Truths Universally Acknowledged

A Comparison of Emma and Clueless

The 1990s have seen a resurgence in the popularity of the novels of Jane Austen. Hollywood, as is its custom, has followed suit, bringing to the screen several Oscar-nominated films faithfully based upon the author's works within the past few years. Why would our modern society still be so enamored of these novels, written by a clergyman's daughter who never married or even traveled outside England? How can these 200-year-old stories be relevant to our jaded culture? Probably because, despite all the radical social changes that have taken place since Jane Austen's time, people haven't really changed all that much.

It has been argued that Jane Austen's novels all have the same plot; on a superficial level, there is a germ of truth to that argument. However, the true greatness of Jane Austen's work lies not in the basic stories but in the ironic and occasionally bitchy cultural observations that suffuse those plots and bring them to life. Scriptwriter and director Amy Heckerling has followed admirably Jane Austen's example by making a film that, on the surface, seems like another mindless teen flick but is actually a multi-layered social commentary. She took Austen's novel Emma, the story of a spoiled child of the 19th century English leisure class who thinks she knows everything, and turned it into the film Clueless, the story of a spoiled child of the 20th century American leisure class who thinks she knows everything. Not only did this experiment display the universal nature of Jane Austen's work, it also resulted in a charming and very funny film.

The main theme of the novel, a recurring one in Austen's work, is the triumph of reality over an overactive imagination--sense over sensibility, if you will. Emma Woodhouse is an immature, self-absorbed rich girl who is firmly convinced that she knows what is best for everyone and proceeds to attempt to arrange her friends' lives to fit her personal vision, despite the sage warnings of her neighbor, Mr. Knightley: "Mr. Knightley, in fact, was one of the few people who could see faults in Emma Woodhouse, and the only one who ever told her of them" (11) When Emma attempts to make a match between her friend Harriet Smith and the vicar, Mr. Elton, Mr. Knightley advises her that Mr. Elton will choose a bride based on more than looks and personality: "He knows the value of a good income as well as anybody...and from his general way of talking in unreserved moments, when there are only men present, I am convinced that he does not mean to throw himself away. I have heard him speak with great admiration of a large family of young ladies that his sisters are intimate with, who have twenty thousand pounds apiece." (66) Mr. Knightley's warnings prove correct as Emma's matchmaking plans go hilariously awry when Mr. Elton proposes to Emma herself instead of Harriet, although the reader suspects that the vicar is more impressed with Emma's fortune than with any of her personal charms.

Emma later convinces herself that she is in love with Frank Churchill--luckily, this self-delusion is short-lived, since Frank Churchill has been secretly engaged to Jane Fairfax while using a flirtation with Emma as a red herring for his disapproving relatives. Emma, despite her previous plotting, is dismayed by this behavior; when the engagement is announced, she declares to Jane Fairfax, "Oh! If you knew how much I love every thing that is decided and open!" (460) Obviously, she has had a change of heart when she realizes the hurt that can be done when people are less than honest with each other.

Amy Heckerling's version of Emma, Cher Horowitz, is equally enamored of her own opinion and thinks it's her duty to help her "clueless" friends. The fly in her ointment is her intellectual "ex-stepbrother" Josh, who is justifiably suspicious of Cher's attempts to fix up two of her teachers: "If I ever saw you do anything that wasn't ninety percent selfish, I'd die of shock." Heckerling lifts whole elements of Austen's plot, updating them for a 1990's audience: Harriet Smith becomes Tai, a pothead transfer student with a Jersey accent and a skateboard-chic wardrobe; Cher labels her "adorably clueless" and undertakes to remake her in her own image. Mr. Elton becomes Elton, the son of a concert promoter and one of the few high-school boys considered acceptable to date; Cher decides he would be the perfect guy for Tai. Harriet's rejected suitor, Robert Martin, becomes Travis Birkenstock, a skateboard-riding, pot-smoking dude who is definitely not considered acceptable, despite the obvious compatibility between the pair: "No respectable girl actually dates them," Cher says of Travis and the other "loadies" lounging on the grassy knoll, much as Emma rejected the gentleman-farmer Robert as being beneath Harriet.

