Make Me Over:
Emma's Social Rules of Engagement
Revisited and Revised in Amy Heckerling's Clueless

Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Fall 2013, Volume 12, Issue 2


Libby Bagno-Simon
University of Israel, Haifa

Although the term was coined decades after her death, Jane Austen is nothing if not a celebrity. Her novels, which sharply and cleverly depict British society in the beginning of the nineteenth century, continue to resonate with audiences around the world and remain as fresh, relevant, and insightful as they were when they were written. Austen's unique ability to examine and scrutinize human thoughts, feelings, and interactions has made her a Hollywood favorite, and numerous film and television adaptations have been based on her novels. In addition, recent years have seen an ever-growing trend of productions that reference and interact with Austen's texts and characters.
It seems that the major challenge facing filmmakers adapting Austen to the screen is the demand to bring her universal topics into a relevant, modern, and also commercially appealing context. Jocelyn Harris argues that a successful cinematic version of a novel cannot be a translation, but must be an imitation that "copies the essence of the text but at a distance" (44). Harris claims that it is the difference, rather than the sameness, between the source and the "remake" that needs to be highlighted.

During the 1990s, Austen became something of a Hollywood "It Girl" with numerous high-profile film adaptations of her novels. However, while most of these pictures were what one may call "Costume Films," there was only one adaptation that dared to venture out of the norm and bring Austen into the late twentieth century -- in the most literal sense imaginable. Screenwriter and director Amy Heckerling recognized that modern film audiences, especially in America, included many young people who were not familiar with Austen. She therefore decided to "repackage" the author's ironic tone, social critique, and overall message, and the result was the 1995 film Clueless in which Heckerling accommodated Jane Austen to a young clientele and brought the author's world into the realm of "teenage soaps and school melodramas" (Harris 51).
is an adaptation of Austen's 1815 novel Emma, and though the similarities between the original text and the picture may not be obvious at first glance, the plot follows along the same lines while both protagonists are endowed with very similar characteristics. Louise Flavin notes that we come to love Cher (Alicia Silverstone) for the same reasons we come to love Emma -- their eventual recognition of their own heart, of the pain their interference can cause, and of their responsibility to those less fortunate. This transformation, she writes, makes us all like them in spite of their faults (146). Indeed, Emma's "power of having rather too much of her own way, and [her] disposition to think a little to well of herself," (Emma 5) are qualities clearly manifested in Cher's personality as well. They are both motherless, wealthy young women who live with their overprotective fathers and charm their way through life, loved and admired by everyone around them. Both heroines have only one person in their lives who criticizes them for their meddling, matchmaking, and constant attempts at "improving" others: Mr. Knightley and Josh (Paul Rudd) are both pseudo-brothers for Emma and Cher respectively, and serve as the only moral compass in these young women's lives. Eventually, they also become their love interests.
Bringing Emma into a high school environment was a perfect choice since so many of the social networking, romantic plotting, and class distinctions that one finds in Highbury, are also the driving forces behind the micro-society that inhabits practically every high school -- particularly Bronson Alcott High. It seems that one of the only truly inventive ways with which to draw young people's attention to Austen and her social observations is not to create yet another period drama and cast popular actors to star in it, but to transform the social pressures, expectations, and challenges Emma Woodhouse endured in her time into a relatable, familiar plot about a girl who can easily be someone we all go to school with.
For me, what makes Clueless into such a successful variation on the novel is Heckerling's remarkable insight into the similarities between her Cher and Austen's Emma as well as her ability to translate those into contemporary notions. Indeed, Cher's wealthy class background makes for a social world as insular and confined, albeit differently, as Emma's (Thornell 25), and while both seem to be leading charmed lives, their sheltered existence is largely responsible for their inability to comprehend the damage caused by their meddling.
Since Cher is supposedly a "modernized" version of Emma, it comes as no surprise that some viewers might assume that she will exude more awareness and self-control than Austen's heroine, and perhaps even maintain a certain feminist edge. In fact, it seems that feminist criticism is disappointed with Cher for presenting "women of the 1990's as less empowered or enlightened than women in the original novel" (Ferris 123). What Ferris overlooks in her argument is the fact that Cher is a fun-loving teenager who portrays the stereotype of a ditzy blonde. She is not preoccupied with marriage plots or social decorum, and if anything, her final inner transformation delivers a positive, influential message and not what Ferris calls "a distorted image of feminine achievement" (129). If Cher's motives and behavior strike certain critics as conventional and outdated it is because her actions must be examined within her society's constrains. Indeed, being a beautiful, rich blonde in 1990's Beverly Hills does not rid you of adhering to social rules and hierarchies.

