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Is Clueless Really Jew-less?

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Alicia-Silverstone-in-Clueless

Clueless celebrates its twenty-fifth anniversary this week but its director, Amy Heckerling, has denied that its iconic lead character was even Jewish.  

‘I wasn’t thinking in terms of this being a Jewish story’, she said in an interview with the JTA. ‘I was taking the plot of Jane Austen’s “Emma” and translating it into that world.’

And, as played by the blonde and blue-eyed Alicia Silverstone, Cher does not even ‘look’ what some might consider to be stereotypically Jewish. 

A recent BBC.com article manages never to mention the J-word once in its appreciation of the film after a quarter of a century.

But, come on. The character she created — a Beverly Hills high school student — was called Cher Horowitz. And she was played by the very Jewish Silverstone.

The name Cher Horowitz may have been extemporized by Wallace Shawn, who plays a teacher in Clueless, but he is also Jewish. And so is Heckerling. 

But it really doesn’t matter what Heckerling intended. Once she put her creation on the screen to be viewed by us, Cher becomes available to our interpretation. 

And in the way that Cher is depicted in the movie she reads as a Jewish American Princess (JAP), conforming to many aspects of this negative stereotype. 

The JAP, as played by the non-Jewish actress, Natalie Wood, made her film début in the movie Marjorie Morningstar in 1958. Goodbye Columbus, in 1969, based on the Philip Roth short story of the same name, cemented her position as an American Jewish stereotype.

This JAP was shallow, materialistic and frivolous. She was a symbol of consumerism, obsessed with clothes, shopping, status and style. She was also self-absorbed, over-privileged, shallow, spoilt and fashion-conscious.  

And certainly, Cher shares many of these traits. 

She may not look Jewish, but the film hints that plastic surgery is common among high-school girls in Beverly Hills. Indeed, it is revealed that Cher’s mother died in a cosmetic surgery accident when Cher was young. 

Cher’s Jewishness is not only established by the actress playing her but also by the actor playing her father — Dan Hedaya — from whom she gets her Jewish name, her entitlement and her money. 

Mel Horowitz is a lawyer (noch), rich and with questionable morals.  

But Cher is not the pernicious JAP of the 1950s and 1960s, the one so bad that American Jewish men in fiction and films from the era routinely abandoned them to marry out. 

Rather, she is a sweet do-gooder with a good heart and likes to help the less fortunate (albeit interpreting ‘the less fortunate’ as the fashion-challenged). 

And, if that’s not enough, at the end of the film, Cher chooses her stepbrother Josh (played by yet another Jewish actor, Paul Rudd) over a man named ‘Christian’. 

So, whatever Amy Heckerling has said, we have her (and Alicia Silverstone) to thank for creating a more modern representation of the JAP who is not as pernicious as her earlier incarnations. 
 

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I teach film studies at Bangor University in north Wales where I live. I research, write and broadcast regularly (in Welsh and English) on transatlantic Jewish culture and history.
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