Clueless: Social Stratification and Hierarchy in Amy Heckerling’s Beverly Hills

Still from Clueless (Paramount Pictures, 1995) l to r: Elisa Donovan, Stacey Dash, Alicia Silverstone

In Amy Heckerling’s Clueless, social stratification and hierarchy define the stylized wilderness of the fictional Bronson Alcott High School. There’s an adopted caste system of social groups that move throughout the school, rarely overlapping with each other, and supporting the tiered world in which the film’s heroine, Cher Horowitz (Alicia Silverstone) rules from the top. Cher uses her popularity for her own betterment, but she also has flashes of noblesse oblige, understanding that her place of privilege also has its responsibilities. Though some unfamiliar with the film would dismiss Cher as an archetypal “dumb blonde,” it’s clear that though Cher may not be scholastically inclined, she’s a sharp and shrewd player in her world – a masterful manipulator of her circumstance, who has been able to flourish socially because of a combination of wit, guile, and dashing. The movie – based on Jane Austen’s comedy Emma – tells the story of social mobility and class warfare in the context of an affluent Beverly Hills high school.

Part of what makes the film so successful is Heckerling’s ability to write teenagers. Though 40 when she wrote the film, Clueless features sparkling dialogue that simultaneously lampoons and honours teenage lingo. The phrase “As if!” has entered the popular vernacular, and the film’s stylized take on high school life resonated with audiences in spite of the conspicuous wealth depicted in the film. The film easily transcends the familiar “teen comedy” or “high school comedy” trope. Cher ultimately emerges from this film as a flawed but enjoyable protagonist, as she proves to be a perfect guide to the world in which she’s perched near the top. The success of the film and its ingenious way of telling the story is due, in large part, to the talents of Heckerling, a veteran of teen comedies, and an auteur who has proven to be a formidable chronicler of teenaged life.

Amy Heckerling is celebrated for being one of the most consistent comedic directors in the 1980s and 1990s, helming mainstream comedies like the Look Who’s Talking franchise, National Lampoon’s European Vacation, and arguably her most important work (save for Clueless), 1982’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High, a film that could be seen as a precursor to Clueless. In Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Heckerling takes on Cameron Crowe’s script about the intertwining lives of high school teenagers. She gives audiences an almost Altman-esque look at the California high school, and as with she did with Silverstone in Clueless, she pulls an iconic, breakout, star-making performance from a then-rising star Sean Penn (Fast Times was only his second film) In the best of her work, Heckerling has an uncanny eye for telling funny, tart stories that manage to be clever and intellectual, and yet firmly mainstream. Clueless is ultimate Amy Heckerling film that combines the filmmaker’s intellectual vigor, commercial instincts, and satirical eye.

Clueless came out in the summer of 1995 in the midst of a minor trend of Jane Austen dramatizations. This Austen-boom, so to speak, saw big screen adaptations of Austen classics such as Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, Persuasion, and a more faithful adaptation of Emma. In Clueless, Heckerling takes the story of Emma: a rich young girl who meddles in the lives of others, and moves the story from 1815 England to 1995 Beverly Hills. Austen’s titular heroine is a spoiled woman whose life is choked with privilege. Due to her wealth, Emma doesn’t have to be married to earn wealth and security; and because her mother died, Emma assumed the role of head of her household. As a result, she’s bored and as a distraction, she turns to her community. Because she’s smart and beautiful, Emma is also very conceited and believes she can do no wrong, which inspires her to become a matchmaker, as well as, to engineer some social mobility. Hecklerling’s adaptation is pretty faithful, particularly, in how she brings Austen’s issues of class consciousness and highlights how timeless some of these issues are.

In Clueless, Emma is now Cher, though her concerns are largely the same. She lives in a giant Beverly Hills mansion, with a distracted father and must contend with the regular scolding of an older brother-figure. In her high school, Cher with her best friend Dionne (Stacey Dash), go through the hallways, leaders of their social pack. With her skill and acumen, Cher can manipulate those around her, including her teachers, who are susceptible to her charms. And similarly to when Emma found Harriet Smith, and worked on making her into a society lady, Cher finds her Harriet in Tai (the late Brittany Murphy), a genial outcast who “benefits” from Cher’s makeover. Though writers like Nore Ephron and Carrie Fisher have been likened to Austen – primarily for their ability to craft well-constructed comedies with biting wit – but Heckerling was able to capture Austen’s devastatingly sharp sense of humour and recast it in a 1990s setting. There are wonderful sight gags – the sight of cellphones plastered on people’s faces was hilarious back in 1995 – and the costumes (by Mona May) are cartoonishly over the top. Heckerling coats everything in a shiny, glossy, candy shell. But more importantly, Heckerling gives Clueless a strong narrator, who reports the various school cliques back to the audience, with an exhaustive breadth of knowledge and an unerring eye for detail. These different cliques rely on socio-economic status, gender, sexuality, cultural identity, and race. Though there’s nothing inherently better/worse about these different cliques, it’s clear that in Cher’s social circle, there’s strict guidance on when, why, and how members of various cliques interact.