When Class Turns to Clique

It is quite astonishing to see how Austen's depiction and critique of societal hierarchies come to life in the cafeteria at Bronson Alcott High. Those who are quick to judge Cher for being conservative, naïve, and an all-around bad role model seem to be forgetting the fact that social survival is imperative when one goes to high school. In Highbury, class distinctions, as expected, are quite clear, and although some women can "marry up" if they attach themselves to a man with a fortune, these occasions are scarce, and people usually end up marrying someone whose fortune and connections are similar to their own. Emma never faces the threat of social instability and financial uncertainty, and she is loved and admired by practically everyone around her. Even when she encourages Harriet to refuse Robert Martin or when she humiliates Miss Bates at Box Hill, there is hardly a chance that her insensitive, meddling ways will ever jeopardize her place in society. Cher, on the other hand, cannot rely on her looks and money to keep her at the top of the heap. When Tai first enters the school, Cher treats her to a tour of the social landscape of Bronson Alcott. As Lisa Hopkins observes, Clueless delivers a "genuine and very suggestive reflection on what Austen's Emma said about the class system and some of the things which have or haven't changed across two continents and nearly two centuries" (par. 11). Hopkins's argument becomes clearer when watching Cher going over the different cliques in her school. You can only be a part of the "Persian Mafia" if you own a BMW, and you have to date one of the "popular boys" since they are the only ones who are acceptable. Hanging out with the "loadies" is not an option, and "no respectable girl actually dates them."
However, from an early stage in the film it becomes apparent that even though these cliques are strictly defined, unlike in the novel, social mobility is always an option, even if for a brief period of time. Before Tai (Brittany Murphy) even enters the picture, we see Cher's popular clique as comprised out of kids from different ethnicities who dress differently from one another and do not adhere to any "code" that turns them into clones. In Clueless, "Economic forces and ethnic or racial divisions are mystified, as these cliques are reputed to be based on style or interest" (Dole 73). Furthermore, when Tai becomes friends with Cher and Dionne (Stacey Dash), no one seems to care what her financial status is. She just needs to dress the part and be up to speed with what the cool kids find trendy. Also, unlike the rejection of Robert Martin, Cher "forbids" a union between Tai and Travis (Breckin Meyer) because of his drug habits, not because he is not rich. As Dole points out, "public high schools give many Americans one of the few opportunities of associating closely with people of different classes" (73), only popular culture likes to disguise class as clique.
Cher's social world might have similar prohibitions against crossing class lines to form intimate relationships, but at Bronson Alcott even the most popular girl in school can suddenly find herself at the bottom of the food chain. This fluidity constantly challenges the distinctions between cliques. After having an over exaggerated "near death experience" at the mall, Tai soon becomes the school's heroine: She sits in Cher's spot at lunch and hogs all the attention. When Cher wants to share her own near death experience — which actually involved being robbed at gun point — nobody has any interest in what she has to say. Furthermore, Tai's schedule is suddenly too full to accommodate Cher, and her newfound popularity makes her humiliate Travis, who she once liked. In fact, Tai still likes him, but she is now at a point where a connection with "loadies" is not an option.
Needless to say, Cher is dumbfounded and confused by the abrupt change in her own status and moreover, by her protégé's new position and behavior. Similarly to Emma, she finds herself reexamining her heart, her actions, and her motives. But unlike the novel's heroine, the threat to Cher's social stability and happiness is very tangible. As Dole comments, "even though it maintains a class system, Clueless asserts an American faith in class mobility nowhere suggested in Jane Austen's book" (75). Cher has reason for concern since she is about to lose not only the crown of popularity but perhaps Josh — whom Tai suddenly shows an interest in. Cher embarks on a quest which will not only help her regain her social status in the ever-changing scenery of high-school melodrama, but will fundamentally make her a better person worthy not only of Josh's love but of her peers' as well. The so-called "conservative" mode of operation Cher chooses, as I have mentioned, is an imperative part of any high-school girl's social survival tactic. However, feminist critics also find fault in Cher for changing her ways for the love of a man, thus acting as an outdated, chauvinistic role model for modern female viewers. Again, these critics overlook an important aspect of Cher's behavior. Josh is merely a catalyst, and unlike Emma, Cher truly rediscovers herself in the process and changes for the better under the influence of a female role model embodied in her teacher, the activist-minded Miss Toby Geist (Twink Caplan).

