Is ‘Clueless’ A Romantic Comedy? A Debate.

What takes a teen dream film from a coming-of-age story to a rom-com? We’re totally buggin’.
Alicia Silverstone in the 1995 teen classic, "Clueless." It has rom and it has com, but is it a rom-com?
Alicia Silverstone in the 1995 teen classic, "Clueless." It has rom and it has com, but is it a rom-com?

How do you define a romantic comedy? It’s complicated. Welcome To HuffPost’s Rom-Com Week.

It is a truth singularly acknowledged by Cher Horowitz that “searching for a boy in high school is as useless as searching for meaning in a Pauly Shore movie.”

As evidenced by this iconic line, 1995 teen classic “Clueless” involves both comedy and romance. It’s also a film about a group of high school students tiptoeing toward adulthood, and the ways their identities, presentations, relationships and values evolve over the course of a school year. It is, by any traditional definition, a coming-of-age story. Can it be a rom-com too?

Teen movies often contain a quest for the self, and even if that quest involves a strong romantic subplot, they might not tread into rom-com territory because of it. “Now and Then”? Not a rom-com, even though Devon Sawa and Christina Ricci are an ideal pairing. “Mean Girls”? Also not a rom-com, despite Aaron Samuels standing in as the consistent object of Cady Heron’s desire. Same goes for “The Breakfast Club” and “American Pie”: not rom-coms, or so the HuffPost newsroom decided.

But when it came to discussing “Clueless,” we were a house divided. On the one hand, you have the undeniable sizzle of Paul Rudd’s Josh and Alicia Silverstone’s Cher, combined with the fact that, you know, the whole thing is based on Jane Austen’s Emma, a romantic comedy standard. Points for the pro-rom-com side. On the other hand, the movie centers Cher’s friendships and personal growth more than anything else, and makes explicitly clear that she’s not just a total Betty. We don’t need the romance to understand the story or appreciate the comedy of “Clueless.” Points for the non-rom-com side.

So which is it? HuffPost’s Emma Gray and Paige Lavender got way existential trying to find out:

Emma: Paige, I am majorly, totally, butt crazy in love with “Clueless.” And also, you know, very excited to talk about this teen classic ― and formative film of our collective childhoods ― with you. To begin with, I think we should just dive into our central conundrum: Is “Clueless,” a teen movie with a heavy dose of romance (young Paul Rudd forever!), even a romantic comedy?

Paige: I rewatched “Clueless” this weekend and thought so much about this question, and it has me totally buggin’. I think, though, that I’m Team Not-A-Rom-Com. Sure, there’s both comedy and romance in the film, but I don’t think that makes it a rom-com, which to me is a film where romance, or a main character’s decisions involving romantic feelings toward another person, drive the plot of the story forward. I’d call it more a coming-of-age film. But what do you think?

Emma: I have been circling these same considerations. And I see your point. Cher doesn’t just find a boyfriend (a total Baldwin, naturally), she finds herself. And teen movies are all about that journey of self-discovery, mostly because any movie that focuses on the internal dialogue of a 16-year-old is probably a coming-of-age story in some capacity. And yet ― I think I land on Team It’s-A-Rom-Com for “Clueless.”

Let me plead my case. Despite the fact that “Clueless” is a true ensemble film (and all the better for it), Cher is clearly the central player. The drama largely revolves around her ― her best friends, her new “project”-turned-friend Tai, and, of course, her attempts at both creating love matches and trying to match herself. (After all, “Clueless” is based on Jane Austen’s Emma, source material that I would consider in very solid romantic comedy territory.)

But what really convinced me that “Clueless” was a rom-com was the ending. The climactic moments of the film ― when Cher has her “eureka” moment by that giant fountain ― involve her realization that in all of her hamfisted attempts to create happy endings for her teachers, Mr. Hall and Ms. Geist, and for Tai, she’s completely overlooked one of the keys to her own happiness: her connection with and adoration for Josh… her former stepbrother. (Not… creepy… at… all?)

The final scenes of the film involve the logical conclusion of this particular thread of her self-discovery. She and Josh admit their feelings for each and finally lock lips. Then we flash forward to a wedding that she, Tai, Dionne and their respective boyfriends are all attending. Cher catches the bouquet and kisses Josh again. *End Scene* 

For a teen movie to be a romantic comedy, the love story has to both be central to that journey of self-discovery and be compelling enough to capture an audience’s hearts for years to come. For me, “Clueless” accomplishes both of those things. If “Clueless” doesn’t feel like a rom-com to you, are there any teen movies that do embody the genre more clearly for you?

Paige: Definitely. While I totally understand your argument about the end of the film solidifying the rom-com status of “Clueless,” the very journey to get there makes me think it’s not a rom-com. The film starts with Cher looking for a way to make things better for herself, leading to her match-making for two of her teachers. (Their happiness gets her better grades! This is a part of “Clueless” I wish translated to real life.) Her success with Mr. Hall and Ms. Geist gives her an endorphin rush that pushes her to do more “good” deeds, which leads her to befriend and make over Tai. So many of Cher’s choices are rooted in her own need for fulfillment. Her epiphany that she loves Josh is really intertwined with her realization that her schemes of matchmaking and makeovers aren’t giving her a real sense of satisfaction. To me, Cher’s fountain moment is sort of the cherry on top of her more broad self-realization as a person who wants to help others.

When I think of teen movies that are rom-coms, I think more along the lines of “10 Things I Hate About You” or “She’s All That” ― both admittedly still sort of hard to break down, because rom-coms are not black-and-white. And let me be clear: the characters in these films are also absolutely acting out of selfishness from their stories’ starts! I think the difference is that from the get-go, their motivation is more rooted in coupledom than Cher’s.

