Jane Austen’s comedy of manners novel Emma and Amy Heckerling’s ‘teenpic’ Clueless, as profound and satirical reflections of Regency England and postmodern America respectively, show how the transformation process can shape and enhance textual, intertextual and contextual meaning. By adapting the genteel, idyllic country society of Highbury to the upper- fast-paced microcosm of modern Beverley Hills, insight is given into the realignment of social values and attitudes towards class, marriage and gender roles over the past two centuries. A variety of literary and visual techniques demonstrates that while some aspects of society have been changed, others have stayed the same.
An aspect of society that is transformed and reflected in both Emma and Clueless is the rigidity of class and clique structures. Mr Elton, when aware of Emma’s plans to attach him to Harriet, expresses his incredulity through hyperbole: “I never thought of Miss Smith in the whole course of my existence…never cared if she were dead of alive…” He vehemently opposes any notion of romantic attachment to a social inferior, offering a satirical insight into the shallowness and inflexibility of Regency class doctrine. Elton conveys similar class consciousness in his rhetorical questions towards Cher: “Why Tai!? Why Tai!? Do you know who my father is?” A far shot of a blinking neon sign of a clown dwarfs Cher as she is abandoned in the carpark by Elton, symbolising society’s mockery and disapproval of her attempts to undermine a defined systems of classes and cliques. Further inflexibility in class interactions is apparent in Emma’s high modality and contemptuous tone when she claims that the “the yeomanry are precisely the order of people… with whom I feel I can have nothing to do.” However, the socially lower Tai is momentarily popularised at through her ‘near-death’ experience at the mall, shown by her central position in the camera frame when she becomes the focus of Cher’s friends and associates. This shows while ingrained class ideologies have been maintained, the indicators of class have not, changing from wealth and etiquette to image and infamy, a notion reinforced by Travis’ transition of cliques from drug-user to skateboarder.
Despite undertones of social fluidity in Clueless, the class status quo is ultimately maintained in both texts. Austen’s authorial intrusion in “The intimacy between her [Harriet] and Emma must sink…into a calmer sort of goodwill…what ought to be, and must be” suggests that a rigid class hierarchy must be maintained for the greater good of social order, a notion that Emma finally realises in her eventual maturation and rejection of matchmaking. A prevailing sense of class stratification is conveyed by Tai reverting back to her flannel ‘working-class’ clothes at the skateboard park in contrast to the Cher, who dresses smartly with a hairband, sweater, plaid skirt and stockings, thus re-emphasising socioeconomic disparities and divisions between matchmaker and protege. However, proxemics at a dining table during the wedding highlights a newfound sense of social harmony now that the Tai and Cher have regained their previous positions in the social hierarchy. Hence, the notion that class status quo must be enforced for the greater good of social harmony has been transposed from Emma into Clueless.
Socially ideal relationships and marriage is another intertextual theme that shapes the understanding of Emma and Clueless and their contexts, involving the maturation and self-realisation of Cher and Emma respectively. ‘Marriages of convenience’ with people of comparable class and wealth defined the Regency mindset for respectable gentry. Austen reflects this in the metaphor “It darted through her, with the speed of an arrow, that Mr Knightley must marry no one other than herself!” The arrow symbolises how Emma’s independent nature has been ‘shot down’ and supplanted by feelings for an ideal candidate in marriage – the socially compatible and patriarchal Mr Knightley. Furthermore, when Emma mockingly reflects on Mr Elton’s attempt to court her, the hyperbole in “The Eltons [bloodline] were nobody” highlights the resentment of the gentility towards socially incompatible matches. Similarly, Cher comments with a forthright tone that “no respectable girl” should date a ‘loadie’, highlighting how the standard that only socially similar people should romantically engage has been transposed into postmodern contexts. Hence, both texts highlight worlds in which marriage and relationships are characterised by the need for social compatibility.
Furthermore, both texts demonstrate the prevalence of patriarchal forces in marriage and relationships. Dominating patriarchal maturity is exemplified by Mr Knightley’s high modality in his admonishment of Emma at Box Hill: “…but I must, I will – I will tell you truths while I can…by very faithful counsel…” Similarly, after Dionne’s dangerous highway drive in which a masculine force is needed for guidance (Murray), Cher’s voiceover says “I realised how much I wanted a boyfriend of my own,” insinuating undertones of female dependence on the male in relationships. The mis-en-scene of ‘Josh and Cher’s kiss on a staircase loosely resembling the shape of a heart, with them facing eye to eye, emphasises the romantic convergence of his ‘big brother’ and her ‘clueless blonde’ archetypes and their newfound mutual understanding. In this manner, though both texts convey female conformity to the social ideals of relationships and marriage, Emma emphasises the dominating maturity of the male, while Clueless offers a more liberalised and gender-equal interpretation of romance.
Emma and Clueless both explore female gender roles in their respective contexts, and hence reveal the limited power and control of women in patriarchal societies. Emma, though cultured and energetic, has a lifestyle restricted to leisure, fine arts, social functions and domestic excellence. The modality and cumulative listing in Emma’s dialogue “If I draw less, I shall read more; if I give up music, I shall take up to carpet-work”, highlights the fickle and limited scope of female endeavour in genteel life. Similarly, Cher’s voiceover “when a boy comes over, you always need something baking” gives insight into how Regency female domesticity has been transposed into the postmodern female psyche despite Cher having more access to the outside world than Emma. Virginity and sexuality is another aspect of gender roles that is explored in both texts. Genteel restraint is evident in Mr Knightley’s description of himself as an ‘indifferent lover’ when he confesses to Emma, the oxymoron emphasising the strict repression of romantic passion between sexes, hence highlighting the Regency expectation of female sexual chastity. However, in the sexually liberalised context of modern Beverly Hills, Cher decides to reserve her virginity despite the stigma apparent in Dionne’s euphemism ‘hymenally challenged’, suggesting that female sexual chastity, in contrast to Emma, is a social burden. Hence, though the domesticity of females has been preserved in both texts, the conservative sexual values of females in Emma have been liberalised in Clueless.
In conclusion, Emma and Clueless offer profound and satirical insights into their respective contexts. In analysing both texts together, the transformation of original values and attitudes can be seen, highlighting similarities contrasts between Regency and postmodern settings. This in turn reflects a shift in values during the transformation process, hence highlighting what had been maintained or changed from the world of the original.
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Dave – 2006
From one of the most talented and hardworking students I ever taught. This was written and rewritten over six times. It’s final scoring was almost full marks – 19/20 at a top 5 school. The same essay was used for both Trial and HSC and it would like likely scored full marks for HSC. Extremely high modality (a bit wordy in my opinion), succinct answers, perfect links, with expanded, exquisite exposition and T.E.EM usage. Really not the sort of stuff you see in students these days. Use of diction in conveying meaning (insinuating, converging, transposed, liberalized, forthright, prevailing) is exceptional, even beyond undergraduate level. Works like this are a part of consistent review, and cannot be produced merely by talent – it requires constant revision and reinvention over months of continued effort.