clueless

Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

July 24, 2020

‘As if!’ 25 Years of Being Cluelessly Out of Touch

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I’ve always despised Clueless. Don’t get me wrong — I love a good romantic comedy, and I’m certainly not opposed to the cheesy, sappy and predictable plotlines that define them. Despite roaring waves in a sea of appreciation for this 90s staple, however, I’d need a magnifying glass to find any redeeming qualities. Clueless just turned 25. Honestly, I think that’s a quarter-century too old.

Let me start unpacking my disdain for this movie by declaring that my problem lies not with the plot, but with its execution. When we examine the character construction and character development in the film (if it even deserves to be called a film), we see that nearly every single persona is the manifestation of a tirelessly overplayed stereotype. Travis Birkenstock is the overdramatic, distracted and perpetually stoned skateboarder. Mel is the epitome of the cutthroat and abrasive lawyer. Josh is the classic Nietzsche-reading, flannel-sporting college student. (I find this development particularly disturbing — why is it that university kids are portrayed as being so drastically different from their high school counterparts? I’ll grant that we tend to mature a little after arriving on campus, but it’s not like we all spend our days fawning over Freud.)

Cher, our not-so-beloved heroine, is the strongest example of this painfully distasteful stereotyping. She’s the well-manicured, insanely affluent and appearance-obsessed teenage girl. We’re led to believe that she’s an airhead, yet we soon learn that she’s actually quite clever, which is perhaps her only positive quality. I simply don’t understand — are we supposed to like Cher? Are we supposed to envy her? Are we supposed to find her outlandish conclusions about the world beyond Beverly Hills endearing? I certainly don’t. She’s manipulative, controlling, careless and whiny, on top of the fact that she can’t drive. The film glorifies her for getting the guy (who happens to be, quite unsettlingly, her ex-stepbrother) while treating everyday, working class folks like Mr. Hall and Miss Geist as mere playthings.

The perpetuation of stereotypes in Clueless is most detrimental in the context of social identity. The beginning of the film deceives us into thinking that the only two Black primary characters, Dionne and Murray, will be major players. However, the focus quickly turns to the white characters – Cher, Josh, Tai, Elton – and remains on them for the duration of the movie. Additionally, the only student lauded for perfect attendance in Mr. Hall’s class is one of an extremely limited number of Asian students. A central gag centers around Cher’s assumption that her housekeeper can “speak Mexican.” Further, capitalizing upon offensive stereotypes, Christian is the clichéd gay man known for his expertise about fashion and art.

I must also mention that a vast majority of the events that transpire in Clueless are indisputably ludicrous. Perhaps my favorite scene in the movie is when Mel comforts his daughter by calling her “The most beautiful girl in Beverly Hills.” Seriously? If someone gave you a compliment but limited the range to Ithaca, would it really be that great of a compliment? The worst part is that we can’t even tell if this is shallow writing or just a weak attempt at humor. (Mel is, of course, the only character in the entire cast who is actually entertaining.)

In a similar vein, why in the world are Cher and Josh working on Mel’s multi-million dollar lawsuit? This seriously irks me. Josh declares that the two have been “working [their] butts off on this case,” but I’m just genuinely curious about what he’s contributing — you know, with his few months of college experience and lack of a law degree. We all know Mel has more than adequate funds to hire employees who are actually on the books — perhaps even some who aren’t children.

No scalding review would be complete without a mention of the infamous kiss on the stairs. What is supposed to be our happy ending ends up being so far from romantic that it’s actually comical. In an effort to take some pressure off of Cher after a mishap with files from the lawsuit, Josh directs her to “go out and have fun” and “go shopping.” She takes this as an insult, asking Josh if he sees her as little more than a “ditz with a credit card.” Yikes. Josh then stumbles over his words for an uncomfortably long amount of time and spits out a few more cringeworthy utterances until the issue is quickly resolved when he vocalizes his admiration of Cher’s beauty. At this mention, all of her prior worries seem to vanish into the vapid void of Beverly Hills vanity. What a wonderful foundation upon which to build a relationship!

To my chagrin, however, Clueless will continue to be lauded by viewers across generations. The film is clearly an aesthetically pleasing one, with gorgeous homes, sunny outdoor lighting and clothing styles countless fashion enthusiasts have strived to replicate. It provides an escape into an enticing world of luxury and triviality that many of us would snatch at in a second, even though it’s completely out of touch with the class conflict and systemic injustices we still face 25 years later. If it achieves nothing else, Clueless shows us that there are some problems that even sweet, sweet 90s jams can’t solve.

 

Megan Pontin is a rising sophomore in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. She can be reached at mpontin@cornellsun.com.