The popular film Legally Blonde’s bubbly, blonde heroine demonstrates a high ethical standard in her life as she embarks on her law school journey. The story follows her as she enters Harvard in attempts to prove to her ex-boyfriend that she can fit into his desired lifestyle, thereby winning him back. As she struggles in her professional, romantic, social, and personal life, she endures as an excellent ethical role model, particularly in how she communicates with others. She stays true to herself, showing that she is much more than she appears. As a strong, autonomous woman, she stands by and abides by her values in all settings.
Her values reflect maxims as described by Kant’s categorical imperative and the Golden Mean as asserted by Aristotle. These extend to her approach to her position at Atlantic Records. She must exemplify her personal and company’s ethics to the other employees at work. Her work and friend relationship with theoretical songwriting employee Kayla Stierwalt also provides opportunities to demonstrate her ethics. Kayla must also follow her personal values and the ethics set forth by Atlantic in her professional and personal life, especially as her professional and personal life overlap so much, in her career as a songwriter for artists at Atlantic.
Elle Woods serves the protagonist role in the film Legally Blonde. The story begins with her facing multiple transitions; as they reach their graduation from college, her boyfriend Warner breaks up with her because he thinks it best serves his interest to pursue a more serious lifestyle as he embarks on his endeavor to become a lawyer. In attempts to rekindle their relationship, Elle pursues Harvard law school as well. As she adjusts to the new setting and to life as a single woman, she maintains her strong values and finds success in her life, including earning a prestigious spot on a professor’s team in court, graduating at the top of her class, developing a relationship with a respectable gentleman, starting a career upon completing school.
Throughout the film, Elle exemplifies a positive outlook toward people, seeing the best in people and assuming good intentions in others, and this extends to believing in herself. Countless times, her friends, guidance counselor, parents, and peers express doubt in Elle’s ability to succeed in law school. Yet she does what it takes to attain her goal, including studying instead of attending parties with her friends. Her perseverance and positive attitude permeate all areas of her life as she communicates with her friends, peers, and professors. Elle meets Emmett, to whom she gets engaged by the film’s close, on her first day at Harvard. Emmett plays the role of the guy who appreciates her and treats her well, unlike her previous boyfriend she followed there. Elle and Emmett consistently communicate with each other in a friendly and respectful manner. She also meets Vivian on her first day of class, but they have a rough start to their relationship. Vivian plays Elle’s rival in school and for Warner’s affection. Yet Elle maintains her kind disposition around Vivian. Elle even stands her moral ground when her professor and court supervisor hits on her.
Elle also holds trust and the quest for truth in high esteem. This comes out especially when she works with a group of peers to assist a professor in a court case. Elle happens to know their defendant, and she also happens to be the only person to believe in her innocence. She maintains her assertion of trust with their client Brooke in multiple aspects. When Elle visits Brooke in prison and attains Brooke’s alibi, she keeps it secret as requested because as she tells her classmate Vivian, “It’s not my alibi to tell” (Legally Blonde). Determined to uncover the truth in the case, Elle takes the necessary measures to find the appropriate information.
Elle demonstrates utmost perseverance as she chases her goals, no matter how difficult or who may doubt them. When she decides to attend law school at Harvard, she does what it takes. She figures out what obstacles may stand in her way, and she devises plans to overcome them. The guidance counselor provides her with a list of tasks she must accomplish to meet the acceptance requirements for Harvard, and Elle tackles them. This pattern continues as she takes her classes at law school. As it becomes apparent that success in her courses will require dutiful studying and ample demonstrations of her growing knowledge, Elle hits the books and answers questions in class.
Encouragement and support also emanate from Elle. Elle steadfastly remains loyal to her friends, and she expresses this as she tells them she will be there for them and as she offers friendly advice to help them get what they want too. Multiple times, Elle encourages her new friend Paulette to step forward in getting her dog back from her husband to in developing a relationship with her crush. Elle even extends generosities like this to her classmate Vivian even though Vivian starts out as more of an adversary than a friend.
