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Running head: UNDERSTANDING STUDENT DEVELOPMENT THROUGH MEDIA

Understanding Student Development through Media: Critical Review of Legally Blonde


Kristin Ramey
Loyola University Chicago

UNDERSTANDING STUDENT DEVELOPMENT THROUGH MEDIA

Film can be an engaging and innovative strategy to teach student development theory
(Stebleton, Soria, & Mixon, 2011, p. 508). Through film, student affairs professionals are
provided an avenue to facilitate development and learning in their communities of practice
(Stebleton et al., 2011). The goal of this paper is to analyze the film Legally Blonde and its
characters development through the use of Baxter Magoldas (2001) Self-Authorship and Bems
(1981) Gender Schema theories. Both theories will be reviewed with a critical lens as characters
Elle Woods and Warner Huntington IIIs development is illustrated. The films application to
student affairs practice will be discussed and the authors positionality will be explained.
Synopsis of Legally Blonde
Legally Blonde, released on July 13, 2001, is the story of Elle Woods and her journey to
find herself (Kidney, Platt, & Luketic, 2001). The story begins at the University of California,
Los Angeles as Elle Woods (played by Reese Witherspoon), acclaimed blonde and sorority
president, anticipates a proposal from her boyfriend, Warner Huntington III (played by Matthew
Davis). With plans to attend Harvard Law School following graduation, Warner ends his
relationship with Elle. Desperate to win Warners love, Elle decides that she, too, will attend
Harvard Law School to prove to Warner that she is marriage material. After passing the Law
School Admissions Test, Elle is accepted to Harvard where she is mocked for her looks and
oblivious behavior.
Shortly after arriving to campus, Elle discovers that Warner is already engaged to another
woman. Elle makes it her mission to win Warner back, recognizing that she will need to become
serious to gain his attention. Once Elle realizes that Warner will never take her seriously, she
stops focusing on him and begins focusing on her academics. Due to her success in the
classroom, Elle receives an internship with Professor Callahan (played by Victor Garber) and his

UNDERSTANDING STUDENT DEVELOPMENT THROUGH MEDIA

associate attorney, Emmett (played by Luke Wilson). Working alongside her fellow interns, Elle
helps defend Brooke Windham (played by Ali Larter) in a case where she is accused of
murdering her husband. Elle, knowing Brooke from her sorority affiliation, knows that she is
innocent. Throughout the case, Elle stands out for her performance.
In an attempt to discuss her future, Professor Callahan makes sexual advances on Elle.
Believing that she was only selected as an intern because of her looks, Elle decides to quit law
school and return to California. When a professor overhears Elles story, she convinces Elle that
she is capable of greatness and that she should continue to succeed in law school. Hearing that
Elle has quit her case, Brooke decides to fire Callahan and hire Elle as her representation.
Through her knowledge of hair care, Elle wins her case. After her victory, Warner tries to
convince Elle that he has made a mistake and wants her back. Elle refuses, finally recognizing
her worth. Two years later, Elle graduates law school at the top of her class and joins one of
Bostons most prestigious law firms.
Explanation of Theory
Throughout the film, it became clear that several student development theories and
frameworks could be applied to the characters and their experiences. To demonstrate the
presence of theory, it is important to first have an understanding of the theory and its goal for
development. When looking at Legally Blonde, Baxter Magoldas (2001) Self-Authorship and
Bems (1981) Gender Schema theories will be considered.
Baxter Magoldas Self-Authorship
According to Marcia Baxter Magolda (2008), self-authorship is the internal capacity to
define ones beliefs, identity, and social relations (p. 269). After conducting interviews with 30
individuals that shared similar identities, three major questions emerged. These questions, How

