Week 12

Think of a work you have seen or performed in and do the same as Wolf.  Be a lesbian spectator, and make a different meaning from a work not intended for that purpose.  Then write about it.

I love finding different character interpretations in my favorite works, so I was very excited to read Wolf’s essay and to answer this prompt! For this exercise, I want to focus on the character of Elle Woods in the Legally Blonde musical, and specifically the musical–a very important distinction, as I will make later. I believe Elle Woods can be read as lesbian in this instance because of her growth over the course of the show and her motivations, and how they change. Elle begins the show as a quintessential sorority girl–blonde, popular, and helplessly in love with her stud of a boyfriend, Warner. Elle’s call to action comes in Warner’s decision to break up with her and go to law school, due to her not being “serious” enough for him. Throughout the first act, Elle’s incredible drive (in the form of studying and getting into Harvard Law and actually doing well in her tough classes) comes from a need to “win” Warner back and prove herself to be truly serious. Though she relies on her femininity to gain admission to Harvard Law, she ultimately learns that prettiness alone will not suffice for either her law career or for Warner’s heart.

But all of this changes in the second act. Once she begins to take her classes seriously, she rises to the top of her class and earns a spot in Professor Callahan’s internship program. Her knowledge of traditionally “girly” things helps her out immensely in the trial of Brooke Wyndham that follows, but when Callahan sexually assaults her, she realizes she’s only there to be eye candy and decides to leave law school. At this point, in the movie, it is her love interest Emmett Forrest that convinces her that she’s more than a pretty face and to get back to the trial. But in the musical, it is her female rival (and Warner’s new girlfriend) Vivian that motivates her further. And this is where, I argue, Elle’s lesbian identity can be found. This is not due to some secret attraction between Elle and Vivian, though that may be a factor, depending on the production and the actresses involved. But this kind of motivation–where a female character (and a rival and foil) gives the pep-talk and convinces the protagonist of her worth, rather than the love interest–is unheard of in traditional musical theatre, and is a departure from the movie version. Emmett declares his love in the heartbreaking duet “Legally Blonde,” but that is not enough for Elle to stay. Instead, it pushes her further away, as she sings that “Some girls stand tall, some face the trial / Some girls were just meant to smile.”

The “mask of femininity,” as Riviere defines it, is important to note here. Elle is defined by her femininity–her love of her “signature color” pink, her blonde hair, her room cluttered with beauty products, and even her scented pink resume. This earns her attention from men (Warner, the Harvard admissions committee, Emmett, and ultimately Callahan), which validates her. When Elle first meets Warner’s new girlfriend, Vivian, a clear pretty-frumpy dichotomy is presented: Vivian is likened to a nun, called “Miss Prissy Pants,” and is derided for her flat shoes and hair. Though Elle recognizes that her femininity is holding her back, she keeps up the mask throughout the first act and through most of the second. But when Vivian finds worth in Elle (saying “Maybe Warner saw a blonde who was sleeping her way to the top, but all I see is a woman who doesn’t have to!”), Elle realizes that she can be feminine without wearing the mask, and that she is stronger for it. It is Vivian’s attention that breaks the spell–and Elle’s willingness to give it a shot that allows Vivian to show more compassion than her “coldhearted” characterization makes her out to be. Thus, both Elle and Vivian reject Warner and become best friends as Elle wins the trial (with her knowledge of hair care!). Though Elle end up proposing to Emmett in the musical’s finale (a subversive and unexpected move in an American musical), her use of the mask of femininity and her relationship with Vivian allow her to be read in a lesbian way.

One thought on “Week 12

  1. Dear Allie,
    You’re so convincing in this! I love that the heteronormatively construed rival relationship between two women is subverted and each other is affected by the other. It’s a bit of a shame that has to be inserted only in Act II – and that it is still a kind of subplot to the relationship Elle has to the men in the musical. But I do wonder whether this scene could also be played for its queer attraction as well as recognition – that each wants in some way to be each other (smart, pretty, independent) but that the two are attracted to one another because of that too. It would be worth exploring only because that would queer the scene but it doesn’t have to overwhelm the plot progression – as you imply there is just still an openness to that interpretation. This is a lovely and super fun response. So smart and enjoyable to read.


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