Clueless is one of the quintessential chick flicks, and as such I have seen it more times than I can count. I have seen it, I would say, more times than I have seen Dirty Dancing, although not quite as many times as I have watched Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail. While for me nothing will ever match the cracking chemistry of 90s Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks, I never regret popping Amy Heckerling’s high school masterpiece into the DVD player. Clueless has been there for me through my formative years, through university English courses, through hangovers, but today I repay it by undertaking the somewhat uncomfortable task of dissecting its feminism. How does Clueless - written and directed by a woman, based on a novel by one of the world’s most famous female authors, and proudly fronted by a trio of actresses – actually portray its female characters?
Cher Horowitz (Alicia Silverstone)
The first time we meet Cher, our protagonist, she is using an advanced computer program to choose her outfit for school, and shortly thereafter she displays a very casual attitude towards road laws. She notes that she is named for the glitzy songstress, and reduces the complex issue of Haitian immigration to an analogy involving her wealthy father’s 50th birthday. Cher loves going to the mall and is overly concerned with social status and choosing the ‘right’ sort of man. Her idea of charity is to help Tai (discussed below) fit in at school. The overwhelming first impression is that Cher Horowitz – the only daughter of a rich Beverly Hills litigator and his wife, who tragically passed away during a “routine liposuction” – is a shallow cipher of a person, representing the worst stereotypes of pretty, upper class blondes. True to the form, she can be extremely annoying and painfully selfish.
Yet Heckerling takes pains to humanise the character of Cher. She is rejected by the guy she is crushing on, and although she plays the popularity game by the rules, her status is surpassed by the self-obsessed Tai’s. While such issues may seem “shallow”, it is interesting that Cher is portrayed as experiencing these high school-sized hardships, despite her privilege. Despite her immaculate appearance, it is also clear that Cher takes pride in her schoolwork (or at least her grades), taking pains to negotiate with each of her teachers and showing her test results to her mother’s portrait. More seriously, she is victimised due to her sex – first she must escape a car to avoid sexual assault by her ride Elton and then she is held up at gunpoint.
It’s quite a statement that Cher, as the main character, is permitted to have significant flaws as well as virtues. From her protagonist status, then, we can see that Clueless accepts and celebrates women as full people, with both virtues and flaws and a diversity of experience, and encourages us to look past first appearances.
The personalities of Cher’s friends are a little less nuanced than our leading lady but their presence nevertheless adds weight to the film’s portrayal of women as three-dimensional, well-realised people. Much like the friendships in Bridesmaids, the female friendships between Dionne, Tai and Cher are not all positive or all negative: in the discussions about sex, Cher and Dionne’s virginal statuses are a source of shame, and Tai uses this to her cutting advantage later in the film; conversely the friends are almost comically supportive of one another when they, for example, face male rejection. Through Dionne and Tai Clueless shows the audience that the women around us can both provide strength and take it away. Tai’s makeover particularly speaks to the idea that people, particularly women, must not be taken at face value, and that it is important to understand the personality rather than place value on appearances.
Amber (Elisa Donovan)
Amber is a problematic character in that she, along with Tai, mostly serve as the film’s antagonists. Despite the mild inconvenience of Cher’s [male] debate teacher, Clueless seems to imply that women’s biggest problem is other women. This is an idea I take issue with, especially because Amber’s motivations are never explained as lovingly as Cher’s – she simply seems to be a mean girl whose reasons for disliking Cher are never entirely clear. Even Regina George got humanised at the end of her film, and it would have been nice for Amber to be more than just a laughing stock. That said, I do appreciate that Heckerling was able to write a female character as a cartoonish, one-dimensional villain, again showing that women exist outside of the love interest/shrew/madonna/whore pigeonholes.
Miss Geist (Twink Caplan) and Miss Stoeger (Julie Brown)
Finally we come to the teachers Miss Geist and Miss Stoeger, the only substantive female adult characters in the film. Let’s first address Miss Stoeger, as her representation is the most problematic. She is literally a butch man-hating lesbian who teaches P.E., and I actually can’t think of anything more stereotypical. There is nothing in Heckerling’s script that subverts this stereotype or provides her with any further definition – to me, the jokes relating to Miss Stoeger rely purely on her sexuality, which is simply not good enough. (Let’s not forget that Christian, the gay male character, is also stereotypically into fashion and “The Celluloid Closet” classics Spartacus and Some Like It Hot.)
Miss Geist, as a straight woman, is given a broader personality, but her main function in the film is to be the subject of one of Cher and Dionne’s makeovers. The makeover – particularly, the removal of reading glasses to discover that the woman underneath is actually “hot” – is quite the teen film trope but I enjoy that Miss Geist is still awkward afterwards. Her car door still doesn’t open, and even the girls are forced to admit that she “isn’t a total Betty”. Again, the film makes the point that appearance aren’t everything – and just as well, given her suitor’s exterior!
Overall, it is hard to get past the fact that Clueless gets a lot wrong, particularly in its absolution of the male characters and in its use of stereotypes for queer characters. But it also gets a lot right, and for a fun, female-driven film, one could certainly do worse on a lazy Saturday afternoon.
RESULT: Looks like it will be staying in my DVD rotation.
Up next: I’m off next week, but back on June 3. See you then!