By Kamala Puligandla
The year was 1995. And as far as I knew, I had a way normal life for a ten-year-old girl. I was vain about my hair, kept an impressive eraser collection, and liked to play Oasis’ “Wonderwall” on repeat in my bedroom—until right before bed, when I switched to my Sting cassette. You know, to unwind. At that time, I begrudgingly wore a bra, had begun reading Camus, and was good at sports primarily because I had the keen ability to sense who would flinch if I ran directly at them.
It was also that year when I noticed that all of my sleepovers, which had once involved elaborate games of hide and seek, were quickly devolving into repetitive all-night dish sessions about secret crushes. Which was disappointing for me. I found boys ignorant and useless. For a short time in the second grade I had earned some time on the schoolyard bench for tying up offending male idiots to a chain-link fence with their own long sleeves and shoelaces.
Which is all to say that I did not fit in.
Part of the issue was that I was a bit of a Tai. I’d recently moved from Oakland to Piedmont, a seriously wealthy haven a mile down the freeway from where I’d grown up, but an entirely different universe, as far as I was concerned. It was a world where girls were all named Molly or Jessica, nobody had even heard of R. Kelly so forget Aaliyah, and moms were uncannily popping up at all times of day. Every year when a honey-voiced volunteer called with a request that my own mother volunteer in my classroom, she’d dryly reply with some variation on, “Unfortunately, my feminist agenda has me booked at my professional career.”
Which was probably the root of my original interest in Clueless. The summer the movie came out, I was still an alien in the land of blond bounty and I was most certainly a farmer in my clothes. I did have Cleo and Kate, two teenaged sisters who played all-purpose roles as my neighbors, babysitters, and best friends in Oakland. While Cleo and Kate generally supplied me with the dirt on semi-adult life that Camus and Kafka tended not to dwell on, even they didn’t have much to add when it came to the everyday life of wealthy people. The movie, however, demonstrated quite matter-of-factly, the way that they functioned:
- Rich people can’t drive for shit.
- Rich people wear full-on matching pants and button down shirts to bed.
- Rich people can date people in their families, and nobody thinks it’s weird.
- Rich people like to put their sliced turkey into plastic containers and eat their Cheetohs out of bowls, so they don’t have to worry about opening packages.
- Rich people only hang out with black and brown people who own BMWs, and preppy half-Asian girls with pigtails.
“Well, that’s it,” I thought. “I’ll have to get some pajamas.”
But what really got me about the movie—even more than the array of insights and insults with which I was now armed—was that Clueless presented a world where everyone, even adults, adhered to a totally illogical set of values. You could wear an Alaia and remain ignorant of your housekeeper’s origins, while you simultaneously donated your own belongings to the Pismo Beach disaster relief and felt bad about hurting a bonehead stoner’s feelings. It was all perfectly absurd, but perfectly normal—and that inspired a brassy hope in me, the budding existentialist. “Of course,” I thought. “Nothing really makes sense. There is no over-arching order in the universe!” The movie nudged at my subconscious, whispering, “Go forth and make of life whatever the hell you want.”
By the following summer, I was decidedly going to become a filmmaker. I made my cousins try out for my fake Real World series that would take place in my Indian grandparents’ house in Toledo, OH. I shot gory murder flicks on VHS, took a class on shooting claymation on Super8, and rented Clueless at least once a month. I wanted to learn as many narrative and visual styles as I possibly could. Why, you might ask. What fresh masterpiece did this twelve-year-old want to bring to the world?
“Clueless 2,” I solemnly declared.
“Oh, fantastic!” said my dad, who had himself become a Clueless fan, due to an excess of second-hand exposure. “What’s the 411 on Clueless 2?” he asked.
I wasn’t sure where to take the narrative. I spent hours posed in front of my spiral notebook, trying to imagine adventures for Cher, Dion and Tai, but I had nothing to work with. They didn’t play sports, they didn’t share my affinity for marine mammals, and Cher thought Billie Holiday was a man, so she clearly didn’t know anything about music.
And then during my session of sleep-away camp, that all changed. I still remember the surprise and awe that washed over me as I watched my cabinmates, a pack of femmey rich girls from LA, drag their massive jewel encrusted trunks into the cabin, dust off of their platform flip flops, and begin to reapply their lip gloss.
“It’s like, I can’t even get phone service here, so we might as well not even be on this planet,” said Nicole, an effortless beauty, whose hair was every color of cookie I’d ever seen.
“Right,” added Kelly. “How are you gonna hire a male escort to take you to the camp dance? Guess you’re going stag.”
Here was Clueless 2 unfolding right before my eyes. It was like I had struck gold.
