Internets, you know I’m a Jane Austen nut. But before I read a word of Austen, I saw the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, and Amy Heckerling’s adaptation of Emma. They both came out in 1995, the year I turned fourteen.
Yes, Internets, my very first teen movie was:
I was not alone. Clueless was almost effortlessly influential on teenage fashion and vernacular for years to come.
Hahaha, what am I saying, effortlessly? Amy Heckerling, who wrote as well as directed and is not incidentally a massive role model for me, sat in high school classes for weeks researching teen interactions, not to mention the literal years she spent on vocabulary. But she didn’t like the mid-90s grunge fest that was the fashion of the time, so Mona May, the costume designer, worked her ass off designing a specific colour palette and style chart for each major character, taking inspiration from European catwalks, rather than American sidewalks.
Those costumes were awesome, and suddenly every girl at my school with pretensions of cool was wearing knee-high socks. That was about as much as we could get away with, given we were all in uniform, but at least our skirts had plaid.
Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her…
Like you don’t all know, although I tended to shock people when I told them I hadn’t seen Heathers*, so there’s probably someone.
Valley queen Cher is fifteen years old, and, along with her best friend Dionne, named after “singers who used to be popular and now do infomercials”, rules her Beverley Hills high school. Chic, rich, and beautiful, Cher is ready to make anyone do what she wants, despite the sardonic commentary of ex-stepbrother Josh, who keeps suggesting there might be more to life than being charming and popular. As if!
Cher successfully argues her way to better grades, matchmakes her teachers, makes over a slobby new girl into a valley princess, and manages her father’s eating, but she can’t charm her way into a gay boy’s bed nor out of a failed driver’s license test. She’s losing her grip on popularity, and she’s starting to think that maybe… just possibly… she’s clueless. Worse, she has fallen majorly totally butt crazy in love with Josh! What if she’s lost his good opinion forever?
Whatever! All is revealed, a happy ending results, and Cher has finally found the boy to whom she’s going to lose her virginity. You can’t be too careful about these things – she’s way picky about her shoes, and those only go on her feet.
Other people are real.
Okay, so you’re probably going, “Is this like a Noxzema commercial or what?” But seriously, I actually have a way normal life for a teenage girl.
It’s worth noting that, like Emma, Cher is really not stupid. Her debates may be “unresearched”, but they are hardly unstructured, and she has an excellent memory – even for the parts of Hamlet that Mel Gibson didn’t say. She just, as her father points out, lacks direction and the motivation to apply herself – much as Emma makes lists of reading material to improve her mind, and then never reads them, and neglects to practice the piano when a little more time would make her really good at it.
So Cher is smart, charming, sweet, and largely well-mannered, but Josh is not wrong when he names her a “superficial space cadet”. Cher “lives for makeovers” and views befriending a new girl and raising her social status as a “project” to be accomplished with clothing, makeup, and hairdye. She’s not entirely wrong to pay attention to appearances. A concern with the superficial is vital to Cher’s social success – in her milieu, what people wear, their makeup, hairstyles, homes and cars are all important messages that Cher can read and manipulate. But as her unsuccessful seduction of Christian shows, she might not have enough life experience to decode all of them. And Cher’s charm can’t win over an unimpressed DMV tester who will not overlook her driving deficiencies, no matter how serious a shirt she wears.
Moreover, this superficiality can be dangerous when applied to matters of the heart, where a deeper connection is usually thought of as a better deal. She got lucky with Miss Geist and Mr Hall, who clearly have genuine mutual respect on their side. But Cher sets her sights on Christian because he is “brutally hot”, fitting her own sense of aesthetics. This isn’t to say she doesn’t genuinely like him, but it’s clear that her decision to make him her first lover is based on superficial concerns – and hasn’t got as far as considering something as basic as whether he’s actually into girls.
“Would you call me selfish?” “No, not to your face.”
