Emma in Los Angeles: Clueless as a remake of the book and the city

by Lesley Stern

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Cher Horovitz, handsome, clever and rich, had lived nearly sixteen years in LA with very little to distress or vex her. Just like Emma Woodhouse. Emma it’s true is a little older — nearly twenty one — at the beginning of Jane Austen‘s novel than Cher is at the beginning of Amy Heckerling’s movie, and Emma, so we are told, lived not in LA, but ‘in the world’. These minor differences aside, there is something uncanny in the way that Cher reprises the role that Emma Woodhouse vacated in 1816. We are told that Cher does indeed have an ancient and glorious lineage, though not in the novelistic tradition: both she and her best friend Dionne are named ‘after great singers of the past who now do infomercials’.

The movie begins with a spinning overhead shot of a group of girls having fun in a car — in a white jeep which careers all over, as does the hand-held camera, as do the colors to initiate a montage of Cher and her friends having fun – shopping, driving, kidding about by the pool. The colors are garishly bright, every frame is crowded, energetic, and music pumps out. Before too long one of the girls in the opening emerges as ‘ heroine’ both on the image track and in a narrating voice over: ‘ So OK, you’re probably thinking, “Is this, like a Noxema commercial, or what?!” But seriously, I actually have a way normal life for a teenage girl. I mean I get up, I brush my teeth, and I pick out my school clothes.’ Having picked out her faux-haute-couture school clothes with the aid of a mix-and-match computer programme, to the accompaniment of David Bowie’s ‘Fashion Girl’, Cher’s day begins. We are introduced to her father, a wealthy litigation lawyer, and are given a bumpy tour of the neighbourhood as we set off for school with her, driving past the Beverly Hills mansions, pick up her friend Dionne sporting an extravagantly exotic hat, and proceed to school, exchanging greetings and trading insults en route.

This account might seem to render the links between this teen movie set in LA and a novel of manners set in a nineteenth century English village tenuous. But let us backtrack to the first paragraph of the novel: ‘Emma Woodhouse had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her’ (27). A few pages on we find that ‘the world’ is in fact Highbury, a ‘large and populous village almost amounting to a town’ . It is this conflation between the world and the village that gives to Emma much of its distinctive flavor — the parochialism derived from the characters’ conception of the world and misconception of their place in it provides a source for satire, and simultaneously a stage for the enactment of a certain ethnographic impulse (focusing on the day to day lives of ordinary middle class people) that heralded a new modernity in the novel. And it is precisely this conflation (between world and village), along with the dual impulse to satirise and to elaborate a kind of fictional ethnography, that provides a key to Clueless and its central conceit: Los Angeles as a village, a village peopled by teenagers who think that Beverly Hills is the centre of the world..

From certain critical perspectives, we might note, Jane Austin’s satire has been dubiously regarded. As Edward Said1 has pointed out, her preoccupation with the local served not as fodder for satire, but rather to consolidate and advance the interests of Empire, of the West – by figuring a little patch of England as universal, as center, home, norm. Other critics, arguing from a feminist perspective, have drawn attention to the particularity of Austen’s modernist impulse — that her novels brought onto centre stage a world that had not previously been deemed suitable for literary treatment. She conjured up a new world of women and although she certainly subjected this world to satire she also delineated its quotidian contours meticulously and celebrated its denizens with wry affection. These different approaches to Austen are worth noting, not only because film critics tend to reproduce these approaches in their appraisals of Clueless , 2 but also because the genius of the film derives from its deployment of what we might call the Austenian dual impulse which indicates a careful and imaginative reading of the novel Emma.

The film opens with a declaration that these are ‘Kids in America’ but the image gives us a very particular kind of ‘ America’ and particular kind of kids. Cher is truly a child of Hollywood, her mother having died in ‘a fluke accident during a routine liposuction’, and her conception of the Beverly Center as the center of the world serves as an index of Hollywood’s imperialism — its promulgation of a universalizing insularity, its relentless celebration of consumer culture and ready-to-go false consciousness. Cher thinks that Bosnia is in the Middle East and hazards a guess that Kuwait is in the Valley. The Valley itself, as far as these kids are concerned, is literally off the map — they get lost going to a party there. Cher can’t figure out why Lucy the maid, who comes from El Salvador, is angered when Cher assumes that Mexican is her language, and is duly rebuked by Josh, the Mr Knightly figure: ‘You get upset if someone thinks you live below Sunset’.

