The joyful feminism of the 90s “dumb blonde” architype

Clueless (1995) and Legally Blonde (2001) are iconic cult classics of the 90s and early 2000s that have managed to maintain their popularity decades later. Both films have messages that are still important today, cementing them both as pop culture cornerstones.  While the feminism of any film starring a rich, white woman should be taken with a grain of salt, the undeniable message of both movies still holds true: stop expecting mediocrity when you see femininity. The protagonists, Cher and Elle, were icons of a new movement: girly feminism, in which women, and anybody who wishes to, can be unapologetically feminine whilst simultaneously being clever, strong, kind and successful.

A theme that appears in both Clueless and Legally Blonde is the importance of female friendships. Legally Blonde begins with Elle in her sorority house surrounded by her friends, or by definition her chosen sisters, who later support her through her breakup with Warner and then through the murky waters of Harvard Law School. Arguably, the most important relationships that occur in Clueless are those which Cher has with Dionne and Tai. These two dynamics are the driving forces behind most of the film’s arc as Tai arrives as the new girl in school and is taken under the wing of the two other girls. She is introduced into Cher’s world via a makeover – a cliché but fun way for Cher to show her love.The bubbly protagonists of both films are primary examples of ‘girly feminism’, a new wave that overcame pop culture in the late 90s and early 2000s as a result of third wave feminist thinking which placed an emphasis on individualism. Elle and Cher are both presented as kind, multi-faceted and smart young women without sacrificing their interest in things deemed as ‘frivolous’, namely fashion and their looks. In fact, in Elle’s case, her interest in seemingly shallow things helped her to ‘fail upwards’ as she follows her patronising, sleazy ex-boyfriend to Harvard Law School and ends up becoming incredibly successful. She wins a major case via some unconventional methods like having extensive knowledge of perm maintenance. She ultimately exceeds all expectations and accomplishes an incredible feat by leaning into the parts of herself that have been deemed as flaws by the patriarchy. Elle begins her journey desperately seeking to get her ex-boyfriend back, only to realise that not only does she not need him, but she also doesn’t want him anymore. Clueless takes a different but just as significant approach when Cher ends up with a romantic partner, but only after she has firmly established that she does not need one. Cher and Elle show us that limiting oneself to being either feminine or successful is a thing of the past. As a very wise woman once said: “as if!”

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Zoe Gouli

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May 2022
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