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Clueless (1995) is undeniably a classic chick flick and its protagonist Cher Horowitz is a typical rom-com cool girl. But what exactly does it mean to be one of these characters? Which other romantic comedies feature cool girls? And how central is the figure of the cool girl to the romantic comedy as a genre?
I would define a rom-com cool girl as a female character who is popular within the social sphere in which she exists (usually a school or university). Clueless’ Cher Horowitz is a perfect example, but we also see this trope in Legally Blonde (2001) and Mean Girls (2004), through the characters of Elle Woods and Regina George. These protagonists are all sociable and beautiful, ever the centre of attention, whilst often domineering other characters. However, the three key aspects I argue make up the character of the cool girl more specifically, are participation in matchmaking, makeovers and flirting. These are recurrent tropes that I will explore in detail, demonstrating how significant they are to the characterisation of female protagonists in chick flicks and how they relate to the rom-com cool girl’s mastery of their universe.
In Clueless, matchmaking makes up a large amount of the plot. A lot of the story revolves around Cher’s attempt to set up new girl Tai and her friend Elton. Initially, we see Cher playing matchmaker when she tries to intervene in her teachers’ love lives in a clever attempt to improve her grades. These efforts escalate when she decides to work her magic on Tai and Elton. Her tactics are varied, from placing them together in photoshoots, creating situations where they can mingle at a party and making comments such as, “Doesn’t she look classic?” to target Elton’s attention at Tai.
We also see matchmaking appear as an important part of the plot and the characterisation of characters in Legally Blonde. Protagonist Elle Woods plays matchmaker for her nail technician Paulette, teaching her how to “bend and snap” to attract the attention of the man who delivers to her salon. Elle is another example of a classic rom-com cool girl and a lot of her actions in the film parallel Cher’s, demonstrating the recurring nature of this plot device in romantic comedies.
Matchmaking is central to the character of the cool girl because it buys into her need for control. Cher is the centre of attention at school, has her pick of the boys, is able to manipulate her teachers to boost her grades and has access to expensive things due to her wealthy background. All of these contribute to her sense of power; she can control what she wears, how well she does in school and who she dates, so why shouldn’t she be able to control who her friends date too? Of course, her matchmaking efforts between Tai and Elton are also as a result of her decision to give Tai a makeover.
When new girl Tai arrives on the scene with an edgy, skater girl image, a sketchpad full of doodles and more of an interest in smoking pot than in fashion, Cher immediately recognises her as a new project. Cher changes Tai’s look, tries to add to her vocabulary in an attempt to make her seem more mature and, as mentioned, tries to set her up. In short, Cher tries to shape Tai into another stereotypical cool girl, in her own image.
In Mean Girls, a group of even more exclusive girls known as The Plastics rule the school and attempt to reinvent new girl Cady Heron. Cady goes from a home-schooled mathlete to a fashionable high school socialite and then winds up as a mathlete-prom queen blend. The Plastics, predominantly “queen bee” Regina George, are largely responsible for Cady’s makeover (alongside secondary characters Janice and Damien who watch from the side lines and manipulate Cady in their own, less cool girl-like way).
Like matchmaking, makeovers are so central to the character of the rom-com cool girl because they are linked to feelings of control and manipulation. The cool girl likes to be able to determine who her friends kiss, what they wear and how they behave. She likes to be the leader of her social circle, and this involves employing both cruelty and kindness. While Cher’s intentions tend to be relatively kind, though perhaps self-absorbed, Regina is motivated by malice. Either way, makeovers are another way for rom-com cool girls to exert control on those around them.
Another key aspect of the rom-com cool girl’s character is flirting. In Clueless, Cher flirts with several boys for different reasons. She playfully flirts with Elton, attempts to seduce new boy Christian and flirtatiously banters with her ex-stepbrother Josh. Her behaviour with Elton is meaningless – she doesn’t have romantic interest in him and this seems to be a way of her staying at the centre of attention and perhaps a light form of entertainment for her. She has genuine interest in Christian, initially assuming he is heterosexual, who she thinks dresses well for a high school boy and has a charm that other male characters her age don’t have. Cher and her ex-stepbrother Josh, who get together at the end, are an unlikely pairing, but their banter throughout the film shows that they obviously have chemistry. Cher utilises flirting for different purposes, ultimately ending up in a genuine romantic relationship.
In both Legally Blonde and Mean Girls, Elle and Regina flirt with their ex-boyfriends Warner and Aaron in attempts to get them back. The cool girls’ desire to rekindle a spark with their exes seems to be, again, based on control. Both Elle and Regina want to have the ‘perfect’ boyfriend and they don’t care who stands in the way, whether it be Warner’s new fiancée in Legally Blonde or Cady in Mean Girls. It is a typical cool girl characteristic to want to be desired and adored, and this is commonly achieved by maintaining stimulating relationships, especially with male characters.
Cher is the model rom-com cool girl. Her character clearly inspired both Legally Blonde and Mean Girls, as well as countless other chick flicks. She is cleverly manipulative and in control of her own life as well as others’, but she eventually realises how ‘clueless’ she really is. She comes to accept that being the centre of attention and getting involved in her friends’ lives isn’t possible in the way she desires. She realises the importance of genuine and unconditional love. That is another fundamental aspect of the cool girl, they always change.
– Bridie Adams
Featured Image Source: Megan Shepherd