In Austen’s Emma, the title character’s ultimate downfall comes when she realizes that true social mobility is impossible (at least in 1815 England) When Emma tries to raise her friend Harriet to that of her own social equal, other societal and economic factors outside of Emma’s control intrude. Emma learns that she cannot control everything in her society, despite her arrogance. In Cher’s case, social mobility works on a different level because 1990s Beverly Hills society is slightly more porous than 1880s England. Tai is able to pass successfully in Cher’s social circle because much of what marks someone in a certain social milieu are consumer-driven markers, namely clothes, makeup, and cars. Like most “misfits” in teen comedies, Tai’s conventional beauty is hidden under a modicum of frumpy, unstylish clothing, but after a makeover, she is Cher’s physical equal. In the sequences when Cher is working on Tai, the text also recalls another great literary figure, George Bernard Shaw, and his Pygmalion. Cher’s downfall, like Emma’s, comes when Cher learns that her skills at social planning are limited – though Tai is reasonably successful at aping high society, she also is a source of rancor when she rebels against Cher’s self-serving advice.

Like traditional romantic comedies, Clueless ends on a happy note. Cher, suitably chastened and wiser now, understands the errors of her way and gets the guy she’s meant to be with: not the handsome and dashing Christian Stovitz (Justin Walker), who ends up being queer; nor does she respond positively to the overtures of Elton Tiscia (Jeremy Sisto), whom Cher was grooming for Tai. Instead, like Emma is paired with the sensible George Knightly, Cher is paired with serious Josh Lucas (Paul Rudd), who brings out the best in her. In their pairing, Heckerling steps away from the Austen model (in which the rich and powerful Emma marries the even more rich and powerful Knightly), and instead engineers some smart social mobility: Josh, a “misfit” of sorts (which is why it makes sense that he and Tai found each other somewhat compatible) finds himself in love with the quintessential queen bee, who appears to be the antithesis of his self-serious and intellectual ideals; and Cher finds herself in love with Josh, a social introvert who rejects her way of life as shallow and unsubstantial. Both understand that they have “layers” – this is beautifully played out when Cher corrects Josh’s snobby girlfriend on a detail about Shakespeare’s Hamlet (though Cher’s point of reference is from Mel Gibson’s rendition of the play – a delicious, Heckerlingian way of braiding high and low art)

An important part of the lore in Clueless is the setting. Beverly Hills connotes wealth and affluence – but it can also mean nouveau riche and tacky. Heckerling’s characters constantly skirt and play with the boundaries that separate these concepts. Though the denizens of Beverly Hills are popularly seen as having access to high society, Heckerling does view these people with a tart eye. Cher and Dionne themselves seem impeachable – they understand the ins and outs of social grace and are therefore presented as the ideal, but the people around them, create a loud and colourful array of personalities that continuously push the boundaries of taste, elegance, and class, regardless of economic status. Young girls roam the hallways of Bronson Alcott High School, sporting bandages after nose jobs gifted to them for birthdays. A ladies’ restroom is awakened to a symphony of ringtones, as the collected group of young ladies each checks to see if it’s her phone that’s ringing. And the villain of the film, Amber Mariens (Elisa Donovan) eschews social niceties, openly mocking and bullying those she feels are social inferiors – the latter is especially important because though Cher also harbours snobbery, she isn’t as cruel when engaging with other cliques.

When Heckerling shows these lapses in the social rules, she’s highlighting just how superficial and arbitrary these restrictions are. These moments are meant to be funny and inject the film with much of its humour – especially when members of the cliques have to interact with each other (that is why the moments in the classrooms are so priceless) but also important because Heckerling is not only skewering a hierarchal system that is at base, unfair and without merit, but also, this is a sly case of Heckerling skewering her members of her own industry. The film would not work as it does if it was set in another setting. For example, Mark Water’s Mean Girls (2005) deals with many of the same themes as Clueless but the satirical edge is less cartoony, less camp, and less fabulous because instead of being set in the ridiculous Beverly Hills, it’s set in the more sensible Midwest. Heckerling is not only playing with a relatable subject – being under the bottom rung of the social ladder in high school – but she’s also playing with a recognizable subject: the stupidly rich people of Beverly Hills. She knows that audiences of Clueless were also raised on a steady diet of Beverly Hills 90210, and are very familiar with the tropes that come with a locale that is almost solely defined by the wealth of its residents.

Once Clueless was released, it was met with a warm reception by critics and achieved cult classic status. Its promotional material encapsulates what was thought of as “decadent, silly, rich” in 1995: The film’s main stars, Silverstone, Dash, and Murphy, standing on a grand, neo-classical staircase, covered in purple carpet, each with a cellphone near her face. The clothing is costumey and stylized, that is reminiscent of Patricia Field’s work (I was surprised that she wasn’t the stylist for the film) and the image is the kind of cartoony, rich Beverly Hills caricature that viewers immediately hang their expectations on; the gaudy trashiness of the staircase (I can’t tell what’s uglier – the black bannister or the gold fleur-de-lis) coupled with Silverstone’s absurd ensemble (she’s wearing a red mini dress and a feather boa – she’s dressed like a drag queen), clues us in that this movie is a giant goose to the posterior of Beverly Hills rich self-absorption.

Author: Peter Majda

I'm a MA graduate in English literature from DePaul University. I earned my BA in English literature from the University of Illinois. I completed my MA thesis on post-WWII black British literature, and am currently working on my MFA in creative writing. My favorite authors include Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Julia Child, David Sedaris, Amy Sedaris, Amy Tan, Harper Lee. I read about two-three books a week. I read mainly essay collections, nonfiction, humor. I am Chicago-raised, but based in the UK.

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