The director of ‘Clueless’, Amy Heckerling, has taken ‘Emma’ and created a film that revels in the signs and signals of popular culture. It could offend Jane Austen fans, or even offend. ‘Clueless’, however, is not an imitation of ‘Emma’. It reflects a very different social and historical context.
The setting for ‘Clueless’ is late 20th Century multicultural Beverly Hills, USA. Emma has been re-invented as Cher Horowitz, a sixteen-year-old high school student. Cher’s father, Mel, is a successful litigation lawyer in a society where money and professional success offer the keys to social status and respect. The specific symbols and indicators of success are cars, technology, mobile phones and plastic surgery. Unlike in ‘Emma’, breeding is not significant in Beverly Hills; hence, the ‘classic 1972’ columned house – a relatively new home, rather than an estate.
‘Clueless’ offers a Post-Modern world where there is an emphasis on individualism and consumerism. The shopping mall offers focus, not the church. However, Cher rises above this in moments of epiphany (self-realisation). We view the contemporary societal value system, where affluence is the reward for success. Social tiers or levels are rigid, as we see in social groups like ‘The Persia Mafia’ with their BMWs and the ‘Loadies’. The complex hierarchy of Highbury is represented by the microcosm within the school.
Obsession with image is a big part of modern culture. We see a repetition of the ‘makeover’ of Harriet in Cher’s desire to makeover others. We laugh at the lack of social awareness and responsibility represented by the inappropriate donation of athletic equipment for survivors of a natural disaster. We see an anti-intellectualism in ‘Clueless’ as Cher attempts to read one non-school book per week, beginning with Fit or Fat magazine. There are echoes of Emma’s unfinished work and lack of attention to tasks where Cher does not finish sketches or book reading. Anti-intellectualism has escalated in modern 20th Century, as it is now Mel Gibson’s Hamlet as opposed to Shakespeare’s Hamlet ‘Clueless’ differs from Emma’s world as it is no longer a patriarchal society where a woman’s position in society is dictated by her father and husband; women can be independent, outspoken, and have choice in marriage. However, Cher still deliberates over attending a ‘Valley Party’, much in the same way that Emma deliberated over attending the Coles’ dinner party. It is all about social acceptance and popularity. Although it should be remembered that Cher enjoys the wealth and economic security of her father as much as Emma does. It is still men who are the decision makers in the world of industry and work.
There are forces outside the safe world of Highbury and the High School; the gypsies in ‘Emma’ that threaten Harriet and the mall gang that attacks Cher show this to be true. However, it is the internal threat of Emma’s and Cher’s lack of awareness that prevents their true happiness. Thus it is their journey to self-realisation that is the focus of these two texts.