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Emma and Clueless 

Clueless is the 1995 creation of  Amy Heckerling as an appropriation of the plot of Jane Austen’s novel Emma.  Heckerling does a magnificent performance of bringing Emma back to life in 20th Century America. Heckerling was cashing in on a major revival of Austen in the mid 1990s as about five different adaptations of Austen’s novels were released within a two year period.

Initially Clueless was considered just another vacuous Teenpix with a limited lifespan, however its appropriations of Austen’s Emma, gave it sustenance and developed its cult following and a status as a worthy text.

Clueless is a feisty chick flick lit that can stand on its own merits as a well constructed lasting text. Though it appropriates much from Emma it updates and enhances the concerns, situations to universalise them and provides an access to the original text motivating young people to read and find relevance in it.

Its major worthy attributes are its subtle witty quick repartee, its credible situations, its sound score and its visual effects.

Clueless, an updated, Americanised version of an 18th C. English novel of manners, shares many of its precursor’s characteristics but also significant differences.


To what extent is it:

        A replication?

        a transformation?

        an adaptation ?

        a re-writing ?

        a parody ?

        a contemporarised or modernised version ?

        an appropriation?

        a plagiarism ?

Transposition:  Cher is Emma temporally and geographically transposed from the 19th– 20th C. from the English countryside to Southern California.

Appropriation:  Clueless exploits a classic or high brow cultural text by adapting it into a more appealing marketable medium by using modern language, settings, technology and visual graphics.  Clueless is a culturally egalitarian post-modern and democratic movie.


counter-pointed, replicated, or counterparts;  Situations correspond or are parallel, consistent with Austen’s.


Similarities                                                    Differences


Cher and Emma parochial, naïve, oblivious, innocent and ignorant of anything outside their boundaries. Isolated and insular. Emma has never seen the sea.    Cher avoids the Valley.


Both learn to temper their manipulations and submit to a dominant patriarchy. 



Both well off, respected, popular,  motherless, snobs,* clever, consumers and untouched by anxieties of lower classes, family conflicts, 


Both manipulate, engineer events and are potential control freaks.  Self-obsessed and self-deluded.


Both take care of their widowed fathers.


Both the butt of Knightley/ Josh”s digs


Both hold compassionate and worthy moral values that endorse a stable society perpetuated by the convention of marriage and stable family.


Cher, younger, 16, more mobile


Emma; 21 yet maturity at par with Cher 16.


Mr Woodhouse – valetudinarian, querulous and resistant to change.

Mr Horowitz – fast-talking, high-strung litigation attorney in poor health.

Cher: Daddy's a litigator. Those are the scariest kind of lawyer. Even Lucy, our maid, is terrified of him. And daddy's so good he gets $500 an hour to fight with people. But he fights with me for free because I'm his daughter.


Christian – homosexual, Jane Fairfax does not exist. Accepted - Cher: “he loves shopping almost as much as I do”.


 Despite both Emma and Cher’s flaws, we tend to like them for their mistakenly good intentions and their transformation from an ambiguous naivety to a more sensible mature acceptance of the status quo.


Emma learns to stop meddling and develops a mature love for Knightley

Cher realises she needs a complete makeover; “except this time I make-over-my-soul”.



Emma                                                    Clueless

Both structures and plot lines mostly parallel.



Emma:  formal, stiff, correct

lengthy involved dialogue – conversations

formal address


, archaic expressions (Emma described as “handsome”, Mr Elton as “pretty”.

Sentences balanced:


Emma’s snobbery“A young farmer, whether on horseback or on foot, is the very last sort of person to raise my curiosity. The yeomanry are precisely the order of people with whom I feel I can have nothing to do.

Then patronisingly: A degree or two lower, and a creditable appearance might interest me; I might hope to be useful to their families in some way or other…”.


When Mrs Elton climbs the social ladder largely because of her marriage with Mr Elton, Emma disapproves: “She brought no name, no blood, no alliance.


Emma’s object to assist a social duckling to find its swanhood.


Mr Knightley maintains that ugly ducklings tend to turn into ugly ducks.


Harriet:  a mind that never opposes any argument, but is never really swayed from its own opinion.



While contemporary and modern, Clueless is restrained and tame compared to most teen cult movies.


