Clueless Movie Analysis (Brave New World Dystopia)

New, Video Version:

How delighted would be all the kings, czars, and fuhrers of the past…to know that censorship is not a necessity when all political discourses takes the form of a jest?
-Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death

Overview –Clueless is an interesting social experiment. The producers deliberately set out to make new trends for teenagers, even releasing a Clueless-inspired line of Barbie dolls, and these efforts were wildly successfully. But, at the same time, the film is a satire on the very people it was marketed to. It depicts a Huxleyian (as opposed to Orwellian) dystopia. We do not have to fear Big Brother as much as we have to fear the golden fetters of Clueless, the myth of human progress through material goods which drives us to laugh and dance all the way to slavery.

Cher and Tai – Cher is one big walking and talking advertisement. In fact, the very first line in the movie is: “You’re probably going, ‘Is this like a Noxema commercial or what?’” The young aristocrats drive around in expensive cars, go shopping, and worry about how they are going to manipulate the people around them to their own ends. Friendships are generally based on understanding “what it’s like to have people be jealous of us,” but Cher’s friendship with Tai has a different motive: changing her to validate her own existence. In fact, Tai is even more removed from reality than Cher. She is proud of her sexual conquests at fifteen years old, and is already into hard drugs. In fact, at the end of the movie she rejects much of Cher’s world and chooses instead to be with a lazy, mildly-retarded drug addict. This is the American microcosm; we’re supposed to be proud and feel touched by this choice because she’s being “true to herself.”

Toward the end Cher seeks to redeem her meaningless existence through charity (reflecting her aristocratic position in society), but in the end, it’s still all about herself. She cannot escape her narcissism as everything becomes a reflection of her. In fact, she’s so idealistic that her ideal man is a gay guy.

When the masses first saw the aristocracy up close with the advent of photography and the paparazzi, they were revolted at their conspicuous consumption and the sharp contrast with their own grueling factory life. But now that we’ve been tamed, we seek to emulate them. Thus, though we can see that Cher is in fact an immature, materialistic, and often bitchy teenage girl, she’s widely admired for her glamor. However, the joke is on us all as we all become slaves to material pleasures.

Josh – Like Josh, you may be thinking “I’m smarter than this. Just because an actor wants me to buy something does not mean I will.” But that’s the most insidious part of the system, and the meaning of the character Josh (to me). There’s another advertising niche that plays on this kind of self-congratulation—extremely expensive universities, post-modern newspapers, granola, glossy hardback copies of Nietzsche, and beanie manufacturers. Josh is simply conforming to another prepackaged, commercial mold.

Debate Class and AuthorityOur politics, religion, news, athletics, education, and commerce have been transformed into congenial adjuncts of show business largely without protest or even much popular notice. – Amusing Ourselves to Death, Postman

The scenes in the debate class are some of the most interesting and revealing in the film. Cher obviously is ignorant when she compares giving Haitian refugees shelter with her millionaire father’s birthday party, but why should she not view this as the proper way to debate? She has learned jury manipulation from her father, and from the media she has observed the way that American politics is not much more than a play on emotion and crowd sentiment, versus practical debate. It’s hard to imagine, say, Lincoln spitting out a speech of Cher’s caliber, but it’s not difficult to imagine George W. Bush speaking as she does.

Further, the educational system is obviously failing when the students file their nails, listen to CDs and check their pagers during her speech, but in the end she’s enthusiastically applauded for her vapidness. Meanwhile, while her teacher will not give her an unfair grade, he does not offer any constructive criticism. With this societal feedback, what other lesson could she extract from the experience other than the world is being unfair to her and she must manipulate her miserable teacher for justice? We also later see her manipulations rewarded.

Their family lives do not seem to offer any solid role models either. Christian is from a broken home, Cher’s mother died while getting one of many plastic surgeries, and “Daddy” refers to his own parents as “brain-dead low lives” suggesting that he himself comes from an emotionally empty background. Josh’s home life consists of a fourth step-father who constantly criticizes him, and dinner at the Horowitz’s consists of everybody jumping to answer their cell phones. And let’s not forget Cher and Josh were once step-brother and step-sister, possibly suggesting a perversion of family life as well.

What I’m getting is that these teenagers are being thrust into an adult world, but their frivolous education and hobbies have failed to teach them to make mature decisions. As we saw earlier, Tai has been thrust into a world of sex and drugs, Dionne and her boyfriend act out an adult fantasy in their relationship, Cher childishly imitates her father’s legal jargon by asking her debate teacher, “do you recall the dates of these alleged tardies?” and, most humorously, Christian is imitating the Rat Pack by speaking and dressing like a forty-year old man from another era. Indeed, they are all playacting.

