We Will Get It Made: On Reese Witherspoon and Her Uncanny Emotional Proxy, Elle Woods

We Will Get It Made: On Reese Witherspoon and Her Uncanny Emotional Proxy, Elle Woods

Art may often imitate reality, but how often can we attest to the parallels spanning several years? While Reese Witherspoon rose to success as an actor, all the way to an Oscar win, her journey has been less linear since. By bringing one of her most beloved characters, Legally Blonde’s Elle Woods, into the fold, Izzie Price looks at the relationship between performer and character. 

The opening titles of Legally Blonde offer an unapologetic ode to Western beauty standards. Luxurious hairbrushes lavishly make their way through swathes of luscious golden locks; razors are applied to tanned, toned legs coated in frothy moisturiser. The setting is golden, sunny LA – every extra in the background is purportedly having the time of their lives, and pool parties abound on every corner. The film’s protagonist, Elle Woods, is the Western beauty standard personified – and this world is hers. She is its queen. 

The film opens with Elle preparing for the crowning moment in the life laid out for her (in which she has thus far participated not only with willingness, but with overwhelming enthusiasm): accepting an offer of marriage from her steady boyfriend, Warner. This is the highlight of Elle’s life, and of the trajectory that she was born into.  Her agony over finding the perfect dress reflects this.

Juxtapose this paramount moment in Elle’s life with her portrayer, Reese Witherspoon, at the 2006 Academy Awards – the similarities are striking. Not because Witherspoon cannot find a more appropriate marker of significance than the perfect dress, but because Witherspoon, like Elle, was at the pinnacle moment of the trajectory she found herself fulfilling. Witherspoon won the award for Best Actress for her performance in Walk The Line, and her acceptance speech fully encapsulated the gravitas of this moment. 


One may be fictional and the other not – but both women had reached a pivotal moment in their lives, and the climax of their respective narratives. And both, shortly afterward, came tumbling down from these high points and had to draw on every resource they had to prove they were capable of subverting, and bettering, the trajectories laid out for them. 

Elle’s world comes crashing down when Warner doesn’t in fact propose, but breaks up with her instead because – as he charmingly puts it – he needs “a Jackie, not a Marilyn”. Elle is at a loss. “We all thought she’d be the first one down the aisle, and now she’s totally adrift”, her friend Serena adroitly points out, stressing the derailing of Elle’s trajectory.

Witherspoon’s struggles, however, are far more nuanced – and their cause harder to pinpoint. Prior to her Oscar, her film portfolio included the creation of the seminal female political archetype Tracy Flick in 1999’s Election, and the portrayal of the protagonist of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair in Mira Nair’s 2005 adaptation: the fiercely independent Becky Sharp, who lives off her sharp wits and shrewd business acumen. Witherspoon’s was a sturdy and well-respected portfolio that culminated in her Academy Award. But at this point, Witherspoon entered a state of what she herself termed “Oscar-induced paralysis”. The narrative she’d been steadily carving seemed to come apart, and her career choices negatively plateaued, resulting in a string of romantic comedies that were both dull and poorly received. Witherspoon remained a big box office draw, and a near-constant presence on the silver screen - but the “weak script, unconvincing characters and the fatal lack of chemistry between the leads” was noted in Empire Magazine of 2007’s Four Christmases, and Witherspoon was later termed “unfunny and unsexy in this terrible action romcom” following her performance in 2012’s This Means War. Of this time, Witherspoon frankly admits to struggling: “I was just kind of floundering career-wise, 'cause I wasn't making things I was passionate about.”

Both women were in a rut, but what came next for both is what ties them together. 

