The Ultimate “Makeover” in Clueless: Morality Hidden in Drama

by Brendan Boustany, Wyn Veiga, Emily Nagler, & Gabriela Horwath

Clueless is a coming of age tale that traces the development of wealthy L.A. teen, Cher Horowitz, played by Alicia Silverstone, as she searches the glitzy world around her for emotional substance and meaning. Exuding everything L.A., Cher begins the film as a spoiled, shallow, and relatively innocent girl who devotes all of her time to her self-image. Even more absurdly, during an extravagant montage of her life, she states, “I actually have a way normal life for a teenage girl,” emphasizing her profound ignorance regarding her privilege. Act two sees Cher realize that she initially undervalued emotional fulfillment and maturity, causing her to set off to find true love in the superficial environment around her. As the film progresses and Cher navigates the gossip and drama of high school, she learns that there is more to life than glam. Cher’s journey lies in the genre of drama as she struggles to find her revised place in her life through vignettes with her peers.

The superficial charisma of Beverly Hills imbues Clueless during Cher’s initial traipse through her school. However, at the film’s core lies in an astute critique of the society it initially appears to admire. As the narrative progresses, the film sharply presents issues with adolescence, gender relations, and socioeconomic disparities. Moreover, Cher develops an empowering sense of womanhood, reflecting on gender norms and their effects. She becomes aware of her privilege from a financial aspect, eventually essaying to make a positive impact on those around her. While Cher’s goals begin as selfish pursuits to boost her image, she shifts to relative patronage and goodwill as the film progresses. Her newfound self-awareness allows her to become a more genuine individual and friend, transforming her into a sincere and caring person. 

Director Amy Heckerling aimed to deliver Clueless as both a classic drama (and comedy) film, as well as a resource to improve adolescent teens’ morality by poignantly presenting friendship and empathy in an unlikely setting. Cher’s maturation throughout the film represents the bulk of her arc and importance to Heckerling’s intent. Josh, Cher’s step-brother, serves as a sharp counter to Cher, emphasizing the most extreme aspects of her ignorance through his interactions with her at the beginning of the film. Notably, when Josh turns on the news in the living room, Cher combatively points out his greed with the television and obsession with the news. 

Cher believes that intellectual pursuits are irrelevant to her life in L.A., and therefore completely uninteresting, stating, “Until mankind is peaceful enough not to have violence on the news, there’s no point in taking it out of shows that need it for entertainment value.” After Josh attempts to plead with her about the importance of social awareness and significant world events, Cher changes the channel to cartoons instead. Valuing kitschy entertainment over substance, Cher’s isolation from the real world and her disinterest in social activism are unyieldingly portrayed in the first third of the film. With this, Heckerling suggests that most wealthy teenage girls lack social awareness due to their socio-economic profile. Cher’s behavior is not abnormal for someone her age, but merely a subscription to this generational trend.

Cher’s misguided attempts toward patronage translate into positive change at various points in the film. In act one, Cher and Dion denote significant time setting up Mrs. Geist with Mr. Hall, hoping that Mr. Hall will hand out better grades as a result. Cher sees her teacher as a lonely man, whose anger at his shortcomings manifest themselves in the grades he gives. Therefore, she sets out to find him a life partner. While her intentions were selfish, she succeeds in creating a real, endearing match, resulting in both teachers becoming happier, more carefree people. 

Similarly, she directs her ‘charity’ at Tai, a transfer student who is completely green to the superficial politics of L.A. Cher considers this mission to be one of admirable altruism and empathy. Again, Cher’s actions reflect an element of selfishness, illustrating that her faulty morals are conceived from a heightened self-opinion rather than harmful intentions. 

Cher’s shifting priorities come to light as she attempts to dissuade Tai’s interest in aloof skateboarder, Travis Birkenstock. Although Travis is genuine, kind, and loyal to Tai, Cher maintains that he will never do since he does not hold the clout or respectable appearance necessary for anyone who wants to climb the social ladder. Therefore, she attempts to bring Tai together with the popular and well-groomed Elton. Although there is no genuine connection between the two, Cher attempts to artificially create a relationship due to her own vanity and narrow belief in love. When Elton ultimately makes an aggressive move towards Cher, she realizes that he is a bad person despite his wealth and good looks. As Elton abandons Cher in a parking lot after she spurned his advances, she begins to understand that social standing and morality do not necessarily run parallel. By the end of the film, Tai and Travis fall in love, and Cher happily attends his skateboarding event. Travis’s arc from his initial ‘acceptance speech’ at the beginning of the film, when Cher scoffs at every word he states, to being an accepted member of the friend group illustrates Cher’s shifting values throughout the film. She is now capable of being happy for someone else’s achievement, and she enjoys a rough-and-tumble skateboarding event at that. 

