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Ugh, As If! How the Movie ‘Clueless’ is a Modern Adaptation of Austen’s ‘Emma’

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Nottingham chapter.

Jane Austen’s 1815 novel was atypical of its time because it offered a witty feminine perspective of an era where women’s opinions were not valued highly. The titular protagonist, Emma, is widely respected in her hometown, but she is outspoken and sometimes offends the women around her, as a result of her entitled attitude and manipulation. The plot and characters of the iconic novel were transferred into the 90s cult-classic film Clueless, where Emma becomes Cher, another overachiever who doesn’t think before she speaks.

A major overlap is the contemporary revaluation of each character. Emma is Cher, and they both share the luxury of intelligence and popularity. Their fatal flaw is an obsession with ‘matchmaking’ the women around them, who play her games because they worship an association with her. If Harriet/Tai was more outspoken, Emma/Cher would not be able to manipulate her so easily. Our protagonist wants a clean slate, a vessel with no personality or questioning, a pet or a toy. Harriet/Tai is a decorative acquaintance who isn’t smart or pretty enough to be a rival. Despite her judgemental and catty attitude being an unattractive trait, it probably stems from a loneliness; she lost her mother young and is starved of a typical childhood or female company on her level.

Harriet Smith is Tai, a social outcast because of her lower class. In awe of Emma/Cher, she happily complies to her makeover in personality and dress. In both Austen’s era and a toxic high school environment, if you don’t have money, looks, or wit, you are at the social mercy of everyone else. Despite being a patronage project and manipulated with disregard for what she truly desires to make of herself, Harriet/Tai eventually breaks free of her mentor and choose her own man. This man (Robert Martin/ Travis Birkenstock) was deemed below her league by the aloof protagonist because he is just a farmer/ stoner, but is actually a really great guy.

Another love interest thwarted by miscommunication is the directly nominally transferred Mr Elton into Elton. Another pawn in Emma/Cher’s game of matchmaking chess, she tries to set him up with Harriet/Tai and gives him a picture of her which he cherishes. It is quickly revealed however, that Elton is in love with our protagonist instead, which prompts a messy interaction and a lot of upset for Harriet/Tai, rubbing it in again that she is inferior.

We all prickled a little at the idea of Cher ending up with her step-brother, but this has a direct correlation to their relationship in Austen. Initially like a brother, growing up together, Knightley/Josh is the one person who Emma/Cher respects enough to take criticism from. He condemns her matchmaking because it does not do anyone any favours; she just uses people as a game, with no acknowledgement of consequences.

Austen’s classic novel and its re-interpretation into a classic chick flick is a gentle comedy full of harsh prickles of pettiness. Highlighting an intense aristocratic need to be in control means it is only satire to a certain extent. In the 1800s, women could only sit and observe society instead of interjecting and interrupting conversations. Emma/ Cher’s cattiness therefore stems from her coping mechanism of internalising judgement in her head and being patronised by the insolence of men.

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Siân Wells

Nottingham '22

Hi! I’m a UoN Blogger and final year English student.