Viewers’ feelings about the actors playing these roles also certainly has to help. No one’s arguing Paul Rudd isn’t handsome, but Josh isn’t exactly presented as a dreamboat. But look at Patrick (Heath Ledger, RIP) in “10 Things.” Who didn’t swoon over him from the minute he hit the screen? Do you think the actors in these films add to the rom-com label in any way?

Emma: Oh, absolutely! And look, some of my warm and fuzzy rom-com feelings about “Clueless” admittedly might have to do with the fact that Josh (Paul Rudd) is, like Cliff (Jesse Bradford) in “Bring It On,” Extremely My Shit. These dudes were like crack to my teen and tween self. And if we’re being honest, still very much are. These characters embody the dream of that nerdy, sweet, totally cute boy who would see value in your entire personhood. And, of course, he could be completely overlooked by everyone else despite being classically good-looking, because, again — nerd!  

But not only did Josh and Cliff ― and of course Patrick in “10 Things,” as you’ve already astutely called out; put that guy in anything as a romantic prospect and I’ll call it a romantic movie ― present a safe male ideal for young, straight female viewers to work out their burgeoning romantic desires, but their on-screen pairings felt just as compelling. To me, Cher and Josh are a classic coupling. They keep missing each other, blinded by what they believe they should want and who they believe they should be. And yet, when they are really honest with themselves about who they are and who they love, of course they must be together. The same can be said for Patrick and Kat (Julia Stiles).

I do agree with you that movies like “She’s All That” and even “10 Things I Hate About You” can be more definitively placed in the romantic comedy category than “Clueless” and “Bring It On.” (Though I’d argue that all four of the leads in “10 Things” have some serious coming-of-age journeying to do in that movie before they end up at their eventual romantic blisses.) But before we completely move on, I want to say that I’m struck that your reasons for feeling that “Clueless” isn’t really a rom-com are exactly why I love it as a rom-com so much. I’m a strong believer that romantic comedies that give their female leads a more complex road to travel down make the romantic payoffs that much sweeter. How lovely to feel that one of the many potential keys to romantic satisfaction lies in finding yourself first. How could Cher be expected to find love or choose a partner wisely if she didn’t understand what fulfilled her outside of that romantic coupling?

Paige: I agree! It’s refreshing to see Cher come to a more deeper understanding of what she wants and who she is, and for me, that moment is more satisfying than seeing her get together with Josh (who was also extremely my shit; love a smart dude who is also very attractive and kind). I think I walk away from “Clueless” every time thinking that Cher is going to go on to do such great things ― she’s not even 16 in this film! ― and while I will root for Cher and Josh 4Ever, I won’t be crushed if I find out they break up before she makes it to college. 

I may have also been influenced by a recent New York Times interview with Amy Heckerling, who wrote and directed “Clueless.” Heckerling opens up about how she wanted to live in the head of an optimist, how she “needed” Cher. While Heckerling herself characterizes Cher and Josh as “two people falling in love,” she also seems to put Cher on a pedestal as a symbol of so much more. But that does speak to your point about having more complex women in leading rom-com roles. Reading about how symbolic Cher was to the woman who created her definitely made me see the film differently. And you’re right about Emma being an influence for Heckerling, which makes me think of “Clueless” as more of a rom-com. How big of a role do you think source material plays here? 

Emma: Ugh, Amy Heckerling forever. I loved that interview! In terms of source material, when we were going over various teen movies that might fall into romantic comedy territory, it was interesting to notice that at least a handful were based on classic rom-com texts.

“Clueless,” as we’ve discussed, is based on Jane Austen’s Emma. “10 Things I Hate About You” was inspired by Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew.” And “Get Over It” (which somehow I had never seen until recently!) is based on Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” another text that has spawned two films on our master romantic comedy list. These plays and Austen’s novels are all romantic comedies of error that ultimately revolve around the marriage plot. And perhaps that is what informs the centrality of romance to their teen movie adaptations, whether or not the meat of those romances are added to or de-emphasized in the final product.

Everyone involved in HuffPost’s Rom-Com Week seemed to agree that a movie like “Mean Girls,” which absolutely does include both self-discovery and romance, doesn’t quite qualify as a rom-com. Part of that may be that Aaron Samuels, while sweet and cute and definitely appealing in the context of the film, simply isn’t that much of a memorable romantic lead. But “Mean Girls” is another movie based on a text: the 2002 non-fiction book Queen Bees and Wannabes, by Rosalind Wiseman, which focuses on the way teen girls form cliques and interact with each other. Any romantic plot was a Tina Fey add-on, not something that came from the structure of that initial text.

Now that we’ve talked about this for more than an hour, I, like Carrie Bradshaw, can’t help but wonder: Does it even matter if these delightful teen movies are romantic comedies? Maybe it’s the journey that matters, not the conclusion. And, after all, I think we can all agree that it does not say RSVP on the Statue of Liberty.

Paige: As if. Just kidding, I agree it’s totally about the journey, and what’s so great about both teen movies and rom-coms is that there’s usually something for everyone. It goes back to your point that “Clueless” is such a great ensemble film ― if you’re not here for the rom, there’s plenty of com to go around thanks to supporting characters like Travis and Amber. Honestly I think I’m ready to watch “Clueless” again even though my last viewing was a few days ago… and maybe I’ll throw some “10 Things” in there, too. At least we can agree these are classics, right?

Emma: Classics for sure. Now let’s wrap this up so I can go hunting for a white collarless shirt from Fred Segal ― I’ll need a capable outfit to get through the rest of Rom-Com Week.

This is Part 2 of a four-part debate series, including conversations around “Pretty Woman,” “Bull Durham” and “The Break-Up.”