UNDERSTANDING STUDENT DEVELOPMENT THROUGH MEDIA

do I know?, Who am I?, and How do I want to construct relationships with others? resulted
in four phases in the journey of developing ones sense of self and relationships (Evans, Forney,
Guido, Patton, & Renn, 2010, p. 184). The journey to self-authorship, which involves the
movement from external to internal self-definition, is not easy and often a challenge in college
environments (Evans et al., 2010).
Baxter Magoldas (2001) Self-Authorship theory is recognized for its utility in the field
(Evans et al., 2010). While there are limitations, specifically the sample population, the theory is
extremely useful when working with collegians and facilitating their development. Both Elle
and Warner, characters in Legally Blonde, navigate their way through Baxter Magoldas (2001)
Self-Authorship theory.
Bems Gender Schema
Bems (1981) Gender Schema, which seeks to explain gender identity development
through social learning theory and cognitive-developmental theory, is similar to Baxter
Magoldas work in that it aims to facilitate understanding of ones self and ideals. According to
Sandra Bem (1981), individuals are seen as processing information in terms of and conforming
to whatever definitions of masculinity and femininity the culture happens to provide (p. 356).
This societal construct of gender identity plays a large role into the development of ones gender
schema (Evans et al., 2010). To measure the degree to which individuals recognized their gender
identity according to societal norms, Bem (1981) designed the Sex Role Inventory. This
inventory, which asked individuals to categorize themselves using 60 gendered characteristics,
determined the extent to which individuals may be socially desirable (Bem, 1981; Evans et al.,
2010).

UNDERSTANDING STUDENT DEVELOPMENT THROUGH MEDIA

A major benefit of Bems (1981) Gender Schema is the ability to recognize societal
constructs and why students may act and react in a particular way. However, there are several
limitations including the use of a gender binary, lack of intersectionality, and the processes
inability to enhance development (Evans et al., 2010). Looking at Bems (1981) three processes,
both Elle and Warners gender schemas are evident throughout the film, Legally Blonde.
Introduction to Main Characters
To apply theory and facilitate development, it is important to understand the
characteristics and identities that individuals may hold. Elle Woods and Warner Huntington III,
main characters in Legally Blonde, have unique personalities, backgrounds, support systems, and
identities. By describing their characteristics, the illustration of how they fit within the theories
will be clear.
Elle Woods
Elle Woods, Legally Blondes protagonist, is a blonde, bubbly, and confident woman
from California. Her salient identities include being female, cisgender, White, and heterosexual.
Growing up in Bel Air, she comes from a very wealthy family (Kidney, Platt, & Luketic, 2001).
She attended UCLA where she majored in Fashion Merchandising, was president of her sorority,
and homecoming queen. Elle identifies many things that are important to her, including: the
color pink, her Chihuahua, fashion, her reputation, and affection from Warner (Kidney, Platt, &
Luketic, 2001). While Elle is seemingly a dumb blonde, she shows intellect in different ways
prior to her journey to Harvard. Elles support system, her family, friends, professors, and
advisors, do not initially think that Elle will succeed (Kidney, Platt, & Luketic, 2001).
Warner Huntington III

UNDERSTANDING STUDENT DEVELOPMENT THROUGH MEDIA

Warner Huntington III, the object of Elles affection, is serious, self-centered, and careerfocused (Kidney, Platt, & Luketic, 2001). His salient identities, similar to Elles, include being
male, cisgender, White, and heterosexual. Warners family, who plays a large role in his
decision making, consists of very wealthy parents and a successful brother in law school. His
career goals, similar to his brothers, include becoming a successful attorney and running for the
United States Senate (Kidney, Platt, & Luketic, 2001).
Application of Theory Using Main Characters
Recognizing the developmental characteristics that Elle and Warner possess, it is now
possible to assess their development in the construction of their self-concepts and the
development of their gender schemas. With movement through each phase/process, I will look
closely at the film in determining the reasoning for each characters placement.
Baxter Magoldas Self-Authorship
The four phases to self-authorship recognize the importance of trusting ones internal
voice, building an internal foundation, and securing internal commitments (Baxter Magolda,
2008). In phase one, following formulas, individuals actions and beliefs are easily influenced
by authority figures and/or their peers (Evans et al., 2010). Individuals in this phase are
motivated by approval and recognition from external figures, even if the steps they are taking are
not what they truly desire. They seek approval in their relationships and define themselves
through the lens of what others would want. Throughout the film, Elle and Warner are both
representative of this phase. After Warner breaks up with Elle, she states, I know the type of
girl I need to become to be serious! A law student! (13:10), representing Elles need to seek
approval from Warner (Kidney, Platt, & Luketic, 2001). She also exhibits characteristics of this
phase when she explicitly states I worked so hard to get into law school, all to get my boyfriend

