Clueless, Amy Heckerling’s immortal remake of Jane Austen’s Emma set in early-nineties Beverly Hills, turns eighteen today. And while it’s unclear if Cher Horowitz (Alicia Silverstone) ever got it together to get her drivers’ license, it’s firmly established that Clueless has a place in the canon. That would be the case if only for Heckerling’s hilariously precise dialogue and fantastic costuming, which make the movie a perfect snapshot of its era.
But even more than that, what I love about Clueless is the movie’s ability to see its characters in all their petty glory, without feeling the need to get into a moral panic about their shopping, their sex lives, and their cell phone addictions. Instead, Clueless argues, that’s a perfectly valid place for characters to begin their journey, and that even the most frivolous of adolescents is entirely capable of growing up into a substantive adult. That may seem like an obvious point, but in a world full of trend stories about sexting, vocal fry, and rainbow parties, it’s an important thing to remember.
Cher’s approach to immigration reform and disaster relief in Haiti may be to argue in a class debate that “it does not say RSVP on the Statue of Liberty,” but she ends the movie running Pismo Beach disaster relief, having found a way to channel her naively welcoming spirit into real action. Her comfortable defense of her decision to wait to have sex until she’s found someone really terrific is a sensible demonstration of self-knowledge. Cher may fall for a gay man, Christian, but that’s in part because she’s attracted to his best qualities: his maturity, his kindness towards her, his sense of culture. Cher may have missed the signs that tipped off Murray that Christian is “a disco-dancing, Oscar Wilde-reading, Streisand ticket-holding friend of Dorothy,” but disguised by her mistake is the fact that Cher’s demonstrating what for a teenaged girl counts as exceptionally good taste in men, the kind of thing that will lead her to a relationship with Josh. Unlike the latter-day Plastics of Mean Girls, Cher’s eager to share her social capital with other people, be they newcomers like Tai or Mr. Hall and Ms. Geist. And the problems in her friendships tend to be caused by real issues and feelings rather than purely manufactured, whether it’s Amber’s meanness, her jealousy of Tai, or their rivalry over Josh.
Cher isn’t alone in showing signs of incipient good sense under her knee-highs and horrible driving. Dionne, like Cher, may have been “named after great singers of the past who now do infomercials,” but she’s a great friend to Cher. And her choice of Murray represents similarly terrific taste in guys. Murray’s a wonderful creation, a boy who dresses with the characteristic idiocy of the early nineties and poses like a champ, but who tells Dionne things like “Street slang is an increasingly valid form of expression. Most of the feminine pronouns do have mocking but not necessarily misogynistic undertone,” when she asks him to stop calling her “woman,” teaches her to drive, and has better gaydar than the girls do. Tai may be a stoner who falls prey to a spate of social climbing, but she ends up falling for Travis for his skateboarding and his wide-open heart, finding her own sense of style, and her own position in her high school’s social ecosystem.
And while the characters have real conflicts with each other, they resolve them on their own. Tina Fey’s Mean Girls is a tremendously funny movie that gets at the worst impulses of high school, and the depths of kids’ capacities to be cruel to each other. But Clueless was a much less Hobbesian view of high school. While in Mean Girls, it takes the vigorous intervention of Principal Duvall and Ms. Norbury to restore order to Evanston’s teenaged girl population, and the consequences in the girls’ fights rise to the level of serious physical injury, Clueless trusts its teenaged characters to not just work things out for themselves, but to seek out self-improvement without prompting from anyone else. This is not to say that bullying doesn’t happen now, or that it didn’t happen in the nineties–Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring demonstrates exactly how far the consequences of class pressure and checked-out parenting can extend in communities like the ones where both Clueless and Mean Girls are set.
But Clueless‘s subversive power is in the way it cranks the signs of teenaged girliness all the way up to eleven, while granting its characters significant trust to work their way out of their own problems. Cher may be, in the way-harsh words of Tai “a virgin who can’t drive,” and to concern-trolls everywhere, “just totally clueless” in a way that’s unforgivable. But the reason the movie has lasted as well as it has for almost twenty years, outliving its plaid minis and fur backpacks, is because Amy Heckerling understood what so many people who trash teenage girls can’t. Just because someone thinks “Ooh, I wonder if they have that in my size,” while they’re working through a crisis of conscience in Beverly Hills doesn’t mean they’re incapable of coming to the right conclusions about their own character–and taking the kinds of actions that will help them to grow up.