Cher's matchmaking plans come to a screeching halt when she is trapped with Elton in his Firebird (the 1990's version of a barouche-landau, one supposes) and forced to endure his advances. She consoles herself by developing a crush on the mysterious Christian, obviously meant to be Frank Churchill's alter ego; however, he was not secretly engaged but was gay, or in the words of Cher's best friend's boyfriend, "a disco-dancing, Oscar Wilde-reading, Streisand ticket-holding friend of Dorothy!" Cher berates herself for not realizing Christian's sexual preference sooner: of course, she missed obvious clues such as his fondness for movies such as Some Like It Hot and Spartacus (or, as Cher calls it, Sporaticus). Cher, like her predecessor Emma, finally realizes that her arrangements have not improved her friends' lives: "Everything I think and everything I do is wrong. I was wrong about Elton, I was wrong about Christian...It all boiled down to one inevitable conclusion--I was just totally clueless!" Cher, like Emma, takes a big dose of humility and finds that it is good for her.

Despite Jane Austen's dislike of misplaced sensibility, don't imagine that she did not have a romantic side. Another Austen leitmotif is the stubborn refusal of her heroines to marry men they did not love, no matter how socially desirable a match it was. This practice was, of course, in direct opposition to the common wisdom of her day, when marriage was as much a business decision as a romantic one. In Austen's earlier novels, the young ladies in question, such as Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, were especially courageous in their decision since they, like their creator, did not have an independent fortune. According to John Halperin's book The Life of Jane Austen, the author lived with her mother and sister Cassandra, each of whom had a little money of their own, after her father's death. Jane, though, had none; she was dependent upon her brothers for monetary support (145). Although the supplemental funds were willingly given, the necessity for such support was anathema to a strong-minded and intelligent woman such as Jane Austen. However, by the time she began to write Emma, in 1814 (Halperin 250), Jane Austen had published two successful novels, Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, and was in the process of publishing a third, Mansfield Park. She finally had a little money of her own and perhaps felt a bit more secure; for the first time, she wrote about a heroine who is also an heiress and, therefore, could afford to remain independent. Emma seems to reflect Jane Austen's feelings on the subject during this conversation with Harriet:

"But still, you will be an old maid! And that's so dreadful!"

"Never mind, Harriet, I shall not be a poor old maid: and it is poverty only which makes celibacy contemptible to a generous public! A single woman, with a very narrow income, must be a ridiculous, disagreeable old maid! The proper sport of boys and girls; but a single woman, of good fortune, is always respectable, and may be as sensible and pleasant as anybody else." (85) After her death, Jane Austen's family painted a portrait of the author as a humble, proper minister's daughter; however, one needs only look to her writing to realize that Jane Austen's opinions bordered on reactionary (for her time) feminism.

Heckerling's heroine echoes similar independent sentiments but approaches them from the opposite direction: in the midst of the sexual revolution, Cher is remaining a virgin (although she prefers the more politically correct term "hymenally challenged"). As she tells her friends Tai and Dionne, "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." Amidst the charged libidos of her contemporaries, Cher is certainly taking an unusual stand: she's an old-fashioned girl.

This is not the only instance in the film in which our society mirrors Georgian society by behaving in a completely opposite manner; Heckerling also uses this device to explore the relationship between father and daughter. In Emma, Mr. Woodhouse is a fussy invalid who has to be coaxed by his daughter to leave the house and refuses to touch rich food. Mel Horowitz, though, loves rich food, the more fattening and artery-clogging the better; however, his doting daughter snatches it from his mouth and chases him around with a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice, trying to get him to follow the ascetic practices of his alter ego. Mr. Woodhouse is distressed by his daughter's engagement, much as he likes Mr. Knightley; Mel knows about the attraction between Josh and Cher even before they do, and seems delighted by the pairing. It's interesting how such opposing scenes can be used to explore the same themes.

