The first article in our feminist ruins series, Clodagh Chapman breaks down the makeovers, the shopping sprees and daddy issues in chick flick fave Clueless.
With an outspoken female lead and quotable lines aplenty, Clueless has long been lauded as a distinctly feminist chick flick. The film follows 15-year-old Cher, a popular and superficially good-looking high school student with all life’s advantages, as she navigates the world of growing up. But underneath the plaid skirts and classic 90s soundtrack, it lacks the feel-good, empowering message it professes to have.
First and foremost, Clueless handles female sexuality shockingly badly. Hiding behind a mask of progressiveness, it simultaneously shames and puts women on a pedestal for both their promiscuity and lack thereof. Going “all the way” – a problematic conception of sex in itself – is coded as something illicit yet aspirational. Meanwhile, Tai is implicitly praised for her assumed virginity, whilst Cher is later degraded for it. The female characters are very much damned if they do, damned if they don’t. This could be argued as reflective of conflicting social pressures surrounding female sexual activity. However, it is important to note that there is never any kind of comment made on those pushing ideas surrounding what women should do with their bodies, only on the girls themselves for partaking or not partaking in sex.
Not only does Clueless fail to give any kind of positive (or coherent) message on female sexuality, it also depicts teenage girls as spending their waking hours fawning over boys. It’s hard to pin down anything that any of the female characters do that isn’t at least indirectly linked to seeking out male attention. Moreover, whilst their male counterparts have a whole range of interests – art, skateboarding, philosophy – Cher and her female friends gear their lives around shopping, exercise videos and (again) boys. Though towards the end of the film Cher starts taking an interest in current events, it is made clear that she is primarily doing it to attract Josh – Cher’s key love interest (and stepbrother, because it’s not incest if they’re not blood relatives…). Clueless takes a step towards being self-aware when Cher rightly criticises Josh for implying she’s “just a ditz with a credit card”, but this is completely shot down when Josh makes amends by saying she’s also “gorgeous and popular”. The implication being that saying a woman is ditzy but also attractive is somehow a compliment. The entire plot revolves around this incredibly one-dimensional portrait of teenage girls as boy-obsessed, vain and superficial which just doesn’t ring true.
Clueless also makes heavy use of the ‘conventionally unattractive girl has a makeover and her whole life is changed’ trope. When Tai joins Bronson Alcott High School, Cher and Dionne immediately take it upon themselves to transform her into a well-dressed, well-spoken socialite. Likewise, earlier in the film we see Dionne and Cher attempt to turn Ms Geist into the woman of Mr Hall’s dreams. The subtext is that women should change themselves to fit conventional beauty standards with the end goal of finding a man.
The elephant in the room is the more than questionable relationship between Cher and her father, Mel. With her mother having died (in a liposuction accident, no less) Cher takes on the role of a 1950s housewife, making sure that Mel is fed, watered and medicated – “who makes sure that daddy eats right?”. Their relationship is ultimately used as evidence by Mel that she is as good a person as Josh. It doesn’t sit right that a 15-year-old girl is responsible for the wellbeing of a grown, able-bodied man, or that this willingness to tend to her father’s every need is depicted as one of her greatest strengths.
A final special mention for blatant misogyny has to go to the scene where Elton, after his increasingly aggressive attempts to kiss Cher are rebutted, leaves Cher in an empty car park at night where she is robbed at gunpoint – yet the blame is implicitly placed on Cher for not “stay[ing] out of trouble”. Need I say more?
Does this mean I’m swearing off Clueless for life? No. I love a good chick flick as much as the next person. But with a cast of largely homogenous female characters, constant misogynistic undertones and a rhetoric of female subservience, it is hard to watch Clueless through anything other than a heavily critical lens.
Collage by Joy Molan