It’s hugely important, with female character arcs, to manifest development without changing the character. Would Elle be the same Elle if she started dressing like Vivian and acting like Enid? Do we really want Elle to abandon her sorority friends and hobnob with the East Coasters? I love dearly that while Elle does take some measures to fit in with her Harvard peers, the conclusion is that it’s simply impossible. Her goal is not to fit in with them, but to achieve comparably to them. She buckles down, devotes her time and brain power, and works hard to be in the same league as her peers. But even when she endeavors to dress like them, she ends up wearing a shimmering smoking jacket and fashion glasses. Ultimately, the film’s message is that Elle only has to be Elle to succeed. When she’s on her date with Warner in the first scenes, she wears a bright pink dress - her power color. And when she walks into the courtroom for her last scenes, she wears a bright pink dress - her power color. Elle hasn’t changed; her power has only shifted.
I would phrase it that Elle’s personality and her confidence are challenged by her arc, they are unchanged at its conclusion. Her intelligence and determination are constant, but see differences in their application. While her knowledge of her initial social world of fashion and exercise videos is key to the case at the climax, she would not be an excellent lawyer without having learned the law. Her ambitions have changed substantially. Going to Law School for Elle initially had a lot to do with a plan to win Warren back. By the end, she has no interest in Warren, and aspires to continued and increasing success in the legal profession. She is unwilling to compromise who she is for either what she initially wants, or what she comes to want later. If a goal won’t allow her to wear pink, montage to “Perfect Day,” and carry a Chihuahua it is unworthy of her. By contrast learning new things, even ones well outside her initial comfort zone, is an extremely worthwhile way to achieve something.
Elle’s arc distinguishes brilliantly the difference between self-improvement and self-betrayal. Because just as she rejects the latter, she embraces the former.