Occasional Papers, NO.3 (Fall 1999)


Reviving Emma in a Clueless World: The Current Attraction to a Classic Structure

Melissa Mazmanian (email: is a writer living in Ann Arbor, MI. In August, Lincoln College awarded her the Billee Murray Denny Prize for Poetry for her poem “The ones over forty,” which will appear this autumn in The Denny Poems. She is an alumna of Colorado College.

"My character’s rules are all about things. She follows these rules - which are totally from some book, but which are absurd. But her rules are right out there, and in the end she says it’s O.K. to like boys and clothes and be who she is. I’ve been meaning to read Emma, like, forever" ("Austen Anew" 55). This quotation revealing Alicia Silverstone’s take on her role in the 1993 hit movie Clueless is both strikingly vacuous and surprisingly insightful.

While she may have never picked up Emma, Silverstone illustrates in this comment why she and so many others are drawn to the text today: both Emma and Cher, the protagonist of Clueless, subscribe to social "rules" while subverting the expectations of their world through the assertion of free will. This dynamic hinges on one condition: the characters’ choices must conveniently live up to society’s demands. Cher and Emma are allowed to be individuals because they are ideal characters. Silverstone makes clear that while a heroine is allowed to "be who she is," such freedom comes only to those who embody a prescribed paradigm and who will make decisions that perpetuate social stability. Austen’s work lends itself to a particular social environment searching for a balance between mutating social convictions. Therefore, the fact that recent popular culture is "having an unprecedented love affair with all things Austen" (Mitchell) demands investigation.

The 1993 hit film Clueless, written and directed by Amy Hecklering, exemplifies how popular culture re-appropriates Austen’s novels to serve updated agendas. As a novel of manners, Emma creates a space between competing ideological extremes of the late eighteenth century. During this period the traditional "aristocratic ideology,"1 based on a hierarchy of social birthright, began to clash with a "progressive ideology" emerging from burgeoning notions of individualism and capitalism. Emma exists as a text enmeshed in this debate and presents a tenuous equilibrium upholding social stability. Correspondingly, Clueless creates a guideline for proper sexual relations in a society both obsessed with sex and terrified by the ramifications of sexually transmitted diseases like AIDS.

As a character, Emma embodies her unsettled social environment. While she aggressively asserts her individuality and follows her free will, she is also the most eligible woman in Highbury. She may act like a product of "progressive ideology," but her social position embeds her in a "traditional ideology" that assumes marriage for social benefit. While Emma appears to reject the expectations inherent in this position, declaring never to marry and eventually marrying for love, it is both convenient and contrived that Kinghtley is not only her choice, but her social equal. The message is clear: follow your heart as long as it is appropriate.

Similarly, Cher’s actions belie her appearance. She embodies a sexual stereotype that a modern audience will immediately recognize. A blond teenager dressed consistently in short skirts, tight tops, and thigh-high stockings appears promiscuous, yet Cher forsakes expectations and remains a virgin until she finds an ideal match. Clueless flips the message espoused in Emma to one that states: follow your desires as long as it is appropriate. Cher’s virginity equates with Emma’s heart. Both characters manipulate the expectations of their audience and do not act in accordance with their specific social environment.

The plot of the film remains true to the novel, but the resemblance is deceptive. For while the stories correlate, we are different. And yet we, the audience viewing Clueless, relate to Emma as a thematic skeleton. The film’s popularity endows it with authority. If an audience responds to a particular text one can assume that that text hits a nerve in that society. The question then becomes, what aspect of the novel of manners are we attracted to, and what effect do new clothes, new houses, and a new era have on an old structure?

Clueless upholds the didactic impulse inlaid in Emma. Furthermore, as cultural contexts shift and additional impulses emerge, the original directives mutate. The sexual revolution of the 1960’s opened the doors on sexuality. What was once relegated to hushed whispers behind closed doors became open discussion in the hands of the media. Sex before marriage is assumed in most social circles and prevalent in current film. So, while finding personal satisfaction in marriage may have been unusual in the late eighteenth century, marrying to fulfill personal satisfaction is a unique concept today. Cher and Josh do not actually marry at the end of Clueless ("as if! I’m only sixteen you know"), yet Cher catches the bouquet at Ms. Guist’s wedding and brings the flowers to Josh. This scene completes the directive and aligns Cher to a marriage deemed unnecessary by current ideals.

