“Suddenly a dark cloud settled over first period.
I got a C in debate?"
Clueless protagonist Cher Horowitz is a master of making an argument.
For Cher, the art of debate is the family business.
“Daddy's a litigator.
Those are the scariest
kinds of lawyers.”
Her focus at school,
“Like right now for example, the Haitains need to come to America
but some people are all, what about the strain on our resources?”
Her way of expressing love,
“Cher please don’t start with the juice again.”
“Daddy, you need your vitamin C.”
And her means of feeling in control of her life,
“Some teachers were trying to lowball me, Daddy.”
If we look closer, we can learn a few things from this teen
about how to make our case so people will listen.
“In conclusion, may I please remind you that it does not say RSVP
on the statue of liberty!”
Here’s our take on how to harness our powers of persuasion like Cher.
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Cher’s instinct is always to quibble,
Do you recall the dates of these alleged tardies?”
When most of us would let things slide, or hold our tongue.
“You don’t understand.
This is an Alaia.”
“It's, like, a totally important designer.”
“And I will totally shoot you in the head.”
As the daughter of a lawyer, Cher enjoys free lessons in fighting
from a top-tier professional.
“But he fights with me for free because I’m his daughter.”
Her father has imparted to her a value system that prizes skills
of persuasion above everything else.
“Do you mean to tell me you argued your way from a C plus
to an A-?”
“Totally based on my powers of persuasion.
“Honey, I couldn’t be happier than if they were based on real grades.”
He teaches her that everything can be argued.
“Daddy, did you ever have a problem you couldn’t argue your way out of?”
“Tell me the problem and we’ll figure out how to argue it.”
When characters study subjects in school, the choice of subject
is usually a reflection of the story we’re watching.
"Brutus is just as cute as Caesar.
OK, Brutus is just as smart as Caesar.
People totally like Brutus just as much as they like Caesar.”
It’s there to reinforce or illuminate a deeper theme.
“In faith, I do not love thee with mine eyes.
For they and thee a thousand errors note.
But 'tis my heart loves what they despise.”
In Clueless, the main class we focus on is debate.
“Amber will take the con position.
Cher will be pro.”
Cher’s speeches rouse her classmates to enthusiastic applause.
“Two very enthusiastic thumbs up.
Fine holiday fun.”
We can see why her arguments appeal to her peers.
So until mankind is peaceful enough not to have violence on the news,
there's no point in taking it out of shows that need it
for entertainment value.”
They’re succinct, take a clear stance, and grab the imagination
with accessible analogies.
“And so if the government could just get to the kitchen,
rearrange some things, we could certainly party
with the Haiti-ans.”
At its core, this whole movie is an argument
presented by Cher.
“I had to give myself snaps for all the good deeds I was doing.”
She makes her case about who she is and the great wisdom she has to impart
“Searching for a boy in high school is as useless as searching for meaning
in a Pauly Shore movie.”
When she pontificates on the failings of high-school boys to the sounds
of David Bowie, it's like she's prefiguring
the modern video essay craze.
“It looks like they just fell out of bed and put on some baggy pants
and take their greasy hair...
And cover it up with a backwards cap,
and, like, we're expected to swoon?”
So a big part of what makes her effectively persuasive
is a mastery of voice, she has an impressive facility
“I've tried everything to convince him of my scholastic aptitude,
but I was brutally rebuffed.”
And understands the importance of originality and inventiveness
In her thought and speech.
“She's a full on Monet.”
“What's a Monet?”
“It's like the paintings, see?
From far away, it's O.K.
But up close, it's a big old mess.”
Whether or not her observations have much basis in reality,
there’s something deeply enjoyable about the way in which she makes them.
“Do you prefer fashion victim or ensembally challenged?”
According to Aristotle’s Rhetoric, there are three modes of persuasion,
and we can see Cher demonstrate how to use all three in Clueless.
The first, Ethos, is when the speaker appeals
to her own personal character.
It’s important that the rhetorician comes across as credible.
“She’s my friend because we both know what it’s like to have people
be jealous of us.”
For example, if you know you’re listening
to the foremost professor on a subject,
“I just want everyone here to know, that I am the preeminent Proust scholar
in the United States.”
You’ll probably listen to what they have to say,
more than you would the ramblings of any random Joe on the same topic.
"My birthday's in April, and as someone older,
can I please give you some advice?”
