25 Years Later, I Now Realize That Travis Birkenstock Is the Real Hero of 'Clueless'

Danielle Sepulveres
Photo credit: Elaine Chung
Photo credit: Elaine Chung

From Esquire

A lot of things about Clueless hit a little different 25 years later. Actually a lot different. I remember seeing it in theaters with friends—our parents dropped us off at because we were teenagers but not yet old enough to have a license. That scene of Dionne freaking out when accidentally driving on the freeway was terrifyingly real in the way it foreshadowed what was looming just ahead of us in terms of responsibility (even while remaining hilarious).

Just the other day, after a rewatch of the movie for what was maybe the thousandth time, my friend remarked “I feel like we didn’t react strongly enough back then to the fact that Cher ends up dating her step-brother.” And it’s true, I never realized—or cared to notice—how weird the central romance ends up being. I love Clueless, I always will. Amy Heckerling took Jane Austen’s Emma Woodhouse and plopped her into Beverly Hills as Cher Horowitz (Alicia Silverstone), and the result is a '90s coming of age classic. It's a movie that's still quoted and meme'd today. We still discuss how Paul Rudd (and Jeremy Sisto! Elton has done well for himself!) seems to get even hotter with age. One thing that stands out more than 25 years later is how Travis Birkenstock is kind of an underrated character. Breckin Meyer took what could have just been a one note stoner role and made it something far more interesting. Upon deeper reflection all these years later, I think he might even be a hero of the film.

As a teen watching Clueless my focus was mainly on Cher and Dionne (and Tai) but specifically how everything Cher said and did was gospel. She was a master schemer but it was for the good of her report card and her fellow students! Her closet was mind bogglingly full of incredible outfits that looked fantastic on her! She looked out for her father’s health and well-being even though his primary level of speaking is through angry shouting. Cher changes her mind about Travis as part of her evolution to become a better person, but her judgment of Travis as a person is short-sighted and off the mark from the get-go.

While Cher makes clear her disdain toward Travis for a majority of the movie, if you break down all his scenes, he’s genuinely a nice guy who is trying to better himself just like Cher. And he is also ALWAYS nice to her (and everyone else he encounters!) even when she doesn’t deserve it. He praises her debate skills in class, he attempts to talk to her about schoolwork (even though it’s partly a ploy to invite Tai to a party), and offers her a joint when she’s yelling at him for accidentally spilling a drink on her shoes. When he is anointed as the person in class with the most tardies, Cher looks irritated at his delight in “accepting” the honor, solidifying her judgment of Travis as a pothead goof-off never to be taken seriously. But if you listen to the words of his speech, it doesn’t tell the story of the loadie slacker Cher and Dionne would have you believe he is. It depicts a happy-go-lucky teen who doesn’t have as much money as the rest of his Beverly Hills peers, and has to bum rides or take the city bus to get to school which tends to result in his tardiness. Ok yes, sometimes he stops for Egg McMuffins but whom among us wouldn’t be late once in awhile for the chance to grab one of those on the way to school.

I won’t say that Travis is the most mature character in the film (hocking a loogey and catching it in his mouth disqualifies him) but he possesses some strong traits that I would have loved for the guys in my high school to have in the '90s. He’s kind to the new girl without provocation and openly compliments Tai’s artistic skills instead of playing it cool or aloof—warm behavior that develops further at the party he invites her to in the Valley. I will also die on the hill that he tried to bring ice to help Tai after she nearly got impaled by a flying shoe. Cher is the one who actually put the ice and towel together and yet somehow Elton receives the credit for the gesture which is infuriating to me. This also proves how easy it is to overlook the person who genuinely cares about your well-being while you’re busy vying for the attention of the cool guy who doesn’t even know your last name. An argument could be made that Travis is the most responsible of all the characters, considering he casually completes a 12-Step program while still in high school, invoking the ninth step when he apologizes to Cher months after ruining her shoes at the party. During a time when many teens are usually experimenting and pushing limits of excess, he up and decides to go in the opposite direction. Also a man apologizing? With sincerity? Who knew it was possible! When Travis competes at the skateboarding competition and is grinning ecstatically at Cher and Tai after he does well, Cher not only realizes how motivated Travis is, she accepts that her initial judgment of him as a person was totally wrong. And in that moment she also makes amends for past mistakes.

So many iconic teen movies over the years expected you to root for the popular guys who upon closer examination actually exhibited really distasteful behavior. Zack (Freddie Prinze Jr.) allows Laney (Rachel Leigh Cook) to be humiliated at a party in She’s All That without stepping in to defend her. That's similar to Blane's (Andrew McCarthy) actions in Pretty in Pink and Henry (Dougray Scott) in Ever After. It’s almost like there’s a whole genre of dudes allowing the girls they supposedly care about be treated like garbage at public events. And yes, Travis is not the main character of the movie, but he’s also not just the throwaway stoner with a handful of funny lines that I took him for the first time I watched Clueless. Tai was immediately attracted to Travis because he was nice to her and then dissuaded of her own feelings by Cher and Dionne believing they were looking out for Tai’s best interest. Rewatching this now I can’t believe that I didn’t realize back then how common it was in high school to timidly admit you were crushing on someone just to have someone in your trusted circle scoff and say nah you can do better. And if you really think about it, it’s actually Elton who fits Cher’s description of someone who comes to class and occasionally says bonehead things, not Travis.

I can often look back at romcoms I loved from years ago and realize that the “nice” character was actually creepy or problematic (hello Can’t Hardly Wait, Love Actually, American Pie). But Travis Birkenstock’s niceness will forever abide.

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