Hecklering employs two techniques in the film that reveal an updated agenda. First, minute inconsistencies in the story line reflect how the twentieth century updates the eighteenth century for its own intent. The relationship between Frank Weston and Jane Churchill is absent in Clueless, and Harriet’s inability to find an attachment qualifies differently though Tai. These details help pinpoint where Austen’s perspective does not relate to a modern perspective and reveal why this perspective still continues to re-appropriate her form and structure.

Second, Hecklering taps stereotype and cliché to challenge the audience’s opinion. Although there have been numerous adaptations of Emma in film, Clueless is a striking model of refurbishment because it does not attempt to imitate the period or setting of the original text. It is impossible for us to approach an eighteenth-century text from the cultural environment in which it was written. Therefore, adaptations attempting to be true to an original novel end up disguising updated perspectives and agendas behind costumes or accents. Clueless does not face this dilemma. By setting Clueless in Beverly Hills of the 1990’s, Hecklering brings Emma to our environment and allows us to investigate the film without the same degree of second-guessing necessary for other adaptations.

Austen Goes Hollywood: Plot and Character Change Propelled by the Move

The major discrepancy between Emma and Clueless lies in how the outcome of each story is qualified. In Clueless Cher and Josh illustrate the ideal match reflected against other not-so-perfect attachments. Elton and Amber represent the shallowness of convenience, and Tai’s sexual willingness is an offense that leaves her single throughout the film. Austen also prioritizes the attachment between Emma and Mr. Knightley. We are warned against traditional marriage as simply a vehicle to attain status through the empty relationship of the Eltons. And the affair between Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax illustrates how succumbing to desire can be seen as detrimental. The dynamics of these qualifier relationships reveal more about the protagonist couple’s perfection than the couple themselves.

Amber and Elton in Clueless and the Eltons in Emma suggest that attachment simply to attain status or uphold social norms is negative. More complex is the potentially damaging affair between Jane and Frank and their counterpart in Clueless, Christian. In Emma, Frank is of a higher social class than Jane and has access to wealth. Jane’s pedigree is decent but her family is poor and her position as a lady tenuous. Initially, Frank’s designs on Jane do not manifest in terms of public social contracts; therefore, he is compromising her as a lady. Because the affair is illicit, Jane is placed in a morally stigmatized group. Although Austen allows the two to marry legitimately in the end, the reader is fully aware that, regardless of her actions, Jane is vulnerable. If Frank deserts her she could still be a ruined woman.

The manifestations of their secret are manifold. Frank attempts to hide his attachments to Jane by further resisting the traditional social code and flirting shamelessly with a woman he has no intention of marrying. When the engagement to Jane is finally announced, the shocked Westons assure Emma that there is "‘some part of his conduct we cannot excuse’" (396). In addition, Austen portrays Jane as weak and sickly. According to Claudia Johnson, "Jane’s complexion is the expression of a social norm which requires, after the fact of an illicit sexual act, a failure of the health of the woman" (Preus 206).

The absence of the Frank and Jane subplot in the film is a considerable modification. Jane has no equivalent in Clueless and Christian replaces Frank. In the novel, Frank feigns interest in Emma in order to disguise his attachment to Jane. In the movie, Christian’s attention is meant to cover a homosexual nature. This shift in character is significant in light of modern cultural attitudes. We no longer equate secret engagements with moral inadequacy, but we do consciously or unconsciously place homosexuals in a morally stigmatized category. This categorization is due to historical prejudice and a perceived association between homosexual men and AIDS. As Susan Sontag states, "it seems that societies need to have one illness which becomes identified with evil, and attaches blame to its ‘victims’’’ (104).

Harriet’s transformation into Tai substantiates this theory that sexuality is significant when interpreting Clueless as a text with a social message. This progression centers on the characteristics that make each girl undesirable as a potential mate. Emma takes Harriet under her wing as a prodigy and Harriet is properly obliging. After their first meeting, "the humble, grateful, little girl went off with highly gratified feelings, delighted with the affability with which Miss Woodhouse had treated her all the evening" (25). Emma assumes that Harriet’s company (herself) will overshadow Harriet’s questionable origins. Unfortunately, Harriet cannot escape her uncertain birth. Her paternity is unknown and therefore no amount of Emma’s patronage will make her desirable.

Similarly, Cher believes that by giving Tai a "make-over" she will automatically induct her into high school social circles. However, there is a principal distinction between the two girls that no amount of makeovers can expunge: Tai is not a virgin, nor is she subtle about her promiscuity. When discussing the pros and cons of muscled men she adds, "You know, I don’t really care either way, just as long as his you-know-what isn’t crooked. I hate that!" In response Cher ignorantly asks, "What?" Cher is the protagonist virgin and Tai is "vulgar" in a manner that Cher can never be. Tai occupies Harriet’s predicament: neither is marketable. Harriet’s lack of kinship alliances is replaced by Tai’s mistake of multiple sexual alliances. Both examples of Hecklering’s character evolution reveal that the eighteenth-century debate concerning kinship and birthright evolved into one concerning sexuality and promiscuity.

