- YEAR: 1995
- DIRECTOR: Amy Heckerling
- KEY ACTORS: Alicia Silverstone, Paul Rudd, Brittany Murphy, Stacey Dash
- CERTIFICATE: 12
- IMDB SCORE: 6.8
- ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 80%
SEX SCORE: 4/5
✔️ Of course this is rewatchable! It may be 25 years old but I could still watch it again and again.
✔️ It’s incredibly sex positive. Even back in 1995, the women didn’t judge each other for their sexual experience or lack of experience. There is no slut shaming and virgin shaming is clearly shown to be wrong, and it’s awesome!
✔️ And it passes the Bechdel test with flying colours. The three main characters are women and they talk about school, driving tests, make overs…
✔️ I will give it a mark for wanting to fuck the cast. I prefer older Paul Rudd, because he does look different, but he’s cute here and Alicia Silverstone is hot!
❌ But it didn’t inspire fantasies. It’s not really a sexual film and I don’t really think I can attribute crushes on older unobtainable people on Clueless!
As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…
STREAMING: Netflix, NowTV, Sky Cinema (free with subscription), Amazon Prime (rent £3.49, buy £4.99), YouTube (from £2.49). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com
Is there a better teen movie than Clueless? This is meant as a rhetorical question but I really don’t think it has many challengers, other than perhaps 10 Things I Hate About You. Made in 1995, it was a teen movie for a new generation and changed the landscape of movies forever. Here was a smart, funny film with strong female lead characters that managed to be sex positive even though it’s about teenagers, kind of feminist even though it’s about dating, and ageless even though it depicts a very specific time period. It’s hilarious and it’s wonderful!
As all good teen movies seem to be, this is based on a classic novel – Jane Austen’s Emma – now transposed to Beverly Hills and tells the story of Cher (Silverstone), a popular rich girl who discovers how good it feels to help others and tries to ‘improve’ her friend Tai (Murphy) so that she can also be popular and dateable. Sadly, it all goes wrong when Tai falls for Cher’s ex-stepbrother, Josh (Rudd), and Cher realises that she loves Josh as well. They fall out but soon make up, and it all ends happily ever after with every girl getting together with their perfect guy!
Clueless was the movie that initiated my love of teen movies. I didn’t watch it until I was in my early twenties as I was still heavily into a Disney phase in 1995 (I was 10) and, by the time I discovered that there was a wealth of movies not directly made for children, I was already pretentious enough about my movie choices that I moved straight to action and actively avoided anything classified as a teen movie for years – except Cruel Intentions, which had too much actual sex to be a proper teen movie. It was only when I was at uni that my roommates suggested Clueless and I couldn’t think of a good enough excuse not to watch it. And I am so glad that I did, not only because it’s truly excellent but because it led me to watch lots of other teen movies…many of which aren’t as bad as I’d feared!
So I’ve found this difficult to write this week, which is why it’s late coming out. It’s not because I don’t love Clueless – as if! (And yes, making that joke is compulsory for any writing about Clueless!) It’s because this movie blog is feeling more like a vanity project than usual and Clueless feels like a particularly frivolous movie to be focussing on right now. While children’s authors are inexplicably attacking trans people and Black Lives Matter protests are finally making the wider world realise the horrifying extent of systemic racial injustice, my straight white cis voice feels like the last one that should be speaking right now, particularly during Pride month. In the year that I have been writing this blog, I purposefully haven’t written about queer cinema or really commented on racial issues within movies because those aren’t my stories to tell but that silence now feels very loud. I’m sorry that I have not been organised enough to do anything about it before.
Because I think it is important to talk about movies from diverse perspectives – just as I learned about sex from movies, we learn so much about our place in society, rightly or wrongly, from how we are seen in the media. I had a couple of great guest posts last year but I’d like to make that more formal and hopefully more regular. To help with this, I’ve added a guest post page to the menu and I’d love for you to get in touch if you have something to say about a particular movie – whether you want to flood it with praise or rant about its inadequacies! Anyone can make suggestions but I am especially keen to amplify queer, trans and BAME people.
OK, back to Clueless, a movie that has been praised for its diversity but one which I fear falls into the category of being praised for doing the bare minimum because everything else is so shit. Having one gay character who is kind of bitchy, very well-dressed and loves shopping is only perpetuating a stereotype, and I’ve been reading recently about the problematic role of the black best friend – ‘it’s the cinematic equivalent of saying “some of my best friends are black”’ – and it makes Dionne’s character seem less like a racism busting choice and more like the same old crap.
Clueless is also frequently praised for being a feminist movie and this is another claim that I think needs a bit more examination.