Elle emphasizes character in her life. This value holds a higher place than “winning.” This explicitly shows when her team says that she should give them the alibi so that they can win the case and that Professor Callahan likely would hire her for his team. Rather than put her personal status first, Elle maintains her integrity and the “bond of sisterhood,” respecting Brooke’s wishes for the alibi to remain secret. This approach also rings true in her interactions with other people, including those that mistreat her. Elle constantly faces people immediately judging her by her blonde hair and upscale pink wardrobe, pegging her as unintelligent and not serious. Even when people make rude comments about her, Elle keeps her composure and optimism.
Elle’s optimistic outlook keeps her moving forward with her chin held high. The bubbly demeanor Elle exudes spills from her joyful disposition. Seeing the bright sides of situations, Elle continues onward in the light. She believes in the good in people and in her path, and that fuels her forward even when situations get discouraging. This helps her enjoy and make the most of her present situation.
Theories and Philosophies
Habermas examines ego development, including his thoughts on an autonomous ego. He asserts that while an ego identity represents an ideal “found in the structures of formative processes in general and makes possible optimal solutions to culturally invariant, recurring problems of action,” but that the autonomous ego typically never fully surfaces (Habermas, 70). As he describes the concepts of society relating to psychological development he states they “can be interwoven because the perspectives projected in them of an autonomous ego and an emancipated society reciprocally require one another” (Habermas, 71).
Elle’s behavior coincides with this balance and goal. She exudes a confidence in herself as her internal strength surfaces as she overcomes her struggles. Sometimes this goes against the cultural norms. Elle values trust and continues to uphold her quest for truth in Brooke’s case even though she could follow the typical American ideal to increase her status and “win” by revealing the alibi when her professor requests (Legally Blonde). Her ego identity has developed enough to where she behaves consistently with her values. Her ethics reflect ideals passed to her from her family and surrounding culture, but she has made them her own. As Habermas points out, they rely on each other. Yet Elle has made her ethics personal, emphasizing what matters to her in her interactions with people.
Scholar Thomas Pogge examines Emmanuel Kant’s categorical imperative. Kant’s concept looks at general morality and the adoption of maxims. This also involves people treating people as ends in themselves (Pogge, 198). He describes, “So the demand that all and only persons must be able to endorse my maxims does not follow from, but rather supports and specifies the universalization requirement:
B2 Rational beings must treat one another as ends in themselves, i.e. each must choose
maxims so that all can contain or endorse them (even while the maxim’s end remains
attainable for him)” (Pogge, 198).
Elle adopts general maxims by which she abides. She extends friendliness to all, and she stands by the truth. Especially in instances involving the court situation, she follows these. She and Vivian do not have a friendship at that point, but Elle compliments her on her outfit and still treats her respectfully even though Vivian has gone out of her way to be mean to Elle. Elle sometimes returns those gestures with a snarky remark, but she maintains her friendly demeanor. She also stands by truth and trust, especially in terms of proving Brooke’s innocence in the court case. She follows the American policy that a person is innocent until proven guilty and trusts Brooke, especially because of her prior encounters with her. When she goes to visit Brooke in prison, she maintains their sisterhood bond and keeps her secret. Brooke also trusts Elle in return, providing her with the alibi and ultimately declaring Elle as her representative in court (Legally Blonde). The trust, truth, and friendliness maxims are ones that have universal appeal.
That coincides with Kant’s formula of universal law, which states, “Act only according to a maxim by which you can at the same time will that it would be a universal law” (Wood, 165). This follows his moral law, “‘formula of humanity as end in itself’” (Wood, 165). Elle appreciates people and sees the good in them. Even though some of her peers mock her, she still does what she can for them and develops bonds with them when they adjust their ways. For example, she does a favor for a guy classmate. She sees him trying to ask a girl out who clearly does not have an interest in him because she thinks he seems too nerdy or uncool. Elle realizes that she has the appeal to make him look desirable and acts as though she went out with him and was disappointed, leading the other girl to take an interest in him and accept the date proposition (Legally Blonde). As she walks away, she knows she helped him, just as a scene depicted him pulling a book off the shelf at the library when she couldn’t reach. They follow a maxim to do for others what they can as opportunities present themselves.
