Plaid separates and knee socks. Flip phones and beepers. And plenty of “Whatever” and “As if” responses. These are just some of the hallmarks of Clueless, a mid-’90s classic that had all of us flocking to Contempo Casual for headbands and shoes. It starred unforgettable ’90s queen Alicia Silverstone, who graduated from ubiquitous Aerosmith videos to her big screen debut in this quirky, girl-fronted film that lauded malls as church. For the most part, the film has aged well, putting women out front and celebrating the desire to give back to humanity. Still, there are plenty of things you notice watching the film as an adult versus as a tender-hearted teenager. Here are some of them.
It passes the Bechdel Test
Surprise! Even though Cher might be a stereotypical teenage girl who’s obsessed with shopping and makeovers, Clueless passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors. That means that at least two female characters in the movie, with names, talk to each other about something other than men. And it happens quite a bit in the movie: Cher talks to Ms. Geist about grades and a disaster relief effort, for example. Cher and Dionne talk to Tai about getting a makeover, and often talk about style and grades with each other as well. Then there’s the scene where Cher and Tai make-up after a fight.
In addition to passing the Bechdel Test, it also shows the importance of female friendship and bonding. Cher, Dionne, and Tai are each very important to one another, and only want to see each other happy and thriving. That’s icing on the cake!
Cher’s dad is a workaholic and a jerk
Cher’s dad is meant to portray the gruff litigator type, but in retrospect, Mel often strays into the straight-up jerk territory. For one, he’s literally always working, which means he doesn’t take the time to focus exclusively on Cher and Josh that perhaps he should. He scares Lucy, their maid, just by being present within seconds of the opening credits. He fights basically with everyone he comes into contact with, and consistently raises his voice and barks commands at people. He calls his parents “brain-dead lowlifes,” which is supposed to be funny, but it’s actually kind of sad. Then when Tai is over for the first time, rather than say hello, he tells her to “get out of my chair.” Later at the dinner table, says no phones will be permitted, but then answers his, and proceeds to yell at Jake, again. Finally, he threatens Christian with murder, telling him, “If anything happens to my daughter, I got a .45 and a shovel. I doubt anybody would miss you.” That’s just unsettling.
Cher’s (and Dee’s) driving is actually really dangerous
Cher is a horrifically terrible driver, crashing into multiple objects and swerving all over the road. In the film it’s often meant to be funny, like when she exclaims, “That came out of nowhere!” after hitting something, or when she tells Dionne “I totally paused!” after running a stop sign. And while it was kind of funny back in 1995, it’s actually quite dangerous when you see it as an adult. Anyone who’s ever been in a car accident knows all too well how scary it can be. Her dangerous driving is finally fully acknowledged at her driving test, where offering a conciliatory “my bad” after nearly hitting a cyclist doesn’t cut it. And Dionne isn’t much better, as she accidentally gets on the freeway with Murray and Cher in the car and nearly gets them killed.
Murray and Dionne’s relationship is toxic
One of the more unpleasant things you notice about Clueless as an adult is how much of a dirtbag Murray really is, especially to Dionne. Because of him, their relationship is unhealthy to the point of toxicity, even abuse. He pages her all the time, obsessively worried that she’s “jeeping” on him, when he’s the one who’s unfaithful given that Dionne found weave in his car. He also calls her “woman” repeatedly even though she hates it, and constantly tells him to stop. Then he full on blames her anger on her period, which is pure misogynist nonsense. He also doubts her ability to read a map, and tells her she “can’t drive for s***.” Finally, he asks Cher and Dee “Are y’all bitches blind or something?” when he breaks the (obvious) news that Christian is gay. Clearly he doesn’t respect women.
There are LGBT stereotypes
Clueless was released in 1995, a full two years before Ellen Degeneres came out of the closet — that shows how much more taboo being gay was then as opposed to today. And while Clueless was relatively progressive in that there was a fully developed gay character (Christian), there are some glaring gay stereotypes in the film. For example, Miss Stoeger, the PE teacher, is a stereotypical, man-hating, butch gym teacher. Cher is able to get her to change her grade up by telling her that an “evil male” broke her heart, thereby affecting her performance. Miss Stoeger responds sympathetically, calling men horrible, and saying “they’re all like that.” Later, when looking for potential mates for Mr. Hall, Cher observes, “And in the grand tradition of PE teachers, Miss Stoeger seemed to be same-sex oriented.”
Then there’s the issue of Christian, one of the major characters, who is the stereotypical gay man — think Queer Eye for the Straight Guy — with his fashion sensibility, appreciation of Ben-Hur, dancing skills, art literacy, and good physique. Shout out to whoever on set had Christian reading a copy of Junky by William Burroughs, a gay literary icon, in class.