The Soul Could Use a Touch-up:
Makeovers Start from Within

Both Emma and Cher share a need for control over their own lives and others', and compartmentalizing people helps them keep a sense of power (Flavin 146-147). They both believe that they have the ability to take a young woman under their wings and completely alter her, inside and out, simply because to them, she is "lost." Emma is determined to isolate Harriet from her friends and reeducate her in the ways of society: "She would improve her. She would form her opinions and her manners" (Emma 20). It is as if Harriet has no say in the matter, and, similarly, Tai becomes a "project" for Cher the minute the two meet. As Dion puts it, "Cher's main thrill in life is a makeover. It gives her a sense of control in a world full of chaos." What both Emma and Cher fail to realize is that life has a natural order and just as Harriet could never really fit in the high society of Highbury, Tai will always be a fast talking New Yorker with a vast sexual experience. No cute sweater or new trendy hair color are able to change or erase that.
This "chaos" is connected to Cher's high-school social status but also, similarly to Emma, to her naïveté when in comes to matters of her own heart. While both heroines can wrap almost any man around their finger, Knightley and Josh are harder to win over -- especially since they seem to be the only ones to find fault in our protagonists. "Better be without sense than misapply it as you do" (Austen 52), Knightley says to Emma when he learns of her part in Harriet's decision to refuse Robert Martin. Similarly, Josh scolds Cher when they argue over her self-proclaimed selflessness: "If I ever saw you do anything that wasn't ninety percent selfish, I'd die of shock," he says when realizing that Cher always has a personal interest in every "project" she takes on.

Ultimately, both Cher and Emma realize how wrong and blind they have been, but Cher goes one step further in her new and improved way. I tdisagree with Suzanne Ferris who claims that "in the film as in the novel, love arises out of the female character's recognition that she is wrong and he is right" (127).  Not only do I think this statement is inaccurate regarding both Emma and Cher, I also believe it belittles Cher's ultimate accomplishment just for the sake of portraying her as an inadequate role model for young women. Yet again, Cher's actions might seem conservative if they are not put in the proper context. In the case of her "makeover of the soul," Cher may have started the process with Josh in mind, but he is not the reason she continues to be involved in humanitarian causes inspired by Miss Geist. Moreover, in one of her voice-over monologues Cher tells us that all of her friends inspire her in different ways to be a better person and help make the world a nicer place. Josh may have been the catalyst, but Cher gets so caught up in her good deeds, she ends up feeling better about herself, regardless of his approval.

Melissa Mazmanian mentions that "Austen's skeptical view on improvement is missing in Clueless and while Cher's actions may seem silly, she is serious about her purpose" (par. 21). Indeed, Cher deserves credit for her genuine improvement since it is clear that Josh was just a good influence, not the final destination of her inner journey. Furthermore, claiming Cher to be less of a role model than Emma seems unfair since Cher – the walking, talking "dumb blonde" stereotype – turns the concept of "makeover" on its head and shatters the stigma while Emma "does not inspire confidence that the correction will stick" (Goodheart 592). In the conclusion of the novel, there is no assurance that Emma will not be up to her old ways after she marries, and as Eugene Goodheart puts it "the remorseful recognition that she has behaved badly does not in itself constitute self-knowledge" (595). Emma is not "remade" and Austen, it seems, does not want her to be.

The difference between Emma and Cher is clearly visible with regard to their relationships with Harriet and Tai after they have seen the error of their ways. Tai continues to be part of the clique; in the last scene of the movie, she and Travis are seen sitting at the same table with Dion, Murray, Josh and Cher, and it is clear that these three couples are friends. The same cannot be said for Emma, who cuts Harriet out of her life after the latter marries Robert Martin: "The intimacy between her and Emma must sink; their friendship must change into a calmer sort of good will; and fortunately, what ought to be, and must be, seemed already beginning, and in the most gradual, natural manner" (Austen 384). Whether Emma truly changes is a matter of interpretation, but it is clear that she cannot maintain a friendship with Mrs. Harriet Martin: "Yet Austen not only makes it clear that Emma and Harriet will not continue to move in the same circle but expects her readers to see the divergence of their paths as inevitable" (Morrison par.14).

There is no "makeover" for Emma as she adheres, as expected, to society's rules of engagement. Cher, on the other hand, embraces Tai for what she really is and learns to accept and like Travis as well. Josh does not make her do that – her improved judgment skills do. It seems then, that Ferriss' claim that the film "suggests that contemporary women are no more independent or empowered that women of the early nineteenth century” (129) is somewhat flawed. Emma has to part ways with Harriet while Cher does not have to nor does she want to lose Tai as a friend.