Despite the relatively comfortable state of her finances at the time she was writing Emma, Austen pursues another of her favorite themes, namely, making fun of social-climbing snobs. In this novel, she gleefully uses Mr. Elton and his bourgeois bride as the targets: "Insufferable woman!...A little upstart, vulgar being, with her Mr. E., and her caro sposo, and her resources, and all her airs of pert pretension and under-bred finery. Actually to discover that Mr. Knightley is a gentleman! I doubt whether he will return the compliment, and discover her to be a lady." (279) The Eltons' immature behavior continues with their shabby treatment of the spurned Harriet: Mr. Elton refuses to dance with her at the Westons' ball, and the spouses exchange arch looks over the poor girl's head until she is rescued by the gallant Mr. Knightley. In this scene, Mr. Knightley defines true gentility--despite the snobby pretensions of the Eltons, class will always tell in Jane Austen's world.

Heckerling mirrors the social-climbing Mrs. Elton with Amber, the tacky and "ensembly challenged" redhead who is the constant butt of Cher and Dionne's jibes: "She's a total's like the paintings, see? From far away it's okay, but up close it's a big old mess!" When the P.E. teacher tells Amber to hit a tennis ball shot by an automatic server, she perkily chirps, "My plastic surgeon doesn't want me doing any activity where balls fly at my nose." Dionne purrs, "Well, there goes your social life." In debate class, Amber reviews Cher's speech: "I thought it reeked!" Cher snaps, "I believe that's your Designer Impostor perfume." Despite their teenage thoughtlessness, Cher and Dionne are basically good kids; they recognize the inherent nastiness that lies under Amber's bright and brittle exterior.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of Jane Austen's fiction is the way she skewers the social mores of her time. For instance, in Emma as in several of her other novels she is critical of the collection of ladylike skills that passed for an education among 19th century ladies of fashion: drawing, playing the pianoforte, needlework, and perhaps a language or two. Emma's own education, provided by the former Miss Taylor, was limited to that which Emma herself wished to learn: "Even before Miss Taylor had ceased to hold the nominal office of governess, the mildness of her temper had hardly allowed her to impose any restraint." (5) The neighborhood in which the protagonists lived housed a girl's school, which Harriet had attended and at which she now boarded: "Mrs. Goddard was the mistress of a School--not of a seminary, or an establishment, or any thing which professed, in long sentences of refined nonsense, to combine liberal acquirements with elegant morality upon new principles and new systems--and where young ladies for enormous pay might be screwed out of health and into vanity--but a real, honest, old-fashioned Boarding-school, where a reasonable quantity of accomplishments were sold at a reaonsable price, and where girls might be sent to be out of the way and scramble themselves into a little education, without any danger of coming back prodigies." (21-22) Obviously, Jane Austen did not think much of the way young ladies were educated in her time, especially since these "accomplishments" were acquired mainly to prepare a woman for a secure marriage; none of these skills would allow a woman to earn a living should it become necessary to do so. Unless, of course, she followed Jane Fairfax's course and became a governess; despite her elegance and accomplishments, Jane Fairfax could not hope to make a good marriage because she did not have a fortune, and teaching the children of the idle rich was the best that she could hope for. Jane Fairfax, as well as her namesake creator, obviously regarded this scenario with some horror: "There are places in town, offices, where inquiry would soon produce something--Offices for the sale--not quite of human flesh--but of human intellect." (300) A comparison of the governess trade to slavery--awfully strong for a lady, but then "ladies" were the only creatures forced to make their living this way.

Cher and her friends are not much better off in the educational department. Heckerling pokes gentle fun at the clueless rich kids by naming their high school after Bronson Alcott, an educational reformer who "w(as) never to know financial ease; rather (he) always experienced life as a continuing struggle to maintain uncompromising moral and social ideals, while staying one step ahead of poverty." (Hampson) If the Clueless crew was supposed to somehow be inspired to follow in Alcott's footsteps, it clearly wasn't working; Cher undertakes her initial matchmaking between two teachers mainly to improve their dispositions so that her grades would also benefit. When she presents her revised report card to her father, he demands, "What did you do? Did you turn in extra credit?" she proudly replies, "No, I used my powers of persuasion." Mel is incredulous. "You mean you argued your way from a C to an A minus?" Most parents would be appalled; Mel, who is a litigator and, as Cher says, "gets paid to argue," is delighted with his little girl's achievement.