How "Clothes" Change the Text: Using Stereotype to Create Meaning

Both Emma and Clueless reconstruct specific social environments and address an audience of that similar environment. Therefore, any directive impulse inlaid in the text can only be appreciated through the eyes of that audience. Kohn points out that a modern reader must approach Emma in the context in which it was written. In eighteenth-century England, "ladyhood" as a stereotype was not an abstract ideal, but a well-defined and valued attribute. Austen wrote within this prevailing ideology and redefined it: "One of Austen’s greatest achievements in Emma is that she writes a novel of education . . . that instructs her readers to deconstruct the pervasive images of "ladyhood" created by her period’s conduct-book writers" (Kohn 45).

Austen is writing for an audience enmeshed in the debate concerning virtue. When virtue becomes a component of ladyhood and ladyhood a gendered construction of femininity then every woman must prove herself worthy of her gender. Because late eighteenth-century England viewed women as products of ladyhood, Austen manipulates this notion to question the defininition of what a lady is. She undercuts her ideal paradigm by subtly questioning Emma’s virtue. Although she follows the custom of many novels of manners that require the heroine to pass a series of social tests in order to prove virtue, Emma’s hold over this trait is never completely established. In the end, her happiness is as much dependent on the guidance of Austen as Emma’s own good sense. Therefore, it is possible that an eighteenth-century audience is forced to notice and question their perceptions concerning ladyhood.

All of Emma’s tests concerning virtue are ambiguous. Emma’s dislike of the Bateses and Jane Fairfax illustrates bad manners and jealousy. On one level, she learns an excruciating lesson when her indelicacy comes to a head on the excursion to Box Hill. Emma notices how her words affect Ms. Bates, realizes her own social power, and is chastised by Mr. Knightly for her actions. Yet on another level, even this humiliation does not stop Emma from meddling and assuming a social superiority. Immediately after leaving the Bateses (on a mission of apology) she promptly hatches a plan to match Harriet with Frank Churchill and laments that she missed an opportunity to "talk over Jane Fairfax’s situation with Mr. Knightley" (386).

Emma may realize her power and indelicacy in increments, but her successful (and unsuccessful) navigation of social pitfalls is dependent more on whim than internal virtue. Emma does not become attached to the inappropriate Frank Churchill because she becomes bored, not because of any insight into his character. After reading the letter he writes home to his father she explains that "‘gratifying . . . and stimulative as was the letter in the material part, its sentiments . . . had not added any lasting warmth, (and) that she could still do without the writer’" (266). So obsessed with matchmaking and social games, Emma puts down the letter and immediately hatches a plan to match up Frank and Harriet. In the end, we are never completely assured of Emma’s eventual betterment for most every realization of her folly only leads Emma into greater folly.

Whether or not Emma is actually transformed by her trials does not relate directly to Clueless. For while each girl experiences insights into her character the purpose behind these insights has evolved. Emma wrestles with a virtue that is an abstract personality trait. Therefore, her physical feelings for Knightley emerge after she experiences the ambiguous "virtue" tests. Cher’s virtue, on the other hand, is an established physical trait. Therefore, she has an epiphany about her character only after she is physically attracted to Josh and must prove herself worthy of more than a sisterly relationship.

After Cher realizes her love for Josh, she decides that she needs to give herself a complete makeover, "except this time I make-over my soul." Although her good doing consists of sending caviar and skis to those in need, Cher’s initiative and effort at self-improvement are straightforward and undeniable. Austen’s skeptical view on improvement is missing in Clueless. While Cher’s actions may be silly, she is serious about her purpose.

Clueless is not operating on the same level as Emma; Cher does not need to prove herself virtuous as a lady. Rather she needs to prove herself virtuous as a sexual partner. Therefore, where does this concept of ladyhood fit in relation to Clueless? Because the modern feminine stereotype has no affiliation with ladyhood it makes sense that Heckerling does not manipulate that particular feminine construct when she creates Cher. However, other feminine stereotypes do speak to modern audiences. While a modern audience may not relate to the concept of ladyhood we do relate to that of a dumb blonde.