Just as Jane Austen gave the novel a newly modernist inflection through stretching generic boundaries, so Amy Heckerling renovates old rhetorical devices in the service of new insights and pleasures. By reading Emma through the lens of a contemporary genre — the teen movie — and by rendering this teen world through a predominantly feminine consciousness, through conjuring up a girl’s world, she exercises the sort of fictionally ethnographic exploration epitomised by Austen. Like Austen she asks — what are the preoccupation’s, language, courting and/or dating rituals, fashion, mores of a wealthy and privileged group of young people? And like Austen she transforms a documentary rendering of the quotidian into an imaginative and lively delight in fictionality.

Via a quite distinctive rhetorical modality a space is created in which we can both identify the unrelenting banality and callow foolishness of these characters and also delight in their engagement in witty wordplay and visual jokes, their hyperbolic sense of style, the strings of quotations and misquotations, the way in which they generate a new female topology and language: ‘cruising the crimson wave’ (having your period), ‘hymenally challenged’ (being a virgin), ‘boinkfest’ (lots of sex), ‘full-on Monet’ (‘It’s like a painting, see? From far away, it’s OK, but up close, it’s a big old mess’). In short, Clueless is characterised by an utterly engaging impulse — an impulse at once utopian and comic — to remake or refashion the world.

It is my contention that it is through certain remaking strategies, a consciousness of intertextuality if you like, that LA materializes as a particularly interesting configuration of spatial and cultural tropes. Just as Cher and her friends take particular delight in the make-over, so the film exercises a make-over on both the city and the book, throws the place itself into relief as a patterning of repetition and difference. In thus giving prominence to the remake as an explanatory device a question inevitably arises and the question is this: is it necessary to have read Emma in order to make sense of and truly enjoy Clueless ?

Clearly Clueless appeals to different audiences who bring to the movie different knowledges and expectations, but what makes it particularly fascinating is that it actually assumes, through the heterogeneity of its references and allusions, that quotidian knowledge is informed by and woven out of a diversity of cultural practices — not distinguishable according to ‘high’ and ‘low’ markers. In this context Los Angeles is figured not simply as an imitation of and/or deviation from Highbury, but rather as an intertextual site spun by the movies, television series, MTV, and a variety of remakes and adaptations. Whilst it certainly isn’t necessary to be familiar with Emma in order to enjoy Clueless , it is the spirit and operation of remaking that serves to generate and sustain the movie’s intricate network of relations — between different texts, different media, different cultural signs and temporalities.

Clueless is not strictly speaking a remake, but neither is it a straightforward adaptation where the aim is generally to reduce difference, to find the correlative of one medium (literature) in another (film). The fidelity that is so imperative here – insofar as there is a motivation to preserve a classic text — is primarily conservative, even nostalgic. The modernity of Clueless derives from the generic choices that Heckerling makes. Most simply it is in the choice to turn an early nineteenth century comedy of manners into a late twentieth century teen movie. Clueless is remarkably faithful as a structural repetition, and inventively divergent in terms of incidentals. In fact it is the tension between these two that generates pleasure.

Emma is both a comedy of manners and a cautionary tale. It takes a simple moral precept which is dramatized through a largely episodic structure. It centers on a motherless young woman, wealthy, endowed with ‘the power of having rather too much her own way and a disposition to think a little too well of herself’ . Assuming the role of a kind of femaleSvengali she adopts and undertakes the transformation of Harriet, new to the village. Whilst orchestrating her protege’s social elevation Emma arranges a series of romances for Harriet, but as the matchmaking goes repeatedly wrong our heroine is revealed as supremely clueless when it comes to sex and romance. Eventually she realizes her own snobbishness and blindness not only to others’ desires but to her own. With self-revelation (and a touch of remorse) comes reformation, romantic fulfillment and a happy ending — that is to say, marriage.