For me, whether it is feminist comes down to how far you are willing to take the idea of so called ‘girly feminism,’ a feature of third wave feminism that reclaimed expressions of femininity as an empowered act of autonomy rather than a sign of weakness. Cher, Dionne and Tai are empowered by their choices to shop and date and look pretty because it’s their choice to be that way. If I’ve understood it correctly, this aspect of third wave feminism was a reaction to the bra-burning previous waves and stated that women shouldn’t be criticised for wearing pink and be girly because being a girl isn’t a lesser choice, as long as it is choice and not dictated by the patriarchy. As Susan Hopkins wrote for Philosophy Now, ‘for Cher these are not “guilty pleasures,” since her postmodern, postfeminist generation embraces hyper-femininity in an unabashed, self-aware and ironic fashion.’ Girl Power meant it was empowering to be ultra femme and wear high heels and make up if we wanted, and we can choose to go shopping all the time and choose to be into fashion for fashion’s sake and choose to have sex because we like it: ‘This third-wave feminist go-getter is self-assured, overtly confident, and well aware of how using tools of femininity is a means to wield the world to her benefit.’
But is that what Cher, Tai and Dionne are doing? It feels like Clueless ‘both celebrates and pokes fun at an unapologetic hyper-femininity and hyper-mediated girl culture’ but aren’t the girls still entirely focussed on getting boys to like them? And is that still an empowering feminist choice?
Cher’s decision to improve Tai is intended to make her more attractive to boys and Cher’s desire to make herself a better person through charity work is designed to turn her into the type of person Josh would like. Cher famously lists all the ways to make herself more desirable to men, talking about how ‘anything you can do to draw attention to your mouth is good’ and recommending showing a little skin as ‘this reminds boys of being naked, and then they think of sex.’ No matter if it is their choice, all of them are still stuck within patriarchal relationships structures and still feel judged by whether or not they have a boyfriend. The Paradox Project described them as the opposite of Sandy in Grease – girls who ‘get rid of [their] personality in order to get the guy.’
And while I strongly believe that it is empowering to take ownership of our appearances and that being feminine is not a sign of weakness, I couldn’t shake my dissatisfaction that, while the girls’ lives revolve around shopping, exercise videos and self-improvement, their ‘male counterparts have a whole range of interests – art, skateboarding, philosophy.’ All of their self-improvement steps also aim to make them more conventionally attractive, which makes it clear once again that ‘women should change themselves to fit conventional beauty standards with the end goal of finding a man.’ This isn’t feminist. It’s old-fashioned and boring, and makes Cher’s empowerment feel much less inspiring. To steal a long quote from Feministing, ‘it didn’t occur to me that I was being indoctrinated to buy into a patriarchal construct, in which my main goal should be to find a man, and my resources to do so would be my appearance and sexuality. That all personal improvements – from physical to intellectual – should be an attempt to fit into the society I was part of, whilst men were free to be themselves whether that be a gay shopaholic, a weed-smoking skater or a gropey sleazebag with a murky understanding of consent.’
The men in Clueless can also do no wrong – Murray consistently calls Dionne ‘woman’ even though she’s asked him not to use such a derogatory term, a couple of guys dangle Tai off a balcony without consequence, and Elton literally assaults Cher and we hear nothing more about it. Yes, some claim that Cher insisting that no means no is a sign that she is ‘not about to put up with any fuckboys’ and is able to make choices about who she has sex with, but Cher is definitely the one who ends up worse off after the encounter. Elton drives away, perhaps annoyed and rejected but undoubtedly ‘unscathed,’ whereas Cher is abandoned in the middle of nowhere and mugged at gunpoint! Afterwards, ‘the blame is implicitly placed on Cher for not “stay[ing] out of trouble”. Need I say more?’
Cher’s relationship with her father is also problematic from a feminist perspective. Since her mother’s death, Cher seems to have become a domestic servant for her father, preparing his meals and making sure he eats properly while he’s busy doing Important Man Work. She’s taking care of him in a way that emphasises her domesticity and femininity, and her attempts to help with his legal work feel patronising and more bring-your-daughter-to-work day than Legally Blonde.
The dismissal of Cher’s attempts at help really annoyed me because, up to that point, I did believe that Cher and Dionne were intelligent and were putting on their superficiality, talking ‘with a sly humor that suggests they’re putting themselves on,’ but this was undermined by how her father, and to some extent Josh, treat her intelligence. It’s incredibly patronising! And I’ve got to say, as much as I love Cher and Josh together, I don’t think he likes her for her sparkling wit and that’s a shame as she is hilarious!
Alicia Silverstone is so great as Cher and she is such a fantastic comic actor, opening the door for funny, hot women in movies. Before this, she was simply the hot girl in the Aerosmith videos – as a side note, this is a career progression that highlights quite how much teenage girls are sexualised within the media. Is it more worrying that at seventeen/eighteen she was thought to be old enough to be this sex symbol or that she was subsequently still considered young enough to play a fifteen year old? Reading how some critics described her is pretty gross – ‘Silverstone is the babe of the moment. And she’s learned how to back up her sexy pout with shrewd comic timing’ – but it is important that she was seen as both sexy and funny, which was new! ‘Sexy women are reserved for the roles of seduction that demand the full use of their bodies, while “non-sexy” women could play the roles of the geniuses, the funny ones, the girls next door or the rags to riches types.’ Clueless showed that comedy is not just ‘reserved for chick flick heroines who happen to possess the average, girl-next-door quality.’
