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How Clueless Went From Sleeper Hit to Cult Classic

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Filmhounds Magazine

‘As if,' says Cher, dressed boldly in a vivid, yellow-plaid two-piece paired with white, knee-high socks: a look, which, since its first outing in 1995, has become an iconic statement, reproduced worldwide in music-videos, as Halloween costumes and for purchase in popular retailers such as Urban Outfitters and Topshop. Since they hit screens in July 1995, love for the Beverly Hills clique and their emblematic '90s style continues to accumulate. Given its loveable reputation and accessibility on multiple streaming services, the film draws in new fans with every passing year. But why? Isn't it strange that a twenty-five-year-old movie still has so much influence over fashion trends and popular culture? How exactly did Clueless morph from a teen-favourite into a widespread, timeless cultural phenomenon?


Upon its conception, Clueless struggled to get off the ground. Writer and director had ideas about making a teen sitcom centring around popular girls from affluent families in Los Angeles. Yet Heckerling found herself gravitating toward , particularly ‘', and characters she felt modern-day audiences might still relate to. Studios didn't meet Heckerling's idea to adapt ‘Emma' into a present-day feature film with much enthusiasm: the days of regurgitated John Hughes style teenage movies were over. Eventually, Clueless made its way to legendary producer Scott Rudin, whose belief in the project put Pictures' gears into motion.


Already a fan of her appearances in some Aerosmith music videos, Heckerling wanted seventeen-year-old to play the film's materialistic, matchmaking protagonist, . Brittany Murphy snagged the role of Tai, an innocent stoner kid who becomes Cher's make-over project, and – despite being twenty-eight at the time of filming – bagged the role of Cher's best friend, Dionne Davenport. Heckerling toyed with the idea of Ben Affleck in the role of Josh before she eventually settled on . It proved a fine choice: rosy-cheeked, charming and gentlemanly, Rudd continues to allure new fans.

With little in the way of promotion from Paramount, Clueless opened in 1,653 theatres across the US on July 18th 1995. It rapidly became the number one movie in America, generating $10.6 million on its opening weekend. The film was a surprise sleeper hit: Paramount failed to consider the legions of teenage girls who would flock to theatres up and down the country to see a female-led movie depicting a fun look at lives similar to their own. Clueless generated $56.6 million during its theatrical run, becoming the 32nd most popular movie of 1995. A roaring success for all involved, the film's success launched many iconic careers while also bringing about a new wave of marketable, female-led teen-movies. 


Now, twenty-five years after leaving the big-screen, fans love and revere Clueless more than ever. There are fan-clubs, books, fashion and countless examples of memorabilia dedicated to the film; you're never more than a few clicks away from purchasing an ‘As If' or ‘Rollin with the Homies' crew-neck from your fast-fashion website of choice. The popular social media app Tik Tok recently stirred up even more and acclaim for the film, with users paying homage to the film's fashion in their millions. In fact, it's impossible to scroll on the app for more than two minutes without hearing: ‘Omg, I am totally buggin'—a classic Cher line.


It could be that much of what makes Clueless a timeless cult-classic stems from Jane Austen's ‘Emma'. Renowned for her satire and mocking criticisms of society, especially regarding women's social standing, many of Austen's critical themes still have prevalence today, despite modern society's advancements and progressive understanding of gender. The issues concerning Emma Woodhouse in 1815 – pursuing marriage to attain economic security, popularity, wealth, young love, matchmaking, female oppression –  still represent universal ideas and worries for young women, both in 1995 Beverly Hills and the pandemic-riddled chaos of 2021. There are many other instances in which classic literature has taken on a second life in the form of teen movies: see 10 Things I Hate About You and She's the Man. It seems that some stories will live forever.


Clueless dared to subvert the mainstream perception of teenage girls. There's a typical portrayal of ‘popular' girls in TV shows and movies, one that dismisses their lifestyles as ‘dumb' and ‘vapid'. While Cher very much embodied the archetypal airhead, Heckerling's script worked to validate her interests in boys, fitness and fashion. Society often dismisses teenage girls and their fads, even when they so often prove to have their finger on the pulse when it comes to the next big thing. Rebelliously, Heckerling didn't attempt to scorn the young women in her script for their attitudes and materialism. The girls she created appeared as intelligent, real-women, with genuine relationships and unique personalities. Sure, they each have some self-improvement work to do, but don't we all?


Ahead of her time in many respects, Heckerling spent time in real Los Angeles high schools in order to create an authentic image of teenage-life in the '90s. Having observed the diverse ecosystem of teenage life, Heckerling felt it was essential to represent gay and African-American characters in her script. Many movies at the time used minorities for tokenistic bonus points. Clueless, however, delivered nuanced characters, each integral and multi-dimensional in their own regard. This authenticity continues to pull in new audiences: it's essential for young people to feel seen and represented on screen without having their skin colour or sexuality be the movie's most controversial plot point. 


Of course, Clueless became iconic for one primary reason above all others: fashion. The film drips with style. In the era of grunge, baggy and edgier clothing prevailed in the mainstream. Costume designer Mona May took some creative initiative, stepping away from the prevailing Nirvana-style grunge look of the '90s by dressing the girls in a hybrid of designer and vintage looks. Cher and Dionne's girly dress sense rebelled against mainstream fashion, permitting girls to embrace a more ultra-feminine sense of style. The film's bold looks encourage individual style whilst radiating '90s nostalgia; fearless fashion statements are a huge draw for all modern audiences. 


Clueless mania lives on still. Set in a simpler time, the film radiates the comforting innocence of a life before smartphones and social media—a period, those old enough to remember it, look back on fondly. Yet, perhaps the reason for Clueless‘ cult status boils down to one crucial factor: like Cher, we all have so much to learn about life, we will make mistakes, fall in love with the wrong people, unintentionally hurt those we love through our narcissism and naiveties. There is something pleasantly reassuring about Cher's life and knowing that at least somebody else out there is just as clueless as you are.

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