8 Reasons Why "Clueless" Was the Most Progressive Teen Film of the 1990s

Publish date:
July 17, 2015
movies, nostalgia, clueless, 90s

What were you guys doing in the summer of 1995? If you’re anywhere near the age I was then (10), you might have been playing a lot of Super Nintendo/Sega, sneak-watching Beavis and Butt-head, rollerblading, drooling over Andrew Keegan in Camp Nowhere, and wondering when your boobs were going to start coming in a la Teeny Tercell in Now and Then.

I also had the pleasure of getting chicken pox that summer AND moving my entire life to Florida from New Orleans – which turned out fine, since I’m still here 20 years later and have no plans to relocate anytime soon because Florida is actually kind of awesome despite what everyone else says. I don’t remember anyone bashing it during all the crazy blizzards earlier this year, I’m JUST saying.

Anyshiz, the summer of 1995 was also when one of the greatest teen films of the 1990s, Clueless, was released in theatres – in fact, Sunday will be its 20th birthday. And over these last twenty years, Clueless has made its mark in so many ways and still continues to do so; there is even a jukebox musical adaptation on the way.

I could write about what makes Clueless such an important part of movie history, especially for young women, for days. But for the sake of your Friday brains, I’ve whittled my list down to the following eight reasons (aside from the fashion, because DUH) it’s so impactful that you should put your eyes on it over and over again.

1. It was written, produced, and directed by a woman.

And a woman who also directed other classics like Fast Times at Ridgemont High and National Lampoon’s European Vacation, at that. Amy Heckerling is a BOSS in a world where female filmmakers haven’t been recognized as much as their male counterparts and have to work harder to get there. Clueless was Heckerling’s baby, and she did her research, sitting in on classes at Beverly Hills High School to get a feel for what 90210 teenagers’ lives were really like (even though she admits to taking some liberties).

Heckerling is also penning the musical, so she’s not done with Clueless quite yet. I’m not complaining. As far as I’m concerned, she can do a ballet and an animated series, too.

2. Its main cast was at least somewhat racially diverse.

Let's be real: Clueless could've done better in this aspect, as most movies and television shows today could stand to. But the film made sure to include minority characters not only in the background, but in the main cast – which sadly can't be said for a lot of other 1990s or even 2000s/current teen movies. Hollywood could take some cues from the Clueless casting team on choosing actors that more and more teenagers can relate to, both inside and out, instead of doing the opposite by whitewashing roles that are clearly meant for non-white individuals.

3. The beautiful protagonist didn’t ignore the cute, smart, nice guy in favor of the rich, arrogant, popular douchebag.

Cher brushes off Cranberries-loving daddy's boy Elton from the very beginning of the film, consequently imparting to millions of young women the wisdom that money and status mean nothing if you're a total asshat. What a novelty! Instead, she opts for the intelligent, mature, and caring Josh who is nowhere near resembling cool judging by his taste in music (Kenny G, anyone?). Though to be fair, Josh is also about 1,000x better looking than Elton, but regardless: For once, the nice guy wins.

And can we also talk about how Paul Rudd hasn’t aged!? He is still just as cute as he was in 1995 if not cuter. Swoooon.

4. It introduced us to smart, real words like “sporadically” and “existential” while simultaneously creating an entire new teen-friendly vocabulary consisting of words like “buggin’,” “jeepin’,” and “hagsville.”

My cousin had a poster on her bedroom wall listing all the cool words from the movie and I was so effing jealous. A lot of these words (and phrases, such as “surfing the crimson wave”) went straight over my 10-year-old head – which is why I needed the poster – but they also made me wittier. Just the other day, my husband and I were discussing one of my single friends who had just begun talking to some new guys who seemed a little on the meh side, and I was like, “I don’t know where she finds these Barneys.” He looked at me like I had two heads, asked what it meant, and immediately regretted it.

Clueless also gave us some extremely quotable lines, including the best insult of all time. Never forget (and RIP to the beautiful and talented Brittany Murphy).

5. It didn’t dumb parents down like other movies and TV shows did/do now.

Whatever Kool-Aid Walter Stratford was drinking in 10 Things I Hate About You when he forbade teenage Bianca from getting jiggy with boys no matter how dope their rides were, Mel Horowitz invented it. He gave his daughter space to grow and explore, but wasn’t afraid to let her know when she disappointed him and why it was important that she learned from her mistakes. He also didn’t take crap from dudes whom he felt might not have Cher’s best interests in mind – and knew deep down that she and Josh were meant for each other. Sneaky, sneaky. And pretty rad for a single dad who was constantly busy at work, fighting with people for $500 an hour.

6. The person who didn’t understand sexuality was the butt of the joke, instead of the gay person.

Speaking of the elusive Christian (who did have Cher’s best interest in mind), he was arguably the most put-together character of the entire movie – and he was gay. In a lot of teen films, the gay character becomes kind of the center of the story in a circus-freak kind of way, which is extremely sad. But in Clueless, Murray set Cher and Dionne straight and laughed at them for not getting it. Cher was then forced to look at herself and realize that maybe she was the clueless one instead of everyone around her. Talk about a lesson in humility and serious introspection.

7. It paved the way for other lit-based teen movies.

After Clueless, which was a loose adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma, quite a few movies emerged in the mid- to late-1990s that also stole from literature and tried to make being smart cool again. The aforementioned 10 Things I Hate About You, which was an adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, is perhaps the most notable. Other works like Othello, The Virgin Suicides and, my personal favorite, Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet rounded out this period in teen-movie history – but Clueless was the first. And it also wasn’t afraid to poke fun at itself for it.

8. It gave us strong, independent, yet still vulnerable female role models in Cher, Dionne, and Tai.

These three ladies were so very different in personality and eager to make their mark not only in their teenage world, but on the world around them. They helped two teachers find love, donated goods and services to a charity drive, debated their way out of sticky academic situations, stood up to bullies (of themselves and others), and didn’t smudge their eyeliner doing it. Cher, Dionne, and Tai taught me to hold my head high and that my standards were my own, were valid, and deserved respect.

And before Zooey Deschanel, they also taught me that feminism and femininity do not have to be mutually exclusive. And for that, both my 10- and 30-year-old selves are eternally grateful.