Elle also exemplifies Aristotle’s Golden Mean. The Golden Mean fits ethical values and “usually represents a mean or intermediate point between two vices-the vice of excess and the vice of deficiency” (Johannesen, et al., 4). An example of this is courage as a mean between foolhardiness and cowardice (Johanessen, et al., 4). As discussed in Johannesen, et al.’s book, this depends upon the situation (4). An interpretation of this says that an individual will strive to do the right thing because it is right in the situation rather than “it is right by avoiding excess or deficiency” (Johannesen, et al., 11). The authors assert, “Right, as a virtue, is determined not in comparison to excess or deficiency; rather excess and deficiency as vices are determined in comparison to the right thing to do” (Johannesen, et al., 11). Elle uses her discretion in determining her response to situations.
Elle’s responses to her experiences vary depending upon the specific situation. She strives to do what is right in each instance. Sometimes this includes returning a mean remark with a snarky comment, but she does not lash out at those who try to humiliate her. For example, when Vivian tells Elle that a party is a costume party so that Elle dresses up unlike everyone else and ends up looking like a fool. When Elle realizes her outfit does not match the party theme, she does not let it ruin her night. She approaches Vivian, who laughs at her upon seeing her Playboy Bunny looking costume. After Vivian laughs and sarcastically comments, “Nice costume,” Elle returns, “I like your outfit too, except when I dress up like a frigid bitch, I try not to look so constipated” (Legally Blonde). While Elle’s comment could be considered rude, she says her remark with a kind tone as she asserts that she won’t let that bring her down. She continues to show her strength as she walks away to talk to someone else, not letting the trick send her home.
Elle must balance right between other balances as she encounters other situations throughout the movie. She must balance between what her professor wants and what her friend Brooke wants in the court case. When she gets Brooke’s alibi, she still chooses to honor her sisterhood with Brooke and trust in her quest for truth rather than putting herself first by revealing the alibi to her professor whose values do not coincide with hers (Legally Blonde).
Elle and I: Work Friends at Atlantic Records
As a head record producer at Atlantic Records, Elle encounters numerous ethical situations. She holds the responsibility of all levels of the company. This means she must uphold the company’s as well as her personal values, especially as she holds a position where she must model the appropriate behavior. She also holds the power to make ultimate decisions regarding produced material and treatment of artists and their music.
An area where Elle might face ethical dilemmas would be in the general treatment of the artists. In terms of Kant’s categorical imperative, she must adopt maxims to which she abides and to which can hold universal appeal to lead other people to adopt them too. The company must try to promote the artists and aim for success for all of them. Trust comes into play again as she trusts her employees to work together to get the music to shelves and the artists available to audiences. She must also hope that the artists aspire to uphold truth. The company must remain truthful in attribution to creators and in allocating money to all those involved in the recording and distribution process.
As artists represent Atlantic when they make public appearances for interviews and performances, I will also face ethical dilemmas as I face audiences and interact with fans. Having extra eyes on me gives me extra responsibility for representing my values; more than likely, some younger fans will look to me as a role model. Then simply as a person, I represent my beliefs as I act in front of and with other people. My behavior, speech, and art must stay consistent with my ethics.
As I write lyrics, I must consider other people’s feelings. My responses to situations and people will inspire the words, but they must maintain respect and truth. Ultimately, the piece should uphold a positive outlook. Inevitably, I will face disappointment in my life, whether that result from relationships, romance, situations. I will want to use that for art in a cathartic sense as well as in a way to share experiences with others. Yet that happens best when the words do not condemn the situations or people involved. Most listeners will not know the exact inspiration of the songs, but they still represent real experiences and should assert a quest for ultimate truth in how to deal with them. Then fans can apply that wisdom to their personal lives.