But do you think Clueless ‘rebukes the dumb blonde myth?’ Cinema Femme thinks so with Cher demonstrating that ‘a blonde woman could be both funny and sexy...paving the way for women of the fourth-wave feminist, who unlike their predecessors were able to subvert the gaze completely by liberating from the gender and sexual spectrum.’
I’m not so sure. I still can’t quite decide if the movie is mocking Cher or making a tongue-in-cheek statement about how intelligence isn’t only found in traditional academia. I love love love Cher’s retort about knowing Hamlet better than Josh’s pretentious girlfriend because of watching Mel Gibson’s version so many times, but I fear that this is not enough to make up for how ignorant she appears in other areas, such as not knowing or caring that El Salvador and Mexico are different countries when talking to her maid. Is she especially smart for framing her classroom debates around subjects that interest her and her peers, or is it simply more evidence of how frivolous and superficial she is?
Despite these concerns with how Clueless treats its female characters, I do love how sex and virginity are handled, especially as, unlike so many teen movies, it doesn’t ‘revolve around male horniness.’ Sex is no big deal and virginity is a non-issue. Tai has had sex, Cher hasn’t, and Dionne is ‘technically’ a virgin but there isn’t any judgement between them. Virginity is too often shown as a shameful secret between teenagers, something to be rid of as soon as possible, and this is the plot of a crazy number of teen movies, from Porky’s to American Pie. Of course, making virginity so important only perpetuates the damaging stigma associated with being a virgin and I am pleased that this film offers an alternate perspective. Amy Heckerling managed to walk the narrow line between respecting Cher’s decision to wait for the right person without slut-shaming the girls that have chosen to have sex or over emphasising the value of waiting for true love. Cher has standards and isn’t willing to fuck just anyone – ‘You see how picky I am about my shoes and they only go on my feet’ – but she was willing to sleep with Christian almost immediately so she’s clearly not looking for wedding bells before having sex! And, superficial as this may seem, it’s a balancing act that I can get on board with.
And I love that the girls all respect each other’s choices when it comes to their sexual experience. They don’t judge each other and the one time that Cher’s virginity is mentioned with any kind of criticism, it is obviously and immediately hurtful because using such a misogynist insult is out of context with their previous acceptance and support. When Tai tells Cher that she’s a ‘virgin who can’t drive,’ she obviously meant it as the cruelest thing she could say. And it works. It cuts deep. So I love that Tai specifically apologises for what she says when she makes up with Cher.
It is very unusual for a movie to have three female leads – none of the men could be considered a main character, all fulfilling some kind of supporting role, and that’s brilliant! Amy Heckerling had to work quite hard to ensure that it stayed that way, telling Vanity Fair that ‘during the development there was a concern that it was too much about one female, and that [she] should make Josh a bigger part, and he should be living next door, and his mother [should be] in love with her father.’ Can you imagine how bad a film that would have been?
Rachel Khona in Bustle also writes about how Clueless breaks the stereotype that ‘every popular pretty girl is a total biyatch.’ The girls are supportive of each other and they are incredibly loyal. After Cher and Tai argue about Josh, Cher falls down a ‘shame spiral’ because she feels so bad for not supporting her friend in her new crush. Equal, supportive friendships between women that are ‘close (and not catty)’ are rare to see on screen and I loved it.
I wonder if this is why the movie didn’t go down so well with adult male critics – the portrayal of the female characters doesn’t follow the usual stereotypes so perhaps they missed the nuance, only seeing the superficial fluff. Roger Ebert thought it was ‘satirical spin,’ David Hunter of the Hollywood Reporter described it as ‘plotless and borderline brainless’ and Peter Travers in Rolling Stone as a ‘lunatic update of Emma.‘ Which is a shame as they really missed the point of this fantastic movie!
And I want to finish by finally putting a film myth out of its misery: Paul Rudd is not ageless, he’s just looked 35 since the early noughties. When people say that Paul Rudd doesn’t age, I expect they’re thinking of him as Mike Hannigan from Friends in 2002, when he was already 33, and forgetting how different he looked in the 90s. As Josh and as Paris in Romeo and Juliet, he looks completely different. Youthful, privileged, kind of annoying, and not nearly as attractive as he will become. Paul Rudd has not found the fountain of youth, he simply got kind of rugged kind of young and has been allowed to age quietly without anyone noticing, a luxury afforded to few women.
I must admit that I was worried that reading more about Clueless would change how much I love it but, luckily, it didn’t. I don’t think I can still cheer it on as a totally feminist movie, but it is closer than a lot of other teen movies and that is certainly something to celebrate!