Aristotle said that the speaker’s “character may almost be called
the most effective means of persuasion he possesses.”
“The fact that you hang with Dee and I, well, that speaks very highly of you.”
And this mode, ethos, is what Cher uses to open the movie.
She anticipates the assumptions the audience might draw about her,
“So okay you’re probably going is this like a Noxema commercial
and she rushes to fend them off by establishing her credibility.
“But seriously, I actually have a way normal life
for a teenage girl.”
Aristotle’s second mode of persuasion is pathos, which is
“putting the audience into a certain frame of mind.”
“persuasion may come through the hearers, when the speech stirs
So often, the most important part of successful persuasion
is knowing the listener and crafting the argument
to make them feel something.
Cher gives us a masterclass in “pathos” when she convinces her teachers
to give her better grades.
She gets them on her side by invoking a common enemy.
“I told my PE teacher an evil male had broken my heart.”
Or expressing interest in their passions.
“Then I promised Miss Geist I'd start a letter-writing campaign
to my congressman about violations of the Clean Air Act.”
And when she encounters an audience who’s unreceptive to all arguments
she goes further and makes him over into a happier person
who can be swayed.
“He's a miserable little man who wants to make everyone else
“Dee, that's it!
We've got to figure out a way to make Mr. Hall sublimely happy.”
Aristotle’s third mode of persuasion is Logos, the proof, which consists
of the logic and evidence that back up the speaker’s argument.
Cher understands the importance of referring to concrete examples
or comparisons to prove her point.
And she’s very good at dressing up uncompelling data, to make it sound
better than it is.
“Excuse me, but I have donated many expensive Italian outfits to Lucy.
As soon as I get my license, I fully intend to brake for animals,
and I have contributed many hours to helping two lonely teachers
But here, for example, the evidence she’s presented
is a little thin.
Logos is the mode where Cher is the weakest.
"Do you have any idea what you're talking about?"
Why, do I sound like I do?"
Aristotle defines “rhetoric” as essentially being able to find
the “available means of persuasion” in any case.
The subject, or the content, doesn’t matter.
It’s the ability to see what could be persuasive in anything.
“Mr. Hall, I was surfing the crimson wave.
I had to haul ass to the ladies.”
But while this might be the key to being a perfect rhetorician,
in Cher’s life, this lack of regard for the content of what
she’s arguing for is holding her back.
“I got it!
“He just broke up with Folette!”
“Oh my god, he's way popular, like the social director of the Crew.”
Early in the movie Cher gets some negative feedback
about her debate performance.
“He said my debates were unresearched unstructured and unconvincing, as if!”
So let’s break down Mr. Hall’s three criticisms.
Okay, maybe Cher could read a few more books to flesh out
her policy suggestions.
But the deeper meaning of this is that Cher hasn't done much research
of her world.
As the title of the movie underlines, this is the story of Cher realizing
how much she doesn’t know.
“It all boiled down to one inevitable conclusion.
I was just totally clueless.”
She’s still a kid, with limited experience of culture.
“You like Billie Holiday?”
“I love him.”
The larger world,
“Lucy's from El Salvador.”
“What does that matter?”
“You get upset if someone thinks you live below Sunset.”
“Cher, you're a virgin?”
“You see how picky I am about my shoes.
They only go on my feet.”
When you look past her entertaining delivery,
the substance of plenty of the advice she offers us is laughably simplistic.
“And sometimes you have to show a little skin.
This reminds guys
of being naked, and then they think
Her style-over-substance problem is encapsulated in her approach
Instead of focusing on learning to drive well,
she makes excuses for her mistakes,
“Boy, that came out of nowhere.”
“Hello that was a stop sign.”
“I totally paused.”
“Hey, James Bond, in America we drive on the right side of the road.”
You try driving in platforms.”
On the day of her test, she’s focused on what clothes to wear
“But today's the driving test.
It's my most capable-looking outfit.”
And this is a perfect symbol of her fixation on how
she’s presenting herself, instead of whether she knows her stuff.
After she totally botches the test, true to form, she tries to talk herself
out of failing.
“You saw how that biker came out of nowhere, right?
I swear I'll concentrate!
I drive really good, usually.”
But Cher learns sometimes there's just no substitute
for actually doing the work.
“I failed something I couldn't talk my way out of?”
This event is followed by Cher’s second, even bigger
wake up call.
“You’re a virgin who can’t drive.”
