s about defining herself and success for herself.
After proving herself at Brooke’s trial—showing up Callahan and demonstrating Brooke’s innocence using a very Elle combination of legal and perm-maintenance know-how—Elle gets in one bonus triumph: rejecting Warner as he’d rejected her. But that isn’t Elle’s main or final triumph: The movie ends with her graduation speech, one she’s been chosen to give by her fellow graduates, in which she talks about rejecting first impressions and having faith in oneself. She’s moved past defining herself in relation to criticism or expectations from Warner or anyone else. Kelly Scott, a senior therapist at TriBeCa Therapy, tells me, “[We see her] recognizing, ‘I don’t need to see myself in the same way that you see me.’ It’s her really rejecting the criticism as something that she needs to be organized by.” Elle also moves beyond Vivian’s disdain (and their relationship deepens as Vivian bucks against others’ expectations as well), her peers’ judgment, and the self-doubt caused by Callahan’s predation. Paulette, too, begins to move into a more confident headspace after confronting her ex (if you don’t cheer when Paulette tells him that she’s “taking the dog, dumbass!” with newfound steel in her voice, you might be soulless).
This dynamic also shows up in other nonviolent revenge movies, wherein the protagonists eventually move past the initial revenge motivator. Think of the ladies of The First Wives Club transforming their goal from personal revenge on their ex-husbands to helping more women and honoring their late friend’s memory. Or the titular leads in Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion ultimately casting aside their desire to show up their former classmates in exchange for self-acceptance and finding success on their own terms. (Living well is the best revenge, as they say.)
Underneath the bons mots and hyper-2001 fashion, there’s a layer of real emotion in Legally Blonde. The movie offers satisfying comeuppance, in the dual results of Elle triumphing over her haters and finding self-worth along the way. It’s why, 20 years later, the film remains a classic.
Of course, were the film to run longer, Elle would ideally get to a place where the relationship and breakup don’t “feel charged, [or] loaded. For it to be part of the story in a way that’s almost matter of fact,” says Scott. Since Elle seems fully over Warner in Legally Blonde 2 (the less said about that one, the better), let’s assume the fourth phase of healing happens after the credits roll.
“I think everyone loves a revenge fantasy. I think everyone has a revenge fantasy,” Scott adds. “There’s something that feels really deeply, emotionally satisfying about [Elle’s rejection of Warner]. It feels like it’s balanced, like all is right in the world.”
Jessica MacLeish is a pop culture writer and freelance book editor based in Brooklyn (but also on the World Wide Web, tweeting sporadically @jessmacleish).