Clueless was one of the first movies that popped into my head for a nostalgic, lighthearted pandemic rewatch. When it recently came to Netflix, I was psyched to settle in with a cup of tea and watch a fifteen-year-old girl slowly fall in love with her nineteen-year-old stepbrother. Wait, oh my God, what is the plot of this film again?
Most people know that Clueless is a modern (for 1990) remake of the Jane Austen novel Emma. It's easy to assume that director Amy Heckerling was probably translating some kind of relationship that was acceptable in 1815 but weird by today's standards into a modern version of a creepy relationship. I figured Cher and Josh's book counterparts Emma and Mr. Knightley were probably first cousins or something. While today we don't look for a hot hookup at our family reunions, Christmas was basically a singles mixer in 1815.
In the book, Knightley is the brother of Emma's older sister's husband. There's a family connection, but it's not as close as the one in the Clueless. Emma and Knightly don't grow up together the way Cher and Josh did. Wouldn't it have been so much easier to give Cher an older sister that isn't around much and make Josh her sister's boyfriend's brother?
They could have had the exact same familial connection as Emma and Knightley in the novel, and it would have been way less creepy. Josh and Cher would still have a reason to see each other even though they're not friends, and that reason isn't that he also calls her dad, "Dad."
At the very least, they could have lowered the age gap between Cher and Josh. In the book, Knightley is sixteen years older than Emma, but at least Emma is twenty and living an adult life. There's a massive difference between the world of someone in high school and someone in college. Not to mention the fact that their relationship violates statutory rape laws. Okay, so you want to make Josh older than Cher to reflect the novel? Fine. Make him seventeen if she's fifteen. In high school, that age difference seems huge!
Someone making the movie must have had a problem with the age gap because Cher's age is super hard to pin down. She acts like a senior in high school. She's rarely supervised. She drives even though she doesn't have a license (until she gets in trouble) and her Dad says, "No more driving with Dionne, two permits doesn't make a license." That's the only way I figured out how young she was. I thought maybe she had chosen not to take the test when she turned 16, but if Dionne also hasn't taken the test, I figured they must all be 15. I did some Googling, and yes, Cher is supposed to be fifteen years old for most of the movie.
If Cher is fifteen and Josh is a freshman in college, he must be around nineteen. Cher says that her father was "hardly even married" to Josh's mother, and that was five years ago," so Josh has apparently known Cher since she was a single-digit-aged child. At minimum, they met when Cher was nine, and Josh was fourteen. One of the most iconic scenes in Clueless is when Cher comes down the grand staircase, all dressed up for her date with Christian, and Josh looks up and sees her, and his jaw drops because she's so pretty. Knowing that this is an adult man looking at a fifteen-year-old girl really changes the context of that scene.
It also makes me feel weird about the way the movie talks about Cher's virginity. "You know how picky I am about my shoes and they only go on my feet," she explains to her friends who treat her like it's insane not to have had sex as a fifteen-year-old. Of course, I'm sure there are plenty of teenagers that age who've had sex, but I don't think it's so common that Cher's virginity would be that unusual. If she was twenty like in the novel, okay, but fifteen?
Meanwhile, Tai is so sexually experience that she has "done it in water?" What does that mean? Her parents' bathtub? (Sure, you've done it in water Tai, just like my high school boyfriend was named Gambit, and he couldn't come to prom because he was busy fighting Magneto.) I get that the movie is set in a super-affluent area, and rich kids can get away with anything, but dang, can rich kids really get away with anything? All of the fifteen-year-olds in this movie are driving without a license like it's no big deal. They go to a club with a bar, and Christian, who is at the most sixteen goes up to it and orders a drink, no problem. No mention of a fake ID, the bartender is just like "Here's your vodka on the rocks, hope you're not hungover during Algebra II tomorrow."
(Also, at that bar, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones are playing. There's no movie on earth I would be more surprised to find The Mighty Mighty Bosstones in. If they popped up during Braveheart to belt a few bars of "Detroit Rock City," I would be less shocked. Every turn this movie takes just gets wilder.)
So yeah, the Cher and Josh relationship is central to the movie. But Clueless is a lot of things: it's a comedy, it's a perfect period piece for 1995, but it's chiefly a romance between Cher and Josh. So how did such a creepy central relationship sneak past studio script readers, producers, editors, without anyone commenting on it?
I can only assume that some of Amy Heckerling's collaborators felt uncomfortable commenting on the relationship because it was based on the real relationship between her grandparents, who were stepbrother and sister. Her grandparents met as teenagers when their parents got married. She told Cosmopolitan in 2016, "When I was a kid, all she did was complain about her stepmother to me ... but her stepbrother, whom she later married, was always a protector. They were so dependent on each other and so angry all the time with each other." Uh, sounds like a fun, healthy relationship?
At the end of Clueless, Josh and Cher kiss and then we cut to a wedding. Cher says, "As if, I'm only sixteen, and this is California, not Kentucky!" So she knows she's not going to marry Josh, which raises the question, "How do you break up with your stepbrother?" (I didn't Google that one because I knew what I would find.)
Every holiday is going to be awkward when Cher has to introduce her future romantic partners to her brother/ex-boyfriend. Cher doesn't seem to have much family. She's an only child, her mother is dead, her father's health is failing, and his relationship with his family seems to be distant at best. He calls his parents "braindead lowlives." There could be a time very soon when Cher's brother/boyfriend is her only family. Meanwhile, Josh is in a similar situation. His mother has remarried, and he doesn't like his new stepfather. He doesn't seem to have many other family ties to rely on, which is why he's so close to his ex-stepdad and stepsister.
Josh and Cher are one of those opposites attract couples that seem destined to burn out in the long term ... especially since they got together while Cher is still in high school! But their connection as a family will probably last a lot longer since neither has a lot of other family ties. Cher is destined to one day have to tell her kids the crazy story of the time she dated their uncle Josh when they find a picture of their Mom and Uncle making out at a wedding. That is what I see in the end of Clueless now, and that is a genuinely wild thing for somebody to just casually toss into a charming 1990s comedy for teenagers.
You can follow Lydia on Twitter.
Top image: Paramount Pictures