Every year, Harvard College undergraduates cram together on the steps of Widener Library to watch “Legally Blonde” as a part of their formal introduction to the university. The film takes place at Harvard and features a strong female protagonist finding meaning in her daily academic, professional, and social endeavors despite the challenges she faces as a victim of the patriarchy at Harvard. While the film captures the harsh reality of women confronting sexual misconduct at the university, it simultaneously presents a false universe in which Harvard holds sexual abusers accountable for their behavior.
In this celebrated romantic comedy, real-life Malibu Barbie Elle Woods decides to uproot her California life to follow her ex-boyfriend to Harvard Law School to win his hand in marriage. Elle works tirelessly as a law student and earns a prestigious internship with Professor Callahan, a member of the HLS faculty. When the powerful Callahan makes sexual advances towards Elle, placing his hand on her thigh and sliding it up her skirt, Elle quits the internship and packs her bags with the intention to flee Harvard. Unfortunately, Elle’s story is representative of many students’ Harvard experience. In a survey of the class of 2015, 31% of Harvard undergraduate women reported experiencing “some sort of unwanted sexual contact at Harvard.” Sexual assault and harassment are crises on Harvard’s campus — crises that the Harvard administration chooses to ignore.
In Elle Woods’ universe, Callahan is fired from representing a major legal client at his own law firm for his sexual misconduct, and it is heavily implied that Callahan is fired from his teaching position at Harvard University. Elle’s teaching fellow, Emmett, believes Elle’s allegations against Callahan and encourages Elle to stay in school and complete the legal fellowship while he makes moves to strip Callahan of his power. In short, Elle is able to experience justice as a victim of sexual misconduct because the Harvard administration and faculty take action to hold Callahan accountable. With this in mind, the most unrealistic part of “Legally Blonde” is that perpetrators of sexual misconduct face repercussions.
In the real world, Callahan would likely still be stably employed as a Harvard professor. Harvard has a history of keeping sexual abusers in positions of power. Callahan-esque faculty member Professor John Comaroff allegedly kissed and groped multiple graduate students without their consent and is still a faculty member in Harvard’s Anthropology department. After an investigation found that Comaroff violated Harvard’s sexual and professional conduct policies, Comaroff faced minimal repercussions: He was only barred from teaching required courses and prohibited from taking on additional advisees throughout the next academic year. 38 members of the Harvard Faculty then authored and signed a letter defending Comaroff and criticizing the Harvard administration for taking action against him. The administration’s weak ruling and the faculty’s letter sent a clear message to students: Their right to education, bodily autonomy, and safety is superseded by a man’s right to objectify, sexualize, harass, and assault women.
As shown in the film universe of “Legally Blonde,” sexual misconduct is rampant at Harvard University. In the real world, perpetrators of sexual misconduct are high ranking members of the Harvard faculty. For instance, Professor Jorge Dominguez was first accused of sexual misconduct at Harvard in 1983. By the end of his career in 2018, he had been accused of assault and harassment by 18 individual women. Similarly, Economics Professor Roland G. Fryer has had multiple accusations of sexual harassment leveled against him, yet still teaches undergraduates at Harvard. Seeing that sexual misconduct allegations had a minimal impact on Comaroff, Dominguez, and Fryer’s employment at Harvard, it seems likely that the fictional Callahan would have been in good company as a sexual predator working at Harvard University.
Statistically speaking, “Legally Blonde” would have been more realistic had Elle not reported Callahan’s sexual misconduct to Title IX. Sexual misconduct is widely undereported on Harvard’s campus. Nationwide, Title IX exists to protect people from gender discrimination in educational programs. However, the Harvard Crimson reports that of students from the Class of 2023 who experienced sexual misconduct at Harvard, less than 2% reported their incident to Title IX. This is because the majority of Harvard students feel dissatisfied with the University’s efforts to combat sexual misconduct.
It is not surprising that Harvard students are wary of the Title IX office. According to data from Harvard’s Office of Gender Equity, the University only rules in favor of the plaintiff in 46% of Title IX investigations. This suggests that the majority of survivors of sexual misconduct at Harvard have their experiences invalidated and minimized by the Title IX office and continue to share a campus with perpetrators who likely face minimal repercussions. Given that false reports of sexual assault are very uncommon — only 2-10% of rape allegations are found to be false — the numbers suggest that Harvard’s Title IX office fails to protect students. Why would a student choose to relive their traumatic experiences to an administrator, who statistically, will not rule in their favor and provide them with the justice that they seek and deserve?
In “Legally Blonde,” Elle Woods is able to succeed at Harvard despite being a victim of sexual misconduct because she has a support system within the university. In order to curb the very real crisis of gender-based violence, Harvard must investigate reports of sexual assault and harassment in a timely manner that aims to preserve the physical and mental health of the survivor. This may include conducting forensic evaluations and interviews to investigate the credibility of the rape allegation, holding support groups for survivors of sexual assault, and carrying rape kits at university health centers. If a student or professor is a found guilty of sexual assault, the university must stand in solidarity with the survivor and take disciplinary action, such as expulsion, against the accused.
Harvard must give students a voice in administrative disciplinary decisions. Harvard needs to create a Title IX component of the Honor Council that would investigate and vote on allegations of sexual assault and harassment. This council would make the Title IX process more equitable and transparent for survivors.
Harvard must also require students to undergo Bystander Intervention Training programs so that students are well-equipped to safely intervene in situations that may lead to gender based violence. These programs effectively combat sexual assault and harassment on campus; Johns Hopkins University reports that the trainings increase students’ pro-social intervention behaviors, reduces their acceptance of common rape myths, and increases their confidence in being able to intervene with strangers and acquaintances as well as with friends.
Within “Legally Blonde,” Elle is able to find support among Harvard students and faculty despite being a victim of sexual misconduct. If Harvard truly wants to claim “Legally Blonde,” then the University must embrace the film’s egalitarian values and do the bare minimum: remove sexual predators from positions of power and support survivors of sexual misconduct.