Ultimately, the songs should abide by my values and the values of Atlantic. This most importantly, broadly speaking, includes following the Golden Rule: Treat others the way you would like to be treated. This means I won’t use the power of my words to hurt other people. While they may express sadness, pain, and disappointment, the lyrics do not need to place blame upon outside individuals or circumstances. The song “Fade” abides by these standards. The chorus declares that I have been hurt by the person to whom the lyrics are directed. Yet rather than putting down the other person, it just asserts that I will prevent myself from willingly falling into the same situation. It goes as follows (Stierwalt):
I write it down so I know
The facts are in my words
What you did, the pain you brought
I’ll endure only one blow
When I miss the memories we made
And the promise we laced in our fingers
I’ll read this and remember you’re afraid
You let it win, and it won’t fade
No, you won’t fade.
The verses express regret and a sense of sadness yet they do not blame the person for the outcome of the situation. Rather, the words reflect and use the circumstances to move forward. Part of the first verse includes, “Inside your arms my heart by yours did dwell/Your lips touched my forehead/as you told me you would be my comforter/So I let you look in my eyes as I fell under your spell,” and concludes with the third verse saying,
But I won’t let myself get in that red car
You revved your engines then said not ready
The gun went off, and you idled
Without passing the starting line, we can’t go far
My cries to maintain the bond only echo
So how can I know what you mean
You left the stage before curtain call
Come time for the encore, it’s only me who’ll go.
This again reflects on the situation, using a respectfully positive tone. I get to review the situation and release emotions as I share the experience with others, allowing them to relate.
This reflection and behavior extends to my public appearances. If asked about the song in interviews, I would follow the Golden Rule and speak kindly about the man who inspired the poem. I could even attribute the pain to the circumstances and reiterate that we both tried to treat each other well despite tension still arising.
Ethics still plays a role even in pieces that clearly have a positive outlook, such as a love song. They shows a certain honesty and must uphold trust and respect. This applies to the work “True in Love” (Stierwalt). It reveals a love for a good friend. Though a private affair, sharing it provides a universal experience. It exemplifies a reflective realization in a stanza: “In my space alone, I gain peace/and in contemplation, confidence/I’ve seen it’s you who endures/Your beat the one coinciding with mine” (Stierwalt). The final part unveils the hope in an anticipated future, writing, “Gazing into each other’s blues/We delve deeper as the words flow/Sharing and creating between us/our together reality, made true in love” (Stierwalt). All songs must stand by the positive perspective and uphold my personal values as well. This includes striving for a pure representation of love.
I must also watch my general comments as I make public statements and interact with fans. Just like my lyrical words must reflect certain standards, my speech and public statements must uphold those same personal and professional values. This means I speak kindly to and about people as I communicate with them. It also means that the things I share on social networking sites coincide with these ethics as well. As much as possible, I would like my behavior to reflect my Christian faith and perspective so that it may point other people in the same direction.
Elle Woods, the strong, independent, bubbly heroine in Legally Blonde serves as an excellent role model in communication ethics. She exemplifies admirable behavior in her interactions with friends, peers, classmates, professors, and professional colleagues. Her ethics coincide with concepts set forth by philosophers such as Kant and Aristotle. The categorical imperative and the Golden Mean apply to her behavior.
Elle consistently abides by the maxims and values upon which she founds her life. This comes in handy as she takes on the responsibility of running Atlantic Records. She holds a position where she must demonstrate the behavior expected of the company’s employees. Everyone involved with creating and distributing the music must exude a respectful and optimistic outlook in their situations and interact with others accordingly. This includes me, Kayla Stierwalt, as a songwriter.
Habermas, Jurgen. Trans. Thomas McCarthy. Communication and the Evolution of Society.
Boston: Beacon Press, 1976.
Johannesen, Richard, Valde, Kathleen, Whedbee, Karen. Ethics in Communication. Long Grove:
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Legally Blonde. Dir. Robert Luketic. Perf. Reese Witherspoon, Luke Wilson, Selma Blair,
Matthew Davis, Victor Garber, Jennifer Coolidge. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 2001. DVD.
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Morals: Critical Essays. Ed. Paul Guyer. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 1998.
Stierwalt, Kayla. “Fade.”
Stierwalt, Kayla. “True in Love.”
Wood, Allen. “Humanity As End in Itself.” Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals:
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