UNDERSTANDING STUDENT DEVELOPMENT THROUGH MEDIA

back (Kidney, Platt, & Luketic, 2001; 32:31). It is evident that Elle is in the phase, following
formulas, because although she never had a desire to attend law school, she is motivated by what
Warner wants and therefore will put aside her desires to please him. While Warner plays a part
in Elles placement in phase one, he too experiences this phase. When Warner breaks up with
Elle, he states I have to think of my future and what my family expects of me (Kidney, Platt, &
Luketic, 2001; 9:24). After arriving at Harvard, Warner reveals that he is engaged to Vivian, a
woman who his family introduced him to and whom they approve of (Kidney, Platt, & Luketic,
2001; 31:29). Warners constant attempt to gain his familys approval illustrates his placement
in phase one.
As individuals move to phase two, crossroads, they become dissatisfied with following
the path that others have set for them (Evans et al., 2010). They begin to recognize the role of
their internal voice and the need for their own vision. Although they understand the importance
of this, they are not yet able to achieve it. Elle can be seen in this phase when she realizes that
fighting for Warners love may not benefit her. When Elle states Im never going to be good
enough for you, am I? (42:12), it shows her transition into crossroads (Kidney, Platt, & Luketic,
2001). She begins to recognize herself as capable when she states Ill show you how valuable
Elle Woods can be (Kidney, Platt, & Luketic, 2001; 42:41). These attributes may seem
consistent with phase three, yet it is clear that Elle is still in crossroads. While she is recognizing
her value and aiming to be successful, she still wants to impress Warner so that he can see her
worth.
In phase three, becoming the author of ones life, individuals begin to choose their own
beliefs and values (Evans et al., 2010). They begin to form their identity based on what they
believe to be true, while accepting the viewpoints of others. Elle reaches phase three when she

UNDERSTANDING STUDENT DEVELOPMENT THROUGH MEDIA

begins to stop doing things for Warner and start making decisions solely for herself. She begins
to excel in the classroom and receives an internship, all of which make her very proud. We can
see her movement into stage three after receiving the news of her internship when she says to
Warner, Do you remember when we spent those four amazing hours in the hot tub after winter
formal? This is so much better than that! (Kidney, Platt, & Luketic, 2001; 51:01). She also
continues to stay true to herself when she refuses to give Brookes alibi to Professor Callahan
(60:53) and follows her intuition by telling Professor Callahan and Emmett to question the
witness relationship with Brooke (Kidney, Platt, & Luketic, 2001; 71:05). These moments of
increased confidence and conviction demonstrate that Elle is becoming the author of her own
life. She is still susceptible to the views of others, allowing Callahan to silence her (72:54), but
also recognizes that her thoughts are valid and respectable (Kidney, Platt & Luketic, 2011).
In the final phase, internal foundation, individuals are grounded in a solidified and
comprehensive system of belief (Baxter Magolda, 2001, p. 155; Evans et al., 2010, p. 186).
While individuals are aware of external influences, they are not bound by them and are able to
make decisions based on their own sense of self. Elle transitions to phase four after Professor
Callahan makes sexual advances at her and she decides that quitting law school may be the best
option. Overhearing that Elle was considering leaving, Professor Stromwell tells Elle that she is
not the girl, I thought you were (Kidney, Platt, & Luketic, 2001; 78:15). After hearing this,
Elle realizes that she is born to be an attorney and is capable of success. When Brooke hires Elle
as new representation for her case, Elle says to Professor Callahan, excuse me, youre in my
way! (Kidney, Platt, & Luketic, 2001; 80:31). By following her intuition, Elle wins her case.
When Warner asks for Elle back, due to her success, her response is If Im going to be a partner
in a law firm by the time Im thirty, Im going to need a boyfriend that isnt such a bonehead

