In Jane Austen’s Emma, the titular character, EmmaWoodhouse, is a member of the affluent society of nineteenth century England.In Amy Heckerling’s adaptation, Clueless,the main character Cher Horowitz inhabits the upscale Beverly Hills inCalifornia. The dilemmas of wealth and social hierarchy, arrogance, and lack ofacceptance are translated from the book to the film, even as societal valueschange over time. Heckerling’s fidelity to Emmais revealed in the first few minutes of the film, as the camera leads anaudience through shots of Cher’s mansion and designer clothing. Fashion andphysical appearance are used to represent the social hierarchy in Clueless, demonstrating that thechanging time period has not necessarily resulted in significant progress. Theability to recognize the issues that are consistent through time makes Clueless an enduring adaptation. In Emma, class structures are the most apparent divisions amongcharacters.
The rich assume control of social situations, the social climbers striveto appear important, while the poor remain far below them both. Land is anessential factor that separates the classes, and Austen shows the contrasting fortunesof those who do and don’t own land. Poor women are compelled to marry for moneyor take on jobs as governesses. The novel explores the ultimate futility of Emma’sattempts to change Harriet’s fate and defy these clearly defined socialboundaries.
The world of Clueless iscertainly a very different one, where women can do much more than just marry.The film cleverly reiterates this in its end scene by showing a marriage whereCher is merely in attendance, unlike in Emma, where she is the one finallymarrying Mr. Knightley.
However, the notion of social hierarchy is far from obliterated. At Cher’s high school, social classis most evidently tied to the different cliques or social circles, and topopularity. Cher’s exaggerated deployment of “as if” is a response to an assumptionmade about her that is so ghastly erroneous because it breaks this class hierarchy.When Tai expresses an interest in grungy skateboarder Travis, Cher mustimmediately dissuade her from the notion. Class status is also firmly tied toone’s outward appearance, which is why Cher maintains a superficial attitudetowards people. ‘Fashion Girl’ by David Bowie plays at the beginning of Clueless, and serves to immediatelyintroduce the relevance of the topic of fashion in understanding the film’smessage. Characters strutting through the school hallways reinforce this asthey remind viewers of a fashion show runway.
This visual distinction of social hierarchy is clearly setup in Tai’s introductory scene, where a comparison is shown between the un-groomedand unfashionable Tai, and the rest of the girls who are all beautiful andstylish. In order for Tai to become a member of their high school’s socialelite, Cher must give her a makeover and make her physical appearance conformto their standards. When Cher and Dionne take her home, this makeover,accompanied by the song ‘Supermodel’, is revealed to include a transformationof not only Tai’s clothes, but along with them, her accent and vocabulary aswell. After Elton drops Cher off at a desertedgas station late at night, she is held at gunpoint by a robber who orders herto get down on the ground. Cher protests the act which would ruin her outfit,exclaiming that “this is an Alaia” who is “like a totally important designer”.
Thismoment aligns with the pattern in Cluelessto highlight superficiality, even in the face of death, represented usingfashion. When Christian is first introduced, his sophisticated clothing stylenoticeably finds an echo in both Cher’s and Dionne’s ways of dressing. Uponfeeling rejected by him, Cher comforts herself with the notion that, “I supposeit wasn’t meant to be. I mean, he does dress better than I do. What would Ibring to the relationship?” Later on, when she discovers that Christian is gay,she decides that he will at least remain “one of her favorite shopping partners.”Each of Cher’s conceptions about her relationship with Christian emphasizeconnections that are functional and contingent. This highlights that Cher’s associationswith people are driven by material and pragmatic desires, since one’s physicalappearance and fashion are how she sees class status being manifested, and thusassume supreme importance. As the setting of Clueless is a high school incontemporary Los Angeles, very often, school boards display words like “destitution”,”discrimination”, “poverty”, “subjugation” and “suffragette”.