Even worse is her manipulation of Tai’s heart. Cher decides to set Elton up with Tai because he dresses well and is in the right social crowd. She engages in real manipulation here, lying to Tai that Elton thinks she’s sweet and giving her instructions as to how to attract his attention (“Pretend Travis is saying something really funny!”). But despite Cher’s hopes, Elton is a shallow snob who betrays his own unsuitability for anyone at all by hitting on Cher and rejecting even the idea of Tai – “Don’t you even know who my father is?” he demands, before sexually harassing Cher and then abandoning her in a parking lot, where she is consequently mugged**. Cher then has to pass on the news that he doesn’t like Tai after all, and after all the work she’s done to make Tai interested in Elton, Tai is devastated.
In fact, Cher’s disdain of Travis’s stoner style and status have temporarily prevented Tai from seeing the nice guy with whom she hit it off right away. Inspired by Cher’s own superficial assessment of Travis’ clique, Tai brutally rejects him, and tells him to join the stoners “on the grassy knoll over there” – the phrasing Cher had formerly used to point out where Travis “belonged”.
Cher has such a loose grasp on her own interiority that it’s little surprise that she largely treats other people like puppets to be maneuvered for her own interest and entertainment. As Roz Kaveney puts it: “There is genuine kindness in the way Cher takes Tai on as a project – and yet there is also a fundamental lack of respect. Cher is someone who selects her own outfits by using a computerised dress-up doll of herself, so it could hardly be expected that she entirely acknowledge another person’s autonomy.” She misreads Elton’s attraction to her and Christian’s lack of it, but crucially, it is Cher’s inability to recognise her own feelings for Josh until the last moment that provides the impetus she needs to realise that she is totally clueless.
You’re a virgin who can’t drive.
In thinking about Josh, and trying to puzzle out why she’s buggin’ about the potential Josh/Tai relationship, Cher sticks to the surface at first: “What does she want with Josh anyway? He dresses funny, he listens to complaint rock, he’s not even cute – in a conventional way***.” But then she considers what Josh might want, on a less than superficial level: “Josh needs someone with imagination, someone to take care of him, someone to laugh at his jokes… in case he ever makes any. Then, suddenly: Oh my god! I love Josh!”
Because she is sweet and well-intentioned, having recognised the superficiality problem, Cher does what she can to fix it: “I decided I needed a complete makeover. Except this time, I’d makeover my soul.” She tries to work out what makes someone a better person, and assesses the people around her on more than a surface level.
This time, instead of giving Dionne “snaps for her courageous fashion sense”, she praises how considerate Dionne and her boyfriend are of each other. Instead of assessing Christian’s personal style, she likes the way he “always wants everything to be beautiful and interesting.” And the subject of her first setup, social do-gooder Miss Geist, formerly assessed as a mess with lipstick on her teeth and a slip that’s always showing, is noted as someone who always tries to get her students involved in the world, “no matter how much we resist.”
And Cher stops resisting. Watching Miss Geist talk about the (fictional) Pismo Beach Disaster, Cher announces that she wants to help. As captain of the school’s Pismo Beach Disaster Relief fundraising efforts, Cher leverages her good looks and popularity to rally the troops and gather vital supplies. “This your influence, Josh?” her father asks, watching Cher give up her clothes and sporting equipment to the cause. Josh shrugs – and he’s right to do so, because, although he’s pointed out Cher’s superficiality many times, it took her own awakening to really make the change. While that awakening was inspired by Cher’s own feelings for Josh, he doesn’t know that yet.
He finds out, though, when a nasty lawyer yells at Cher’s attempts to help with her father’s case and storms out. Comforting Cher, Josh lets slip that he thinks Cher’s father is the only one who care about him. “That’s not true,” Cher says. “Are you saying that you care about me?” Josh asks, and then THERE IS KISSING and it’s adorable and then she catches the bouquet at Miss Geist’s wedding and it’s pretty clear that they’re going to have sex although Cher is now sixteen and I think that’s still not legal age in California so no one actually SAYS it.
Anyway, Cher is still not totally clued up, but she is certainly less clueless, and for a rich, white, beautiful sixteen-year-old, that is not an insignificant step. So she gets rewarded with a cute boy with more clues, and, major bonus, since her father was hardly even married to his mother, my incest squick is triggered not at all. Happy ending for everyone!
