The comment said, “Let me guess, she has an OnlyFans.”
You’ve likely seen these kinds of articles from sites like Insider. It’s always about how a young 20 something managed to graduate debt-free and buy a house. The comment sections on these articles are magnets for envy and disdain. That said, the comments are pretty standard and likely true, only accusing the young, debt-free homeowner of living with their parents.
Unless it’s a beautiful woman.
Nobody bats an eye if she’s average-looking or if she’s pretty but not particularly girly. But if the person doing well for themselves is a woman who has acrylic nails and perfectly done hair, people are quick to accuse her of being a sex worker, a sugar baby, or freeloading off of her presumed male partner.
Some of us seem to expect the worst of feminine women and that knee-jerk reaction is often entangled with the idea that feminine women are too “frivolous” and “not serious” enough. These preconceived ideas run deep enough that even women themselves will think of other women this way.
But what if there’s nothing wrong with the girly girl everyone loves to hate? What if it’s time we learned to be unabashedly feminine.
Unabashedly Sinful: Femininity as Sin
Femininity is a prized quality. But only in women. When men are compared to women, it’s often to devalue them for not being tough enough, strong enough, or smart enough. In short: Not being manly enough. The implication that comes with it is that something is wrong with being feminine.
In cultures that have been influenced by Christianity, that idea that there’s something inherently wrong with being a woman has heavy ties to one of the biggest oopsie moments in religious history. It all begins with a woman and an apple. Okay, maybe it wasn’t an apple. All Genesis really tells us is that Eve ate the forbidden fruit. As punishment for her betrayal, she and Adam are cast out of the Garden of Eden.
While the story is often referred to as the “fall of man”, it can also be interpreted as an explanation for established gender roles. God curses Adam with the role of breadwinner, the traditional man who works himself to the bone to support his wife and children. For Eve, her punishment is that childbirth can be lethal for her and that her husband will “rule” over her.
The story also established a notion that still lives on in many sects of Christianity today: That for a woman to redeem herself from the sin of being born a woman, she must willingly accept being in a subordinate role. But it’s all fair play because it’s her fault.
It’s not just Christianity either. A quote from a Hindu text, the Devi Bhagaveta, says, “A woman is the embodiment of rashness and a mine of vices. She is an obstacle to the path of devotion, a hindrance to emancipation. She is practically a sorceress and represents vile desire.”
Even philosophers, often seen as paragons of reason, assign all sorts of fault and weaknesses inherent to being a woman. To Aristotle, women are irrational creatures and are essentially defective men. Being capable of some degree of reason, but not on par with men, they were better off in the domestic sphere.
When the 1800s rolled around, these assumptions about women’s inherent abilities and domestic roles would give way to an early form of feminism that, surprisingly enough, actually valued them for being women.
Unabashedly Domestic: Femininity as Valuable and Less Than
Feminism in the Victorian era is largely attributed to the New Woman who was held up by feminists of the time as an independent thinker capable of radically new things like biking, wearing pants, and making a living to support herself without the help of male guardians. But she isn’t the only feminist ideal to emerge from the time.
They called this unabashedly feminine woman the “Angel in the House”. Inspired by a poem of the same name written by Coventry Patmore for his wife Emily. It’s pretty sexist by today’s standards. The long narrative poem praises the ideal Victorian woman as a devoted, docile wife who was infinitely kind, patient, and humble. But it was the start of a new view on women that depicted them as not just evil temptresses but redeemers of men simply because of the inherent good qualities of women.
James Fordyce’s Sermons to Young Women depicted virtuous, feminine women as reformers and refiners of men, similar to the “Angel in the House”. She was seen as a force for good who had a significant role in creating a society of conscientious and intelligent citizens. For once, she wasn’t sinful for being a woman or relegated to domesticity because it’s all she can do but because no one else could do it better. Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management gives her an even more serious moniker, “The Household General”.
But feminism is a constantly evolving cause and women have always had complicated relationships with what it means to be a woman.
While the newer view on womanhood was no doubt fulfilling for a lot of women, it wasn’t enough for women like Virginia Woolf. On January 21, 1931, she delivered a speech before the National Society for Women’s Service that described to them her troubles with “The Angel in the House”.
“And when I came to write I encountered her with the very first words. The shadow of her wings fell on my page; I heard the rustling of her skirts in the room,” Woolf had said, “I turned upon her and caught her by the throat. I did my best to kill her.”
To Woolf, the angel was another obstacle for women entering the workforce, another fictitious feminine ideal that forced her to juggle the expectations of femininity with being a professional worker. Fast forward to the 1980s and we see women donning power suits with massive shoulder pads in order to invoke a more masculine appearance that says, “Here I am, take me seriously.”