Clueless: casual, informal, intimate

Short cellular phone messages

Speeches – casual, clichéd, grammatically challenged

Sentences truncated, ellipsis, gibberish?
Slang – secret argot: “scheming Betties, persistent Barneys,  loser loadies, go postal, total baldwins

Murray: Your man Christian is a cake boy!
Cher, Dionne: A what?
Murray: He's a disco-dancing, Oscar Wilde reading, Streissand ticket holding friend of Dorothy, know what I'm saying?

Clever and witty: 


Clueless:  On Amber’s attractiveness, Cher replies: “No, she’s a Monet; looks great from a distance but all spotty close up”.

On Tai to Elton: “She looks like one of those Botticelli chicks”

Sexual Innuendo:

Amber: Ms. Stoeger, my plastic surgeon doesn't want me doing any activity where balls fly at my nose.
Dionne: Well, there goes your social life



Cher: Until mankind is peaceful enough not to have violence on the news, there's no point in taking it out of shows that need it for entertainment value.

Cher’s snobbery:  “I don’t’ know why they go out with high school boys” 

Her friends comment on her socially superior attitude: “Cher’s got an attitude with high school boys”


Cher feels utter disdain for any and everything “in the valley”




Similarities                                                    Differences


Satire and dramatic ironies abound as both Heckerling and Austen portray indulged, self-deluded manipulators.

Cher: “Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May….”

Dionne: “Did you write that?”  Cher: Duh, it’s like a famous quote.  Dionne: From where?  Cher: Cliff Notes.


Heather:  “it’s just like Hamlet said ,’to thine own self be true.’

Cher: “Ah, no, uh, Hamlet didn’t say that.”

Heather:  “I think I remember Hamlet accurately”.

 Cher: “ Well I remember Mel Gibson accurately, and he didn’t say that. That  Polonius guy  did .”

Emma:  After realising the mismatch of Harriet and Mr Elton, Emma catches herself incorrigibly thinking of matching Harriet with William Coxe, a pert young Lawyer.


Box Hill Incident:  Emma flirts embarrassingly with Frank Churchill and makes the faux pas of being rude to Miss Bates.


Clueless:  After attack in Rodeo Drive, in total misery, Cher catches sight of a new outfit:  “I wonder if they have that in my size?”


Cher mistakenly accuses the Maid of speaking “Mexican’ when she means Spanish, confused about El Salvador.


Feminists argue that Emma’s conversion from controller to submissive wife is a satire on a society that allows her no creative space to grow in her own right.  Given her intelligence, energy and imagination, her impatient attempts to transform a mundane reality are completely understandable.



Clueless is a satire that doesn’t know which side it’s on.  Is it an affectionate spoof on rich and self-absorbed teenagers, or a witty dig against the superficial culture that created them?


Irony:  Both use irony to great effect: An inclusive device where the composer takes the responder into their confidence to ridicule the main character.


Emma:  Dialogue and in-depth conversations.

Letters important

An insular, leisured cultured society.

Formal address – Miss Woodhouse

Printed word, balanced sentences, impersonal pronouns, sophisticated and subtle narrative skills.


  Clueless:  Action and body language.

  Also secluded but a much more open fast paced society.

Technological advances (?)

Oral communication: telephone (low shots), cellular phones,  speeches.


Clueless depicts emotions via facial expressions (Josh seeing Cher dressed up to go out with Christian.

(in Emma this is conveyed to us through a lengthy conversation between Knightley and Mrs Weston)



Cars replace carriages – more mobile yet parochial


Visual Images:  Facial expressions – Josh on seeing Cher dressed up to go out with Christian.

Computer image of Miss-Match reinforces many of the issues of the movie.



Am. Anthem during Cher’s Haitian Speech

Gigi  -  when Josh sees Cher on staircase for date

Tenderness  during credit roll

Tai’s Make over – “I want to be a supermodel.

“We are Young, we are Free –exuberance of youth


Camera angles -  Low Camera shot on telephone – imbuing it with status of reverence.




Cher generally in centre

Exception where Tai describing her attack in the Mall, Cher is noticeable sidelined, marginalised



Austen – Emma                                                                     Heckerling - Clueless


National:  The landed gentry under threat from Fr. Rev. and peasant’s revolts.  To preserve the status of landed gentry, George Knightley exhorts Emma to act responsibly and exemplarily. Manners and Geniality are important.