The revelation that all of her wise “teachings”
and makeover efforts,
have made sweet Tai into an unfeeling, cruel, shallow person.
“What did I do?
I've created some sort of a monster.”
She’s forced to reevaluate all of the substance
she’s been so authoritatively passing down to her friends
and to us.
”Everything I think and everything I do is wrong.”
Thus to make her arguments better “researched,”
Cher needs to learn the power of being receptive to the world
and people around her.
“Then I realized all my friends were really good in different ways.
Like Christian, he always wants things to be beautiful
And she listens when the universe presents her with a community
that’s actually in need of meaningful help she can provide.
“I want to help.”
“That would be wonderful.”
Mr. Hall’s second critique is that Cher’s arguments are “Unstructured,”
and this is true of her life, too.
“I'd like to see you have a little bit of direction.”
“I have direction.”
Towards the mall.”
Cher’s characterization plays on the 80s and 90s stereotype
of the “Valley Girl.”
“Who’s watching the galleria?”
Even though she’s from Beverly Hills and rarely goes to the Valley,
“Wow A party!”
“It's in the Valley.
The cops usually break them up
in less than an hour, and it takes that long to get there.”
This character exemplified the Valley girl’s distinctive speech.
“But people came that like, did not RSVP, so I was, like,
Her materialism and love of shopping,
“Dude what’s wrong?
Are you suffering from buyer's remorse or something?”
“God, no, Nothing like that.”
And the way that she might come across as airheaded.
“What did you do in school today?”
“Well I broke in my purple clogs.”
But Cher’s argument for herself is a rebuttal of the assumption
that teen girls aren’t worthy of respect.
“I'll get killed 'cause she's a moron.”
“She's not a moron.”
It’s quickly apparent that this young woman is incredibly smart.
"I think I remember Hamlet accurately."
"Well, I remember Mel Gibson accurately, and he didn't say that.
That Polonius guy did."
As well as creative, and well-intentioned.
Her problem, though, what does fit of the Valley girl critique,
is that she’s superficial.
This very bright person who wants to make a positive impact
has no outlet for her potential.
“We should do something good for mankind or the planet
for a couple of hours.”
So by presenting this critique of the Valley Girl type in Cher,
director Amy Heckerling was subtly getting at how,
while 90’s culture expressed contempt for young women who spoke like Cher,
"You think that's all I do?
I'm just a ditz with a credit card?"
In fact it was their culture that was failing these young women
by not providing them with appropriate positive influences.
Girls like Cher were shaped by consumerist culture
and beauty magazines.
“And you lose weight by cutting it small.”
“Whenever a boy comes, you should always have something baking.”
And left hungry for something more productive to channel
their talents into.
"Regina's spine healed, and her physical therapist taught her
to channel all her rage into sports."
The movie implies several times that Cher’s reliance on argument
is really a seeking of control.
“Cher's main thrill in life is a makeover, ok.
It gives her a sense of control in a world filled with chaos.”
“I felt impotent and out of control, which I really hate.”
She goes on to reveal that she uses retail therapy
to manage her stress.
“I needed to find sanctuary in a place where I could gather my thoughts
and regain my strength.”
And this is actually kind of a sad commentary,
“Ooh, I wonder if they have that in my size.”
That Cher doesn’t have a more satisfying means of taking charge
when she feels down.
“You’ve never had a mother so you’re acting out on that poor girl
like she was your barbie doll.”
Josh implies the reason Cher needs to act like a know-it-all
is because she’s disempowered by not having a guiding female presence
in her life.
“I don't remember her, but I like to pretend
she still watches over me.
Hey ma, 98 in geometry.
Pretty groovy huh?”
So there’s a suggestion that Cher is hooked on positive feedback
because, deep down, she feels really lost in her life.
“That you found someone even more clueless than you are to worship you.”
Finally, Mr. Hall calls Cher’s debates “Unconvincing.”
In fact, the great pleasure of watching Clueless comes from
the comic mismatch between what we see, and Cher’s questionable interpretation
“Do you see how he's falling in love with me?
look how he ignores every other girl.”
Cher is out of touch with reality because she’s working very hard
to defend a certain self-image.
She’s filtering her experiences
through too many layers of agenda and imagination, and she develops
a more mature view of the world when she’s finally more willing
to look openly at the chaos of reality.
"You look confused.”
“Well, uh, I thought they declared peace in the Middle East."