In general, Heckerling does a fine job of recreating the themes and characters of the novel for a modern screen audience, but unfortunately falls victim to the same syndrome as many others who have similarly adapted Austen's work: there's just too darn much going on to put everything from the book into a film. Heckerling completely eliminated Frank Churchill's fiancee, Jane Fairfax, along with her garrulous spinster aunt, Miss Bates, and her deaf grandmother, Mrs. Bates. It's easy to assume that this was forced when Heckerling made Christian gay, a brilliant twist that places the film squarely into modern times. However, one imagines it would be difficult to place characters such as the Bates family into 1990s Beverly Hills under any circumstances: is there such a thing in our society as the impecunious gentlewoman? This is an unfortunate omission because, in my view, Miss Bates is one of the funniest characters ever written by Jane Austen. Her arrival at the Westons' ball, when she talks without stop--seemingly without breathing--for much of two whole pages of the book, while managing to completely avoid saying anything of consequence, is an absolute riot. In the recent big-screen adaptation of Emma starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Sophie Thompson's Miss Bates is one of the best things about the film.

Heckerling does use the Horowitzs' maid, Lucy, as the object of a thoughtless insult on Cher's part which incurs Josh's anger and causes Cher to examine her heart and realize that Josh is "kind of a Baldwin" (visually punctuated by a fountain and lights bursting into life behind her at the moment of revelation). This directly mirrors the scene in Emma in which Emma's joking reference to Miss Bates' constant verbal barrage brings down upon her the wrath of Mr. Knightley, making her realize that she loves him. Both heroines finally learn that, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, they could find their heart's desire right in their own back yard.

The film echoes Austen's penchant for social commentary by employing voice-over narrations by Cher appearing at intervals throughout the film. In one hilarious scene, we see a shot of several teenage guys strolling across the school grounds, low-slung jeans revealing a wide expanse of fashionably funky boxer shorts, and we hear Cher's comments over the faint strains of the song "All The Young Dudes": "So okay, I don't want to be a traitor to my generation and all, but I don't get how guys dress today. I mean, come on, it looks like they just fell out of bed, put on some baggy pants, and take their greasy hair--ugh--and cover it up with a backwards cap, and like, we're expected to swoon? I don't think so!" She shares some dating tips: "Anything that draws attention to your mouth is good. And sometimes you have to show a little skin. This reminds guys of being naked, and makes them think of sex!" She pontificates on the joys of cocooning: "I know it sounds mental, but sometimes I have more fun vegging out than when I go partying. Maybe it's because my party clothes are so binding." There are many other laugh-out-loud funny moments in the film; for instance, when Josh is trying to teach Cher to drive, he asks her is she wants to practice parking. "Why bother?" she asks. "Everywhere you go has valet." When Christian comes to the Horowitzs' house to pick up Cher for a date, Mel clearly does not approve: "If anything happens to my daughter, I've got a .45 and a shovel. I doubt anybody would miss you."

One can imagine Jane Austen as an independent woman of the 1990's writing these very passages. (Or maybe she'd be a staff writer for Melrose Place: lifestyles of the young and fabulous.) Amy Heckerling constructed this film as if inspired by Austen's ghost. She performed the amazing task of taking a nearly 200-year-old story and not only making it relevant to today but also maintaining the author's ironic voice and moral sense. Clueless is a bright, sparkling cartoon of a film, full of bright colors and peppy pop music; the acting, particularly that of Alicia Silverstone as Cher, is wonderful. Anyone who dismisses Clueless as mindless makes the same mistake as those critics who dismiss Jane Austen's work as trivial. Both are penetrating examinations of their contemporary society, which is one of the goals of literature and film alike; if we know a little bit more about ourselves after reading a novel or seeing a film, they have succeeded admirably. In the words of Travis Birkenstock, "Two very enthusiastic thumbs up. Fine holiday fun." Or fun for any time of the year, for that matter.


Austen, Jane. Emma. Ed. R.W. Chapman. London: Oxford University Press, 1933.

Heckerling, Amy, dir. Rudin, Scott and Robert Lawrence, prod. Clueless. Paramount Pictures, 1995.

Halperin, John. The Life of Jane Austen. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984, 1996.

Hampson, Thomas. "Bronson Alcott." I Hear America Singing. 28 April 1997.