Twenty years ago this week, Amy Heckerling’s Clueless opened, introducing America to the candy-colored, pop-grunge Beverly Hills world of Cher Horowitz (Alicia Silverstone), a deceptively air-headed teen fashionista (who chided her mugger for not knowing who Alaïa was, and her sidekicks Dionne (Stacey Dash) and Tai (Brittany Murphy, RIP). Very few teen movies before or since (Grease, The Breakfast Club, Heathers, Mean Girls) have gone as far in nailing the youth zeitgeist of a decade or spawning lines that are still freely quoted by people who were only five years old when the film came out. Let’s look at the myriad ways that the ultimate nineties summer movie changed the pop-culture game forever…and also made it okay to party with the Haiti-ans.
1. IT WAS THE FIRST TRULY-FASHION DRIVEN TEEN FILM.
Sure, The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, and Heathers all boasted incredible clothes (the long skirts! the shoulderpads!), but Clueless was the first film to make a winkingly self-conscious fetish out of fashion, dropping references hard and fast to not only Alaïa but Calvin Klein, Fred Segal and the “ensembly challenged.” Cher even computer-matches her outfits in some extremely Internet 1.0 version of Asos or Pinterest. The costumes, by Mona May, looked like what girls were wearing in the mid-nineties schoolgirl skirts, crop tops and over-the-knee stockings–but in stylized colors and plaids that heightened the film’s playful satire. The film’s fashion even earned the highly dubious honor of being mimicked by Iggy Azalea.
2. IT PREDICTED THE DIGITAL LIVES OF MILLENNIALS.
There’s a scene in Clueless that predicts the 2000s and the 2010s: When Cher and Dionne, talking on their (surprisingly compact!) 1995-era cell phones, round a corner at school, merge, and seamlessly segue from cell-phone to IRL conversation. In an era when people were just acclimating themselves to email via dial-up AOL, the scene provoked howls of laughter in theaters, but it effectively foreshadowed a millennial word where IRL and digital communication overlap 24-7.
3. IT INTRODUCED THE SEEMINGLY SHALLOW BUT ACTUALLY SMART HEROINE.
Some of the funniest lines in Clueless are based on the idea that Cher isn’t the brightest or most knowledgeable bulb. When the highbrow (but actually gay) guy she’s crushing on asks if she likes Billie Holiday, she replies, "I love him.“ She also thinks Bosnia is part of the Middle East, and that Kuwait is in the San Fernando Valley. But Cher actually turns out to be a smart, competent cookie, running her high-powered lawyer dad’s manse-like household, organizing a food drive at school and, in a pivotal scene, correcting stepbrother Paul Rudd’s lit-snob girlfriend when she misquotes Hamlet. (“Hamlet didn’t actually say that. That Polonius guy did.”) Foreshadowing Legally Blonde’s Elle Woods, Cher ushered in a pop-culture era of fashionista girly-girls who were also smart, ambitious and effective. Project!
4. IT GAVE US THE FIRST GAY BESTIE.
Cher crushes on the stylish, well-coiffed, retro-car-riding, Spartacus-watching Christian…without realizing that he’s, in the immortal words of Dionne’s more insightful boyfriend Murray, “a cake boy…a disco-dancing, Oscar Wilde-reading, Streisand-ticket-holdling Friend of Dorothy.“ Cher at least acknowledges the challenges of a romance with Christian: "He does dress better than I do. What would I bring to the relationship?” But in one of the first teen films where the gay guy just becomes part of the gang rather than an object of ridicule (okay, there was the mute gay friend in 1994’s Reality Bites), Christian becomes Cher’s shopping bestie–someone who, in her admiring words, “always wants things to be beautiful and interesting.” If we hadn’t had Cher and Christian, we might not have had Will and Grace, Carrie Bradshaw and Stanford Blatch Julia Roberts and Rupert Everett or Cady and Damian (and Janis Ian). He wants his pink shirt back!
5. IT WAS THE FIRST (AND BEST) TEEN MOVIE BASED ON A CLASSIC.
Screenwriter Amy Heckerling masterfully transposed the aristocratic nineteenth-century exploits of Jane Austen’s Emma onto 1990s Beverly Hills, right down to Christian “saving” TaI from “Barneys” about to drop her off a balcony at the mall, which echoes Frank “saving” Harriet from gypsies in Emma. The success of the film not only gave a boost to Gwyneth Paltrow’s film version of Emma, which came out the following year, but spawned a long string of teen flicks based on classics, including Baz Luhrman’s Romeo and Juliet, 10 Things I Hate About You (based on Taming of the Shrew), She’s the Man (based on Twelfth Night), O (based on Othello) and, running a distant second to Clueless, the kiddie-camp Cruel Intentions (based on Les Liaisons Dangereuses), which sent everyone out looking for Sarah Michelle Gellar’s cocaine-holding crucifix.
6. IT DICTATED THE SENSIBILITY OF FUTURE TEEN AND TWEEN MOVIES AND SHOWS.
Heathers, the last truly great teen movie before Clueless, was inarguably brilliant but its sensibility was super-dark, involving grisly murders and a brutally Darwinian view of high school. Clueless, with its sweet satire, ridiculous but lovable characters and inclusionary view of high school, ushered in a kinder, gentler era of teen comedy, one that was tart but sweet. It was reflected in Mean Girls, in which the Queen Bee gets hit by a bus but not killed and in which all school cliques–from popular kids to queer grungies to the “mathletes”–are ultimately celebrated. It certainly influenced the witty but upbeat tone of 2000s-era teen TV, from Lizzie McGuire to What I Like About You to Glee. (But thankfully, not Gossip Girl, which was a glorious return to Heathers-era acidity.)