Two movies that released in 2001 share an uncannily similar scene. In both, the heroine is tricked into attending a party dressed as a Playboy bunny, only to be embarrassed when she realizes none of the other attendees are in costume. “Same year, same gag! How did this happen? Why aren’t we figuring this out!” tweeted writer Dana Schwartz earlier this month. The movies are Bridget Jones’s Diary and Legally Blonde, and the deeper you dig, the more they have in common. Broadly: both revolve around women who lose the men they love, only to find themselves. Incredibly specifically: both feature scenes in which the women, both blondes, are devastated to learn that this man is engaged to a brunette with short hair.
Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon) and Bridget Jones (Renée Zellweger) play characters that vary wildly in terms of how they dress, approach romantic relationships and deal with public perception. But the films have similar scenes, themes and messages that endure even 20 years on. Let’s break them down:
Heartbreak as a catalyst for change
The two movies begin with scenes that contrast visually, but follow a near-identical formula — girl meets boy, boy breaks her heart, girl mopes but has major awakening.
Bridget Jones’s Diary opens in the biting cold, the weather mirroring Bridget’s frosty mood on account of this being her “32nd year of being single”. On seeing barrister Mark Darcy (Colin Firth) at a party, she thinks: Maybe this was the mysterious Mr. Right I’d been waiting my whole life to meet. The rosy sentiment doesn’t last long as Bridget’s motormouth falls flat in the face of Mark’s stoicism. Unaware that she is within earshot, Mark later describes her as a “verbally incontent spinster who smokes like a chimney, drinks like a fish and dresses like her mother.” Humiliated, she hastily retreats home, to the comforts of pyjamas and chain-smoking and bottomless glasses of wine. But the next morning brings change. She starts a diary, intending to identify patterns in her behaviour and begin a journey of self-improvement — mostly losing weight and dating better men.
On the other hand, Legally Blonde’s opening frames are steeped in the warm, yellow hues reflective of Elle’s sunny disposition. Setting the opening montage to Hoku’s ‘Perfect Day’ cues viewers in to her expectations — a proposal from her longtime boyfriend, Warner Huntington III (Matthew Davis), who instead breaks up with her in favour of dating someone more serious, a “Jackie (Kennedy)” to Elle’s blonde “Marilyn (Monroe)”. Elle is stunned and doesn’t leave her room for a week, weeping and eating copious amounts of chocolate. On her first trip outside, inspiration strikes. What better way to prove she’s serious-minded than by getting into Harvard Law School? (That her major is Fashion Merchandising is but a minor obstacle to this lofty goal.)
The desire to rewrite the narrative
A fair amount of Elle and Bridget’s struggles revolve around the desire to be taken seriously. Throughout Legally Blonde, Elle finds herself up against the stereotype of the ditzy blonde. The other characters habitually undermine her intelligence, mistaking her effervescence for a lack of depth. When she arrives at law school, her bubblegum pink wardrobe stands out against a sea of dull, grey clothing, immediately singling her out as a target for ridicule. Her professors are dismissive and her peers are cruel, but Elle stays unfailingly kind.
While she sets to work dismantling public perceptions, Bridget spends most of her film in a private hell of her own making, convinced she’s too fat, with a “bottom the size of Brazil”. That she owns her own apartment and has a stable job at a large publishing firm does little to quiet her fear of failure in another aspect of her life — romantic relationships. The other characters tease Bridget about her inability to find a man but the unkindest cuts come from herself. At a party thrown by her publishing house, with authors like Salman Rushdie and Jeffrey Archer in attendance, Bridget thinks to herself: I am the intellectual equal of everyone here. It’s a sentence that hints at a lifetime of trying to measure up, uttered so unconvincingly that you wonder how she plans to convince others. Like Elle at law school, Bridget comes across as a fish out of water at almost any social situation, embarrassing herself via ill-timed jokes or poor wardrobe choices.
It’s telling that the sentence Mark uses to convey his interest in her is also one that allays all her deepest insecurities. “I like you, just as you are,” he says. Her friends are taken aback when she relays this to them. “Not thinner or cleverer? Not with slightly bigger breasts and a slightly smaller nose?” asks one, in disbelief.
Skeevy men in positions of authority
In both films, Elle and Bridget are propositioned by men in positions of authority who play on their sense of self-worth, with very different results. Exploiting Elle’s longing to be judged by her skills and not just her appearance, her professor (Victor Garber) employs flattery, telling her she’d make a great lawyer, before making a move. Realizing that his praise was insincere, Elle is disgusted and storms out.
By contrast, the advances of Bridget’s boss (Hugh Grant) make her feel desirable, an adjective her body image issues won’t let her attribute to herself. He emails Bridget to tease her about the length of her skirt, and follows that up with an email that goes: Like your tits in that top. It works and Bridget swoons. A stray comment later in the film provides some insight into why he never worried his crude emails would lead to a workplace harassment suit. “You swan in, in your short skirt and your sexy see-through blouse and fanny about with press releases,” he says, indicating he never took Bridget seriously enough to consider that she might respond to his words with anything but admiration.
The triumphs of being true to oneself
Elle and Bridget begin the process of overhauling their lifestyles to fit a certain societal perception, but in a lovely turn of events, find their greatest success in moments when they’re true to themselves. Defending a woman accused of murder, Elle’s victory of the case hinges on her knowledge of hairstyles and haircare. It’s a great touch, one which implies that women need not sacrifice their femininity or interests to find success.
Bridget’s big break comes when she’s sent to interview a Kurdish freedom fighter whose government is attempting to extradite and execute him, and his wife, a British aid worker pleading his case. She’s woefully out of the loop on foreign affairs but her enduring interest in matters of the heart is what makes the interview memorable. “Did you fancy Kafir the first time you saw him?” she asks his wife, not quite the “hard-hitting” angle her boss wanted, but one that’s infinitely more endearing, and enduring.