PERSUASIONS ON-LINE V.20, NO.1 (Summer 1999)

Metaphors of Control: Physicality in Emma and Clueless

Sue Parrill


Sue Parrill (email: is Professor of English at Southeastern Louisiana University, where she teaches nineteenth-century British literature.  Her article on the A&E television production of Pride and Prejudice will appear in Literature/Film Quarterly this spring.


emma Woodhouse is a woman who likes to be in control.  This central character in Jane Austen’s novel Emma is accustomed to dominating her aged father, her governess, her servants, and her women friends.  A filmmaker attempting to translate the novel may demonstrate this character trait by using situations and dialogue directly from the novel, but to exploit fully the potential of the visual medium, he or she may wish to incorporate appropriate physical action that visually illustrates or supports theme and characterization.  To accomplish this, the filmmaker may have to go beyond the novel itself.  In the novel, Emma shows little interest in physical activity beyond dancing and taking short walks.  Of the four film or television versions of the novel that are currently available, two make no attempt to modernize Emma or to present her as a physically active being.1  The other two, however, make physical action and the idea of physicality a central metaphor for Emma’s urge to dominate and failure to control those around her.


The two versions of Emma that exploit physicality in order to reflect character and theme are the 1996 Miramax theatrical release Emma and the 1995 Paramount film Clueless.  In the Miramax film, Emma is shown as vigorous and capable of physical exercise and competition in a sport.  In her physicality, Gwyneth Paltrow’s Emma is more like a twentieth-century woman than a typical woman of the early nineteenth century.  Ironically, Clueless, which presents Alicia Silverstone’s Cher (Emma) as a woman of the 1990s, shows Cher’s disdain for physical activity and even shows her to be clumsy or inept.  Clueless might be considered postmodern in its denial of Cher’s physicality and its emphasis on her rejection of physical activity.  Ultimately, the filmmaker’s treatment of Cher’s lack of physical prowess has the same function as that in the film Emma.  It reflects her lack of control and failure to dominate.


In the novel, Emma’s physical activity is minimal.  She walks to visit friends and to perform charity to the poor.  Walking is presented as a desirable activity for a young woman.  We are told that even Jane Fairfax, who is susceptible to colds, has been advised to walk and to be out of doors as much as possible for her health.  Emma looks upon her new friend Harriet as a useful walking companion to replace Miss Taylor, her former governess.  Having walked to Miss Taylor’s (Mrs. Weston’s) home alone without enjoyment, she feels that Harriet’s company will make the half-mile walk more pleasant.  We are told that the weather during the winter is sufficiently mild to allow the ladies regular exercise.  Toward the end of the novel, when her mind is troubled over Mr. Knightley’s absence, Emma is frustrated at having to stay indoors because of the rain and welcomes the opportunity for a solitary ramble on the grounds of Hartfield.


Emma also enjoys dancing.  She and Frank Churchill eagerly plan for a ball, which ultimately takes place at the Crowne Inn.  Here again the social aspects of the ball considerably outweigh the opportunity for exercise.  Dancing also figures importantly in other Austen novels, such as Mansfield Park, Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion, and Pride and Prejudice.  This activity was a form of exercise that was sanctioned for young women.  It also was one of the few sanctioned activities that permitted proximity and actual physical contact between single men and women, and as such was popular with both sexes.  For women, it was an opportunity for wearing their most beautiful dresses and displaying their figures to advantage in order to attract the opposite sex.  Emma, who lived in a small village remote from the parties and social interaction of London and who had few friends who were her social equals, welcomed an elegant social occasion that might relieve the monotony of her life.


In the novel, Emma does not compete in any physical activity.  In other Austen novels, women may play games, but they do not compete in any sports.  However, according to C. J. Apperley, archery became fashionable in England around the end of the eighteenth century, and large parties of men and women gathered for “bow meetings” at various estates (100-01).  Both men and women competed for prizes.  Thus, Emma’s expertise with bow and arrow and her friendly competition with Mr. Knightley are not out of keeping with the times.  Horseback riding was also considered desirable exercise for women.  In Mansfield Park, even Fanny, who usually receives little consideration, is encouraged to ride for her health.  Women customarily rode sidesaddle, in elaborate and confining riding habits.  Emma is twice shown in the theatrical release Emma driving a gig.  The novel does not have her driving a buggy, but for a woman of Emma’s age and means, to drive a one-horse vehicle would not have been unusual (Pool 142-43).