However, thesetopics exist merely as signs or words written on the board, and as distant aspossible from the actual lives of the film’s characters. They are also presenton Josh’s t-shirts, towards which Cher shows a clear disdain. Josh is the onlyperson in the film who does not dress according to his class status.
In fact,he utilizes fashion to make a statement against social injustices. This rejectionof the visual distinction of social hierarchy, in Cher’s superficial view, makesJosh unworthy of being thought about romantically. In a conversation between the two, Cherinsists, “I have direction!” to which Josh replies, “yeah, towards the mall.” Laterin the film, he tells her to “Go out and have fun. Go shopping”.
In one of hermany voiceovers, Cher herself says, “I felt impotent and out of control, whichI really hate. I needed to find sanctuary in a place where I could gather mythoughts and regain my strength.” The scene cuts to Cher at the mall. Thesereferences to Cher’s obsession with shopping are repeated throughout the film,often with a negative connotation or as an insult, such as when Logan tells herto “just go back to the mall or something,” suggesting that Cher’s involvementwith society is limited to the shopping mall.
Constant references to the malltie in the theme of fashion with consumerism, which further illustrates theclass divide where Cher utilizes status-symbols to solidify her socialstanding, as well as judge socioeconomic status and social stratification. Herrelationships with the mall and shopping form substitutes for healthy humanrelationships, such as in the case of Christian. According to critics ofconsumerism, consumption of the sort Cher practices takes part in creating acultural hegemony (domination of the ruling class) and facilitating a generalprocess of social control.Near the end of the film, Cher walksthrough the streets feeling confused and upset about Tai’s revelation.Punctuated by the song ‘All by Myself’, her voiceover monologue begins:”Everything I think and everything I dois wrong.
I was wrong about Elton, I was wrong about Christian, and now Joshhated me. It all boiled down to one inevitable conclusion – I was just totallyclueless. Oh, and this Josh and Tai thing was wigging me more than anything. Imean, what was my problem? Tai is my pal; I don’t begrudge her a boyfriend.
Ireally…ooh, I wonder if they have that in my size.”Then,amid self-revelations that she has been “just totally clueless” and is “majorly,totally, butt-crazy in love with Josh”, Cher ambles by a fashion display whichmomentarily distracts her and diverts her train of thought to wonder if hersize is available. The gravity of her epiphany is undermined by Cher’sdiversion to notice a beautiful dress in the shop window, which once again,humorously underscores her superficial preoccupation with fashion even as sheis on the cusps of change. Another connective tissue thatrepresents the social structure, and tethers the themes of Austen’s novel toHeckerling’s script, is the language used by the characters. In the scene whereDionne tells off her boyfriend for addressing her as “woman”, he delivers thefollowing explanation: “Street slang is an increasingly valid form ofexpression. Most of the feminine pronouns do have mocking but not necessarilymisogynistic undertones.” In response to this eloquent defense, Dionneimmediately forgets her anger and smiles, while Tai admiringly declares, “wow,you guys talk like grownups.
” This leads Cher and Dionne to give her amakeover, where along with her clothes, they also change her accent andvocabulary, a necessary element of the transformation in outward appearancerequired to elevate her class status. Although clothes and style have comea long way since the early nineteenth century, their use to represent social hierarchydrives home the fact that social issues may not have made the same progress.Notions of class are still pervasive in contemporary America, although delineateddifferently. Now, appearance, language and material possessions are thecurrency of class. Exactly the same as in Emma,relationships between these classes or cliques are unthinkable.
Throughout thefilm, Cher remains fixated on appearance and presentation, and believes thatthese determine a person’s identity and social status. This is revealed throughher misrepresentation of what is important – beauty, fashion and makeup,through which one can attain the power of being seen as desirable. Usingfashion and physical appearance as vehicles that would be relevant to a modernaudience, Heckerling effectively brings the thematic concern of social hierarchypresented in Emma into modern daycinema. The identification and presentation of this persisting issue enablesHeckerling to connect Austen’s world to that of 1990’s, and even current,America, making Clueless enduring asan adaptation.