The First-wave feminism enabled women the right to vote, the Second-wave feminism entitled women with more equal rights in family and workplace, with more personal reproductive rights and such. However, after revolutions conducted and so many rights attained, instead of building a further and wider world of liberation and achievement, women are trapped in a mirage of empowerment with its essence of hidden commercialization. This trend is closely connected with the new ideology of “the conservative view of men going out to work, while women stay at home, and also fits the neoconservative worldview of opposing female equality.”
1. I am an ignorant girl. So what?
After viewing the 1995 film Clueless, directed by Amy Heckerling, I try hard to understand the reason of its immense popularity and box office success as I find it difficult to accept its values and the female representations it articulates.
The protagonist Cher is the daughter of a wealthy litigator, a privileged girl in a Beverly Hills high school, who quotes from a Mel Gibson movie instead of the original Hamlet, who uses a garden party as the analogy in a class debate on the Haitian immigrants and believes “the more, the merrier”, who gets inspired by a book from 9th grade and takes Cliff Notes seriously, who thinks people in Mexico speak Mexican and Kuwait is in the valley, who regards Dionne as a friend because “we both know what it’s like for people to be jealous of us”, and whose mother died accidentally during a liposuction.
All the facts piece together a jig saw puzzle of Cher’s personality: innocent, ignorant and illogical. She remains contented, cheerful and carefree in her ivory tower, occupied with shopping, arguing with teachers about her credits, matchmaking the possible couples in school, and transforming the new girl on the block. The only thing that ever makes her frown is at the party: some boy spills beer on her satin shoe.
Such a representation delineates a hedonistic popular high school girl, living under the benefits of an affluent father, with no ambition of her own. Though each time, after arguing, she can get a relatively better result in exams, she seems to be bright but is never able to apply much of her intelligence to studying. She spends most of her time sharpening her specialties in using credit cards, keeping fit, matching closets of clothes and gossiping with a small circle of girls, which are also the touchstone of her happiness and sense of accomplishment.
2. Male as the Messiah
Cher’s happy life is first based on her father’s success and fortune, the charisma of her assumed Mr. Right Christian who later turns out to be gay, and then the recognition of her love, ex-stepbrother Josh. Besides her limited material safe haven and girl gang, she goes to great lengths to fulfill her role as “the Other”.
Mother’s early death draws her closer to her father, the breadwinner of the family and the fundamental pillar of her life. She urges him to drink juice, adjusts his tie, and cooks to feed him. In the absence of a ‘mother/wife’ role, Cher actually takes this part herself and acts accordingly, indicating she has the ability to be a qualified future housewife and acquire great pleasure upon it. In school, she is proud, graceful and always at the center of all attention; back home, she is capable to be a tamed gentle girl when she needs to obey the patriarchal authority.
This is probably a portrayal of the ultimate male fantasy of the female: to be appropriate in different occasions, instead of shouting mottos, talking about equality and fighting for liberation; moreover, she does know how to attract guys with her natural beauty, with the designer shoes and dresses – under the guidance of self-help books.
Cher is an ideal example of the targeted female consumer, “the sexually autonomous heterosexual young woman who plays with her sexual power and is forever ‘up for it’.” Just like the heroines in Bridget Jones’s Diary (Sharon Maguire, 2001) and Sex and the City (Darren Star, 1998-2004), Cher’s story won’t come to an end without a definite Prince Charming: in the end she and Josh realize that they love each other and decide to be together.
The fact that the two used to be step brother and sister makes the ending less appealing and most importantly, the film pictures a trail of jubilation with not even a single event successfully exhibiting Cher’s independence or intelligence. She is a daughter, a sister, a student, a friend and a sweetheart, besides all this, she is merely a clumsy driver, a fad follower, a dependent stylist, and a smooth talker with cool slangs.
With the love of Josh, she begins to help the victims in disaster, to watch news instead of cartoons, to dress more conservatively and to sit up straight: there’s no denying that these are positive changes, but still, the female is the passive one to be guided, changed and ‘rescued’; the male is the active, the redemption, the messiah. It seems the girl’s only alternative to shopping is to fall in love, with a man: material or man (possession or desire) – have we taken a time travel machine and gone back to the times before the Second-wave feminism? Get a life, Cher!
3. Evasion doesn’t generate happiness; it only suggests illusions
High school is a miniature of the society, yet this film oversimplifies the surroundings of an American community: in a cloudless California town, there is no peer pressure, no racism, no domestic violence, no economic shortage – everybody is rich, happy and befriends with others. This oversimplification echoes the postfeminist projection and expectation toward the female: it is all right to be innocent since the world is not so complicated at all.
Nothing is further from the truth. To infantilize the female is indeed an elaborate and effective strategy to de-power the female: when they lead a simplified life with a happy smile and encounters problems, they’ll constantly seek help and support for the opposite sex – the more innocent they are, the more dependent they’ll become. Media have played a significant role in this propaganda: “popular texts normalise post-feminist gender anxieties so as to re-regulate young women by means of the language of personal choice.” The so-called empowerment of individual choices is merely another strategy to sell products.
These two strategies’ combined function encages the female and set the male in the ever-dominating position.
Joe Roth, the then chairman of Walt Disney Studios, might be amused seeing my above analysis, since he aimed at teenage girls as potential consumers. “According to Roth, girls are being rewarded for their loyalty and dependability as consumers with their ‘own’ films.” For film companies, it’s all about profits. For the teenager girls and other audience, it probably involves with the identity crisis and the pursuit of sense of belongingness in a world of blinding lights and earsplitting voices.