Power to the Females

Paper by Rachel Zehnder.

Clueless is a 1995 American comedy film loosely based on Jane Austen’s 1815 novel Emma. Cher Horowitz is the main character, played by Alicia Silverstone. The film is set in the town of Beverly Hills, showcasing the rich, privileged lives of Cher and her best friend, Dionne Davenport, as they play dress up with daddy’s money and are on the rise to be the most popular girls in all of Beverly Hills. Clueless was written and directed by Amy Heckerling and produced by Scott Rudin; it was released in the United States on July 19, 1995. When Clueless made its debut, it was a monumental time, reflecting the rise of third-wave feminism in the 1990s; the new chick flick suggested it was possible to embrace aspects of traditional ‘girlie-girl’ femininity and still be strong, ambitious, and empowered. Clueless could even be claimed as the kick starter to female-based movies like Legally Blonde and Easily A. (Salah). The film spun off a television sitcom and a series of books and depicted an assimilation narrative.

Clueless can fall into multiple genres, including romance, comedy, teen, and coming of age. While many analyses’ of Clueless focus on Cher being shallow and only caring about money, fashion and boys, there is much more under the surface pointing toward women’s feminity. This paper will analyze a specific scene that shows the power of women going against society’s stereotypes and standing up for themselves. Following this, various other locations in the film showcase the female characters embracing their “girly-girl” qualities and will relate to the movie’s overall theme of femininity.

The scene from Clueless this paper analyzes is when Elton drives Cher home from the party. This scene is in the middle of the movie (39:30-42:00) and depicts the underlying theme of femininity in Clueless. This scene is a significant turning point in this comedic love story and captures the essence and power of women standing up for themselves. Before this scene, Cher and the other female characters are never shown standing up for themselves. For example, in Shot 7, Dionne allows her boyfriend to treat her like an object, and it takes time for her to see her worth.

The scene this paper analyzes begins outside the party in the driveway (39:30). Elton and Cher toss Tai back and forth, deciding what guy will take her home. Cher desperately tries to make Tai and Elton go together, but Elton insists on taking Cher, which results in him pushing Cher into his car. While Elton is driving Cher home from the party, Cher continues to hint at how beautiful and unique Tai is; however, Elton has his eyes on Cher and ignores everything she says about Tai.

Cher then smiles and tells Elton that she wants him to be happy, having seen how hard his previous breakup was. Unexpectedly, Elton turns the car into the parking lot of a gas station, declaring, “I knew it!”. Cher is confused as Elton unclips his seatbelt and leans over to kiss her. Disgusted, Cher tries to clarify, “Don’t you mean Tai? You have her picture in her locker,” but he tells her that he put up that picture because she was the photographer. Elton leans over and tries to kiss her again, but she pushes him away. When he tries again, she is so fed up and disgusted that she yells at him, which causes him to throw up his hands defensively. Elton accuses Cher of having flirted with him all year, and when Cher insists that she was only trying to set him up with Tai, he is shocked: “Why would I go with Tai?” Elton uses the excuse that he and Cher “just make sense” due to their wealthy backgrounds and that he would never get with Tai. When he tries to kiss her again, Cher pushes him away and angrily gets out of the car.

This scene employs many different cinematographic techniques to emphasize the theme of femininity in Clueless such as camera angles, lighting, dialogue, and the setting. Firstly, the camera angle for the majority of the scene is close-up shots of Elton’s forceful gestures towards Cher and, in return, close-ups of Cher’s uncomfortable reactions. To understand why Heckerling used many close-up shots Artlist Blog in 2020 says, “…the close-up shot is the best way to show detail. While medium, long, and extreme wide shots show, the context of a scene, the close-up, and the extreme close-up can reveal information that remains unseen from afar.” (Pangburn) Similarly, close-ups show more emotion and enlarge the scene’s significance, which is what Heckerling aimed to do. While Elton is driving Cher home, the shot is from Cher’s perspective in the passenger seat, showing him singing and tuning her out, then switches to Cher, trying to make conversation hyping her friend Tai up to Elton. These specific close-up angles show this scene is intimate and focus on the small details of each of the characters. This scene’s implicit meaning is much greater than what’s shown explicitly.

The meticulous angles used point towards underlying feelings Heckerling wants us to feel, such as disgust and anger towards Elton and, conversely, feeling anxious for and proud of Cher. Another camera angle used is an overhead shot when Elton skids away. This angle shows Elton’s anger and how he abruptly leaves when Cher gets out of his car. Just because he didn’t get what he wanted from Cher, he throws a pissy fit, as many boys do in real life. Director Heckerling creates a suspension of belief which, according to Language Humanities, is “an important element in drama and storytelling. It refers to an audience becoming emotionally invested in the story despite knowing it is not happening. In effect, the audience implicitly agrees to pretend the story’s reality is the only reality.” (Rankin) Heckerling uses multiple camera angles to make the viewer feel as if they are present and forget it is just a movie.

