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The Elements from Austen’s Emma in Clueless by Amy Heckerling

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Iconic 90s high school comedy, borrows features from the nineteenth century classic Emma by Jane Austen. Clueless’ redescription of Emma is responsible for making it comical, whilst lacing it with ironic intent, which establishes the two different targets the film addresses, both the sophisticated reader of Jane Austen, and the fashion-bound superficial futile youth of today. There are also resemblances between characters, due to similarities between their time periods including the changing social landscapes. Clueless incorporates elements from Emma, which highlights the importance of combining traditional and modern trends that in turn allow the film, like the novel before it, to appraise the high class and emphasize that people should be aware about their position in society. 

The plot in Amy Heckerling’s Clueless utilizes irony to inscribe Emma. The events in Clueless unfold much as they do in Emma, illustrating how societal conflicts have stayed the same over time, only increasing in importance and impact on the teenagers due social boundaries taken more seriously and shaping lives in more significant ways. For example, in the “Photography scene”, Emma’s readers cannot help but laugh at the dialogue between Elton and Cher: “Cher: You have her picture in your locker. Elton: I have the picture you took in my locker.” Thus, dubbing the painting for photography results in ironic effects, which contributes to the dramatic irony present both in the corresponding passage found in the novel, and in the attempt to reproduce it in Clueless. 

In the novel’s context, the reader understands Mr. Elton’s praise of Emma’s painting, which possesses the individuality of Emma and the effort she spent. However, when Elton says he kept Tai’s picture because it was taken by Cher, the viewer might suspect a parodic commentary on the misunderstandings in Austen’s novel, as it’s not convincing to neither Cher nor the viewer. This scene also presents the semantic features of ironic discourse, where Clueless replicates both the ironies that are present in the novel, and makes changes to adapt them to our contemporary world, which allows Clueless to enlarge such an ironic discourse to encompass newer issues not present in Austen’s time. Consequently, Clueless creates irony by converging modern and traditional; by alluding to Emma, and at the same time by denying the allusion in order to concentrate on contemporary issues. Hence, two ironic constructs can be derived from Clueless, the viewers who aren’t familiar with Austen’s text will still enjoy the ironies in Heckerling’s film as a social commentary; but the audience that can identify features from Emma in Clueless adds another level of irony to the film, where the scenes in Clueless which have a direct relation to Emma ultimately coerce the audience of the both texts to re-dimension the question of irony in terms of new highlights and interpreters. The sophisticated reader is now aware of and delves further into the points created in the movie, and its commentary on themes like superficiality, materialism, the education system. 

Clueless perfectly translates the world of Emma into 1990s America through imitating many attributes of Emma’s characters. Clueless isn’t a high school romance movie, it’s a comedy that mocks it. So, by borrowing from Emma’s characters, and utilizing Austen’s depiction of her world (in terms of appearance, and social ranks, etc.) Heckerling fully depicted the depth of social satire of the movie. as a pretext that allows for an ironical look into our current time and culture, thus highlighting and commenting on important matters. Emma, which is set in the 1810s, portrays the impact of money and status that highlight the changing social landscape of late eighteenth century England. The novel also touches upon the industrialization and urbanization that had begun to take place, where the most influential sectors of society in Austen’s time was the landed gentry, who relied on renting their large estates for income, which included Emma and her family. Also, ownership of English land was concentrated in the hands of relatively small landed classes, who retained their hold over the land and passed it on through generations. 

Similarly, in the 1990s, cities like Los Angeles were experiencing technological advancements and an economic boom, and only a small portion of the population, those in aristocratic positions, exploited resources. So, when born into these privileges, they grow blind to other people’s misfortunes, and are unaware on their entitlements, and this is seen intensely in how Emma is represented, and reciprocated in Cher. Emma is a affluent woman who wrongly believes that she knows what’s best for everyone, is written as an uncannily unsympathetic character, rather than a clever, rich, typical heroine. So, by creating a character that encapsulates Emma Woodhouse’s traits – rich and beautiful, that is known for her gossiping, matchmaking and materialism; Cher, who lives in Beverly Hills, Heckerling was able to fully depict the novel’s social satire and bring it to life in the context of Beverly Hills. We meet Cher with her voice over stating “I actually have like a way normal life for a teenage girl’. We know that she’s defined by her obscene privilege and with absolutely no self-awareness, allowing viewers to see Cher as Austen’s readers would have seen Emma. Immediately following Cher’s claim, the camera focuses on her selecting outfits on a customized computer program, looking through an array of expensive designer outfits from a palatial closet. While Cher thinks she is a normal girl, it’s clear that she is exceptionally wealthy and privileged. The situational irony of Cher’s lack of self-awareness about her own entitlement is a source of humour throughout the film, and further contributes to the film’s message as a social satire, and how Cher doesn’t realize her privilege. 

In conclusion, both audiences become ‘alazons’, though for different purposes: one for knowing Austen, the other for not knowing her, in such a way that no one escapes the irony. Clueless borrows from Austen through satirical impulse, mainly by portraying the main character, Cher, like Emma, as one who doesn’t realize her privilege.

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The Elements From Austen’s Emma In Clueless By Amy Heckerling. (2021, August 06). GradesFixer. Retrieved August 16, 2022, from
“The Elements From Austen’s Emma In Clueless By Amy Heckerling.” GradesFixer, 06 Aug. 2021,
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