Christian Stovitz is another character who teaches Cher about the depth of the world around her. Initially, Christian appeared to be a shallow, handsome boy who would serve as a middling love interest with Cher. Cher herself seemed to think this too. However, after Cher spent a considerable amount of time getting ready for their movie date, Christian abruptly leaves Cher’s house. Cher, who remains inside her narrow bubble of viewing everyone around her, is shocked by this exit. Later, when Murray informs her that Christian is likely a homosexual, Cher becomes good friends with Christian, though not in the fashion that she originally thought their relationship would go. Nevertheless, Cher finds pleasure and goodwill from having Christian around. With this, she concludes that a change of plans regarding someone’s role in her life should be welcomed and accepted to live a fulfilling life, illustrating her growing maturity and fading fragility.

Cher’s steadfast sense of womanhood grows out of her resolute commitment to her friends and herself. When Tai, plainly dressed, arrives at the tennis practice at the start of the film, Cher disappointedly states that the new girl is “clueless.” She believes that everyone’s value at the school lies in their looks and popularity.  

Cher, therefore, goes out of her way to include Tai in her circle of friends, believing that the new girl is in dire need of a makeover. While this is motivated by a superficial desire to help boost Tai’s popularity, as well as stroke her own ego, their interactions lead to a genuine friendship, unaffected by the trivialities of Cher’s pursuit. At the party in “the valley,” when Tai is hit in the head by Elton’s shoe, Cher runs to her rescue, exhibiting genuine concern for Tai’s well-being. Cher appears to ignore any feeling of embarrassment that stemmed from the incident, even assuring Tai that the event was negligible, and far from humiliating. Their argument near the end of the film demonstrates the depth of their bond, as both characters express the earnest feelings they have towards one another. Their tearful reconciliation further demonstrates the sincerity of their friendship. 

Additionally, following the party, Cher’s “no means no” attitude towards Elton’s forceful advances testifies to her staunch commitment to herself as both a woman and a friend to Tai. Although the incident lands her at a remote gas station by herself in the middle of the night, Cher never questions her decision to deny Elton’s advances, illustrating her commitment to self-respect and her resilient sense of womanhood. She also abandons her matchmaking pursuit of Elton for Tai, indicating her loyalty to her friend and her innate desire to protect those she cares about. Her growing respect for Tai’s differences allows Cher to understand that “normal” and “popular” are not binary terms, and if something feels right to her, she should pursue it, regardless of what others (such as Elton, her father, Christian, or another guy) may think.

Cher exemplifies her innocence and wavering morals in an argument with Tai near the end of the film. Even though Tai ultimately hurls the cruelest insult of the fight, “You’re a virgin who can’t drive,” Cher seems crushed by the idea that she has hurt her friend, indicating that if she knew the negative effects that her do-good personality and actions had on people, she would not continue to do what she does.

Following the argument, Cher reflects on why she was so upset that Tai liked Josh, and she realizes that the aspects of Josh she hated (his social activism and craving for knowledge) were ones that she felt she needed to do for herself. In the end, she does not change to become someone that Josh likes, but instead one that she alone admires. Her recognition of her own cluelessness is what drives her to become a consciously moral individual. Her love for Josh allows for the most significant turning point in terms of her character development: she wanted to change something for the sole reason of changing it, instead of garnering more support or recognition for her “charity.” Through this, the film crescendos its thesis: virtuous actions must evolve from conscious decisions to do good. Cher’s experiences ultimately allow her to reevaluate what she values most. Seeing that Tai finds happiness through friends and relationships, and not through the clothes she wears, Cher eventually understands that superficial pursuits will never lead to substantial prosperity.

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Cher’s ignorance and selfishness dramatically shift as she begins to venture outside of her privileged bubble and explore Josh’s interests. When Mrs. Geist asks the class if anyone is interested in community service, Cher eagerly raises her hand to participate. Fast forward, and Cher is suddenly leading the Pismo Beach fundraiser at school. Not only is she now committed toward the betterment of society, but she also regains her popularity at school for her activism. When walking around school grounds with her captain badge, she receives a standing ovation for her efforts. Again, Cher receives such support when she hosts a table for the Pismo Beach Fundraiser and becomes instantly surrounded by intrigued students. 

The film began with a flashy montage that displayed Cher’s narrow focus on success in school as well as her social life. She demonstrated these interests by trying to set up Ms. Geist and Mr. Hall with little interest in their actual happiness and primary interest in getting better grades. Her success in this endeavor nudged her to continue committing kind acts. Her next “project” became Tai, an initial materialistic pursuit that lead to the two becoming very close. By the end, Cher found a unique, caring, supportive friend and became genuinely interested in Tai’s best interests and happiness. Cher’s most epiphanic realization of her ignorance and selfishness came from emerging feelings for Josh. Reflecting on her feelings for him, she chose to mature and alter her world views. By the film’s conclusion, Cher learns to show empathy and understanding for her peers in contrast to merely seeing them as beneficial or harmful towards her social image. Fittingly, the film closes at a wedding, illustrating the warmth and happiness that Cher receives after changing her persona through all of this. Cher’s peace by the end of the film demonstrates to the audience that while self-improvement can be fraught with obstacles, positive change is possible if one can commit to reevaluating and shifting how they view and interact with the world.

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