Mr Knightley is the old family friend who is also her brother-in-law and also the only person who dares criticize Emma. Eventually she realizes that he is the one she loves. But before this, she falls for Frank Churchill, who like Harriet, is an outsider. In her flirtation she fails to discern Frank’s secret — that he is in love with Jane Fairfax (though indeed this knowledge is largely withheld from the reader as well). This capacity for misreading the signs of attraction, sometimes willfully, sometimes ignorantly, leads Emma into lots of trouble. Dismissing the object of Harriet’s affection, Mr Martin the farmer, she becomes convinced that Mr Elton (whom she deems more socially suitable) is enamoured of Harriet, failing to see what is obvious to the reader and some other characters — that it is Emma he is in love with.

Cher is also motherless, and her father is a high powered, wealthy and far-from polite litigation lawyer. Mr Knightley becomes Josh, a student of environmental law and the son of one of her father’s previous wives — therefore a sort of step brother. The two outsiders are Tai (the Harriet figure) who arrives from the East with a broad Bronx accent and Christian (the Frank Churchill figure) who arrives from Chicago and is gay. Mr Elton, the snobbish vicar becomes the snobbish Jaguar-driving college boy Elton, and Mr Martin the farmer becomes the dope smoking, skate-boarding loady, Travis, who takes the bus to school. Jane Fairfax disappears from the film and there is a new figure — Dionne, a rich black girl who is Cher’s best friend.

Emma, who is wealthy enough not to have to work, spends most of her time socializing, refining her accomplishments painting, playing the piano, reading, composing and deciphering riddles, cultivating the art of conversation, doing occasional good deeds, thinking about sex and romance, talking obliquely but at great length about sex and romance, doing sex and romance via matchmaking and flirting.

Cher, who is wealthy (and smart) enough not have to try too hard at school, spends most of her time hanging out with her girlfriends, learning to drive, shopping, flaneusing in Rodeo Drive, dieting, exercising to Steel Buns, watching Ren and Stimpy and Beavis and Butthead on television, refining her dress sense, cultivating the art of the argot, eventually doing some good deeds, thinking about sex and romance, talking ostentatiously and at great length about sex and romance, doing sex and romance via matchmaking and flirting. In both book and movie the plot progresses episodically, configuring and reconfiguring character clusters via a series of social events. The topology of Highbury or LA environs are mapped out in the same movement by which social relations are charted — through detailed descriptions of travel and modes of communication.

In the movie updating the modernization is manifested in a process of Los Angelisation, and teenification. Los Angeles and the teenage phenomenon are connected through the motif of modernity, of updating, of contemporaneity. Configured by the generic imperatives of a teen movie LA comes itself to signify the ‘ modern’, the contemporary, the new, the stylish, the fashionable. Simultaneously, however, the consciousness of modernity is satirized, and it is satirized precisely by invoking the spurious sense of originality that provides a basis for updating, witness Cher’s notion of the classic — ‘ Isn’t my house classic? The columns date all the way back to 1972’ The kind of image of LA that is summonsed up here is framed by the postmodern, but Clueless gives us a very different postmodern LA than that evoked by a film like Blade Runner where the family romance, photography and memory are in the service of a metaphysical thematic dedicated to loss and nostalgia.

The concept of teenager is of course itself very modern and did not exist in Austen’s time, and moreover the teen movie is a genre often concerned with what is hip and of the moment. By setting the film in Beverly Hills and by concentrating on a group who are obsessed with style, with fashion, with being up to date, who talk in an arcane and localized argot, Heckerling undertakes a potentially hazardous project, runs the risk of creating a film that is precariously of the moment. But Clueless actually performs a complex manoeuvre whereby the cliché of LA as postmodern city supreme, city without memory, all surface pastiche, a giant shopping mall, is simultaneously invoked and undercut.