For Cher and her family, fighting is love.
“Daddy no!, Daddy no!”
“Come on, Cher.”
“You know you can’t have that, don’t be silly.”
Look at her relationship with the person she comes to realize
she’s in love with, Josh.
“Shouldn't you go to school on the East Coast?
I hear girls at NYU aren't at all particular.”
These two express how much they care through fighting.
“Hey granola breath you have something on your chin.”
“If I ever saw you do anything that wasn’t 90% selfish
I’d die of shock.”
Cher and her dad show their love by bickering over each trying to do
good for the other.
“Don't try sneaking out of the office.
Dr. Lovett's giving you a flu shot.”
“Oh Josh is coming for dinner.”
The most long-lasting couple in Cher’s friendship group,
Dionne and Murray, are constantly arguing, too.
You wanna play games?
I’m calling your mother.”
No, no, no!
Don't call my mom!”
And by the end, it’s clear they have a deep bond
underneath their displays of drama.
“Or Dionne and Murray, when they think no one is watching,
are so considerate of each other.”
When Cher meets the guy who seems perfect, Christian,
his nice, flattering pleasantness is the behavior of someone
who doesn’t love her.
Putting it all out there, honestly expressing what you think
and feel, and hashing it all out are key signs of love.
“Murray, I have asked you repeatedly not to call me woman.”
“Excuse me, Miss Dionne.”
“Okay but street slang is an increasingly valid form
Most feminine pronouns do have mocking but not necessarily
On first viewing many viewers might find it slightly weird
that Josh is Cher’s step-brother.
“How much fun would it be to have a brother type tagging along?”
“Josh you are not my brother.”
The relation comes from the source material,
as Jane Austen’s heroine Emma falls for Mr. Knightley,
her lifetime friend who’s also her sister’s brother-in-law.
But what Clueless brings out in this sibling-like relationship
is how bickering and teasing are true signs of affection.
“I want to do something good for humanity.”
“How about sterilization?”]
After Cher first realizes her feelings, she’s paralyzed because she can’t put
the fake shows that she normally uses as part of courting.
“I mean, ordinarily, I'd strut around him in my cutest
little outfits and send myself flowers and candy, but I couldn't do that stuff
Her relationship with Josh is too honest for that kind of superficial,
So this gets at how fighting is a natural outcome
of authentic behavior.
“How many hours a day do you spend grooming yourself?”
“Some people aren't lucky enough to be as naturally adorable as you are.”
You're making me blush.”
Almost all teen movies focus on popularity and the cruelty
of adolescents, but while that’s a part of Clueless,
What’s great about Cher is that she deeply desires
to be a good person.
“I don't think they need your skis.”
“Daddy, some people lost all their belongings.
Don't you think that includes athletic equipment?”
It’s hard to think of that many examples of characters
who earnestly try to improve their world, especially as teens.
“I feel like my after-school commitments are just not good enough."
"How can you say that?
Who takes care of everyone
in this household?
Who makes sure that Daddy eats right?
To tell you the truth I have not seen such good-doing
since your mother."
If you look closer, Cher’s do-gooder instinct
is tied to her drive to argue.
She doesn’t just accept the way things are,
she’s always pushing for better.
“I would just like to say that physical education in this school
is a disgrace.”
In the last scene, Cher tells Josh he can count on her
to catch the wedding bouquet.
“It’s in the bag.”
And of course, she emerges victorious.
Why does Cher know that she’s going to win this exercise?
Because she has the drive to keep fighting for what she wants,
long after everyone else has given up.
Cher’s argumentative stance teaches us we should never just be content
with the status quo.
“What are the chances of you shutting up until you get your way.”
“Slim to none.”
Because we can always negotiate for better.
“I know how you say never accept a first offer.
So I figure these grades are a jumping-off point
to start negotiations.”
This could lead to the kind of irritating,
entitled personality that’s always asking for the manager.
“Isn't there somebody else I can talk to?
You can't be the absolute and final word on driver’s licenses.”
But, when channeled in the right direction,
it yields a person who’s always seeing opportunities for progress
all around her.
“Don't you wanna use your popularity for a good cause?”
Once she finds her mission that’s worth fighting for,
“I need more boxes.
They're all filled up.”
“I divided them into entrees and appetizers.”
Cher the persuader is unstoppable.
“It's like that book I read in ninth grade that said,
Tis a far, far better thing doing stuff for other people."
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