July 1995. The world is recovering from a global recession, it’s the year after Kurt Cobain committed suicide, grunge fashion is ubiquitous and Kate Moss is heralding the move from the eighties supermodel to the ‘heroin chic’ waif.
Along comes Clueless. A fun, witty, unabashedly girlie, fashionable and endlessly quotable film produced in just 40 days that inspired female cinema and dress, for decades to come.
This month celebrates twenty years since the film’s US release (don't worry, we can celebrate here in the UK again, come October).
Superficially, the protagonist of Amy Heckerling’s 1995 re-imagining of Jane Austen’s classic, Emma, appears to be vapid, spoiled, ditzy and utterly…well, clueless.
On the contrary, Clueless is a feminist beacon of a film that passes the Bechdel Test multiple times over.
Inspired by cartoonist Alison Bechdel, the test aims to call-out gender equality in film. If a film passes the simple Bechdel test (and an alarming amount do not) it qualifies as a more balanced movie.
To pass, a movie must answer yes to the below three questions
Is there more than one woman in the film? The central characters in Clueless are all women, as are many supporting roles
Do they talk to each other? A lot
About something other than a man? About grades, self-improvement, clothes and much else.
Clueless is great fun, but it also subtly teaches young women a series of important life lessons. We've picked out the key moments that taught us so much...
Everyone's approach to sex is different, and that's OK
Each of the female characters have differing approaches to sex, and they're all represented as fine; from Cher 'saving herself for Luke Perry' to Dionne being "technically a virgin" and Tai having multiple sexual partners. There's no slut-shaming or virgin-bashing in sight. (Ok, there's a moment of virgin-bashing but it's correctly presented as "way harsh.")
Cher is proudly waiting for the right man:
Tai: Cher, you're a virgin?
Cher: You say that like it's a bad thing.
"I'm not a prude, I'm just highly selective."
"You see how picky I am about my shoes and they only go on my feet."
And her best friend, Dionne, is always ready to defend her choice of virginity:
"Besides, the PC term is 'hymenally challenged.'"
The importance of a diverse society
It was as topical for the Haitians in Cher's debate class speech, as it is today in Europe; the plight of refugees and asylum seekers. Cher is always a liberal-minded egalitarian, presenting a simple answer to the American immigration debate:
"And so if the government could just get to the kitchen, rearrange some things, we could certainly party with the Haitians."
"And may I please remind you that it does not say 'RSVP' on the Statue of Liberty."
We are often guilty of period-shaming ourselves. We suffer in silence so as not to be 'uncouth' or 'unfeminine' when the time of the month comes around. Not Cher, though, she was happy to announce in front of the whole class her reason for being 'tardy':
"Mr. Hall, I was surfing the crimson wave. I had to haul ass to the ladies."
We've all been there.
The power of negotiation
Cher drives a hard bargain. Learning from her litigator father, she teaches us not to settle for a first offer and never to sell yourself short. It's an important life skill and can be applied to bartering in a Moroccan souk, or negotiating that dream job offer or, of course, to tweaking your school grades:
“Well, some teachers are trying to low-ball me, Daddy. And I know how you say, “Never accept a first offer”, so I figure these grades are just a jumping off point to start negotiations.”
The importance of self-improvement
Cher continually teaches us all about the importance of self-improvement, from exercise:
"Miss Stoeger, I would just like to say that physical education in this school is a disgrace. I mean, standing in line for forty minutes is hardly aerobically effective. I doubt I've worked off the calories in a stick of Carefree gum."
Tai: Cher, I don’t want to do this anymore, and my buns, they don’t feel nothing like steel.
Cher: It will get easier, I promise, just as long as we do it every day – not just sporadically.
Tai: How do we know if we’re doing it sporadically?
To expanding your vocabulary...
Cher: That’s another thing, Tai, we’ve got to work on your accent and vocabulary. See, sporadic means once in a while. Try to use it in a sentence.
And your mind...
Cher: From now on we’re alternating Cindy Crawford’s aerobercise and buns of steel and reading one non-school book a week.
Cher: That takes care of our minds and bodies but we should do something good for mankind of the planet for a couple of hours.
Appearances can be deceiving
Cher might be into fashion and makeovers but she's no dummy. She proves that women can enjoy shopping and partying, whilst still being able to retain Shakespeare facts...
Heather: It’s just like Hamlet said, “To thine own self be true.”
Cher: Hamlet didn’t say that.
Heather: I think I remember Hamlet accurately.
Cher: Well, I remember Mel Gibson accurately, and he didn’t say that. That Polonius guy did.
Everything in moderation
Cher teaches us there's a big difference between enjoying life and taking things too far. She knows when to call time on drinking and drugs, telling Tai:
"It’s one thing to spark up a doobie and get laced at parties, but it is quite another to be fried all day.”
No means no
Cher preaches the law of sexual consent and teaches women how to handle themselves when it comes to lechy creeps. When a random boy at school grabs her, she teaches us all it's ok to push people out of your personal space:
“Ew! Get off me! As if!”
And when Elton tries to force himself on Cher in his car, she pushes him off and walks home. You go, girl.
She also respects others' sexual preferences. When she learns her crush, Christian, is gay, she realises he could be the dream shopping buddy.
It’s OK to be a girlie girl
Women have long been criticised for loving fashion, and been called superficial or taken less seriously if they dress in a fashionable manner. Cher isn't having any of this, she realises how important dress can be when it comes to external appearances:
“So okay, I don’t want to be a traitor to my generation and all but I don’t get how guys dress today. I mean, come on, it looks like they just fell out of bed and put on some baggy pants and take their greasy hair (eww!) and cover it up with a backwards cap and like, we’re expected to swoon? I don’t think so.”
"Where’s my white collarless shirt from Fred Segal. It’s my most capable looking outfit!"
There is no excuse for being a snob
Cher might be a rich girl from Beverley Hills, but she doesn't accept snobbery and she's not afraid to call it out. When Elton turns his nose up at the idea of getting together with Tai, here's what happens:
Elton: Tai? Why would I go with Tai?
Cher: Why not?
Elton? Why not? Why not?! Don't you even know who my father is?
Cher: You are a snob and a half.
How to graciously handle criticism
Clueless is a lesson in how to do female friendship the right way. The central characters all support one another, but they also aren't afraid to be (subtly) honest when it's called for. And Cher always handles criticism with the utmost grace, using it as an opportunity for self- reflection...
Cher: Would you call me selfish?
Dionne: No, not to your face.
Dionne: Hello, that was a stop sign.
Cher: I totally paused!
Equality is a key ingredient in any successful relationship
Cher knows her strengths and her weaknesses. She also knows that it's important for a woman to hold the same power in a relationship as the man does, even if that means the power of sartorial prowess...
“He does dress better than I do, what would I bring to the relationship?”
Words: Harriet Hall