Cher personifies this common cultural stereotype. Her appearance connects with a collective cultural reservoir of characters. Popular culture simplifies itself by pigeonholing and manipulating existing stereotypes. This impulse may be restrictive, but it also creates a common language that enables the media to manipulate these pigeonholes while relying on the automatic assumptions of its audience. A modern viewer, bombarded with blonde images from Marilyn Monroe to Barbie, has preconceived notions about who Cher is before she even speaks. Furthermore, while ladyhood as a cultural construct addresses issues of traditional values and marriage, being "blonde" as a character trait indicates sexuality.

Virginity assumes a new significance in the modern context. Like Emma, Cher is a virgin. Unlike Emma, Cher’s virginity is not taken for granted. Due to her appearance one would assume the opposite. Thus, Cher is forced to openly proclaim her virginity in order to inform the audience: "God! You say that like it’s a bad thing . . . I’m just not interested in doing it until I find the right person. You see how picky I am about my shoes - and they only go on my feet!"

As a stereotype, the blonde is a combination of three characters: dumb blonde, materialistic blonde, and nymphomaniac blonde. Hecklering manipulates all three categories in order to establish a specific projection of Cher’s personality: Cher whines and squeals; she is also a materialistic ditz.; and when she has problems she goes to a place where she can "gather (her) thoughts and regain (her) strength" -- the mall. She believes that "Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May, / but thy eternal summer will not fade" is a famous quote from Cliffs Notes, and when asked if she likes Billie Holiday, she replies, "Yes, I love him." The contrast between Cher’s social shrewdness and apparent stupidity is one of the underlying mechanisms driving the film. This polarity is emphasized through her "blondeness."

Hecklering sets up a paradox around Cher’s position as a sexual being. She exaggerates the ditzy and materialistic blonde traits while presenting the sexual blond in an extremely ambiguous manner: sexual appearance vs. proclaimed virginity. The blonde stereotype automatically embodies three characteristics while Cher only owns up to two. Therefore, the audience is forced to confront their own preconceptions concerning blonde women as they recognize that her virginity is inconsistent with the stereotype.

Cher is not the only character constructed around modern stereotypes or the pigeonholes of popular culture. The film manipulates many stock characters: Josh portrays the angst-ridden college student who wears all black, listens to complaint rock and reads Nietzsche; Christian, the fashion-conscious homosexual male. As Cher explains after they overcome their personal sexual charade, "not that Christian wasn’t a blast to hang out with, he was becoming one of my favorite shopping partners."

The message revolving around Christian is subtler than the apparent contradiction surrounding Cher’s sexual nature. Like the dumb blonde, Christian automatically fits into the cliché of the homosexual male: his actions are effeminate; his clothes, car, and hair style project an obsession with appearances that we associate with stereotypical homosexuality; and his rejection of Cher, the image of sexuality, would appear shocking if not for his sexual orientation. Nevertheless, Christian’s homosexuality is never openly confronted in the movie. We are not allowed into Christian’s head, desires, or motivations. As far as the audience knows he is gay only to explain why he does not respond to Cher’s advances and to showcase her naiveté. This distance from Christian as a person enhances his role as a symbol. Transforming Frank into Christian reveals both why and how the text is applicable to modern consciousness. Even if his sexuality is not outwardly acknowledged in the movie, Christian represents the homosexual male stereotype present in popular imagination.

Popular imagination associates masculine homosexuality with AIDS, even though the disease has spread beyond the homosexual community. Blame is irrelevant. The plight of the homosexual population remains a concrete warning to the broader consciousness as to the destructive power of the disease. Gary Fine discusses how society deals with this fear, "Major epidemics have always provided a rich vein of folklore." This consolidation of fear includes stereotypes and facades. AIDS is not simply a disease, but a social category. When discussing films from the first decade of AIDS, Frank Philipp and Charles Schull assert that "[t]hese films present the views of the AIDS issue through images of those who are either "inside" or "outside" the social worlds of gay men and/or AIDS" (19). By representing homosexuality, which unconsciously signifies AIDS, Christian becomes one reminder of why Cher must remain a virgin.

Our underlying popular imagination places AIDS victims in a moral category that parallels the moral stigma attached to the ruined or bastard woman of the eighteenth century. In the novel, Jane follows her desire while ignoring a duty to society. Her actions are potentially morally wrong. Popular imagination stigmatizes homosexuals for a potential affiliation with AIDS. Frank and Jane evolve into the character of Christian, and each is associated with physical degradation, social separation, and possible "wrong-doing."

