The Enduring Brilliance of Clueless

This is Emma month on Indie Jane and I couldn’t let it go by without a fangirl post on what I consider to be the most brilliantly realized adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma yet produced. Oh, I do love all the movie adaptations (Johnny Lee Miller!) and the Emma Approved web series and any number of written works, don’t get me wrong. But the more I watch Clueless, the more I appreciate how incisive and insightful an adaptation it is. To use the somewhat enclosed world of Jane Austen to comment on high school class and social politics in the ’90s shouldn’t work as well as it does. It also shouldn’t endure as well as it does even now.

I was an adolescent in 1995 when the movie came out and I was just the demographic that ate it up. I never did see it in the movie theater, but I’ve owned a video or DVD copy of it ever since I saved my allowance money to get one (right after I purchased Alanis Morrisette’s Jagged Little Pill, of course). I was in the crop of girls and boys who grew up saying “As if!” and throwing the WHATEVER sign as a regular part of our lexicon. I wanted to be Cher Horowitz (Alicia Silverstone) and I wanted to date Josh Lucas (Paul Rudd in his most dreamy role ever?).

When I was 13, I appreciated the love story and the clothes and the technicolor world in which Cher lived. Who didn’t want that closet and all those clothes? I recognized the high school cliques and the constant popularity contests. I saw the differences between the rich kids and the poor kids and the band geeks and the football stars on a regular basis in my own school. So the world of Clueless rang home in a very real and very silly sense. The movie allowed all of us to kind of see the divisions we had between us and to laugh at them for a little while. Of course, being adolescents scared of change, we didn’t do much about it. But we all had common ground in this little movie.

But now that I’m 31 and have since studied and read and written about Jane Austen’s world more than I ever thought I would, I appreciate even more how well-done Amy Heckerling’s adaptation of Emma actually is. Here are a few reasons why:

Class/Money. One thing that is apparent in whatever Jane Austen book you read is how much money plays a role in the love stories. Possessions open a gateway to love. It’s only after she sees Pemberley that Elizabeth is able to admit to herself that she might love Darcy. (I know, I know, that’s really cynical, but bear with me.) Anne Elliot cannot marry Captain Wentworth because of money. Edward Ferrars is unable to consider marrying against his mother’s wishes because of money. It’s a big deal in these lives. And the class divisions are very real in Clueless, too. Though Americans like to tout that we live in a “classless” society, anyone without money who has ever been to school knows this isn’t true. And it defines much of who you are and what you can do in high school (and in life). So when Heckerling foregrounds class and money issues in Clueless, it’s a pretty big deal. Cher has lots of money. Money leads to lots of material possessions. But her journey through the movie teaches her that those possessions aren’t as important as the people around her. She doesn’t give up the privileges that her money gives her, but she becomes aware of it.

Loving Yourself But Being Willing to Change. Part of the discussion of class going on is highlighted by the fact that Cher and her bestie Dionne think that poor-girl and worst-dressed new student Tai needs a makeover. They basically throw money at her and get her new clothes and makeup. They teach her the “tricks” for acting like a rich person. But none of it really sticks. Tai is insecure about herself for a little while, but she comes to see that she doesn’t really need the makeover and eventually Cher and Dionne agree. They’ve condescended to her as a project for them to work on, but Tai earns their respect for herself. In the end, she goes back to who she is and gets the boy that’s right for her. In Emma, Harriet Smith submits to Emma’s makeover, but comes to much the same conclusion: she doesn’t really need Emma’s help. It’s Emma that changes the most and realizes that her friend is great just as she is.

BOYS. Okay, the love story in this movie spoke to my soul when I was a teenager. Cute and smart older boy falls for girl my age? SIGN ME UP. But upon rewatching, I really really adore the frank discussions the girls have about their sexuality and about the boys they like. None of them apologize for who they like or why they like them. But just as in the book, they realize that boys are confusing. And they are even more confusing when you add the class and money aspects in. Elton is supposed to be a catch, right? WRONG. Tai shouldn’t like Travis because he’s a loser skater-boy, right? WRONG. Just like in the book, it’s only when each of the girls listens to her own heart that she realizes exactly what she wants and needs and then is not afraid to go after it!

Do you love Clueless as much as I do? Let’s do an awkward dance with Tai and talk about our favorite parts! 

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5 thoughts on “The Enduring Brilliance of Clueless

    • Ahhh! That would have been an awesome class. I’ve used Cher’s “Haitians” speech in teaching rhetoric and I’m determined that if I ever teach Austen, Clueless is going on the syllabus! 🙂

  1. I re-watched this just a couple of weeks ago and really appreciated it while reading Emma.

    One of my favorite parts was when Cher sat on the couch in her casual clothes and not overly made-up. She was the most real then while with Josh, and that’s when she realized she loved him. Then there was a lot of staring at the television, which reminded me of Emma’s shock and silence when she realized she loved Mr. Knightley.

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