Somehow, despite the fact that they shopped at the actual Fred Segal and I was partial to oversized boys’ shorts and animal t-shirts, the LA girls and I got along easily. Maybe it was because we could all recite Clueless by heart, or maybe it was that we all had a very low tolerance for weakness. But for the first time in my life, I was part of a group of smart, brash girls, who also had a keen sense of who would flinch if you ran directly at them. Suddenly, being the mastermind behind Clueless 2 seemed much less interesting than just living it.
So in between the ropes course and kayaking, I exchanged essential girl lessons with my cabinmates. They taught me how to buff my nails and differentiate between clam-diggers and pedal-pushers. I was pleased to learn of my high quality skin tone during a midnight eye shadow tutorial. In return, I offered a clothes-on demo of how a tampon worked and shared my personal interpretations of tracks on the Sublime album. By the end of camp, I’d made two adult women cry, performed a choreographed lip-sync to the song “You Don’t Own Me,” and won the prestigious Camper of the Week award.
I felt like a new person. Specifically, I felt like a girl. And while back at school, my style remained in the vein of a mildly more athletic Kurt Cobain, it was with an infectious giggle and an entirely unfounded confidence, that I convinced myself—and more of my classmates than I would have imagined—that I was a totally normal, unremarkable middle school girl.
Which was getting confusing. As middle school wore on, it became increasingly clear that I had no interest in boys. An earnest baseball player who had just moved from North Dakota called me to ask me out one night, and I just laughed. We ended up talking about where he could buy a pair of sneakers like mine and about my good friend Alyson, the girl he really wanted to ask out, but of whom he was deathly afraid.
Then one evening in 7th grade, I was lying on my basement floor enjoying a solo Clueless viewing. Cher was looking vulnerable and distraught on the landing of her grand staircase. She was insulted that Josh thought was she just a ditz with a credit card, and that’s when the revelation hit me: I was madly in love with Cher. My stomach flipped with her hair. I wanted to sit next to her in her Jeep while she failed to parallel park, and lie in her lap after an exhausting party.
All of which remained perplexing to me because I also wanted to be Cher. My closet was already organized by color, and I also fully intended to brake for animals. If HAD to have a boyfriend, I would have chosen Christian too—someone who understood there was a difference between a James Dean and Jason Priestly leather jacket, someone bold enough to wear high-waisted, pleated pants to high school.
Or maybe, I thought—and this wasn’t getting any less complex—it was Christian I intended to be all along. Wasn’t I always reading a book under my desk in class? Didn’t I want everything to be beautiful and interesting, and also think Cher had great legs?
While I had well-informed opinions on many worldly topics that had nothing to with me, I was still in the dark about more personally relevant matters, like say, the open-ended nature of gender and sexuality. I had been introduced to people who had been pre-identified for me as gay men and lesbians, but I failed to make the connection that these were simply individuals. So I’d always assumed being a gay man meant preferring to live with your chatty best friend and to wear nice sweaters to dinner parties. I took the hints that lesbians were women who preferred loose fitting clothing and being outside milking goats or making soap in peaceful groups. At the time, being not entirely won over by either sweaters or goat milk, I concluded I was neither a gay man nor a lesbian.
It wasn’t until college that I began to see the truly unlimited number of ways for people to live—that I could be more than just Cher or Christian. On my first day at Oberlin, I would walk out of a bathroom stall and lock eyes with a person sporting a platinum blonde fade and silver platform sandals, who wore what I would describe now as an overwhelming cloak of vanilla and patchouli oil, but at the time seemed quite breathtaking. “Do I know you from somewhere?” they’d ask, and I’d finally experience the very queer thrill of meeting someone you both want and want to be.
But before that, there was high school. I was far over it before it even began, and as such, treated it like a game. Following Cher’s lead, I read one non-school book a week, and befriended the new kids. I didn’t forget that it was one thing to get laced at parties and quite another to be fried all day. My crowning achievement was my first entrance into a raucous party at a lavish mansion, when I slipped off my coat, turned to my group of friends, and said, “Let’s do a lap before we commit to a location.”
I still wasn’t clear on how to find this elusive person I wanted to be. However, I did know, even at fifteen, that this didn’t really matter. Because the most essential lesson of Clueless, one that took me hundreds of viewings to fully appreciate, was that we, in fact, are all clueless. Every one of us. We mis-remember Shakespeare, and misjudge our own feelings. We regularly disregard solid advice from virgins who can’t drive and are duped by assholes with good style. But the best people among us, the ones worth their salt, are those willing to admit that they will always have more to learn, and who wholly embrace their utter clueless-ness.
Kamala Puligandla once got her earwax vacuumed out by an attending ENT resident and was told that she had “the most impressive blockage” he’d ever dislodged. She was also told by an expert at an athletic shoe boutique that she had “the largest forefoot” he had ever seen. When she’s not being superlative, Kamala can be found on the couch wearing sweats, eating cheese, and writing. Find her work at thatkamala.com.