UNDERSTANDING STUDENT DEVELOPMENT THROUGH MEDIA

(Kidney, Platt, & Luketic, 2001; 88:17). Recognizing that she no longer needs Warner and is
continuing to pursue her dreams, Elle has created her internal foundation. While each of these
examples illustrates that Elle has reached the final phase, it is her speech at graduation that truly
represents her growth. Elle states:
It is with passion, courage of conviction, and strong sense of self that we take our next
steps into the world, remembering that first impressions are not always correct. You must
always have faith in people. And most importantly, you must always have faith in
yourself. (Kidney, Platt, & Luketic, 2001; 92:09)
While Elle has transitioned through each phase of development and achieved self-authorship, it
is important to recognize the absence of Warner. While there is evidence that Warner was in
phase one, there is no evidence that he ever developed further. We can see this at the end of the
movie, after Elle has achieved success, when Warner states youre the girl for me (Kidney,
Platt, & Luketic, 2001; 87:59). Only wanting to be with Elle because of her success is related to
Warners need to gain approval from his family. While Warner may have some characteristics
of other phases, it is clear that he is does not have a strong self-concept and ends unhappy in the
film.
Bems Gender Schema
Bem labeled the three processes in developing ones gender schema as observation,
recognize and organize, and construction of self-concept (Bem, 1981; Evans et al., 2010). These
processes indicate how individuals interpret gendered identity and characteristics, forming their
gender schema. Throughout the film, it is clear that both Elle and Warner have gender schemas
which perpetuate societal constructs and place them into Bems (1981) processes. In the first
process, observation, individuals begin to define and recognize gender based on what they see

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from society, parents, and their peers. They observe these characteristics, yet do not think about
them critically (Evans et al., 2010). It is difficult to determine whether Elle and Warner are in
this process, due to its internal nature. Nevertheless, it is interesting to note Elles environment
in the film. From the very beginning, Elle is surrounded by perky sorority women and pink
(Kidney, Platt, & Luketic, 2001; 1:10). Additionally, Elle father states law school is for people
who are boring, and ugly, and serious (Kidney, Platt, & Luketic, 2001; 13:32). These
observations and interactions with her parents play a large role in how Elle views gender. In
contrast, Warner is unable to be placed in this phase due to the lack of knowledge the film
provides about his environment and internal processes.
The second process, recognize and organize, is when individuals begin to process their
observations and label characteristics as male or female (Evans et al., 2010). Elle moves to the
second process as she begins to critically think about some of her own characteristics. After
Warner breaks up with her, Elle wonders if it is because she is too blonde or my boobs are too
big? (Kidney, Platt, & Luketic, 2001; 8:21). Once Elle has arrived at Harvard, the women she
is surrounded by are much different than her undergraduate institution. We can see Elle
beginning to organize her new observations on her first day of class when she states I totally
look the part, wearing fake glasses (Kidney, Platt, & Luketic, 2001; 23:47). Warner shows
characteristics of this phase when determining what type of women he wants marry. He states
if Im going to be a senator, I need to marry a Jackie- not a Marilyn (Kidney, Platt, & Luketic,
2001; 7:57). This is representative of this phase because Warner recognizes what type of
women, based on her characteristics, his family would be comfortable including. It is important
to note that Elle reaches phase two prior to attending law school, but then reverts back to phase
one after recognizing that women have different characteristics at Harvard than the individuals

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she interacted with at UCLA. However, Bem (1983) noted that development occurs when the
processes are working together because they provide motivations for conformity to societys
criteria of maleness and femaleness (Evans et al., 2010).
In the final process, construction of self-concept, an individual takes the characteristics
that they have labeled as male and female and places themselves into the category which they
identify with most. If an individual experiences certain characteristics that do not fit into a
particular category, they will dismiss them and continue identifying in a way they believe is
appropriate (Evans et al., 2010). Both Elle and Warner are representative of this stage by the end
of the film, constructing their self-concept based on what they assume is male and/or female.
Elle identifies with societys definition of female, which we can see through her use of the color
pink and her body. When applying to Harvard, Elle completes her video essay in a bikini with
references to soap operas and cat calling (Kidney, Platt, & Luketic, 2001; 18:46). She also uses
her body when attempting to get Warners affection and through the use of the Bend and Snap.
Elles understanding of how women interact with men is representative of the societal construct
of women. While Elles self-concept of her female characteristics are evident, it is important to
recognize how her construction changed after attending Harvard. Bem (1981) would agree,
stating that self-concept itself gets assimilated to the gender schema (p. 354). Warner is
representative of this stage, but shows it in relation to how he views female characteristics. After
seeing Elle on Harvards campus, Warner sarcastically states you got into Harvard law?
(Kidney, Platt, & Luketic, 2001; 24:52). Warner also shows his construction of self-concept
when convincing Elle to share Brookes alibi, stating Who cares about Brooke, think about
yourself (Kidney, Platt, & Luketic, 2001; 61:25). It is clear that Warner identities very strongly
with characteristics that his gender schema would deem as male.