Elle Woods follows Warner to Harvard Law School, in order to win him back. The odds are then immeasurably stacked against Elle, as she attempts to find a footing in a world where women – and blondes especially – are judged on their aesthetic (only consider the phrase, “Sorry, I’m having a blonde moment” to ascertain how prevalent the stereotype still is). Western beauty standards abound, yes, but historically, women are unlikely to be taken seriously if they appear overtly feminine. Theresa May’s trouser suits were a subject of hilarity all on their own during her time as prime minister – but “the trouser is fast becoming the working uniform of the new ruling femocracy”, as Charlotte Ross penned in 2016 in reference to the pant suits donned by the likes of Angela Merkel and Hillary Clinton, as well as May. One assumes the trousers suggested a move towards gender-neutral fashion, and away from traditional femininity. Back in the Harvard hotbed of presumptive misogyny, Woods’ golden curls, high heels and pink fluffy pen do her no favours – and she is found wanting. 

Similarly, the odds were stacked against Witherspoon at the time of her career slump. In the aforementioned interview on The Hollywood Reporter’s Awards Chatter podcast, Witherspoon spoke of the impact the 2008 financial crash, and the subsequent Hollywood writer’s strike, had on roles for women at the time. “A third of our business just went. The $30,000,000 movies were the first to go – and that’s where women live.” She revealed she’d gone from receiving 10 scripts a year, to two. “It was deeply apparent to me that the mandate was, ‘Don’t make anything for women’”. 

Both Woods and Witherspoon were scrambling to find a footing in worlds that were exceptionally hostile, compared to prior golden days. Both were underestimated, undervalued, and outright criticised. And yet: both managed to rewrite their stories. 

There’s a stunning line in Meg Wolitzer’s The Female Persuasion, casting a unique light on the power of potential. “You needed to find a way to make your world dynamic,” Wolitzer  writes. “Someone had to see something in you and speak to you in a way that no one else ever had”. Woods and Witherspoon were more than capable of changing their own narratives. But in worlds like theirs,  it made all the difference that they each had someone who lit that initial spark, who spoke to them in a way no one else ever had. 

For Elle, that person is Emmett – her supervisor and close friend at Harvard. “You know, being a blonde is actually a pretty powerful thing,” he points out. “And I personally would like to see you take that power, and channel it towards the greater good.” And for Witherspoon, it was her husband – agent Jim Toth – who suggested that she tackle the dearth of female roles in Hollywood by optioning books, noticing she was reading so many herself. 


The rest, for both, is history. Elle ends up representing a murder suspect in court, cementing not only her skill as a lawyer, but also – bearing in mind she pulled off the whole thing clad in her singular shade of pink – the idea that women could be both feminine and corporately excellent. Witherspoon founded her production company, Hello Sunshine, which has enjoyed non-stop success with Big Little Lies remaining the most noteworthy example so far. It’s fairly safely assumed, these days, that a critically-acclaimed female led novel by a female author will have its rights snapped up by Witherspoon; as she herself said, “We will get it made, and we will get it made fast”. 

Elle Woods’ story ended after 90 minutes, while Witherspoon’s is still developing.  Both proved to their adversaries that they were made of more than their respective industries gave them credit for - and Witherspoon’s career has exploded in a way that Elle surely would be proud of. Her latest series, The Morning Show – in which she co-starred and co-exec produced with fellow trailblazer Jennifer Aniston – opens with a male news anchor being fired for sexual misconduct; a nod to the crimes of Harvey Weinstein if ever there was one. Witherspoon’s character is a personification of the urgency of #MeToo and of broader women’s rights: a journalist bent on integrity and justice, who speaks openly about her abortion as a teenager – in Trump’s America – on live television. 

In her oft-quoted final speech, Elle points out, “It’s with passion, courage of conviction and a strong sense of self that we take our next steps into the world.” This is certainly an attitude Witherspoon seems to have embodied. If 2020, with Weinstein’s sentence to 23 years in prison, brought us an overdue takedown of patriarchal oppression within the media industry, then who knows what next year will bring? A campaign for equal pay in Hollywood? Primary billing for women? I, for one, am more hopeful than ever. 

Izzie Price (@izzie_price) is a freelance writer and journalist based in London. She will graduate with a Master’s degree in Arts & Lifestyle Journalism this July, and adores writing about all things books, film and theatre (preferably with a feminist bend). You can find her full portfolio here.

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