Throughout the novel, Emma displays her confidence in the rightness of her opinions and her desire to control the lives of those around her.  She manipulates her doting but febrile father, she takes credit for having made a match for her governess, and she contrives to make a match for her compliant friend Harriet, in spite of Harriet’s obvious desire to marry a young farmer.  In the theatrical film Emma the title character’s willingness to compete in a sport, her ability to drive a gig, and her eagerness to have a dance all help to convey the sense of Emma’s desire to control her own life and the lives of others.  In all of her speech and actions she demonstrates that she is confident that she knows what is best for those around her and thinks it her right to shape their lives.  Thus, her holding the reins is an appropriate symbol for her being in control.  She easily controls the horse that pulls the gig.  Early in the film she drives rapidly up to Harriet’s residence, jumps out of the gig, and runs up the walk.  She exhibits doubt only when the gig becomes stuck as she fords a stream.  In keeping with the symbolic function of this action, her loss of control when the gig is stuck reminds the viewer that her sense of control is illusory.  We can only imagine what she would have done had Frank Churchill (Ewan McGregor) not come along just as she found herself stranded in midstream.  At the very least she would have gotten her dress wet and muddied her shoes before she walked back to town to get assistance.  However, before she must act on her own behalf, a man comes to her rescue and takes charge of extracting Emma and her gig from the stream.  This turn of events parallels the way Mr. Knightley (Jeremy Northam), in the novel and the film, also acts to advise Emma, to correct her, and finally to take control over her life.  John Greenfield asserts that both the film and the novel set out to teach Emma that “power and independence for women is ultimately undesirable and dangerous” (32).


Emma is also shown in the film shooting arrows with Mr. Knightley on the lawn of Donwell Abbey.  The scene in which Mr. Knightley chides Emma for her interference between Harriet (Toni Collette) and Mr. Martin (Edward Woodall) takes place indoors in the novel.  The filmmakers have not only moved the scene outdoors, but have added the element of competition in a sport.  At first Emma appears confident and capable.  The viewer is aware of the competitive aspect of the sport, since Emma at first shoots better than Mr. Knightley.  While they are shooting, Mr. Knightley tells Emma that Harriet will soon receive a proposal of marriage from Mr. Martin.  Emma shoots and hits the outer edge of the bullseye.  Emma asserts smugly that Harriet has already received and refused the proposal.  After Mr. Knightley chides her for her interference, her confidence is shaken, and her aim deteriorates.  She hits the edge of the target and then misses the target entirely.  Her loss of competence in shooting shows symbolically how fragile is Emma’s control and how illusory her power.  The power shifts to Mr. Knightley as Emma appears to have lost confidence in the rightness of her behavior toward Harriet.  It is interesting to note that in the 1940 film version of Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth (Greer Garson) shoots more accurately than Mr. Darcy (Laurence Olivier) and is able to establish a kind of superiority over him in so doing.  He stands convicted of condescension and pride in having assumed that he was a better shot than she and could instruct her.  The idea for having Emma shoot arrows may have come from this film, but shooting arrows is highly appropriate for this misguided Cupid.


In both the novel and film, Emma is presented as fond of dancing.  She eagerly takes up all of Frank Churchill’s suggestions that they dance while at the Coles’ home and that they give a ball.  The film makes clear how Emma’s social position places her high as the first or at least the second, after Mrs. Elton (Juliet Stevenson), a new bride, in leading off a dance.  She spends much of the time not so much in concentrating on dancing, but checking to see who is dancing with whom and who is not dancing.  She later chides Mr. Knightley for standing on the sidelines with the old men, but praises him for relieving Harriet of wallflower status.  Emma obviously would like to control even the pairing of the dancers.