Irony and Narrating:
The Voice-over Takes Over

One final aspect that should be addressed in relation to Clueless as a "makeover" of Emma is the narration. As Nora Nachumi maintains, of all the Emma film adaptations, Clueless "comes closest to replicating Austen's ironic narrator" (130) because Amy Heckerling employed voice-over. Cher's first person narration of the film reveals the huge gap between her perceptions and actual events. The voice-over operates on a number of levels, the first being strictly comical. Some of Cher's observations are so outrageously silly, that we, who see and know what is really going on, cannot help but marvel and laugh at her blindness. Also, her moment of "epiphany" is one of the funniest scenes in the movie with a speech that gets interrupted with the afterthought "I wonder if they have that in my size?" when passing by a boutique, and ends with a huge water fountain that erupts precisely at the moment she finally utters the words: "Oh my God! I love Josh."
Another issue is control. Until she comes to her dramatic "realization," Cher's commentary is in complete harmony with her obsessive need to micro-manage everybody's lives; "When characters usurp the role of narrator, by speaking-over events, they imagine that they have a mastery over the unfolding scene" (Schor 154). As Cher's "control" over her little world starts to diminish, the sometimes ridiculous gaps between her thoughts and what actually happens are also slowly reduced. As Nachumi observes, "the film goes to great lengths to reinforce an image of Cher that it eventually dismantles. The first person narration is extremely important to this endeavor because it makes Cher immensely appealing" (137). Indeed, unlike Emma, whose thoughts and actions are only revealed to us by a third person narrator, in the film we are inside Cher's head, and with her we take the journey from complete cluelessness to a better understanding of the world. We are able to evaluate and judge her for ourselves and not through the eyes (or voice) of a mediator, which, of course, helps to maintain her lovability since we are always aware that there is "a good heart that beats within that shell of self-involved ignorance" (Nachumi 137). The same cannot be said for Emma since her true motives are never revealed to us, and we are left to speculate, often choosing to believe it was naïveté ­- not meanness – that led her to act in the ways she did. Since Cher's transformation is a process the viewer feels a part of, our admiration for her by the end of the film should be far greater than what we feel for Emma. To be sure, there is no "distorted image of feminist achievement" here whatsoever.


"Selling" Jane Austen to a modern audience is a tricky job. While her novels continue to be read and adored by millions around the world, and historically accurate film adaptations of her works continue to find success, one question remains: How can a screenwriter and filmmaker bring Austen into our lives not just as mere spectators but as participants who can care and relate to the characters? Amy Heckerling understood where Jane Austen was coming from and adapted her spirit of cultural critique into pop culture with a familiar, contemporary environment and a heroine that takes us on an ironic and hilarious journey of disillusionment and self-discovery. Cinematic techniques help Clueless push Austen's storyline and its essence further, both as a social satire of our times and as a quest for a better self. We root for Cher as we do for Emma, but ultimately it is the modern heroine that garners more appreciation since the film, unlike the novel, is able to place us inside her head as she transforms. Claims regarding Cher's conservatism and adherence to old-fashioned, male dominated values are to be examined, as I have discussed, within the context of Cher's social environment, popularity status and in light of the final destination on her journey -- which is undeniably a positive and an inspirational one.


Works Cited

Austen, Jane. Emma. New York: Signet, 1964.

. Screenplay by Amy Heckerling. Dir. Amy Heckerling. Perf. Alicia  
Silverstone, Paul Rudd, and Britney Murphy. Paramount, 1995.

Dole, Carol. M. "Austen, Class, and the American Market." Jane Austen in Hollywood. Ed. Linda Troost and Sayre Greenfield. Kentucky: U of Kentucky
P, 2001. 58-76.

Ferriss, Suzanne. "Emma Becomes Clueless." Jane Austen in Hollywood. Ed. Linda Troost and Sayre Greenfield. Kentucky: U of Kentucky P, 2001. 122-129.

Flavin, Louise. Jane Austen in the Classroom: Viewing the Novel/Reading the Film. New York: Peter Lang, 2004.

Goodheart, Eugene. "Emma: Jane Austen's Errant Heroine." Sewanee Review 116.4 (2008): 589-604. Project Muse. Web. 30 Dec. 2010.

Harris, Jocelyn. "'Such a Transformation!': Translation, Imitation, and Intertextuality in  Jane Austen on Screen." Jane Austen on Screen. Ed. Gina Macdonald and Andrew Macdonald. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003. 44-67.

Hopkins, Lisa. "Emma and the Servants." Persuasions On-line 3 (1999): n.pag. Web. 9 Jan. 2011.

Mazmanian, Melissa. "Reviving Emma in a Clueless World: The Current Attraction to a Classic Structure." Persuasions On-line 3 (1999): n.pag. Web. 18 Jan. 2011.

Morrison. Sarah. R. "Emma Minus Its Narrator: Decorum and Class Consciousness in Film Versions of the Novel." Persuasions On-line 3 (1999): n.pag. Web. 18 Jan. 2011.

Nachumi, Nora. "'As If!' Translating Austen's Ironic Narrator to Film." Jane Austen in Hollywood. Ed. Linda Troost and Sayre Greenfield. Kentucky: U of Kentucky
P, 2001. 130-140.

Schor, Hilary. "Emma, Interrupted: Speaking Jane Austen in Fiction and Film." Jane Austen on Screen. Ed, Gina Macdonald and Andrew Macdonald. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003. 144-173.

Thornell, Kristel. "Film Adaptations of Emma between Agency and Submission."
Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature
. 43.3 (2010): 17-33. ProQuest. Web. 1 Dec. 2010.

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