Clueless At 15: Appreciating A Failed Field Guide


It’s a truth universally acknowledged that everything awesome is somehow related to Jane Austen: forgiving empire-cut dresses, Colin Firth, Alan Rickman, funny girls who get the guy, Colin Firth, and of course, Amy Heckerling’s contemporary classic Clueless, built on Emma.

The film turns 15 this summer. While some things have changed (knee-highs, baby tees and mini-backpacks, oh my!), something about this movie remains near and dear to women of a certain age. Perhaps its endearing spot in our collective hearts is because certain golden truths are held sacred by Clueless. Truths like: Paul Rudd should be pursued, and how “it is one thing to spark up a doobie and get laced at parties, but it is quite another to be fried all day.” For me, however, there’s another reason for the nostalgic affection: when I was an awkward teenager moving to Los Angeles, I turned to Clueless as a field guide.

In 1996, I unexpectedly moved south from the comparatively sleepy Sacramento. I was 13 and it was the middle of 7th grade; the pressure of being the new kid was exponentially greater. Suddenly, in my mind’s frenzied desperation, I turned to what had been a funny movie about clothes and crushes, and it instantly became an instructional VHS cassette. I wanted to be cool! I wanted to fit in! I was convinced that, without Cher and the gang’s help, I was about to wander in looking like Tai, looking like I “could be a farmer in those clothes.”

Given my wardrobe, which consisted of my older brother’s Stussy cast-offs, a chain wallet, and some scrunchies, I wasn’t that wrong. Being a tomboy hadn’t set me back in Sacramento – but I knew, just knew that it would hurt me in Los Angeles. And, again, I wasn’t that wrong.

And so I sought help the only place I could find it. I admit, freely and of my own will, that the night before my very first day at my new school, I watched Clueless with a pad and paper and took notes.

Let me say that again. I took notes.

Was anyone ever so young?

Yes, of course, we all were, but that’s the secret of being a teenager (also, it turns out, a human being): what you think is a deeply personal experience no one has ever had before is actually a shared group experience. You are not special! And rather than this being a crushing blow to your ego, it could act as a bond between you and the rest of your pimply, awkward, horny seventh grade. Or, you know, humanity.

Anyway, I took notes. What I would do to find those notes now! I can remember making a note to call legs “stems” and my period “surfing the crimson wave,” and wondering how I’d carry all my books without an actual book bag. I’d never had a manicure; I wrote down “have fancy nails.” I vowed to understand what it meant for someone to be a “technical” virgin.

Within a few weeks at my new school, I learned it was just your average SoCal educational institution, beholden to its Labyrinthian codes of coolness. My movie-watching preparation wasn’t helping; my weirdness was just as painful as Tai’s. But there were no Chers or Dionnes to take me under their protective wings. And it quickly became clear that no matter how thorough my notes, I was never going to be a Cher or a Dionne – or even Tai! So my approach had to change: If I was going to stick out the more I tried to fit in, well then, I’ll just stay with sticking out. I’ll stick out more.

Clueless fell out of rotation then. In fact, I kind of turned against it. I looked down on Cher, as she feared I would. I thought of her as a “ditz with a credit card,” even though I was also a virgin who couldn’t drive. While Tai herself seemed to find a balance (as noted by her lack of mini skirt and cropped blouse when she goes to see Travis, her true soul mate, skate for sobriety in the third act) I, with a tenacity shared by 13 year-olds, hoarders and badgers alike, refused to see that I could be myself (smart, awkward, wardrobe ambiguous) and genuinely like a Cher. Either I wanted to morph into a Cher, or I had to hate her.

And then I grew up, thankfully. Being a teenager exhausting.

But as the many years (oh, God, how many did I say? That’s the dark side of growing up) years have passed, I’ve returned to Clueless. I am who I am, Cher is who she is, and I can accept it without animosity. With time comes perspective, and I can appreciate the film for the classic it is. Not only because it taught me that coffee stunts growth, or reminded me how good that “Kids in America” song is. But because even after you leave it – and you eventually come back – it’ll always be there, arms open, a reassuring tongue-in-cheek portrait of youth.

Just as Jane would like it.

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