Written By: Hannah Yale
“Clueless” (1995) is not only a poor adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Emma,” it is also wildly unpleasant to watch. The “iconic” teen flick centers around a shallow 15-year-old named Cher who believes she is the best at everything she does.
The storyline of “Clueless” is loosely based on Jane Austen’s novel “Emma”, in which a young woman mistakenly confident in herself attempts to match-make people she knows and ends up accidentally making things much more complicated. Like Emma, Cher in “Clueless” spends a large portion of the film playing matchmaker with her teachers, schoolmates and friends. Emma and Cher also both have a friend in their story which they spend time “teaching” how to be more like themselves. In Emma’s case, she teaches her friend Harriet about manners, painting, dancing, reading and who to associate with in English high society. Cher on the other hand teaches her friend Tai how to dress, where to sit during lunch, what kind of parties to go to, and who to associate with in Beverly Hills high school society.
At the end of both stories, the main character realizes that she is in love with someone she has known for a long time. In “Emma,” she falls in love with her family friend Mr. Knightley, and in “Clueless,” Cher falls in love with her ex-step-brother Josh. The relationship between Cher and Josh is uncomfortably incestuous and pedophilic. Cher is 15 at the start of the film, and is 16 by the end of it, and her ex-step-brother/love interest Josh is portrayed as a college freshman, implying that he is in the 18-19 year range. A 3-4 year age difference at their stages of life, especially considering that Cher is a minor and Josh is legally an adult, is substantial. The fact that Alicia Silverstone (Cher) was 18 while Paul Rudd (Josh) was 26 also added to the creepy dynamic, especially during the characters’ kiss scenes.
In “Clueless,” none of the characters learn a lesson or undergo any character development— even though their parallel characters in “Emma” do— except for the “slacker” kid, Travis, who is the only redeemable character in the entire movie. Cher’s character epiphany is supposed to occur when she realizes that she has feelings for Josh. Afterward, we are supposed to see her character growth when she donates various possessions to a disaster relief charity event because she wants to feel like a good person. During this scene, Travis apologizes to Cher for spilling beer on her shoes at a party, and Cher does not apologize for calling Travis a “slacker” and a “loadie” or for encouraging her friend Tai to be rude to him.
After Cher’s supposed character growth epiphany, she accidentally ruins her father’s law paperwork, and Josh comes to the rescue to cheer her up. Finally Cher and Josh go in for a remarkably incestuous kiss, and the entire movie is resolved!
“Clueless” heavily romanticizes and sexualizes the 15-16 age. In one particular scene when Cher, Dionne and post-makeover Tai are at a diner, Dionne and Cher verbally shame Cher for still being a “virgin” at 16, calling her “hymenally challenged” (0:46:18). When Cher and Tai get into a verbal argument because of Tai’s feelings for Josh, she insults Cher with the iconic one-liner, “You’re a virgin who can’t drive” (1:17:00). This perpetuates the harmful idea that teenagers who have sex are somehow better or cooler than teenagers who do not. This type of mindset often pushes teenagers to have sex before they actually want to or feel like they are ready to do so, and one could infer that these interactions Cher had with her friends pressured her into attempting (but failing) to have sex with her schoolmate Elton.
As if this all was not enough, the “humor” in “Clueless” is disappointingly subpar and problematic. Aside from using slurs in both joking and conversational context, most of the comedic dialogue was just women making fun of other women for their appearances, insulting everything from hats to perfume to Cher insulting someone for wearing a dress that she also happened to own. The cringiest part of the movie, though, is when Cher says to her El Salvadorian housemaid, “Lucy, you know I don’t speak Mexican!” (1:11:42). When confronted by Josh about her cultural insensitivity, Cher shows no understanding of why what she said was offensive or ignorant. Cher’s internal monologue later expressed that she apologized to Lucy, but this interaction is never shown on screen, so the audience has no way of knowing whether Cher apologized sincerely and learned from her mistakes or whether she will continue with her microaggressive behavior.
I would say that the fashion is what made “Clueless” worth watching, but no amount of yellow plaid could make up for the irritating static characters, misogynistic undertones, racism, hypersexualization of minors and bad jokes in this movie.