Cher and Dionne are friends because they both know what it's like for people to be jealous of them. Tai has never had straight friends before -- until she finds the perfect duo to blow off seventh and eighth with.
Twenty years ago this week, Amy Hecklering's "Clueless," an adaptation of Jane Austen's 1815 novel Emma, was released. The film has become iconic, setting the pace for teen rom-coms that followed. But unlike its successors -- "Cruel Intentions," "She's All That," "Mean Girls," even "A Cinderella Story" -- the plot of "Clueless" does not focus on evil, popular girls tearing each other down in order to get the guy.
Instead, the movie centers around rich, complicated, funny female friendships. Cher, Dionne and Tai are rollin' with the (female) homies.
In "Clueless," certain '90s teen movie tropes persist, but in a way that feels smart, as if the characters are in on the jokes. Cher is a valley girl -- she considers the mall a sanctuary, and feels accomplished when she breaks in her purple clogs. When Cher meets Tai, a makeover montage is in order. The previously frumpy, unsophisticated new girl, (who could be a farmer in those clothes), is given a new wardrobe, exercise routine and vocabulary. It's superficial, sure, but ultimately plays into the movie's feminist undertones, and those shouldn't be dismissed.
As Laura Cohen wrote in a 2014 article for Marie Claire, "To value hair, makeup, and clothing isn't disempowering, but actually very third wave -- they own their interests and don't feel shame for expressing that."
But Really Important Alaia dress aside, the movie is centered around Cher finding herself -- becoming un-clueless, if you will -- through her friendships. At their core, what defines these characters is their relationships to other women.
Cher initially sees Tai as a project, a doll to care for as her own, but her intentions are framed as misguided, not malicious. As someone (one month) older, Cher gives Tai advice about everything from how to look cool at a party to how often it's acceptable to smoke a doobie (sporadically). She genuinely wants to help Tai succeed in her world, regardless of who Elton's father is.
The dynamics of the girls' friendships ring true to real teenage life, even 20 years later. There's jealously and sometimes way harsh insults, but teen girls spend more time bonding with friends than plotting to bring each other down.
The conclusion of "Clueless," too, feels different than teen movies that followed. For Cher, the key to fulfillment isn't a man. Love complements her self-discovery instead of creating it. In "She's All That," for example, Laney Boggs finds meaning in her life only after she's swept away and accepted by the popular guy. In "10 Things I Hate About You," Kat Stratford only warms up to her sister after Patrick figures out how to tame the shrew.
Cher, like Emma Woodhouse before her, does fall in love -- but she is only able to do so after her friendships are in order and she's given her skis to the Pismo Beach disaster relief.
In a Dissolve article comparing "Clueless" to Emma, writer Tasha Robinson explains how Cher and Emma are largely products of their habitats, navigating realities they face in those environments. "Where Austen satirizes the stiff and meaningless forms of her society, Heckerling snickers at teenagers’ self-absorption, self-righteousness, and cluelessness," writes Robinson. "But both creators are still kind to their creations: Their trials are small, their comeuppances are minor, and they both end in happy places. They’re foolish, but they aren’t wicked -- they’re just doing silly things in impudent ways."
Things that might be points of contention in other movies -- like the girls' sexual experiences -- are only casual conversation points in "Clueless." Cher is a virgin who can't drive, but her challenged hymen is not fetishized or condemned, or even crucial to the plot. Tai has had sex in a pool, and has encountered at least one crooked you-know-what, but she isn't slut shamed. Dionne is technically a virgin (you know what she means), and that's cool too.
Acceptance and celebration of each other's choices -- who to date, who to bone, which immigration laws to support (if the government could just rearrange some stuff in the kitchen...) -- are key to healthy relationships. And that's ultimately what "Clueless" illustrates better than the many teen movies that came after it.
Cher, Dionne and Tai allow each other to determine their own paths. It's like Hamlet said, "To thine own self be true." (Or, shit, was it that Polonius guy?)
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