A lot can be said of Los Angeles in the ‘90s, funky new brands were getting their footing while designer labels were arguably in their heyday. This is the era before accessibility to the Hollywood elite through reality TV and social media made the glimpses into the lives of the “other half” that much more interesting, which is probably why Clueless, somewhat based off of Jane Austen’s novel Emma, became an instant hit when it was released in 1995. Its killer soundtrack is still one of my favorites, and Cher Horowitz (Alicia Silverstone) established her place in pop-culture history with “Ugh! As if!” It’s time to face the facts, Cher Horowitz is most definitely, totally a victim of heteronormativity.
Cher is introduced to the audience with a voiceover where she gives a brief background of her fabulous life in Beverly Hills. She’s fashion-obsessed and notably cannot drive, but she has a good heart, as shown in her “It does not say RSVP on the Statue of Liberty” speech. Her best friend Dionne (Stacy Dash) is equally as fashionable and in a shaky yet loving relationship with Murray (Donald Faison), which Cher admittedly doesn’t understand. Cher and Dionne decide to make Tai (Brittany Murphy), a new student at their school, their “project.” Cher and Dionne take Tai from grungy newbie to Beverly Hills chic in a makeover montage at Cher’s mansion. Through this and Cher’s setting up two of her teachers to make one of them give her a better grade in his class, she finds out that she genuinely likes helping people and decides to start doing charitable work in her community.
Still, she struggles as her relationship with Tai deteriorates as Tai falls into the trappings of popularity that Cher had previously emphasized to her. When Tai tells Cher she has a crush on Cher’s college-aged, former step-brother, Josh (Paul Rudd), the two girls get into a fight about it. Cher decides to go on a shopping spree to allow herself time to think about the situation. Her ultimate realization, that she’s in love with Josh, feels awkward and inauthentic. She has no interest in Josh romantically until Tai expresses interest in him, which bothers Cher a lot. The film shows the two bantering and beginning to understand each other more, but it would have been a more powerful choice to result in Cher trusting Josh enough to discuss her feelings about Tai with him, rather than have the two former step-siblings end up together.
While Clueless does show a willingness to include LGBTQ+ characters like Christian, who Cher previously had a crush on until he reveals that he is gay and the two stay good friends, it seems to get cold feet at expressing what seems like the obvious–Cher isn’t in love with Josh, she’s got a crush on Tai.
What becomes frustrating when rewatching the movie is how often Clueless toes the line of alluding to Cher’s sexuality, from Tai’s “I’ve never had straight friends before” comment when Cher and Dionne first befriend her, to Dionne teasing Cher for her lack of interest in boys and not having sex. When Cher weakly defends herself, claiming she’s highly selective–like with her shoes, it seems like the writers and producers are setting up Cher’s being a lesbian, instead stepping back from the line they had been skirting so much.
Not to mention, when Elton (Jeremy Sisto), a guy in her social circle who she tried to set up with Tai, tries to hook up with Cher after a party, she expresses disgust at him and demands he take her home. In true fuckboy fashion, he kicks her out of his car, leaving her alone in an unfamiliar area of LA. Cher calls Josh to pick her up, and while the movie tries to portray this and some other instances as a build-up to their “relationship,” it seems more like something a sibling would do than anything else, especially since Cher’s father still considers Josh his step-son even though he isn’t married to Josh’s mom anymore.
Later, as Tai surpasses Cher in popularity at school, Cher’s gripe doesn’t seem to be that she lost her “queen bee” status, but rather that Tai had changed from the funny and kind friend Cher had spent so much time with. She figures that this is in part due to her influence, as she sees Tai brush off Travis (Breckin Meyer), a skateboarder who Tai befriends when she first moved to Beverly Hills. After Cher and Tai fight, the two make up at Travis’s skateboarding competition, which he invites Cher while she’s volunteering at a donation drive for flood victims. The movie ends with Cher dating Josh, Tai dating Travis, and Dionne still dating Murray, all six attending the wedding of the two teachers Cher had set up. It’s an awkward ending, especially considering Josh is in college, now dating his high school-aged former step-sister. The filmmakers could have avoided these issues by making the choice to have Cher end up with Tai, which they apparently unwittingly set up for extremely well anyway.
It would have been fantastic to have seen Clueless among the ranks of ‘90s LGBTQ+ classics like But I’m A Cheerleader (1999). Denying Cher’s lesbian identity feels like a move that was trying to play it safe rather than authentic. That’s what makes heteronormativity so frustrating and harmful. While the filmmakers show willingness to include a gay character in Christian, it’s almost like it was unfathomable for Cher, the main character to be anything but straight. Christian easily could have been someone that Cher turns to when questioning her feelings for Tai and trying to figure out her sexuality. Instead, we end up with our main character dating her former step-brother in an ending that ties up in a neat yet inauthentic and disappointing bow.