The teen movie might be very modern (coming into prominence in the eighties) but it has a pre-history, both in the movies and in other forms such as the novel. Clueless not only remakes and comments on Emma but remakes the teen movies that precede it and also the twentieth century apparatus of modernity that provides the preconditions of the genre; the film is alert to and permeated by the myriad influences which shape the very experience and notion of contemporaneity.

Clueless belongs to a fine lineage, it belongs not only to a group of films that feature girls coming of age, but more specifically to a group of such films set in LA, all of which involve the conceit of a bimbo or ditz with a credit card who turns out to be a sassy, smart-talking, inventive young woman who takes control of her destiny through the conquering of space and time. The conquering of time entails a utopian rather than nostalgic and dystopic vision, and the conquering of space (and this is where LA becomes a crucial location) involves taking control of the freeways and of that cinematically revered masculine object — the motor car.

Cher and Dionne do not love their cars in the way that Paul Newman in Hud say, loved his pink cadillac; they love driving and the control that driving promises. The big joke here is that in fact they can’t drive, they are learning, and none too successfully, but to great comic effect. Interestingly, in the transforming of Emma into Clueless, the conversion of carriages into cars and the replacement of endless walking by continuous driving both indicates a very neat series of substitutions and also suggests that the process of updating does more than simply find contemporary signifiers for old fashioned modes of communication. The process actually effects certain transformations so that we get a sense of what it’s like to be young and female today. Where Clueless differs from the boys-and-cars-and-sex genre of movies is that it links the car not primarily with sex but with fashion. There is no simple inversion here – for these girls the car is not a substitute for a man, but rather a means of autonomy and a link in the great chain of fashion. For many women I’ve talked to about this movie one of the most exhilarating and hilarious moments is Cher driving in platforms – it is an emblematic and enduring moment in the feminisation of the movie image of Los Angeles.

Much of the humour of Clueless is played out on and around fashion. But the humour is not at the expense of style. Certainly the moral precept of Emma is narratively played out — matchmaking as the central plotting device is also a mechanism for the moral improvement of the heroine. Cher learns that the Beverly Center is not the center of the world, and that there are people less fortunate than herself, but she does not give up on style. And although she is made fun of there is a degree to which she is in on the joke.

On one level Cher’s adoption and make-over of Tai faithfully follows Emma’s adoption and make-over of Harriet, but in terms of Hollywood the model is more complicated. The Svengali story is of course not exclusive to Hollywood but it has prospered here: Gigi, My Fair Lady, Pretty Woman. Almost by definition the Svengali figure is male — and this is because the narrative is concerned with feminisation, with educating a woman to take up her proper womanly place. Cher Horovitz is the first woman I can think of who occupies this position. Cher gets her come-uppance much more severely than Professor Henry Higgins or the slimy Gaston or the horrible Richard Gere (who all emerge triumphant in their projects), but it’s not at the expense of women, nor at the expense of fashion. Clueless is every bit as stylish as the other films. The emphasis on fashion certainly comes from Hollywood, but the feminist twist comes from Jane Austen.

It is true as Jocelyn Harris writes, ‘ In an age when the visual is said to have superceded the verbal, the movie Clueless provides extraordinary pleasures to people who still read books,’3 but it is also true that Clueless is a movie about movies, about the place where movies and dreams are manufactured, and about what it is like to be young and female in today’s multi-media world.

Lesley Stern is a senior lecturer in the School of Theatre and Film Studies, UNSW. She is the author of The Scorsese Connection (British Film Institute and Indiana University Press, 1995). This is an edited version of a paper presented at the “Los Angeles and the Cinema” Conference, UCLA, 2-3 May, 1997. The Cutting Edge, a short story by Lesley Stern is also online.


1. Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (New York: Random House, 1993).

2. See, for instance, Amanda Lipman’s review of Clueless, Sight and Sound, vol. 5, No. 10, October 1995, p. 46.

3. Jocelyn Harris, a Review of three Austen adaptations, Eighteenth Century Fiction, vol. 8, No. 3, April 1996, p. 430.

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