This summer marks the 20th anniversary of Legally Blonde, the quintessential femme cult classic – or at least the closest we’ve got so far. I’ve already used this blog to parse out what Legally Blonde can teach us about femme theory, but for the 20th anniversary I wanted to hear from other femmes: surely it isn’t just me for whom this film was a shining beacon of femme joy and possibility? According to my very rigorous research (ie. a poll on @acafemmeic’s Insta stories): not at all. I summarized those “findings” for Xtra, but one conversation I had deserves more space than a 1200-word-count can offer: my interview with Dr. Rhea Ashley Hoskin.
Dr. Rhea Ashley Hoskin is a prolific femme scholar and researcher whose work is so ubiquitous in the field of femme theory that I cannot remember my first encounter with it. (Truly – her list of publications and awards is so long it hurts my feelings.) Unsurprisingly, among her list of many accolades and titles is this: an Elle Woods enthusiast.
Andi Schwartz: First, I would love to hear more about Legally Blonde‘s impact on you personally! I had a hunch other femmes felt this way, so I would love to hear more.
Rhea Ashley Hoskin: As I’ve talked about before, from a very young age my femininity felt “different” from the assumptions people made – assumptions that designated femininity as trivial, unimportant, done to attract the attention of men, anti-feminist, dumb, and weak. I also experienced femininity as something very important to me, which felt different from the dominant narrative telling me it’s trivial. I grew up in a feminist household and together we frequented feminist spaces. So, I also learned early on about misogyny and sexism, and to identify discrimination based on gender/sex (woman/female). My experiences as a feminine person did not perfectly map onto my experiences of prejudice based on sex. I would compare my experiences as a feminine woman, to those of my androgynous or masculine friends. I realized that I wasn’t being written off for being a woman, but for my femininity. Legally Blonde helped to crystalize the way I was experiencing femininity and womanhood differently in terms of prejudice.
The assumptions that resulted in these experiences were all around me – especially in pop culture. Legally Blonde was among the first representations I saw that portrayed femininity as something more complex; that identified the “assumptions” I had experienced, and “turned them on their head” – a quintessential femme manoeuvre. Watching Legally Blonde validated my personal experiences of femininity being used to write me off, undermine my intelligence, worth, and competence. Of course, there are numerous examples of empowered femininity that help us to think femininity anew – but this was not just hardened femininity which, of course, is still an important part of challenging femmephobia.
I see the goal of femme theory as twofold: simultaneously challenging the idea that femininity is inherently weak, frail, and vulnerable while also challenging the imperative that softer qualities are not valuable without “hardening” (which some interpret as masculinized). I think both are integral to revaluing femininity and challenging femmephobic discourses, but representation tends to fall on the former approach. Brazen femininity is important, but both approaches are needed to dislodge femmephobia. To me, Legally Blonde was among the first to do the latter – to value femininity in and of itself, without having to “harden” or toughen up.
AS: To me, Legally Blonde is a rare example of femininity being celebrated and seen as useful in a Hollywood film – I still don’t think we have anything like it. In your view, how was femininity treated/portrayed in Legally Blonde? Is there something significant about the way femininity was represented here?
RAH: I love your point and completely agree that Legally Blonde is pretty unique in its portrayal of femininity (and feminine knowledge) as being “useful.” As I mentioned, we have some representations of femininity that challenge other femmephobic assumptions (e.g., that femininity is weak) but I cannot think of another example where femininity is portrayed as useful. Of course, we have portrayals of femininity as serving a purpose, such as in the context of 1950s heteronormative gender roles, like June Cleaver, but I question the extent to which that labour is valued or seen as “useful” and not just servitude that’s taken for granted as “women’s work.”
Legally Blonde uniquely sets up the audience’s assumptions (e.g., femininity as useless) to knock them down. The movie starts by playing into common femmephobic assumptions: that Elle Woods (i.e., feminine people) is ditzy, trivial and that her femininity serves the exclusive purpose of catering to a male gaze. The movie ends with Elle (again, symbolizing feminine people) recognized as competent, uniquely skilled, and relentlessly kind. I’m not sure another example exists where femmephobic assumptions are mobilized as a plot device that ultimately functions to challenge the idea that feminine people, feminine knowledge, and femininity are useless.
AS: Do you think what Elle experiences in the film is femmephobia, or something like it? And if so, how is it possible that a straight woman can experience femmephobia?
