“Clueless”: A 90s Classic

Column by Emma Friedlander
Emma Friedlander - Hannah Hwang

My original intent this week was to review some contemporary, relatively obscure Netflix movie. One of those films that we all shrugged at when we first saw the trailers, and said, “I’ll wait for it to come out on Netflix.” But even when it’s instantly available with the click of a mouse (and a few unbearable minutes of buffering thanks to Grinnell’s illustrious Wi-Fi), is this mumble-core cinematic adventure really worth your time?
Answering this biting question truly was my plan. But as I’ve said before, when prioritizing video streaming over being a responsible adult human, we need to at least make sure we’re watching important stuff. And some cult classics need to come first.
Which is why when it came to my attention that a huge, and frankly repulsive, segment of the youth population has not seen “Clueless,” I scrapped away all of my previous work for this week. This movie is so important, you guys. The fact that something with so much cultural value is actually available on Netflix is unfathomable.
When “Clueless” celebrated its 20th anniversary this summer, the media was abuzz with articles on its long-term significance.
“‘Clueless’…isn’t merely a touchstone for the 90s generation,” said journalist Jen Chaney in her book, “As If!: The Oral History of Clueless.” “It’s a teen movie that continues to be passed from one generation to the next and is just timeless enough for every generation to think it’s speaking directly to them.”
And if a widely published and qualified journalist can literally write a book on “Clueless” and laud its pop culture influence, then I can certainly rant for the next few hundred words on the movie’s significance to me, how I gain something new every time I watch it (too many times) and why yes, it is an ideal waste of your time.
“Clueless” is directly inspired by Jane Austen’s “Emma,” an 1815 novel about a chick with an awesome name who enjoys meddling in other people’s romantic lives with no regard for her own fallbacks and feelings. In “Clueless,” the Regency England setting of “Emma” is translated to a Beverly Hills high school in the 90s. Alicia Silverstone stars as Cher Horowitz, a superficial teen with good intentions. She’s accompanied by her best friend Dionne, played by Stacey Dash, and Dionne’s boyfriend, played by Donald Faison of later “Scrubs” fame. Cher loves to play matchmaker for various couples, including her sweater vest-wearing, oatmeal-stained teachers and Tai, played by Brittany Murphy, an awkward new student that Cher takes under her wing.
As Cher focuses all of her attention on finding true love for others, however, she ignores her own feelings for her stepbrother, Josh, played by Paul Rudd. Josh is a cynical, turtleneck-sweatered college student who likes to read Nietzsche by the pool. Anyone who has taken Intro Philosophy knows the type. Throughout the movie, Cher and Josh maintain a spiteful yet teasing rapport, until Cher suspects that Tai and Josh may have a flirtation and thus realizes that she is in love with Josh herself. Suddenly self-aware, Cher begins to realize what’s important in life. Instead of meddling with other peoples’ business by playing matchmaker, she turns to charity. Instead of focusing on popularity, she cultivates her close friendships with her loved ones. By the end, Cher is a little bit less clueless.
It’s difficult to sufficiently express the appeal of “Clueless” simply through text. A lot of it is visual – the fashions are ridiculous, and the film thus serves as a time capsule of 90s youth culture, while also inspiring popular style for decades after. The movie is also endlessly quotable. Besides the obvious “As if!” there’s also “She’s a full-on Monet” and “He’s a disco-dancing, Oscar Wilde-reading, Streisand ticket-holding friend of Dorothy, know what I’m saying?” I often reference “Clueless” without realizing I’m referencing “Clueless.”
I’ve seen the movie countless times, starting when I was in elementary school and the characters kept saying “virgin” and I asked my sister what that meant and she wouldn’t tell me. In high school I forced my ill-informed best friend to watch it, leading to her surprise as she recognized myriad quotes from the movie that she’d seen everywhere in popular culture but had never been able to source. I watched it again with close friends in college, laughing at the clever references to oral sex and marijuana and Haiti that I was once too naïve to intuit. Every person I’ve introduced “Clueless” to has really been taken aback by how much they enjoy it, even though it’s so hard to put your finger on exactly why. All you can really do is watch it for yourself.
In conclusion: You have a huge problem set due for organic chemistry tomorrow morning? I don’t care. It would be a better use of your time to do laundry or call your grandma? You’re wrong. Please go watch this movie immediately.