Saturday, October 1, 2016

What Legally Blonde Taught Me About Facing Sexism [Contributor: Rae Nudson]

I once dated a guy who told me he didn’t like it when women dyed their hair. Of course, he was unaware that my hair was dyed at the time to a darker, chocolatey brown. So I can definitely relate to Elle Woods yelling in the middle of a restaurant after being dumped by the man she thought wanted to marry her, “You’re breaking up with me because I’m too blonde?”

That I was brunette instead of blonde didn’t matter. I was too much of whatever he thought women shouldn’t be. (Women should accept themselves, he said, in the same breath that condemned me for a choice I made.)

It’s been 15 years since Legally Blonde came out, but Elle Woods is still my teacher in the crash course of how I deal with sexism. No matter how long I prepare for it, it’s always a crash course. Because as much as I build myself up, when your manager gets forwarded an email from someone in your office complaining about working with a young girl, or when a person you respected makes a crude remark about your outfit in a meeting, it still hits you in the gut. I cannot ever fully prepare to not be seen as a worthwhile human.

In 2001 — when I was young and impressionable and saw Legally Blonde for the first time — it appeared to me that Elle had it all. She had long blonde hair, a lot of money, and was white enough and thin enough to receive numerous benefits based on our culture’s strict rules of attraction. She embodied this Hollywood version of femininity that I wanted so badly. I studied how she brushed her hair and how she put on her make-up the way an art student studies a masterpiece. But even with all her apparent assets, Elle’s voice was still not heard. Elle was considered too sexy, too lighthearted, too cheerful, and, above all, too into the color pink to ever be taken seriously. (Somehow, her fashion choices were always her greatest offense.)

When others — and these opinions always came from other people, never herself — deemed her not worthy to marry, not worthy of Harvard, and not worthy of doing anything but show off her body, it became clear that even this supposedly perfect version of a girl couldn’t live without being criticized. And if Elle couldn’t get by unscathed, what was I supposed to do?

I’ve always loved fashion, make-up, and, most of all, playing with my hair. In Taylor Swift songs, I identify with the high-heel-wearing cheerleaders. I don’t think hair color — from a bottle or otherwise — says anything about what goes on inside a girl’s head. But the litany of blonde jokes I heard growing up told me otherwise. And the constant need to tear down women who are stereotypically feminine echoes the sentiment that women can’t be smart, complex, or anything other than a pretty face if they choose to participate in girly things.

I’m not proud of this, but I used to be one of those girls who tried to distance myself from other women because I didn’t want to be lumped in with a group that gets written off completely. I thought I would be more successful in the world if I wasn’t seen as one of those silly girly-girls. It took me a long time to learn that even if I don’t associate with feminine things, I can’t stop being a woman and I can’t stop the judgment that comes with it. And if it doesn’t matter what I do, shouldn’t I at least enjoy what I am doing?

Elle couldn’t control people’s perceptions of her, but she could control her perception of herself. Instead of seeing her girliness as a weakness, she knew it was an inextricable part of herself that made her better. In a lot of rom-coms, a woman’s transformation is key for her to reach her goals. You know the scene, when a girl takes off her glasses and suddenly she can find love? Even Hermione fixed her teeth and straightened her hair in the Harry Potter books. Over and over stories tell us that a woman has to transform her looks, either by herself or with the help of a fairy godmother.

No shade to makeovers, and I certainly wouldn’t say no to a free designer gown, but Elle’s transformation is admirable because it happens on the inside. She keeps wearing the same style of clothes, and she wears her hair the same way. She does wear glasses when she starts law school, but I get the impression they are an accessory she chose to complement her role as a student, rather than a mask to hide her beauty. She doesn’t change the way she looks because there’s nothing wrong with it.

Instead, she changes herself by becoming more of what she is meant to be. She stretches her brain in new ways, she makes new friends, and she tries new things — yes, at first to win back a boy, but I’ve tried things for worse reasons. She knows she can be pretty and smart, and she knows she can be a lawyer and a playboy bunny. Elle accepts that being a woman — being a person — doesn’t mean you are just one thing.

Legally Blonde taught me a lot — namely, the value of self-care and a good manicure, the bend and snap, and how to decorate a dorm room. But the most important lesson was that there is not one right way to be a woman. When people looked at Elle, they expected a ditzy blonde. Appearances do matter, for better or worse, and Elle knew that better than anyone. But she knew her appearance didn’t define her or what she was capable of accomplishing.

Elle’s love for cosmetics actually made her a better lawyer because she was able to use her knowledge of perms to crack the case. A lawyer who didn’t respect hair care would not have been able to do the same. Her perspective and life experiences, it turns out, were her best assets. Elle helped me see that maybe my girliness was a strength, too.

That maybe I was better for being more of what I was supposed to be, hair dye and all.


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