Unabashedly Pink: The Genius That Is Legally Blonde
Maybe the politics of the power suit inspired one of the greatest works of modern feminist media, the 2001 American comedy film Legally Blonde. Yes, Legally Blonde.
The 80s gave us power suits and the 90s gave us a slew of strong female leads in action movies. Female leads like Terminator 2: Judgement Day‘s Sarah Connor would often be depicted as masculine women – albeit still attractive enough to appeal to male audiences. Even today, you rarely see girly girls being portrayed as leads in a film unless it’s as a romantic interest. Just think of the 2019 superhero movie Captain Marvel.
But Legally Blonde‘s Elle Woods is an unabashedly feminine woman. She doesn’t care for dressing up to look more masculine or adopting more masculine traits in order to be taken seriously.
When we first meet Elle, we see her as the stereotypical ditzy blonde trope. Except she isn’t and the film quickly makes us change the way we perceive her the way it changes how other characters in the film think about her.
Elle starts her law school journey after a breakup with her boyfriend Warner who, while clearly attracted to Elle’s beauty, doesn’t see her as worthy of being in a long-term relationship with him. He actively degrades her for her interests, stopping just short of calling her a ditzy blonde when he says he can’t stay with her if he’s ever going to be a big law firm partner someday.
It’s clear from the get-go that everyone else at Harvard Law thinks she’s just a dumb blonde. In the scene that appears often as a meme, she walks past her ex-boyfriend Warner, who gapes at her, and asks if she actually got into Harvard Law. Elle’s iconic comeback? “What? Like it’s hard?”
The film constantly shows us that she’s intelligent and capable while being hyper-feminine. Even better: It shows us that her interest in fashion itself is an intellectual and artistic pursuit. Elle doesn’t just buy clothes for the sake of buying them.
In one shopping scene right before Warner breaks up with her, a saleswoman whispers to one of her co-workers, “There’s nothing I love more than a dumb blonde with daddy’s plastic” which tells us exactly what we, the audience, think about her as well.
Then the movie reminds us again that Elle is an intelligent young woman. Her sharp observation skills and mastery of her field of study, fashion, help her dodge being duped into buying an old dress.
The sudden shift in how she speaks clearly tells us that she can communicate confidently, and with evidence to back her up, while still sounding like a stereotypical movie blonde. Plus, her sorority buddies who help her pick out clothes aren’t portrayed as cliquey mean girls who will tear Elle down at every opportunity they get. They genuinely love and support her, never making Elle feel like she’s too dumb to go to Harvard Law or too green to win a case. They’re just women supporting women.
Legally Blonde never pushes the narrative that Elle needs to become more serious and stop acting like her peppy self to be taken seriously. If anything, her stereotypically blonde optimism is shown as a strength – it gives her the will and energy to get through the hell on earth that is law school.
While good hyper-feminine characters are usually left as just unpunished in a film, compared to ones that are punished such as Mean Girls’ Regina George, Legally Blonde explicitly rewards Elle for being a feminine woman in a way that actually validates her, her feminine interests, and her abilities.
In the courtroom scene where she has an epiphany about the accused’s perm, it’s obvious that it only clicks for her and her sorority friends that the woman did commit the murder and not Elle’s client. Everyone else in the courtroom laughs and openly ridicules her. Until her girly love for salon visits proves to be a solid jump-off point to an argument that non-feminine people wouldn’t have thought of.
It’s not every day you get an unabashedly feminine and feminist film like Legally Blonde which makes its impact on many women completely unsurprising.
Unabashedly You: Becoming Other Girls
Legally Blonde‘s Elle Woods is something of a feminist icon among young women aspiring to become lawyers, those who are in law school, and those already working in the legal field. Let me give you a bit of perspective: almost all of the students from my college degree program who went on to enroll in law school were women.
The ones I’ve had the pleasure of talking to jokingly, yet not without an air of serious determination, said they would one day have an Elle Woods moment. When I finally paid attention to the film, I understood why and I wanted an Elle Woods moment too.
“Elle essentially made it cool to be feminine and showed us what it was to be a strong, feminine, independent woman,” writes Haley Moss, Esq., an associate at Zumpano Patricios.
It’s been 20 years since Legally Blonde came out but in a world where wages remain higher for women and men who present masculine traits, especially in predominantly male occupations like law and politics, there’s still a lot of work to do in giving everyone the freedom to be unabashedly feminine.
Let’s rock hot pink lipstick next time – even if it’s just behind a face mask.