“As if!:” How Amy Heckerling’s Clueless Pays a Lovely Tribute to Jane Austen’s Emma

By Jossalyn Holbert

When I tell friends, family, colleagues, and the occasional random stranger that Amy Heckerling’s 1995 off-the-wall, colorful, and downright entertaining teen comedy, “Clueless” (starring Alicia Silverstone, Paul Rudd, Stacey Dash, and Brittany Murphy), is an adaptation of a Jane Austen novel, “Emma” (published 1815),  most are shocked. Flabbergasted, if you will.

In fact, most of these people are not familiar enough with the story of “Emma” itself to note the similarities between Heckerling’s film and the novel.

A scatterbrained but lovable protagonist (Cher and Emma). A plucky social climber friend (Tai and Harriet). A sometimes-brash stepbrother/brother-in-law (Josh and Mr. Knightly). An asshole of a love interest (Elton and Mr. Elton). “Clueless’” renditions of all these characters connect to “Emma” across a span of nearly two hundred years, the modern version paying tribute to the classic in a lovely way.

Like I said, most do not know that the fictional events of a small British village inspired Heckerling’s iconic adaptation. Well, I am here today to educate you all. The connection here is a vastly fascinating subject to me, and at the end of the day, I love both “Clueless” and “Emma” with all my heart. So, strap in and hold on tight!

In case it has been a decade or more since anyone watched “Clueless”, I will provide a brief overview. Warning, spoilers for this twenty-four-year-old movie ahead:

Cher (Alicia Silverstone) and Dion (Stacey Dash) live privileged lives, best friends in the Los Angeles valley, with good hair, a decadent wardrobe, and only the capacity to care about which boys are cute and which are not at their high school. Cher is our Emma Woodhouse, a rich, blonde beauty who has only ever known the lavish life she currently lives. Cher parties, shops, avoids homework and ugly people, including the more onerous teachers at her school.

Cher has a long road ahead before she can finally learn humility, a lesson which the confused but kind new student, Tai (Brittany Murphy), can teach her through several blundering exploits meant to do the exact opposite, to make Tai popular.

“Both “Clueless” and “Emma” have something vital to say about female friendship, that female friends trump any romance with a man in their fulfillment of that human need for female/female affection.”

Tai’s (and Harriet’s) stories revolve around the pursuit of a man, but Tai will not settle for just any man; she hopes for a man who will be respectful and uplifting, who is compatible with her, despite the fact that Cher wants her to date someone who is vapid but popular. Cher suggests Elton, modeled after Mr. Elton in “Emma”, both possessing social capital but both also devoid of feelings for anyone other than Cher and Emma. The shock of Elton’s feelings for Cher sends her in a tailspin, leaving Tai enough time to fall longingly for Cher’s stepbrother, Josh. Intrigue follows, however, since Cher discovers that she loves Josh too.

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Disclaimer: the inclusion of a love interest like Josh reflects common marriage traditions in Jane Austen’s era, not the 90’s. He is a few years older than both Cher and Tai, and it was extremely normal for closely-related people to get married, i.e. first cousins, brothers-in-law, step brothers, etc. If anyone wondered why the script makes this choice, that is why. If anyone was not wondering, well now you have some otherwise useless information for trivia night!

Both “Clueless” and Emma have something vital to say about female friendship, that female friends trump any romance with a man in their fulfillment of that human need for female/female affection. That is the subject of my undergraduate thesis, in which I analyze the impact female characters have on the protagonists of “Pride and Prejudice”, “Persuasion”, and, yes, “Emma”.

clueless cher and josh

Jane Austen’s Emma is a novel about social and economic arrogance transformed into humility. The social world of a small village shifts once Emma Woodhouse — fabulously wealthy — befriends Harriet Smith — hopelessly not. These two manage to change each other’s lives for the better, as Harriet teaches Emma kindness and Emma secures Harriet a marriage (or she tries to) with an ideal man. Viewers can see the same dynamic unfold with Cher and Tai, as Cher educates Tai on popularity and Tai educates Cher on what it means to be genuinely kind.

“Jane Austen broke barriers for women early on in history, and “Clueless” closely mirrors that drive to depict female friendships as giving, caring, and mutually affectionate.”

Cher endeavors to hook Tai up with the most popular guy in school Elton (Jeremy Sisto). When this plan is a bust, Tai falls for the quirky stoner and skater boy, Travis (Breckin Meyer). Cher is disapproving at first, but she eventually comes to her own realization that she is helping Tai for all the wrong reasons, and she sets out as matchmaker for two of her teachers, the fixer-upper, Miss Geist (Twink Caplan), with Mr. Hall (Wallace Shawn). The film ends with the marriage of these two genuine souls, and all is right in the world.

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What becomes clear through Cher’s journey is that her privileged upbringing and social clout do not matter so much as uplifting the women in her life, Tai, Dion, Miss Geist, and herself.

Jane Austen broke barriers for women early on in history, and “Clueless” closely mirrors that drive to depict female friendships as giving, caring, and mutually affectionate. Over twenty years later, “Clueless” still has a significant cultural impact, in no small way thanks to its female characters.

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