Additionally, the next prevalent cinematographic element in this scene is the lighting. Heckerling keeps the entire scene dark while still having a clear shot and no contrast. Elton driving Cher late at night with this lighting sets the tone and creates viewer interpretations of his intentions with Cher, making the watcher feel something might happen between them. Still, with the other elements Heckerling uses, it is made clear to the viewer that Cher gives Elton no indication of affection and never shows interest in him.

This is demonstrated by the next element used, dialogue. Cher’s change of conversation reinforces that Elton makes her uncomfortable. Her discussion becomes brief, and her tone switches from caring about his breakup to raising her voice to get him to stop. Cher’s character’s actions strengthen director Heckerling’s argument towards strong female characters. Cher is strong, ambitious, and courageous for standing up to Elton and not playing into his flirting. Throughout the film, Cher’s character is loyal and is not afraid to speak up for herself and her dearest girlfriends. Another scene that adds to this is when Dionne and Cher confront Dionne’s disgusting boyfriend.

The last element that’s essential to this scene is the setting of it. Heckerling chose an empty gas station parking lot for Elton to pull into, which was no coincidence. Celtx Blog in 2019 says, “The screenplay setting has a profound impact on the characters that go well beyond the obvious. Of course, the setting will dictate how characters speak and dress, but it will also affect how they think and feel. The same characters in one setting might act completely differently in another.” (Moffatt) This scene’s setting is particular to what is occurring. The quiet parking lot points towards Elton’s stereotypical male intentions of wanting a secret place to take a girl. Also, the setting prevents the viewer from being distracted by outside environmental factors.

Clueless uses techniques that aid in showing the power of women knowing their worth, from close-up camera angles, lighting, and dialogue to the specific settings used. Without Cher and Elton’s conversation (dialogue) and these other elements, this scene wouldn’t be as effective in forming the film’s theme of femininity. Cher’s usage of her catchphrase, “As-if,” also adds to her femininity; she is unapologetically herself. The women in Clueless also embrace their “girliness” through their outfits and feminine products, such as hair and makeup, while always looking their best. This is an element that is vital to the overall narrative of Clueless. Director Heckerling matched the preppy schoolgirl costumes perfectly to the female characters. Cher even has a computer in her closet that formulates chic outfits daily. Heckerling is clever with the character’s dialogue, Cher is quick to shut down Elton’s flirting by switching the topic back to Tai, and she voices distaste and doesn’t give Elton consent to kiss her. All these stylistic elements work together to create the feminine narrative of Clueless.

The analyzed scene shows a different side to the “entitled and ditsy” Cher, where her courage shines through. This scene shapes the narrative of the film, developing the theme by painting the picture of sexual harassment in a subtle, low-key way while simultaneously revealing Cher’s morals and beliefs which align with the other female characters in Clueless. While Cher is consistently a loyal, supportive friend to Tai, helping her and Elton get together, the male brain of Elton is convinced Cher wants him, so he throws himself onto her. This scene uses exciting cinematography, editing, and dialogue through mise-en-scene to further depict the theme and prove Clueless is more than just a romantic comedy. From this scene, it is clear that Heckerling wanted to bring attention to the importance of consent and female empowerment. Zooming out, looking at Clueless as a whole, many scenes reinforce the theme of feminism. This scene relates to other locations in the movie, such as at the party when Elton gazes at Cher across the room.

Additionally, Dr. Susan Hopkins in 2015 on Philosophy now said, “A particularly postfeminist moment in Clueless occurs when Cher manipulates a teacher into changing her grades: “I told my PE teacher an evil male had broken my heart, so she raised my C to a B.” (Hopkins) Cher throughout the film is confident in her femininity even if that means using it to her advantage sometimes. Her character exemplifies the girliest side of feminism, where Cher sees no shame in being herself even if viewers classify it as self-obsessed.

The setting in the car relates to the theme of femininity because, lots of times, girls feel vulnerable and like they have no control in a situation like Elton and Cher’s; however, the form of the film Clueless flips it, and the power lies within the female characters. Cinema Femme explained that, due to feminist women being stereotyped as nonconforming archetypes, women’s sexuality and sexual appeal are constantly questioned. (Salah) Clueless’s narrative and film form crush this stereotype from the cinematographic elements that have been mentioned. The catchphrases Cher and her best friend use are repetitive and illustrate their solid girly-girl personalities.