There are racial stereotypes
Just as Clueless is relatively progressive with sexuality, it’s about the same with race. Stacy Dash, a black woman, was cast as Cher’s best friend, and also has a black boyfriend, Murray. Additionally, there’s racial diversity among minor characters, including Asian and black classmates. But there are a few gaffs for sure, such as the depiction of the “Persian Mafia,” a group of Iranian boys wearing dark clothing and sunglasses, looking busy while on their cell phones. Cher points them out to Tai, telling her that “You can’t hang out with them unless you own a BMW,” to insinuate that only care about money.
Then there’s Lucy, Cher’s maid. She is not well developed as a character, though time is spent discussing her ethnicity when Cher mistakes her for Mexican when she’s from El Salvador. Other than Mel scaring her in the early scenes of the movie, she’s not given much airtime, though Cher considers giving her secondhand expensive outfits as charity. So they cold have done a bit better.
The teaching profession is not respected
The teaching profession is not well respected throughout the film. For one, Cher is constantly arguing with teaches to get her grades changed, which professors really don’t like as it’s an attempt to undermine their authority. Also, all of the teachers are caricatures, from the frumpy but heart-of-gold Miss Geist to the butch and athletic Miss Stoeger. Don’t forget the “evil trolls from the math department,” too. Then there’s bumbling Mr. Hall, who Cher describes as someone who’s single, 47, and “earns minor ducats at a thankless job.” Cher does eventually get more involved in school activities like a donation drive run by Miss Geist, but for the most part teachers are not given much clout or authority.
Elton needs a lesson in consent
Elton consistently ignores Cher’s boundaries, literally grabbing and kissing her in the classroom not once, but twice. Then he deliberately drops the card when they play suck and blow in an attempt to kiss her. Later, while driving her home, he says “You’re one of my best friends. And I do not have friends that are girls,” before he pulls over and tries to kiss her yet again. She pushes him off and is visibly not pleased with the situation, but he goes in yet again, and again, until she firmly says “Stop it!” He acts confused, claiming that she flirted with him “all year,” so she tells him she’s been trying to fix him up with Tai. That falls on deaf ears, as he again tries to kiss her, forcing her to tell him cut it out, and again to stop it. She eventually just gets out of the car, but he keeps yelling after her. Eventually he leaves — unfortunately to her chagrin as she’s in a bad part of town — and she has to find a way home from a dangerous parking lot. She gets mugged at gunpoint for her phone and purse, and has to be rescued by Josh. She would never have been in that situation if Elton wasn’t such a creep.
Cher’s eating is disordered
In spite of the fact that Cher is in fantastic shape and has literally no need to worry about her weight, she frequently obsesses about her body and what she’s eating. She notes that she feels “like a heifer” because she ate “two bowls of Special K, three pieces of turkey bacon, a handful of popcorn, five peanut butter M&M’s and like, three pieces of licorice.” Then she laments that her PE class is hardly “aerobically effective,” and complains that it won’t even burn the “calories in a stick of Carefree gum.” She also obsesses about food being fat-free, and tells Dionne that if you cut your food into smaller pieces, it will help you lose more weight. Then she forces Tai to work out as part of her makeover, until Tai issues a mea culpa and refuses to do anymore activity. For extracurricular reading? She selects the title Fit or Fat. Finally, says she feels “like ralphing” because she had two mocha-chinos, which is hardly a binge worth lamenting.
Additionally, Cher constantly polices what her dad eats, saying he has to get his weight down to 200 pounds, as per his doctor. She won’t let him have a burger when she and Josh bring take-out home, and she tries to make him drink orange juice in the beginning. It’s done in the guise of health, but the constant obsession with food is not healthy at all.
Travis goes into recovery
Travis Birkenstock is very much a typical stoner character, who excels in slacking and being late to class. He spends most of the movie perpetually high, clumsily trying to impress Tai. But unlike most movies with stoner types, Travis manages to turn himself around at the end, making him less of a caricature and more of a human being. When he drops off donations to Cher for the Pismo Beach disaster relief, he tells her out of the blue that he’s sorry for ruining her shoes at the party. When Cher asks him what brought that up, he tells her that it’s one of the steps he’s doing for a club he’s joined. That club is obviously a 12-step club, and Travis has quit smoking pot. He then talks about how his newfound clarity has been good for his skating. It’s kind of amazing that they depict a high school student in recovery in a Hollywood movie, although he initially can’t remember how may steps there are.
Cher’s observation about men’s fashion is astute
In the ’90s it was fashionable to wear clothing that was so baggy it was ill-fitting, giant JNCO pants, tie-dye everything, and sloppy cut-offs. So Cher’s critique of men’s fashion at the 39-minute mark is actually pretty astute. She says, “So, 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 and cover it up with a backwards cap and, like, we’re expected to swoon? I don’t think so.” No wonder she initially fell for Christian, who actually had some fashion sense!
There’s a 2001 shout-out
If you hadn’t seen the Kubrick masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey, you likely missed this shout-out entirely, as I embarrassingly did back in 1995. It’s a short clip that features close-up of Cher’s phone, which is black and shaped like a rectangle. They frame the scene so that her phone resembles the monolith, and play the same, unmistakable music that’s played during the monolith scene in 2001. It’s a fun nod to an epic film.