The Staying Power of Reese Witherspoon’s Plucky Heroines

Over 15 years ago, Reese Witherspoon made “bend and snap” a household phrase — all the while reminding women everywhere that it is never too late to reinvent yourself and go and get that Harvard Law degree. Girls really can do anything, right? Faithful Reese fans know that her iconic performance in 2001’s Legally Blonde isn’t the only time she has showed men who’s really boss. From her early work as the overzealous, overqualified student body president hopeful Tracy Flick (a true baby Hillary if you ask me) to her Oscar winning performance as June Carter in Walk The Line, Witherspoon has never shied away from portraying women with true grit. 2017 is no different, settling into one of the toughest phases for a leading lady, she tackles her 40’s with the same take-no-prisoners attitude as the last two decades. Between making divorce her bitch (with the help of three smoking hot millennial men) in Home Again and producing/starring in HBO’s Emmy darling, Big Little Lies, Reese’s career attitude is much like her on screen personalities — feminist AF.

MAN IN THE MOON (1991), DANI TRANT

This is where it all started. Reese came onto the scene fully loaded with her expressive face and high-pitched-yet-commanding voice that said “Sorry, not sorry!” Her endless sassiness is what wins her a boss ass bitch award in almost every scene in this coming-of-age romance set against the American South. It may be 1957 in the film but Reese is serving up some next-level shade. Dani’s fed up with being the baby of the family and after accidentally skinny dipping (get it girl!) with her new neighbor, Court Foster, becomes hooked on him, despite their 4 year age difference. She’s only 14 but she is not going to let her family — or her crush’s senseless agism — stop her. In a performance well beyond her years (she was only 15 at the time) Reese allows the audience to see that beneath the haywire emotions of a teenage girl lies a pensive and philosophical human being. So, in other words, kudos young Reese! Thank you for not making a girl of such a tender age seem hysterical or boy crazy beyond reason — the feminist spirit is strong in young Dani.

FREEWAY (1996), VANESSA LUTZ

A sexy, take charge version of Little Red Riding Hood? Sign me up! First off, this role brilliantly shatters the innocent country girl rep Reese cemented for herself in Hollywood post the success of Man In The Moon. A few years of puberty later, enter Vanessa Lutz — a girl who wears only crop tops and finishes off every look with dark brown lip liner. Her parents are meth heads so she’s on her own, and to make matters worse, she’s trapped in a car with a total perv/murderer… but not to worry! Vanessa Lutz is the literal opposite of a damsel in distress. Before savagely shooting this deviant in the face (creepily played by Kiefer Sutherland), Kiefer’s character asks “Why?” to which Reese replies, “Because I’m pissed off and the world owes me.” Amen sister, amen. Every feminist has felt this way at some point or another.

ELECTION (1999), TRACY FLICK

Some say this is Reese’s magnum opus and I could truly not agree more. This is the female Rushmore. But more importantly, this late 90’s tale is a god damn think piece on Hillary Clinton vs. The World. It’s a tale as old as time. A man can be power hungry and filled with cut-throat tendencies but if a woman dares, someone will try to knock her down… with a peg. Enter Matthew Broderick as the endlessly salty and slouchy high school Gov teacher, Jim McAllister. He is so threatened by Tracy’s power-moves-only attitude, he tries to use his position for evil by enlisting a popular jock to run against Tracy with tacky stumping and demagoguery. After a few well-deserved breakdowns, Tracy fights back and wins the school election. Ultimately, Tracy’s plans work out and she ends up riding around in limos in DC while McAllister continues to be a jerky nobody. I hope in this parallel American universe Tracy makes it all the way to The White House as Commander-in-Chief.

PLEASANTVILLE (1998), JENNIFER/MARY SUE

I don’t think I’ve seen a more sex positive and proud teenage girl character on the silver screen than Pleasantville’s Jennifer. Jen’s primary focuses are keeping it real and getting her share of orgasmic pleasure. Not even her nerdy brother (Tobey Maguire) is going to stop her from teaching the miserable, regressive 50’s youth of Pleasantville about the importance of a healthy sex drive. Heck, she even teaches her TV mom how to get her rocks off via the bathtub nozzle method — that (face it!), is a much needed survival skill for every woman. Good job, Jennifer! Your mom’s clitoris thanks you.

LEGALLY BLONDE (2001), ELLE WOODS

This one is a no brainer. Elle Woods is so fourth wave feminism it hurts… in a good way! To me, there is nothing more badass than a law degree and a killer fashion sense. Elle Woods has an amazing sense of self, period. Reese’s performance is almost two decades old but the message still feels fresh. Women totally can — and should be — unapologetically themselves. You shouldn’t have to dress up or down to make less secure people feel at ease. Shine as bright and as often as you want, ladies, and don’t dim that shine for anyone — least of all, your block-headed boyfriend that dumped you because he couldn’t see past those impeccable highlights, and your creepy professor who congratulates you on your hard work and then sexually harasses you one second later (cough, Callahan, cough). Can’t a girl wear a Prada pencil skirt in peace? The way Elle dealt with all of this is #goals. The image of her waiting in line to buy a Macbook in her playboy bunny costume after screaming, “I’ll show you who Elle Woods is!” is usually what gets me through the day. Also, and most importantly, instead of hating her ex’s super East Coast fiancee, Vivian — Elle won her over and they became besties because sisterhood is the answer to all of our problems. Gracias, Elle, gracias.

WALK THE LINE (2005), JUNE CARTER CASH

And lastly, we can’t forget the year Ms. Witherspoon took home the gold for her work in Walk the Line as June Carter, Johnny Cash’s true north (and a genius songstress in her own right). In her Oscar acceptance speech, Reese told the story of how when people would ask June, “How are you?” her response was always, “Just trying to matter.” All I can think is Hello, Reese! It’s your biggest fan speaking, here to tell you that YOU MATTER!

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I truly believe no one else could have embodied the pluck of women I just listed like Reese did. After her Oscar, she would fall into a sort of career slump. Her relationship with first love/hubby/baby daddy, Ryan Phillippe fell apart, she starred in a series of bad love triangle movies with plots that didn’t suit her and she got in trouble with the law for disorderly conduct. It seemed as though Reese was lost but TBH, I never fretted once. I knew Dani/Vanessa/Tracy/Elle/June lived on in me and tons of other girls that had been touched by these tenacious heroines. These characters would not be intimidated by the men around them, by society at large, or even by their own demons. The hope, anger, determination, daringness, brazenness and resilience exhibited by most of Reese’s characters are representative of what being a female has always meant.

Fast forward a handful of years and Reese is on her type-A shit again, starting production companies that focus on finding and creating strong female content and starring in or producing projects like Gone Girl, Wild and Big Little Lies. A total feminist icon, she’s one that withstands the test of time and makes us proud to be women, no matter the age.

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