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Both Elle and Warner move through Bems (1981) processes in different ways, but their
gender schematic processes are very representative of how society views gender identity.
Implications for Student Affairs
As a student affairs professional, it is important to meet students where they are at so that
development is possible. Working in Student Activities and Greek Affairs, I often see
individuals who share Elle and Warners salient identities in my office.
When thinking about Baxter Magoldas (2001) Self-Authorship, it is important to provide
challenge and support for students. Understanding that self-concept is initially constructed by
authorities and peers, it is important to be a listening ear and to challenge with care so that
students can think in a different way. To inspire development, I would encourage students to
join extra-curricular activities which allow them to gain an understanding of themselves outside
of the classroom; such as service/spiritual, cultural/ethnic, and political/social organizations.
When looking at Bems (1981) Gender Schema, it is important to recognize that students
may still be processing their gender identity. I would encourage students to attend programming
that challenged their ideals, allowing them to gain different perspectives. Specifically with Elle
and Warner, I would encourage them to attend programming by the office of Student Diversity
and Multicultural Affairs to interact with students who share different identities than they do. It
is also important to recognize how I may perpetuate gender norms and recognize how my power
and privilege may play a role in my interactions with students.
Positionality
The film, Legally Blonde, has always been a movie that I identified with and therefore
was an obvious choice when selecting my film. Having similar identities as Elle Woods, I
appreciate the feminist lens that the film takes and the success that Elle achieves in the end. As a

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blonde, past sorority president, I am often stereotyped similarly to Elle. Sharing in Elles
frustrations, which I often experienced in our class, allowed me to think critically about my own
experience and how theory could have been applied.
Having watched the film several times, I assumed that selecting theories would be easy.
However, I struggled making my selection until I discovered the relationship that Baxter
Magoldas (2001) Self-Authorship and Bems (1981) Gender Schema had throughout the film.
The societal constructs of gender identity and the struggle to author ones life are extremely
prevalent throughout this film, which was something that I believed was critical to address.
The film could have done a much better job focusing on individuals with various
identities, yet failed to give voice to them. As a White, heterosexual, cisgender, female, I
recognize that my experience watching this film could be extremely different from others. I
accept and understand Elle and her privileged identities because I share them, yet I understand
how individuals from marginalized identities could view her characteristics and demeanor as
negative.
Conclusion
Legally Blonde illustrated college student development through its use of dynamic
characters in challenging situations. I plan to utilize this experience in applying theory to
practice and recognizing that while all students may not reach every phase/process, it is my role
to provide opportunities for that development. Elle and Warner indicate that their experience in
higher education has a large impact on who are they are, and I hope to have that same impact on
the students I work with now and in the future. Looking to Stebleton et al. (2011), I, too, agree
that applying excerpts of film to student development theory is a beneficial way to facilitate
development both with students and professionals.

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References
Baxter Magolda, M.B. (2001). Making their own way: Narratives for transforming higher
education to promote self-development. Sterling, VA: Stylus.
Baxter Magolda, M. B. (2008). Three elements of self-authorship. Journal of College Student
Development, 49, 269-284.
Bem, S. (1981). Gender schema theory: A cognitive account of sex typing. Psychological
Review, 88(4), 354-364.
Bem, S. (1983). The lenses of gender: Transforming the debate on sexual inequality. New
Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Evans, N. J., Forney, D. S., Guido, F., Patton, L., & Renn, K. (2010). Student development in
college: Theory, research, and practice (2nd Edition). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Kidney R., & Platt, M.E. (Producers), & Luketic, R. (Director). (2001). Legally Blonde [Motion
picture]. United States: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Stebleton, M. J., Soria, K. M., & Mixon, J. D. (2011). Media review: Facebook me:
Applying the social network film to student development theory and practice. Journal of
Student Affairs Research and Practice, 48(4), 505521.