– Amy Heckerling’s insistence that the cast speak in complex, multi-syllablic, slang-laden sentences proved frustrating for a few of them. Donald Faison had particular trouble with, “Okay, but street slang is an increasingly valid form of expression. Most of the feminine pronouns do have mocking, but not necessarily misogynistic undertones.” In the special features of the Whatever special edition, which I super recommend, he wonders, “How come I can’t just say, ‘My bad?’ ‘My bad, baby, kiss me.'” But I have little sympathy, because in the movie, he spits it out, smirks, and pokes his tongue out, and it’s SO CUTE.
– Stacy Dash, who plays Dionne, was 28 when the movie was shot. She played Dionne in the series, and later turns up in the ALSO awesome Amy Heckerling movie, the romantic comedy I Could Never Be Your Woman, where Dash plays… an adult actress playing a teenager on a popular high school comedy (where Michelle Pfeiffer’s character, Rosie, is a writer). Dash’s character is romanced by a dweeby nerd PLAYED BY PAUL RUDD. I nearly fell off the couch. I Could Never Be Your Woman was never theatrically released in the US because of distribution bullshit. I highly recommend it. There is a great scene where- wait, footnote ****
– For the longest time I thought that was how you said “Haitians”.
– God, I could talk about this movie forever, but I want to include two secondary sources: This archived People article that talks about Cher’s style and makes fun of other young stars (gross). And this essay about Emma vs Clueless by Suzanne Ferriss (I don’t agree entirely with her conclusions, but it’s a fun comparison piece.)
– Heck, one more: this AFI interview/panel with Amy Heckerling:
The movie, Fox movies, bought the pilot from the TV company for me to develop as a film. And then I went back and read Emma and started to work out the structure. They were really worried about girls being the main characters. They kept saying, Let’s see more about what the boys are doing, let’s see this boy in his home and this boy with his car and this boy doing this and that. And I said, But this is an inner monologue in the girl’s head, so what does her head know about what’s going on with him at his house with his car?
What have I missed, Internets? What have I got wrong? Let’s talk teen movies!
* I watched Heathers a couple of days ago. I don’t like it, but now I know where “Fuck me gently with a chainsaw” and “I love my dead gay son” come from!
** I just realised I fully stole the structure of that scene for one in Guardian of the Dead, complete with love interest turning up to be helpful, only with would-be rapists and creepy patupaiarehe instead of a mugger. AHAHAHAHAHA, GO ME, GOOD TASTE IN THIEVERY.
*** Yeah, this doesn’t work when you’ve cast the very cute Paul Rudd (currently being hilarious and handsome on Parks and Recreation)
**** This happens:
Older TV exec: Courtney Love?
Producer: Drugged-out hag.
Older TV exec: Faye Dunaway?
Producer: Don’t call us, we’ll call you!
Older TV exec: Sharon Stone?
Older TV exec: Geena Davis?
Older TV exec: Sigourney Weaver?
Older TV exec: Kim Basinger?
Older TV exec: Emma Thompson?
Producer: Brit hag.
Older TV exec: Susan Sarandon?
Producer: Red-state-alienating hag!
Older TV exec: Meg Ryan?
Producer: Too much plastic surgery.
Older TV exec: Melanie Griffith?
Producer: WAY too much plastic surgery.
Older TV exec: Patricia Heaton?
Producer: *Pointless* plastic surgery.
Older TV exec: CHER.
Producer: *Insurmountable* amount of plastic surgery!
Rosie: [who’s been overhearing all this from the next chair & getting increasingly annoyed, swings round & grabs the Producer by the chin] Listen, you little bird of a man, where do you come off insulting these women? How many hit songs did you sing? How many Oscars do *you* have? Could you look cute next to Warren Beatty? Or live with Don Johnson? Or act with Ted Danson? You’re not worthy of kissing Cher’s tattooed ass!
Oh man, I wonder if it’s on iTunes?