It could’ve been Elle Woods’ chirpy resilience in the face of Harvard snobbery, the universality of the “bend and snap” or how she saved Cameron Diaz from buying that truly heinous angora sweater, but for whatever reason “Legally Blonde” hit me at the right time.
I almost instantly identified with the infinitely quotable comedy of legal errors, seeing shades of myself in Elle (Reese Witherspoon) ― she was upending the expectations of what a blonde should be, as I was unsuccessfully attempting to integrate pink into my strict middle school dress code. The “be yourself/girl power” takeaway message apparently meant enough to yours truly to follow Elle’s adventures for two increasingly unfortunate sequels, a Broadway show and even a neighborhood Kidz Theater production of the musical at the ripe age of 24.
Not all heroes wear last season’s Prada shoes, OK?
This week marks the 15th anniversary of “Legally Blonde” and, like any dutiful fan, I made it my mission to break out that DVD I stole from my older sister’s best friend (this serves as my official apology) and rewatch the movie. I still chuckled at many of the things my middle-school-self found delightful ― Elle’s suggestion to Selma Blair’s character to “try not to look so constipated” ― but underneath the cotton-candy-colored aesthetic, I was confronted with something more sinister. For a movie that appealed so heavily to this preteen gay boy, it sure did traffic in gay stereotypes.
While the film has been rightfully challenged for its flimsy feminist principles ― Elle’s knowledge of hair treatments, instead of legal precedents, for example, is what secures her the big win ― how “Legally Blonde” engages with its gay characters deserves more examination. Considering Elle’s climactic triumph in court depends upon outing a closeted pool boy on the stand, this seems worth noting on its anniversary.
Ah yes, the pool boy, Enrique Salvatore (Greg Serano). He’s the lynchpin in Elle’s defense case with fitness guru Brooke Windham (Ali Larter), who’s been accused of murdering her husband. As the primary witness for the prosecution, Enrique claims that he and Brooke were taking part in an illicit affair with plans to swindle the recently deceased for all he’s worth. During a recess, an impatient Elle finds herself waiting behind Enrique at the water fountain, tapping her toe in frustration. He responds to her twitch with a now-classic retort:
(Mind you, he delivers this line while wearing the sparkliest red and green button-down shirt in recorded history, featuring an image of the Virgin Mary on the back.)
Putting those Harvard Law School skills of deduction to test, our budding young lawyer realizes that he couldn’t have been having an affair with her client because, duh, he’s gay.
“Gay men know designers,” she tells the team matter-of-factly. “Straight men don’t.”
Armed with this information, Elle’s romantic interest, Emmett (Luke Wilson), tricks Enrique into outing himself on the stand by revealing his boyfriend’s name is Chuck, a statement he immediately regrets making. Of course, Chuck is also in the courtroom and storms out before crying, “You bitch.”
**Elle and Emmett smile at each other**
Watch the scene below:
Omigod, you guys, I don’t even know where to begin.
Perhaps I was so blinded by the pink-fueled message of empowerment or Ali Larter’s devastating courtroom lewks (definitely the latter) that this blatantly problematic representation of a gay man barely registered.
For some reason, I readily accepted and at least partly internalized that gay men a) must have an encyclopedic knowledge of fashion, b) hide their sexuality for self-serving reasons, and c) exist to be either sassy or sexualized.
Brooke later admits that she employed Enrique because of how good he looks in a Speedo. Finding Cher tapes in the pool house is another charge brought against him in the heated debate over the pool boy’s sexuality.
Even if you did identify with these stereotypically gay traits, using the film’s logic, there is no other possible reason why someone might conceal their sexual orientation other than to gain traction in court. Yes, he was lying on the stand. Yes, he’s an impediment to Elle’s triumphant trajectory. Yes, this movie is a total camp fest. But the absence of any sensitivity or remorse for outing someone in such a public fashion is seriously cringeworthy in retrospect.
People choose to remain in the closet in certain spaces for myriad reasons apart from sassily stepping on Elle Woods’ toes, like workplace discrimination, violence against LGBT people, access to housing, family pressures, etc. The only insight we receive into Enrique’s inner life comes from how distraught his boyfriend is when he tries to cover up their relationship. Making coming out funny is a sensitive task, especially within the context of a campy rom-com geared toward straight audiences.
Compounding these problems is, of course, the depiction of the character’s race, which is played for jokes (see costume description above), while also reinforcing racist tropes about Latinos being duplicitous and untrustworthy.
These issues were only reinforced by the stage adaptation, “Legally Blonde: The Musical,” which debuted on Broadway six years after the original film. The pool boy’s testimony was, in fact, expanded into an entire song titled “There! Right There! (Gay Or European?),” in which the company offers reasons why he’s one or the other.
Lyrical sample: “Look at that tan, that tinted skin / Look at the killer shape he’s in / Look at that slightly stubbly chin / Oh please he’s gay, totally gay.”
So what are we to make of Elle, the pool boy, his public outing and “Legally Blonde” 15 years later? Although the gay dog subplot in “Legally Blonde 2: Red White & Blonde” might suggest otherwise, representations of homosexuality on screen have thankfully progressed since the movie’s release. Films of that era were rife with problematic portrayals of gay people. Look no further than Witherspoon’s next commercial hit, “Sweet Home Alabama,” to find another instance of extreme insensitivity to the LGBT experience. In a drunken rage, her character outs a childhood friend at a bar surrounded by his closest friends. Gay people in these films don’t exist on their own terms, but instead for the purpose of advancing the journey of an Elle Woods or a Melanie Smooter (yes, that’s seriously her character’s name in “Sweet Home Alabama”).
Since Elle threw her graduation hat in the air, we have become less willing to accept these portrayals of LGBT life, as the consequences of marginalization are more acute than ever. When I watched “Legally Blonde” for the first time in middle school, I was a 12-year-old closet case ashamed of all the ways I might be different than the boys who didn’t drag their parents to Reese Witherspoon star vehicles on the weekend. How could I understand the implications of a character like Enrique, when the butt of every joke on screen was what I so deeply feared in myself? Now, as a proud gay man willing to expose his love of some “chick flick” 15 years later, I refuse to accept these representations because “Legally Blonde” and its audience deserve so much better.
The strongest thing about these films is, and will always be, Elle Woods. But she can only shoulder so much shoddy plotting and simplistic characterizations before these problem spots start to detract from why this universe was attractive in the first place. To truly honor “Legally Blonde,” we should celebrate where the film succeeded and acknowledge where it fell short, because whoever said you can’t enjoy a movie while also being critical was seriously disturbed.