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Image credit: Teagan Rabuano

“What — Like it’s hard?” How Elle Woods and 'Legally Blonde' helped empower my trans identity

June 7, 2018

I actually never saw the film version of Legally Blonde until I was a sophomore in college, but—growing up—I had been absolutely obsessed with the musical. When I was in the sixth grade, they filmed the Broadway production and aired it on MTV, so nearly everyday after school I would rush home and re-watch my favorite parts over and over again. Something about the unstoppable determination and resilience of Elle Woods spoke to me as a bullied middle-schooler, and her story would prove even more significant for me as I got older.

When I was 19 years old I went through a terrible break-up. I had dated this person for three years and my whole life revolved around them. I remember waking up the day after it happened and feeling completely lost. As I sat in my bed crying (and shoving Insomnia cookies into my mouth) I thought about the similar predicament that Elle found herself in at the beginning of Legally Blonde. I decided to turn the movie on in an effort to distract myself, hoping it would lift my spirits. As I watched Elle go from heartbroken sorority girl to motivated Harvard law student, a bright pink fire awoke inside of me.

This was a pivotal point in my life. In addition to my break-up, I had come out as trans just two months earlier. I was still figuring out my identity as a trans-feminine non-binary person, and so much of that process required me to reclaim the feminine parts of myself that I had previously stifled. I began to wear dresses, makeup, and nail polish, but the look I ended up developing was more androgynous than traditionally feminine. I wasn’t sure exactly how I wanted to express myself, and I was really scared.

It may sound silly, but Elle Woods became my biggest inspiration. She was unapologetically feminine and girly in a way that I had only ever dreamed of. However, her femininity was not, as society has conditioned us to believe, a sign of weakness—it was a source of strength. Growing up, my effeminate nature was constantly used to condescend and invalidate me. I struggled throughout high school—then identifying as a gay man—to be taken as seriously as my peers. It seemed that I was always being mocked for my flamboyance, and that, to so many people, I was nothing more than a big gay joke. When I came out as trans in college this problem was only amplified. I was now not only fending off derogatory and threatening comments on the street, but I was also struggling to have my professors and bosses see me for more than my eccentric gender expression.

GLAAD Campus Ambassador, Teagan Rabuano. Image credit: them.

As a theatre major, I assumed this would not be a problem, and that I would be given the permission to explore my identity freely. Unfortunately, this was not the case, and my acting classes became some of the most toxic and restrictive spaces for me. As I experimented with heavier makeup, acrylic nails, and different ways of speaking and moving my body, my drama professors deemed my gender exploration a “distraction” and claimed that my work had regressed. It was a painful moment for me, but I remembered Elle’s refusal to change who she was in order to succeed.

In a difficult moment, I always think back to the final courtroom scene in Legally Blonde. After once again being made to feel that she could never be taken seriously, Elle’s knowledge of hair care wins the case. It’s a funny and powerful scene that highlights the overall message of the film: You can be successful not in spite of your femininity but because of it. In order to be taken seriously as a woman or femme person, you often need to reject and suppress the feminine parts of yourself. Elle has taught me that I don’t need to compromise my gender expression to be seen as intelligent, capable, and valid. Legally Blonde has not only helped me reclaim the feminine parts of identity, it has allowed me to unlearn years of toxic masculinity that made me feel ashamed.

This past spring, as I walked across the stage at graduation in my pink pumps and blonde wig, I couldn’t help but reflect on Elle’s speech from her own graduation: “You must always have faith in people, but most importantly, you must always have faith in yourself.” Elle Woods helped me have faith in myself as a trans person, and now I’m ready to keep painting the world pink.

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Teagan Rabuano is a GLAAD Campus Ambassador and graduating senior at NYU studying drama and gender & sexuality studies. They are a former intern at the National Center for Transgender Equality and Lambda Legal.

the voice and vision of a new generation