Through close analysis of the novel Emma, by Jane Austen and the film Clueless by Amy Heckerling, we discover that both texts are influenced by, and reflect the values of their respective contexts. Emma is set in the isolated, rural town of Highbury, England in the early 1800’s, at a time where society had placed value on social hierarchy. This distinction between classes was largely determined by family lines and inheritance. It is in the upper class of society that Jane Austen places her protagonist, Emma, “handsome, clever and rich…with very little to distress or vex her”.
Emma’s desirable situation had led her to possess a self indulgent attitude towards life, as Austen intends her audience to identify with the cynical remark that she has “the power of having rather too much her own way”. However, Austen contradicts this third voice by the dialogue which establishes Emma to be a character of good intentions “No papa, nobody thought of you walking”. This contrast between third person and dialogue creates a discrepancy between Emma’s thoughts and Austen’s intrusive moralistic views.
From the irony present here, satire is created, encouraging the reader to reflect on Emma’s behaviour as a reflection of the context of her society and the value put on social hierarchy and status. The opening scene of Amy Heckerling’s film, Clueless, made in the 1990’s, immediately adopts Austen’s ironic tone. The energetic montage and quick succession of camera angles of Cher and her fellow teenagers indulging in luxurious activities in Beverly Hills USA, establishes the materialistic world in which the movie is set.
Heckerling appeals to her audience by creating such strong imagery, however she contradicts these perceptions by juxtaposing everything her audience views. The blaring song “We’re the kids in America” provides ironic commentary in that it is strikingly evident that these wealthy teenagers are the complete opposite from the average ‘kids in America’ as they have the ability to embrace all aspects of consumer ideals. Through this Heckerling establishes Cher as being an imitation of Emma “having too much her own way”.
The contrast between Cher’s first voiceover “I actually have a way normal life for a teenage girl” whilst she picks out her designer outfit on a computer allows Heckerling to provide an authorial voice, much like Austen, where she critiques teenage self absorption and the society that cultivates this trait. Both texts primarily focus on the social values of marriage, romance and sex. During Austen’s time, marriage was concerned as a way of preserving your social rank and financial status and often these values took primacy over romance.
This is evident when Emma speaks that Mr Elton would give Harriet “everything she wanted- consideration, independence, a proper home”. Austen challenges societies values by making Emma oppose these views and have “very little intention of marrying at all”. However, Austen allows Emma to succumb to society’s expectations with her marriage to Mr. Knightely. This reaffirms the reality of Austen’s society, she allows her audience to see her view but highlights that she cannot change this value.
Heckerling chooses to replace the importance of marriage, with the importance of sex to suite the context of contemporary society. Sex before marriage is a prevalent issue in the film and is highlighted as common amongst most social classes. Tai’s comment to Cher “Why am I even listening to you- you’re a virgin who can’t drive” reflects societies consideration as to what is important. Like Emma, Cher rejects her social expectations and admits to remaining a virgin.
However, Heckerling sets up a paradox around Cher, exaggerating a materialistic and sexual blonde who ironically remains a virgin despite this image. Although the importance of sex takes focus in the film, Heckerling chooses to end Clueless with a marriage, highlighting that it is still a value in modern society. Both Austen and Heckerling challenge their audience to confront their own presumptions concerning their society’s values. Moral education is a value personified through significant figures in both protagonist’s lives.
In Emma, Mr Knightely is the catalyst for Emma’s moral education and growth. One of the significant turning points for Emma’s transformation is the Box Hill incident where Emma cruelly insults Miss Bates. Jane Austen use’s Mr Knightely to enter her novel to criticise Emma’s behaviour “Better be without sense, than misapply it as you do. ” In Clueless, it is Josh who sparks Cher to “make-over her soul”. It is the incident when Cher insults Lucy saying she is a Mexican and Josh insults her saying “your such a brat” that is the vehicle for Cher’s moral education and ultimately making her a better person.
Through these men, both Austen and Heckerling are able to criticise not only Emma and Cher, but the moral values society shape as acceptable. Through exploring both texts, it becomes increasingly evident that both authors have attempted to reflect their societies. Through their protagonists, they challenge societies standards and expectations and appeal to their audience to overcome these barriers. Therefore we come to the point that while human nature does not change, the context and values do.
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