Several critics have stressed the use of dancing to convey something more than physical activity.  The elaborate figures in some of the country dances of Austen’s day certainly lend themselves to symbolic interpretation.  In the final dance in Emma, the men and women line up opposite each other; then the man and woman in the first couple circle each other, back to back and then face to face; each partner makes a turn with a member of the second couple.  Then all four line up together holding hands.  Next, the individuals weave in and out around the other dancers, progressing toward the end of the line, where each couple is reunited.  This movement parallels well how the men and women in the group move and change relationships, working toward an appropriate pairing.  This is much the point that George Bluestone makes when he discusses the dance in the 1940 Pride and Prejudice (127).  Alistair Duckworth compares Mr. Knightley’s “right kind of social dance,” which considerately includes Harriet and Miss Bates, but does not, as do Emma’s “games,” threaten “social rightness”(293).  Emma attempts to manipulate people and to arrange pairings rather than allowing them to find their own natural positions.


Clueless, instead of attempting a realistic picture of life in either the nineteenth century or the twentieth, focuses on extreme behavior and parodies it.  Kim Ratcliff of Entertainment Weekly queried a group of students from Beverly Hills High School as to the realism of Clueless.  They indicated that portrayals of the fashion, the language, and the lifestyles of the students in the film are “way exaggerated.”  Set in Los Angeles in the late 1990s, the film opens with Cher/Emma confident and in control.  She is popular, rich, intelligent, and in need of new worlds to conquer.  In voice-over, Cher admits, after she receives a “C” in debate, “I felt impotent and out of control, which I really hate.”  Her solution at this time is to go to the mall.  Her long-term project is to do a make-over on newcomer Tai/Harriet (Brittany Murphy).  Her friend Dionne (Stacey Dash) asserts, “Cher’s main thrill in life is a make-over.  OK, it gives her a sense of control in a world full of chaos.”  Regardless of Tai’s preference for “loadie” Travis/Mr. Martin (Breckin Meyer), Cher tries to match her with the big man on campus Elton/Mr. Elton (Jeremy Sisto), but Elton prefers the more beautiful and socially upscale Cher.  After Tai falls in love with Cher’s stepbrother, Josh/Mr. Knightley (Paul Rudd), Cher realizes that she herself loves Josh.  The characters spend a great deal of time shopping and doing make-overs, and Cher spends much of her time attempting to manipulate her father, friends, and teachers.  The story line and the characters parallel in some ways those of the novel Emma, and although the film provides the reader of the novel with delightful shocks of recognition, it also has appealed to viewers who have never read the novel.  The film was so successful that it inspired a television series by the same title.


In Cher’s social group, it is “uncool” to enjoy physical activity.  Cher does not participate in her physical education class, but stands on the sidelines talking.  When called upon to strike at a tennis ball from a ball machine, she is so busy talking that the ball almost hits her.  She asserts to her exasperated teacher that this is a “lawsuit waiting to happen.”  Dionne refuses to hit a tennis ball because she says that doing so might undermine skills that she learned in private tennis lessons.  Obviously, private lessons represent status; physical education classes are not to be taken seriously.  Another friend, Amber (Elisa Donovan), says that her plastic surgeon told her not to participate in activities that involve having balls fly near her nose.  All in all, Cher and her friends hold themselves aloof from physical activity for its own sake and from sports without the cachet of snobbery.


However, Cher encourages Tai to work out in order to improve her figure.  The implication is that Cher also works out, but although she appears in an exercise outfit, she is never shown exercising.  At one point as she is experiencing a rare moment of self-loathing, she says, “I feel like such a heifer.”  Working out to improve one’s appearance is activity sanctioned by her peer group, but her peer group would not approve of any excessive effort (uncool).  For Cher, this is only another device for reshaping and controlling her protégé.  Tai allows Cher to assume control of her exercise, makeup, hair color, clothing, and friends.


