How do you win an argument? Learn from the master of rhetoric: Cher Horowitz, star of Clueless. The Alicia Silverstone character may be remembered as a 90s fashion icon, but she’s in fact most impressive for the debate skills she puts to use in all aspects of her life. She teaches us a few things about how to make our case so that people will listen.
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.” - Cher in Clueless
Her focus at school, her way of expressing love and her means of feeling in control of her life. If we look closer, we can learn a few things from this teen about how to make our case so people will listen. Here’s our take on how to harness our powers of persuasion like Cher.
Cher’s instinct is always to quibble when most of us would let things slide, or hold our tongue. As the daughter of a lawyer, Cher enjoys free lessons in fighting from a top-tier professional. Her father has imparted to her a value system that prizes skills of persuasion above everything else.
He teaches her that everything can be argued.
“Daddy, did you ever have a problem you couldn’t argue your way out of?” - Cher in Clueless
“Tell me the problem and we’ll figure out how to argue it.” - Mel in Clueless
When characters study subjects in school, the choice of subject is usually a reflection of the story we’re watching. It’s there to reinforce or illuminate a deeper theme. In Clueless, the main class we focus on is debate. Cher’s speeches rouse her classmates to enthusiastic applause. We can see why her arguments appeal to her peers. They’re succinct, take a clear stance, and grab the imagination with accessible analogies. At its core, this whole movie is an argument presented by Cher. She makes her case about who she is and the great wisdom she has to impart about life. 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. So a big part of what makes her effectively persuasive is a mastery of voice. She has an impressive facility with language, and understands the importance of originality and inventiveness in her thought and speech. Whether or not her observations have much basis in reality, there’s something deeply enjoyable about the way in which she makes them.
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. For example, if you know you’re listening to the foremost professor on a subject, you’ll probably listen to what they have to say, more than you would the ramblings of any random Joe on the same topic. Aristotle said that the speaker’s “character may almost be called the most effective means of persuasion he possesses.” And this mode, ethos, is what Cher uses to open the movie. She anticipates the assumptions the audience might draw about her, and she rushes to fend them off by establishing her credibility.
“But seriously, I actually have a way normal life for a teenage girl.” - Cher in Clueless
Aristotle’s second mode of persuasion is pathos, which is “putting the audience into a certain frame of mind.” Aristotle writes, “persuasion may come through the hearers, when the speech stirs their emotions.” 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 or expressing interest in their passions. 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 miserable too.” - Dione in Clueless
“Dee, that’s it! We’ve got to figure out a way to make Mr. Hall sublimely happy.” - Cher in Clueless
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. 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?” - Josh in Clueless
“No. Why, do I sound like I do?” - Cher in Clueless
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. 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. Early in the movie Cher gets some negative feedback about her debate performance.
“He said my debates were unresearched, unstructured and unconvincing.” - Cher in Clueless
So let’s break down Mr. Hall’s three criticisms. “Unresearched”: 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. She’s still a kid, with limited experience of culture, the larger world, and relationships. When you look past her entertaining delivery, the substance of plenty of the advice she offers us is laughably simplistic. Her style-over-substance problem is encapsulated in her approach to driving. Instead of focusing on learning to drive well, she makes excuses for her mistakes. On the day of her test, she’s focused on what clothes to wear. 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.
“That biker came out of nowhere! Oh! I swear I’ll concentrate! I drive really good, usually.” - Cher in Clueless
But Cher learns sometimes there’s just no substitute for actually doing the work. This event is followed by Cher’s second, even bigger wake up call.
“You’re a virgin who can’t drive.” - Tai in Clueless
The revelation that all of her wise “teachings” and makeover efforts have made sweet Tai into an unfeeling, cruel, shallow person. She’s forced to reevaluate all of the substance she’s been so authoritatively passing down to her friends and to us. Thus to make her arguments better “researched,” Cher needs to learn the power of being receptive to the world and people around her and she listens when the universe presents her with a community that’s actually in need of meaningful help she can provide. Mr. Hall’s second critique is that Cher’s arguments are “Unstructured” and this is true of her life, too. Cher’s characterization plays on the 80s and 90s stereotype of the “Valley Girl” even though she’s from Beverly Hills and rarely goes to the Valley. This character exemplified the Valley girl’s distinctive speech, her materialism and love of shopping, and the way that she might come across as airheaded. But Cher’s argument for herself is a rebuttal of the assumption that teen girls aren’t worthy of respect. It’s quickly apparent that this young woman is incredibly smart, 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.
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, 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 left hungry for something more productive to channel their talents into. The movie implies several times that Cher’s reliance on argument is really a seeking of control. She goes on to reveal that she uses retail therapy to manage her stress. And this is actually kind of a sad commentary, that Cher doesn’t have a more satisfying means of taking charge when she feels down. 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. So there’s a suggestion that Cher is hooked on positive feedback because, deep down, she feels really lost in her life.
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 of events. 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.
For Cher and her family, fighting is love. Look at her relationship with the person she comes to realizes 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.” - Cher in Clueless
“You’re funny.” - Josh in Clueless
These two express how much they care through fighting. Cher and her dad show their love by bickering over each trying to do good for the other. The most long-lasting couple in Cher’s friendship group, Dionne and Murray, are constantly arguing, too. And by the end, it’s clear they have a deep bond underneath their displays of drama. 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. On first viewing many viewers might find it slightly weird that Josh is Cher’s step-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. After Cher first realizes her feelings, she’s paralyzed because she can’t put on the fake shows that she normally uses as part of courting. Her relationship with Josh is too honest for that kind of superficial, artificial manipulation. So this gets at how fighting is a natural outcome of authentic behavior.
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. It’s hard to think of that many examples of characters like her, who earnestly try to improve their world, especially as teens. 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. In the last scene, Cher tells Josh he can count on her to catch the wedding bouquet 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 because we can always negotiate for better. 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.” - Cher in Clueless
But, when channeled in the right direction, it yields a person who’s always seeing opportunities for progress all around her. Once she finds her mission that’s worth fighting for, Cher the persuader is unstoppable.