RAH: In short, yes, but I think this question is a bit fraught within femme communities, as I’ll explain. The narrative sets up the assumption that hyper-feminine women like Elle Woods are less intelligent than “serious” women like Vivian Kensington. That divide – between hyper-feminine and “serious” women – is one example of the distinction between sexism/misogyny and femmephobia. It isn’t necessarily women who are trivialized (though, there are scenes where Vivian and Elle encounter blatant sexism from Professor Callahan), but more accurately feminine women. To me, that is femmephobia. In my work I define femmephobia as the systematic way that society upholds and regulates the norms of femininity while also devaluing all that is feminine.
At the same time, I recognize how this question makes many folks in the femme community uncomfortable. There’s a lot of tension regarding who can identify as femme and allegations of appropriation have surfaced surrounding the co-optation of femme by dominant culture. Of course, these allegations also apply to femmephobia. Within my work I see the application of femmephobia and femme theory outside of LGBTQ+ communities as radical and paradigm shifting. Typically, scholarly frameworks take the shape of “dominant culture looking outward” at the margins. With Femme Theory, we have a great example of the “margins looking in” at dominant culture – of marginal communities cultivating their lived experiences to analyze and make sense of the world at large. Marginalized communities already do this at the individual level – we make sense of our world through our experiences – and Femme Theory does this systematically as a field of study. The concept of femmephobia is driven by marginalized communities and provides a unifying framework to understand and identify how femininity is systematically devalued and regulated. Because femmephobia is so deeply entrenched – even within LGBTQ+ communities themselves – femme perspectives are of utmost importance to achieve the goal of reducing prejudice based in femininity. Femme perspectives and experiences have helped to make visible what would otherwise be taken for granted as the norm or natural.
AS: How does femmephobia impact folks who do not identify as femme? And why is that important to recognize?
RAH: In answering this question, I frequently reflect on how cisgender heterosexual men can be the targets of homophobia, or how cisgender people can be the targets of transphobia. Prejudicial attitudes are not bound by identity categories, that’s just not how they work. Prejudice operates on social cues, behaviours, signifiers, norms, power, perceptions, and assumptions, to name a few. Femmephobia emerges from femme communities and these communities have enabled us to better understand gender-based prejudices rooted in femininity that apply to the culture at large – including Elle Woods.
I’m commonly asked who is impacted by femmephobia. I feel like the real question is “who is not impacted by femmephobia?” The way society devalues and regulates femininity is not unique nor specific to a femme identification – but femme identities help to make the norms and assumptions surrounding femininity visible. Even masculine-of-centre people are impacted by femmephobia. I think everyone, regardless of sex assigned at birth or any other social designation, should be able to access a full spectrum of gender expression. Femmephobia functions to limit access to the full gender spectrum, whether it’s through norms or through femininity’s designation as inferior. The way that femininity is devalued also impacts how we treat the Earth, the political leaders we elect, as well as the types of labour and qualities we deem valuable. The impacts of femmephobia are far reaching – beyond femme identification, and even human identification – it’s woven throughout the fabrics of society.
AS: Though it isn’t a movie about queer folks or queer relationships, what might be the significance of it for femmes, both personally and in a broader, structural sense?
RAH: Many queer people deviate from what’s said to be a “norm” – whether that be gender’s relationship to the body, or sexuality, or the configuration of assigned sex, gender identity, gender expression, and sexuality. Because of that, I think we are not only attuned to representations of gender that “deviate” in some way from the norm, but we also gravitate toward it. So, for that reason, we notice ruptures or moments of “discord” in representation – where there’s a subtle or overt challenge to prescriptive norms, rules, and assumptions surrounding gender. To me, Legally Blonde posed a rupture by giving us discordance in normative understandings of femininity. And, it wasn’t all aesthetic, though I think that’s often assumed to be the case. We see discord in how feminine people are not pitted against each other, but instead hold each other up. We see discord in how someone so highly feminine can be equally as intelligent. We see “mean girl aesthetic” paired with kindness and empathy. Through Legally Blonde, we see discord in what we’ve trivialized as “useless information” (i.e., hair care) being instrumental to “winning the case”. We also see a clear example of someone being underestimated and trivialized on the basis of femininity (i.e., femmephobia), distinct from sexism.