Transformations: Emma and Clueless

3 March 2018

The universality of themes pervading both Emma and Clueless in correlation with the humanistic, obviously flawed protagonists in both texts, captivates and immerses responders. This engagement leads to an involvement and enjoyment in the composer’s craft, which enables the responders’ to obtain sophisticated insight into the text’s concerns on both subjective and objective levels. Critiques agree that the transformation enables an audience to “enjoy cultural capital and aesthetic knowledge” while retaining a “connection to the past through classic text and cutting edge post modernism. ”

Responders of both texts are positioned to see familiar values and attitudes reflected in different worlds. From a “time characterised by massive political destabilisation and a strong spirit of change and revolution” as noted in extract one, to a time reminiscent of “the reluctant emergence of America onto the world stage as a result of two world wars” everything and nothing at all has changed.

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The paradoxical situation we face on a close analysis of both contexts is that though Austen and Heckling lived almost 200 years apart their perceptions and criticisms of the world and the world itself are uncanningly similar.

Both composers explore attitudes surrounding gender roles, social hierarchies and the moral development of the protagonist, but use different genres, perspectives and centuries to do so. The restrictive, conservative 19th century society transforms into the promiscuous, fast paced world of 20th century America. The male-dominated patriarchy gives way to the post-feminist world where women take their “freedom” for granted. However the insular, economically and thus socially privileged world of both protagonists, though somewhat tainted, stays stable and shallow throughout.

Though the transformation of contexts is severe, the transformation of the protagonists is somewhat placid in comparison. “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever and rich with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence” but throughout the novel, Austen’s authorial tone and scrupulous irony not only belittles and subtly criticises Emma and her insular existence, but structures an ambiguous work of fiction screaming for higher order thinking in responder and protagonist alike.

Emma a bildungsroman text, shows the unlikely yet self proclaimed heroine transform, through incidents of self reflexivity usually encouraged by Mr Knightley, from a strong-headed, yet naive “matchmaker” into a submissive, romantically complacent wife, the epitome of the philosophical paradigms of the 19th century. The critique of Austen’s society is thus softened, but so too is Emma’s moral transformation. Knightley says of Emma “You are materially changed since we talked” and she replies “I hope so for at that time I was a fool. Even so, as Knightley clearly states, she is only “materially changed” at a very superficial level. Her ways of thinking and role within society remain unaffected and the “happy endings” of the novel imply that everything will go on as usual, in the microcosmic world of Highbury, a reflection of the rigidly structured and insular 19th century society. Critiques note that “Cher’s world is paradoxically bigger and smaller than Emma’s” her transformation can be described likewise.

Her transformation is similarly superficial to Emma’s, though due to the differing contexts manifests itself in an altered way. The film medium aims to externalise the internal, so Cher’s transformation is depicted visually. We see her transform from a pampered American princess to a more socially compassionate, aware person. The shallowness of her world somewhat lessens as lighter, more realistic washes are progressively used in opposition to the brightly coloured almost cartoon-like washes of the beginning of the film.

In parallel to Emma these transformations are equally materialistic, as shown in the impervious tone of Cher’s narrative voice over throughout, her unwavering popularity and fantasies, all culminating in the final scene of the movie. Here we see a changed Cher, not engaging in the fantastical plans of Di and Tai for their perfect weddings, genuinely affectionate to Josh, dressed in an appearingly conservative pale pink dress.

All these assumptions are belittled in the throwing of the bouquet scene whereby Cher reverts to her old ways of self preservation and determination in her frivolous attempts to secure the bouquet (and thus Josh’s affections). A high angel shot of the pack of screaming girls with a hysterical Cher centred, reveals the inappropriate length of Cher’s attire simultaneously robbing her of the audience’s previous respect. The superficiality of her transformation is thus depicted, with her actions and motives seemingly unaffected by the previous climatic events of the film.

Both protagonists commence and end their journeys of self realisation with “very little to distress or vex” them, an ambiguous “happy ending” enabling the text’s concerns to be further interpreted in the responders’ minds. This responder interaction continues as both texts explore issues of gender roles and expectations. The comedy of manners explored in Emma and archetypal characters appearing in Clueless enables us to see the peculiarities of the ways in which men and women relate to each other, we see the mundane as such in a new and insightful way.

Extract 5 comments on the transformation of mediums in that “Emma is grounded in reality while Clueless is a fantastical dramatic parody”. As such the themes are explored differently but the concerns themselves appear almost identical. Both texts explore a certain reliance on men and emphasise the aesthetically valued traits of successful women. In Emma women rely on marriage and thus men for long term security, as such the oxymoron of Miss Taylor’s “gentle sorrow” sums up the conflicting interests and expectations surrounding gender roles in Victorian times.

A woman was expected to be aesthetically pleasing, talented, submissive to her male counterparts and “a single woman of good fortune was always respectable”. All these values, save the fortune, were encompassed in Jane Fairfax’s characterisation who comes to represent the epitome of a respectable Victorian woman. Mr Knightley, the text’s hero saw in Jane “the real accomplished woman” Emma wanted to be thought herself. As a “testament to the 1990s” there is no Jane Fairfax and hence no suggestion of the ideal woman in Clueless. The possibilities are endless and indefinite.

The emphasis on aesthetic and social superiority has been transformed into modern times through Cher’s promiscuous costuming and interactions with the opposite sex. When driving atrociously, with No Doubt’s background music “Just a Girl” Cher appears as a young woman out of control in need of a steadying male influence. Though seemingly independent, Cher resorts to using men to get what she wants. She relies on Josh for driving supervision, rescuing her from her Valley disaster and overcoming the criticisms of her father’s lawyer.

Tai too relies on the affections of men to solidify her popularity and social status, while Harriet and Jane Fairfax are indebted to men for both social AND financial security. In the transformation of the texts, specifically their concerns of gender roles and expectations it becomes apparent, through parallel characters and situations, that even in this post-feminist society, very little has changed regarding women’s dependence on men and resulting social status. Or has the change come, been deemed unnecessary and inconvenient to all involved and instead reverted back to the 19th century ways of thinking?

Overall, the transformation of Emma, an ironic, romantic novel of Victorian times to the American “chick flick” Clueless, enables responders to gain an enhanced understanding and involvement in the text’s concerns. Through considering the “universal” themes of gender roles, self reflexivity and development enjoyment is embedded in the composer’s craft as our world and the world of almost 200 years ago are reflected simultaneously. “Seldom, very seldom does complete truth belong to any human disclosure… ” but both composers come close.

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