Although Hecklering reveals that social classes do exist in America (through monetary status in Beverly Hills), the text does not revolve around preserving these boundaries. No longer do we dread a blurring of lines between social classes but rather a blurring of lines between the infected and non-infected. Jane’s disregard of duty and Christian’s unconscious affiliation with AIDS renders them potential social saboteurs. This parallel is enhanced by the Harriet/Tai connection: the former’s flaw is her unknown parentage and the latter’s is her unknown sexual past.

Essentially, Christian and Tai are subconscious challenges to Cher’s virginity. Constructed as the protagonist of a novel of manners, Cher is set up as an ideal character. And in the modern context that prototype denotes virginity. Tai and Christian are subtle projections of the real issue; one has sex and the other implicitly suggests what that sexuality can lead to. While Emma is a continuous dialogue searching for the marriage that will produce social stability, Clueless is a continuous dialogue searching for the sexual connection that will produce an equivalent social stability. This text brings AIDS into a heterosexual realm. Clueless is not an overt discussion and does not revolve around an infected character. Rather, the film sets up a sexual paradigm whose purpose and motive can only be found in this sub-textual discourse. A cultural transition from free to bounded sex invokes the structure of the novel of manners and validates the popularity of Clueless. Viewed in the context of this new transition, aspects of Cher’s virginity, her domesticity, eventual "marriage," and Christian’s homosexuality take on extreme significance.

The message in Clueless is more forthright than that explored in Emma. Cher is a blonde, and if popular media is able to instill the value of virginity on this highly sexualized stereotype there is hope that it will likewise be able to control other "normal" girls. Cher has unquestionably become the right person ready for the right sex. After realizing her attraction to Josh, she wholeheartedly embarks on a journey of self-discovery and personal growth. Emma is much more nebulous. Austen does not allow Emma to be entirely transformed into a perfect being. In essence, Austen asks a gamut of questions within her text without asserting the same clear-cut answers.

This subtle difference in intent is one example of how the media responds to social issues. The media sells ideas about sex--what it is, and what to do about it. Even in the first films dealing directly with AIDS, "It is not the person with AIDS who is victimized but those threatened or affected by the disease. Family and community occupy center stage, and the issue is not survival but cohesion: how to deal with a breach in the safety net" (Phillipp & Schull, 20). Clueless is an ideal example of how the media is attempting to secure that safety net as the threat of AIDS expands beyond fringe populations. The underlying AIDS threat is one strand in the current fascination with Austen. Her novels present a dialogue about preserving social stability that is once again appropriate. This is not to say that Hollywood has latched on to the novel of manners as the only genre applicable to our current state of insecurity. It is simply one form which rises to the current occasion.

As a society we are currently attempting to reconcile free sex and free will with AIDS and the concept of total monogamy. Similarly, English novelists relate the trials of reconciling emerging notions of capitalism and individualism within traditional ideals of kinship and status. In both cases, the newfound space is extremely narrow and precarious. The formal structure of the English novel of manners is ordered and directed as a cohesive unit. There is only one path of polemical reconciliation and it embodies the ideal situation. We are currently in a position that requires a similar structure, and even if we ignore some complexity in order to appropriate some answers, we are still infatuated with Jane Austen. So, when People Magazine, the conduit for popular culture, wonders if we’ve "had enough Jane Austen?" the question is immediately answered: "not so fast . . ." (Gliatto, 15).


1 Terms borrowed from McKeon.

Works Citied

Austen, Jane. Emma. Ed. R. W. Chapman. 3rd ed. Oxford: OUP, 1969. McKeon, Michael. "Generic Transformation and Social Change: Rethinking the Rise of the Novel." Modern Essays on Eighteenth Century Literature. Ed. Damrosch, Leopold. Oxford: OUP, 1988. 159-181.
"Austen Anew." The New Yorker. 21 Aug. 1995: 55. Mitchell, Gregg. "Cents and Sensibility: Ed Copeland’s Life-Long Passion For all Things Austen Is Paying Off." Pomona College Magazine, summer, 1996.
Clueless. Writer and director Amy Heckerling. With Alicia Silverstone and Paul Rudd. Paramount, 1995. Philipp, Frank & Shull, Charles. "American Values and Images: T.V. Movies of the First Decade of AIDS." Journal of Popular Film / T.V. 21, 1 (1993): 19-26.
Gliatto, Tom. "Tube: Emma." People Weekly, 17 February 1997. Preus, Nicholas E. "Sexuality in Emma: A Case History." Studies in the Novel 23 (1991): 196-216.
Kohn, Denise. "Reading Emma as a Lesson on ‘Ladyhood’: A Study in the Domestic Bildungsroman." Essays in Literature 22 (1995): 45-58. Sontag, Susan. Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and its Metaphors. New York: Anchor Books, 1989.

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