Society and Soma Their escape (or is it?) from this world is consumerism. In Brave New World, Huxley depicts a society that should no longer have to fear anything, or worry about their basic needs being met, and yet, depression is a problem only able to be solved by the drug soma. Indeed, Brave New World was inspired by the rampant consumerism and lax morals in American society.

The problem is that it becomes an addiction. Whenever Cher gets depressed, she goes to the mall. When Cher is robbed in the Los Angeles ghetto, her biggest concern is that her designer dress will be ruined. When she’s at a party and a guy spills a drink on her shoes, she melts down like a Frenchman storming the Bastille. Her addiction to material goods must continually be fed or else her mental state goes awry. In other words, we pay a hefty price for the snake oil dreams that manufacturers and the media have dreamed up for us.

Conclusion – Don’t get me wrong, I find Clueless to be a hilarious movie, and I enjoyed watching it, but I find the aftertaste to be far more bitter than sweet.


9 Comments on “Clueless Movie Analysis (Brave New World Dystopia)”

  1. Roz says:

    You have a thoughtful analysis. It’s been awhile since i read emma but iirc austen used the story to make fun of society and thus inspired amy heckerling’s adaptation. Makes me wonder if your thoughts on clueless & materialism/consumerism can be applied to fast times, or pride & prejudice for that matter.

    • Thanks for your interesting comment. Though I’m aware the storyline is based on Emma, I think that the consumerism and materialism in Clueless goes beyond what Jane Austen knew. She was publishing in the early 1800s, which was still before mass urbanization and industrialization, not anything like Los Angeles of the 1990s where the story takes place. That said, people haven’t changed that much and there have been heavy consumerist societies even in antiquity (the Roman Empire, for example).

      I think you’re right about Fast Times at R.H. It does portray a lot of the same themes–and hey, it’s a combination of Cameron Crowe and Amy Heckerling. I think the difference is that the consumerism, and general immortality of that movie is much more obvious and put in a negative light, whereas Clueless is falsely optimistic, but I haven’t seen Fast Times in a few years so I could be mistaken

      Again, thanks for reading and commenting!

      • Roz says:

        that makes sense. clueless definitely comes off way more lighthearted than fast times. now i totally want to watch fast times again with your thoughts in mind. i was totally a cher clone in middle school and then the total opposite (goth/punk) in high school so i had to come to terms with the cynical side of clueless pretty early but i totally forgot about all the underlying social commentary til i read ur post. josie and the pussycats is another movie that looks like pure drivel/fluff on the outside, yet attempts to be more of a criticism of consumer society. sadly josie is just not as good a movie as clueless in terms of execution altho i still love it very much (lots of great villains and outfits, lol,seems to be a theme). anyway very thought provoking stuff, thanks for your thoughts!

  2. Sophie says:

    Really helpful analysis! I love the format of what you have here, so great that you are taking your love of critical theory and literature and displaying and expressing it!

  3. charles bear says:

    Thank you, I enjoy real thought–somehow I found your site because I was looking for some reflection on Socrates and Nietzsche and found you–

    Don’t forget education is NOT failing it is creating a product–not an individual– as designed to be that which we are, in this modern highly controlled world–
    first our body functions are taken over and controlled then they have the mind. We learn that we must ask permission to pee–not even our bladder is ours. We learn to answer the teachers questions–giving the proper response

    I’m not a Kant fan though he is important and wrote a great essay called “What is Enlightenment” –easy to find and worth reading

    Hey thanks again– I’ll quit rambling


    (charles bear)

    • I think that you are very correct in your ideas on education. It is perhaps failing by classical standards, but not for the modern world in which we live. The system creates bureaucrats and tax-payers, not educated minds, and by this measure it thrives. I will definitely check out that Kant essay, and thanks for your kind words!

      • charles bear says:

        I Just watched your “Public Man”– I thank you and ask –what drives a young woman to spend so much time and thought on this kind of work? I’m glad you do but as I’ve aged I have found that what I thought was all around me is in fact very rare. We are animals that evolved to live close within nature and in small families/clans/tribes. We are now living in cities that look and act more like hives than homes and our personal life is driven by abstractions such that we no longer feel the concreteness of life or love. We do miss the great cosmos, the milky way and the reality of real food and of real people that we know from birth until death.

        You seem wiser than possible for one so young–wisdom is more than knowing that you don’t know–it is also the drive to become more even if the more one seeks truth the faster it recedes from you. Keep going –your energy is fresh and good.

        Ernst Becker–his last two books –should be of great help

        I’m very glad for your work


    • I’m actually unsure to answer your question about what drives me without sounding like a pompous asshole. It’s simply what interests me, more than going out and getting drunk, or going shopping, etc. I’ve found more meaning in wisdom in books, and I find that fulfilling in itself. Thanks again for the recommendations and kind thoughts!

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