Emma and Clueless- Text and Context

Ideas about the human condition can transcend time and expressed through different contexts while reflecting society’s changing values. Emma, written by Jane Austen reaffirms and challenges the conservative society of 19th century England, where moral growth is a result of strict social etiquettes and rigid class structure. However, Heckerling has taken similar ideas that speak powerfully about human nature to the different context of 20th century America, within the world of Clueless where a much fluid social structure is orientated around popularity and superficial materialism.
While both texts are able to mirror the values and beliefs of its time, they convey similar ideas which are universal and relate to any context. The importance of personal growth is an element of humanity which transcends time, and can resonate through any context. Emma lacks life’s experiences, with “little to vex her” whilst doing “just what she liked”. Her flawed and spoiled character is overshadowed by her “mutual attachment” to her “mild” tempered governess further exemplified through the authorial intrusion that she “had rather too much her own way”.
In contrast, Mr Knightley treats others with respect despite their social standing, acting as a moral voice in the novel when he says that Miss Bates deserves “compassion”, not “ridicule” when Emma insulted her as being “dull” at the Box Hill picnic. He scolds Emma that “it was badly done! ” acting as compass to the realisation of her wrongs and “cruel” behaviour which “exposed herself to ill opinion”, indicating the strict social etiquettes of her time.

Finally, “she acknowledged the whole truth” which metaphorically “darted through her, with the speed of an arrow” that she was in love, consequently leading to her realisation that she had been “inconsiderate”, “indelicate”, and “irrational” towards others, and how with “insufferable vanity she had believed herself in the secret of every body’s feelings”. This marks a major turning point in Emma’s moral growth, which is later rewarded through marriage.
Heckerling’s Clueless explores similar ideas of growth while reflecting the different context of modern America, where self realisations are consequences of personal dissatisfaction within the superficial society. Cher’s initial voiceover that she has a “way normal life”, ironically contrasts the images of her picking out clothes on the computer. Her preference of cartoon over news suggests her naivety whilst shallow indulging within her narrow world of superior wealth and popularity.
To Cher’s own amusement she concludes that “(Tai’s) life will be better because of me”, leading to the “makeover”. This mirrors the personality of Emma, who also ignorantly takes matters into her own hands. However, while Emma simply failed to match make, Cher finds her own position and power being challenged when Tai becomes “the most popular girl in the school”, which Cher hyperbolically describes as “an alternate universe”. Cher questions in disbelief “I failed something I couldn’t talk my way out of? when her arrogance and confident character is challenged by reality, resulting in her self realisation, that all her friends were “really good in different ways”, signifying the overcoming of her self-centeredness, further highlighted in her willingness to help others. Her change in attitude is rewarded by a greater appreciation of life and the people around her, including Josh, whom she loves. Unlike Emma’s self transformation, Cher’s realisation due to trivial events translates to a much shallow world in the 20th century where there is a lack of strict social etiquette.
Austen reaffirms the rigid social classes which often defined one’s social standing, while satirising the pretensions of the gentility. Austen lists properties such as “handsome”, “rich” and “clever”, emphasizing Emma’s position as an aristocracy in contrast to Mr Martin is a “gross, vulgar farmer”, and therefore “remarkably plain” due to his lower social standing. Emma pretentiously refers to herself as a “fanciful, troublesome creature”, with the vain intent of receiving flattery from others, exposing Austen’s satirical purpose.
Mr Elton’s disgusted tone as he declares he will “never think seriously of Miss Smith” because “everyone has their level”, In addition to his refusal to dance with Harriet highlights the rigidity within social classes. Qualities of Emma are constantly juxtaposed to Harriet, who is the natural daughter of somebody”, a euphemistic portrayal of Harriet’s lack of status and worth due to her unknown family background. The reference of Mr Westin as having been “born” into a “respectable family” illustrates importance of inherited wealth.
Despite Emma’s influence over Harriet to marry higher, she ultimately marries appropriately to Mr Martin. Therefore the lack of mobility and strict rules which govern the differences between each class is not challenged by Austen. Emma’s world reflects a clear class structure that is extremely rigid. While the idea of social class within Emma is defined as strict and rigid, the casual contemporary American society based on material wealth and popularity is reflected in Clueless.
An opening montage together with the popular culture background music “kids in America” depicts the freedom and fast paced lifestyle of teenagers, whose interactions imply general acceptance of all types of people. The medium shot featuring Cher’s “classic” vintage house undermines the superficial and materialistic foundation of the social structure. Furthermore the stereotypical division of social groups such as “Loadies”, “Popular boys” and “Persian mafia” based on popularity and material goods such as “BMW” again illustrates the value of materialistic goods.
Unlike Emma where individuals of one social class were mostly encouraged to interact while disregarding other social classes, the social structure presented in contemporary society allows for fluidity and cultural diversity. While orphans such as Jane Fairfax and illegitimate children like Harriet were not highly regarded, Christian, a “cake boy” has no trouble blending into the microcosm of high school society and its social cliches.
In addition to this, Tai, who climbs up the social ladder, highlights the highly fluid social structure. Therefore, Heckerling’s popular cultured film and Emma both explore an idea of social class, yet boundaries between different social classes depend on values of the time and context. While ideas about the human condition are similar and relevant to any society, their expression is greatly influenced by beliefs and values of its context.
Austen’s Emma features a society with strict social etiquettes, from which Emma learns and morally matures. Heckerling takes the idea of self growth and interprets it through a different context, where the lives of teenagers are rather shallow and revolve around trivial things. While the 19th century English society of Emma is governed by social classes which are distinct and rigid, Clueless features the fluid society classed by popularity and materialistic wealth. Overall both texts clearly reflect the context of its time.

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