For Cher, competition in a sport would also be uncool.  To try hard to win or to defeat someone else at a sport would display excessive enthusiasm, and to risk losing is a situation that might subject one to losing face with one’s peers.  To lose face is to lose control.  The closest Cher comes to competition in a physical activity is driving an automobile, and indeed she does lose status with Tai when she fails the driving examination.  Tai caustically discounts her as a person who is still a virgin and can’t drive.  Early in the film, we are shown Cher driving alone.  She sideswipes a fire hydrant and runs a stop sign.  Later, when driving with Josh, she is driving on the left side of the road.  When Josh chides her, she says, “You try driving in platforms.”  When she takes her driving test, she is so distracted by her personal problems that she almost runs over a person on a bicycle and then sideswipes a car.  The driving instructor informs her that she has failed the test and that there is no higher authority to whom she may appeal.  After this failure, Cher trudges home evidencing disappointment and self-doubt.  She has been reduced to the ultimate in uncool activity—walking. When she gets home and discovers that Tai has designs on Josh, her self-esteem is shattered.  She realizes that all her schemes for Tai’s happiness have endangered her own happiness.  Her creation has moved beyond her control.


Cher’s behavior during dances is similar to that of Emma in the novel and film.  Cher is little interested in dancing.  She is much more interested in who is dancing with whom, and at the party in the Valley she attempts to get Elton to dance with Tai.  Obviously, her efforts to get Elton interested in Tai fail, since after the party Elton shows that he thinks that her efforts have been on her own behalf.  At a later dance, she is so absorbed in Tai’s discomfort at not having a dance partner and with Josh’s rescue of Tai from wallflowerdom that she is oblivious to Christian’s/Frank Churchill’s (Justin Walker) obvious interest in the other men at the dance.  It is clear to the viewer that Cher is deluded when she decides that Christian is in love with her.  Like Emma, Cher thinks that she knows what is going on and that she knows what is best for everyone.  As it turns out, she knows neither what is going on nor what is best for herself.  Christian turns out to be gay, Tai falls in love with Josh, and Tai even threatens Cher’s position among her high school friends.


In both the Miramax Emma and Clueless physical prowess or the lack of it function metaphorically to support and convey themes central to the films.  In neither of the other two cinematic versions or the novel does physical activity play an important role.  It is highly appropriate, however, that given the suitability of the film medium for displaying physical action, the desirability of giving a film variety of scene and action, and the necessity for conveying information visually, the creators of both Emma and Clueless have used physical action that is not only in keeping with the story but thematically resonant.





1. Andrew Wright cites two earlier adaptations for television (449): Emma, adapt. Judy Campbell, prod. Michael Barry, BBC TV, 25 May 1948; and Emma, adapt., Vincent Tilsley, prod. Campbell Logan, BBC TV, 26 Feb.-1 April, 1960.



Works Cited


Apperley, Charles James (Nimrod).  My Life and Times.  Ed. E.D. Cuming.  London: Blackwood, 1927.

Bluestone, George.  Novels into Film.  Berkeley: UCP, 1973.

Clueless.  Adapt., Dir. Amy Heckerling.  Perf. Alicia Silverstone and Paul Rudd.  Paramount, 1995.

Duckworth, Alistair M.  “Games in Jane Austen’s Life and Fiction.”  Jane Austen: Bicentenary Essays. Ed. John Halperin.  New York: Cambridge UP, 1975. 279-97.

Emma.  Adapt. Denis Canstanduros.  Dir. John Glenister.  Perf. Doran Godwin and John Carson.  BBC TV, 1972.

Emma.  Adapt., Dir. Douglas McGrath.  Perf. Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeremy Northam.  Miramx, 1996.

Emma 2.  Non-soundtrack Music Notes.” 1 July 1998.

Greenfield, John R.  “Is Emma Clueless?  Fantasies of Class and Gender from England to California.”  Topic: A Journal of the Liberal Arts 48 (1997): 31-38.

Pool, Daniel.  What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew.  New York: Simeon, 1993.

Pride and Prejudice.  Adapt. Jane Murfin and Aldous Huxley.  Dir. Robert Z. Leonard.  Perf. Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson. MGM, 1940.

Ratckiff, Kim.  “Is ‘Clueless’ True?”  Entertainment Weekly.  28 July 1995.

Wright, Andrew.  “Jane Austen Adapted.” Nineteenth Century Fiction 30 (1975): 421-53.


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