Marriage and family are the foundation stones of a stable continuum and all of Austen’s novels centre around the incidents of young people in pursuit of a life partner.  Paradoxically, not all the marriages she depicts are happy ones but they are productive and this is a good omen for future population strength.



Class:  As part of the leisured, privileged class, Emma is snobbish, superior, cocooned and sublimely oblivious to their suffering and deprivations.  Knightley encourages her to do her duty and treat all people civilly. Emma eventually develops self – awareness and makes the transition from “know it all” to acceptance of fallibility.

The novel depicts the relationships between young people in the process of finding a life partner.

 All Emma’s match making is designed to maintain or improve class status.

Her attitudes towards the gipsies reflects societies bigotry.



Gender: Emma starts out  supremely independent and self-assured, but eventually succumbs to the dominant male protective umbrellas. 

At the Crown Ball, when forced to give place to Mrs Elton, Emma declares: “was almost enough to make me think of marriage”.  Marriage equates to status position and power.

Eventually realises she needs a male partner to suit society’s conventions.


Feminists argue that Emma’s conversion from controller to submissive wife is a satire on a society that allows her no creative space to grow in her own right.  Given her intelligence, energy and imagination, her impatient attempts to transform a mundane reality are completely understandable.


The institution of marriage is central to most of Austen’s novels as she sees the family as the key to a nation’s strength.



Egalitarian vs Heirarchialism

Subversive transformation occurs where the source text is undercut by an opposing value.  Does Clueless subvert Emma ?


Cher purports the need to preserve America as a tolerant, diverse, inclusive and pluralistic society.


Cher: So like, right now for example. The Haitians need to come to America. But some people are all, "What about the strain on our resources?" Well it's like when I had this garden party for my father's birthday, right? I put R.S.V.P. 'cause it was a sit-down dinner. But some people came that like did not R.S.V.P. I was like totally buggin'. I had to haul ass to the kitchen, redistribute the food, and squish in extra place settings. But by the end of the day it was, like, the more the merrier. And so if the government could just get to the kitchen, rearrange some things, we could certainly party with the Haitians. And in conclusion may I please remind you it does not say R.S.V.P. on the Statue of Liberty. Thank you very much.


While she espouses an open door to asylum seekers from Haiti, she treats her maid patronisingly and disrespectfully.


Christian, as an outed homosexual, is accepted without judgement or homophobic abuse, and there are indications that Ms .Stoeger may be a lesbian.


Class and social position is determined by meritocracy, wealth and  social connections. All Cher’s  match making is geared at maintaining class position. 

Elton, astounded with Tai by his match, exclaims:


“Tai and I don’t make sense, you and I make sense”  and later:

  “Don’t you know who my father is?”



In defence the movie depicts society’s inclusiveness and pluralism by including Dionne’s Afro-Americanism, and the prevalence of varied ethnic groups such as the Asian, and Middle Eastern extras.


Teenage Coming of Age

Cher is also affluent, privileged and untouched by:

      social and familial conflict  - no outright rebellion

      drugged out confusion - open about its use but rejects them.

      sexual turmoil – avowed virgin though Tai openly promiscuous. 

      Cher, despite her glamorous appearance, remains a virgin out of choice. 



Feminism and Marriage

Clueless endorses the need for marriage to fulfil the needs of loneliness, stability and cohesion.  Cher sees Mr Hall’s lack of sensitivity to the fact he is not married and so begins her match making.  The fact that the movie ends with a marriage supports this institution as an aspirational and worthy one.

Cher also appears self sufficient, but in a time of crisis, `the maiden in distress’ calls Josh and is rescued by her hero and eventual suitor.  This submission to male dominance is decried by feminists.  Marriage is endorsed as a means to fulfilment, union and social stability as Cher takes pride in her achievement of bringing  Mr Hall and Miss Geist together with suggestive flattery: “ Miss Geist was right about you, she said you were the only one in this school with any intelligence.”



Character  Counterparts


-  Some major discrepancies:  Frank Churchill – secret love affair -  Christian – gay.


Values: Cher espouses tolerance, inclusiveness and plurality yet practices exclusivity, insularity and cliques.

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