Gender, Identity, and Society

One of my favorite movies is Legally Blonde ( 2001 ). The primary plot involves an extremely feminine girl, Elle, who is the president of her university's sorority. She dates an attractive, wealthy boy from one of the university's top fraternities. However, when he leaves her for Harvard's law school—and leaves her because she's not good “wife material,” because she's, well, too blonde—she decides to go to Harvard Law School as well to “win him back” and show him that she's not as stupid as he thinks.

Although we might question her motivation for going to Harvard for law school, it's her methods and manner that seem so out of place for a prestigious university. Her law school application is a video, which includes her speaking from a pool in a bikini. Her application includes pink, scented paper. But she has good grades and a high LSAT (Law School Admission Test) score, so she's admitted. The out-of-place imagery continues as she arrives to her first class unaware that there was already assigned reading. She doesn't have a laptop like everyone else in class, and she's not dressed in business-appropriate attire. No one takes her seriously; no one expects her to succeed, let alone thrive.

What makes this movie one of my favorites is how it proceeds to have us question our initial impressions of Elle. Did we judge her too readily based on well-worn gender stereotypes? Have we inappropriately judged a book by its cover? Elle undergoes a partial transformation, but she never leaves her roots as a sorority president: she's still fashionable and almost always clad in pink, which eschews the dark tones of more traditional lawyer attire and styling.

The movie also provides a number of examples of concepts and issues that philosophers have been engaging with lately. When Elle has information that can crack the case she's been assigned to, the lead defense attorney does not listen. This is a topic known as epistemic injustice and relates to how we evaluate the testimony (the claims) of others, and how identity prejudices can lead to our inappropriately not believing someone. When the women lawyers are asked to get coffee by the men, it makes us question sex and gender role stereotypes in the workplace, and how this contributes to issues such as the gender pay gap. It also makes us question whether sexist behaviors are always intentional, or whether they may be the result of implicit biases.


Rachel McKinnon
Assistant Professor of Philosophy
College of Charleston, SC


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