Similarly, the female character’s unique outfits, hair, and makeup show femininity in full flex. The camera steers the viewer’s attention to these elements through close-ups, zoom-ins, and lighting throughout the film. When developing the film, Heckerling wanted to target a women-based audience, but in an interview, she said, “The thought was that making a movie just for girls would limit your audience, and they wanted something that would appeal to boys.” (Bland) The developmental process of Clueless was long, and Heckerling considered many details, even down to the now-famous Dolce & Gabbana yellow plaid set Cher wears. Not knowing the impact her film would have, Heckerling’s choice of outfit for Cher has inspired many, including singer Iggy Azalea. Arizona State University’s Department of English published, “Iggy Azalea knew what she was doing last year when the pop star dressed up as Cher Horowitz and parodied the 1995 film “Clueless” for the music video to her hit song “Fancy.”Even though many of Azalea’s fans weren’t even born when the film was released, chances are they knew what her video referenced. That’s because “Clueless,” which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, has exhibited some definite staying power in a culture that cycles through trends faster than Horowitz could say, “As if!” (Greguska) This alone shows Heckerling’s film’s impact on women in younger generations and femininity in general. These small elements she used are subconsciously engrained into millions of people’s brains, which is why even 25 years later, Clueless is recognized as one of the most groundbreaking chic flics in the world.

Clueless follows a 3-act structure which strengthens the narrative. Starting with Act 1, we meet the high-class Cher while she gets ready in the morning, showcasing her strong girly-girl personality. Moving onto Act 2 when Cher’s good deeds and set up of Tai and Elton start, leading to Act 3 when she and Josh kiss on the steps and confess their love for each other. Clueless follows a Classical Hollywood Narrative and is laid out chronologically with a climax and resolution. This paper analyzes the scene after Act 2 when Cher’s love-matching era is in action at the party. Throughout the film, Cher and the other female characters develop into strong, amazing women and friends. This narrative structure makes it easy to follow Cher Horowitz’s journey, realizing her true potential and self-worth.

In conclusion, Clueless has many themes just like any other Classical Hollywood film but primarily showcases how women can be unapologetically themselves and shouldn’t be stereotyped to fit society’s standards; women’s femininity. Cher Horowitz’s character perfectly depicts what it’s like to have no shame in showing her most feminine qualities and how to use them to her advantage. Analyzing the scene between Cher and Elton is critical to understanding the rest of the film’s form because it takes a real scenario and simplifies it to see how women are portrayed as sexual objects and nothing more. Women deserve love and should be confident, sexy, and funny without worrying about what society and men think of them. There’s no such thing as being too “girly,” and just because Cher’s character seems surface level and that she only cares about her looks, there is always a deeper level to women that needs to be understood. This scene shows what a man shouldn’t do, and Cher’s response is an important message for girls and women of all ages. Clueless has paved the way for women of all ages and won’t be forgotten anytime soon.

Works Cited
Bland, Simon. “‘I Wanted It to Feel like Entering a World That Makes You Happy’ – Amy
Heckerling on Clueless at 25.” Little White Lies, 19 July 2020,
Emma Greguska. “ASU’s Jane Austen Expert Weighs in on ‘Clueless,’ Feminist Icons in Pop
Culture.” Department of English, 21 Dec. 2015, english.asu.edu/content/asus-jane-austen-expert-weighs-clueless-feminist-icons-pop-cultu re.
Hopkins, Susan. “Philosophy Now.” Philosophynow.org, 2015, philosophynow.org/issues/109/Clueless.
Moffatt, Noel. “5 Ways a Story’s Setting Can Influence a Screenplay’s Narrative.” Celtx Blog, 15 Jan. 2019, blog.celtx.com/5-ways-a-storys-setting-can-influence-a-screenplays-narrative/.
Pangburn, DJ. “The Power of the Close up Shot Why When and How to Use It | Artlist.” Blog – Artlist.io, 16 Aug. 2020,
Rankin, Alan. “What Is a Suspension of Disbelief? (with Pictures).” Language Humanities, 15
Oct. 2022, www.languagehumanities.org/what-is-a-suspension-of-disbelief.htm. Salah, Jaylan. “‘Clueless’ Broke down Barriers and Paved the Way for Today’s Comedies.”
Cinema Femme, 17 Dec. 2019, cinemafemme.com/2019/12/17/clueless-broke-down-barriers-and-paved-the-way-for-tod ays-comedies/.

About this entry