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Is Clueless Superior to Mean Girls?
A high-school teacher makes the case.
TBP: We’re here today because in last week’s post on slumber-party movies, I chose Mean Girls (2004, Paramount+) for the teenage bracket. In the comments, you wondered why I hadn’t gone with Clueless (1995, HBO Max). Do you think I got this one wrong?
Allen Frost, high-school teacher and friend of TBP: Not exactly. The thing I’ve always tried to puzzle out with those two movies is this: My students trot out Mean Girls quotes all the time—it has the quotability factor. Why do I think Mean Girls is not as smart as Clueless, not as sophisticated? Is Clueless for older people? Does it hit differently for a 13- or 14-year-old today?
TBP: Did you see Clueless in the theater?
AF: Yes, but I think it pays dividends as you get older. Mean Girls is a joke delivery system, whereas in Clueless I wouldn't even call them jokes—they're just people talking in a really clever way. It’s about communicating. For example, “Your man Christian is a cake boy. He’s a disco-dancin’, Oscar Wilde-readin’ Streisand ticket-holdin’ friend of Dorothy, know what I’m sayin’?” That’s Murray trying to communicate that Christian’s gay. Clueless is on a different plane. Did you see it in the theater?
TBP: The movie poster featured the tagline, “Sex. Clothes. Popularity. Whatever.” which alarmed my parents, so they made me wait a while. Once I did see it, at 12, I loved it—or I thought I did. There was so much to look at and take in! But I watch it now and realize that I did not get any of the jokes until I was significantly older.
AF: Yes, even when Amber says, “My plastic surgeon doesn’t want me doing any activity where balls fly at my nose.” Or when Tai says, “Man, I’m freaking. I could really use some sort of herbal refreshment.” Pot!
TBP: I honestly think that the first time I watched, I only got, “As if.”
AF: Or, “You’re a virgin who can’t drive.” Growing up in Arkansas, I could tell that the screenwriter/director, Amy Heckerling, was attempting to show how teens in Beverly Hills were talking at the time. She’s kind of like an anthropologist. I still love, “I was surfing the crimson wave. I had to haul ass to the ladies.” I wanted to talk like that. In Mean Girls, they’re just making jokes; it’s more of a sitcom.
Maybe it’s not even smart to compare the two just because they’re high-school movies. On the other hand, both were female-led, with gay characters—though Christian is so different than Damian; can we come back to that?—they deal with insider-outsider dynamics and friendships, and they’re almost 10 years apart. They both have narration from the main characters that perform the perfunctory high-school geography, the introductions to the various cliques and the teachers. Mean Girls is based on a sociology book called Queen Bees & Wannabes, and Clueless is based on Jane Austen’s Emma.
TBP: I would kill to hear Tina Fey, as the writer of Mean Girls, talk about Clueless.
AF: I just think it’s more adult. Amy Heckerling had also done Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
TBP: Last summer on vacation, the rental house had regular cable and Clueless came on. The kids were interested, but I really didn’t want to watch it with them. Some of the scenes would be a little embarrassing, sure, but mostly because they wouldn’t get it and that would feel frustrating.
AF: I agree. I don’t think I’d want to watch it with younger people. Like when Cher says to Josh—an amazing character and young Paul Rudd!—“Freshman psych rears its ugly head.” It’s a tossed-off line, and it’s brilliant. Whereas Mean Girls is all, Here comes a punchline! Which makes it more “gettable” for kids.
TBP: Do you think Mean Girls is sweeter than Clueless, at least in the end?
AF: Both try to moralize just a little. Mean Girls wants to bring everyone together after Cady oversteps. Clueless tries to do that, too, once Cher realizes she’s done wrong by Tai. They’re both tales of how to navigate high school to get along in the end. You couldn’t actually say that Clueless has a nastier streak but it feels like it does. It’s tart.
TBP: I know you teach a class on gender and sexuality. You mentioned Christian from Clueless vs. Damian from Mean Girls as the movies’ respective gay characters. Want to unspool further?
AF: The allusiveness of Christian: Billie Holliday! He brings over Some Like It Hot and Spartacus! He asks if his look is more James Dean or Jason Priestly! When Cher’s dad says, “You think the death of Sammy Davis left an opening in the Rat Pack?” That is very different material than Damian, who’s labeled as “too gay to function.” Christian is treated as an adult.
TBP: As a kid, I didn’t get that he was gay until Murray called him a cake boy. I knew nothing!
AF: There’s a gorgeous part of Clueless where Cher in voiceover appreciates each of her friends and she says that Christian wants things to be perfect and beautiful. The movie is trying to imagine how a straight woman could be friends with a gay man in a way that’s not a cliche. Mean Girls couldn’t even try that.
TBP: What about the scene where she’s held up at gunpoint in her Alaia dress?
AF: There’s so much talk today about “triggering” and “trauma.” I love how in her voiceover in the parking lot afterward she breezily says, “The evening had turned into a royal mess: sexually harassed, robbed...Daddy would kill me if he knew where I was!” She’s making light of it!
TBP: Do you think a movie would get away with that today?
AF: I think so. It’s because Clueless takes its time, it unravels slowly. Though it’s not actually longer: They both clock in at exactly one hour and 37 minutes.
TBP: I think the real reason I don’t think Clueless is right for family movie night, I’m realizing, is because it’s too personal to me. I’ve seen it a zillion times over the past 25 years, and every time a new joke has presented itself or otherwise resonated with me. I’m not prepared for them to not also love it on a deep level.
AF: I agree with you. It’s not because Clueless is any more inappropriate—it’s just wasted on young people.
TBP: So you’ve come around to recommending Mean Girls for the teenybopper set then?
AF: I think trying to convince them that Clueless is better would be like trying to make “fetch” happen.