Clueless: From Jane Austen Classic to a Film that Defined the 90's

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A barrage of ‘90s “chick flicks” downright copied classics of yore, retelling famous fictional trials and tribulations of ladies in love. Late 16th century Taming of the Shrew was rehashed as 1999’s 10 Things I Hate About You, updated by “angry feminist” teenager (Julia Stiles) rejecting sly ruffian (Heath Ledger, rest his soul). Tied in with a shared scheme involving a nerdy nobody attempting to date the rage-filled riot grrrl’s sister, the new Shakespearean “shrew” stomped around Seattle in combat boots with a Lipsmackers scowl referencing Bikini Kill and the Raincoats, Hollywood again perpetuating false representations of feminists, but no doubt borrowing from culture movie execs hardly understood.

Bridget Jones Diary retold Pride and Prejudice but the modernized Elizabeth Bennett lacked the fierce wit of the old school original. Reinvented Bridget was an endearing vaudevillian goofball of a clumsy needs-male-validation variety and though Zellweger’s depiction spoke of overcoming insecurities, perceived limitations and learning to love oneself (the real love story, ya’ll), Austen’s Elizabeth rolled her eyes at social expectations and in intellectual banter found a match in once nemesis, Mr. Darcy. Bridget looked for acceptance, Lizzie looked for someone worth a shit, never stooping beneath. Bless your heart, Bridget, somehow 1800’s Romanticism one-upped contemporary sexual politics.

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Clueless, based on Jane Austen’s Emma, did the original chick lit serious justice. Even though I prefer the early literary ladies, Clueless updated matchmaker and know-it-all Emma perfectly. Class issues always undertow in Austenian tales, Cher (Alicia Silverstone) as Emma was hyper-realized in a satirical Los Angeles, reviving the 1800’s comedy about wealthy society to new heights. It’s easier to appreciate glossed representations that poke fun at the privileged over the scorned surviving. A Beverly Hills mansion headed by a neurotic lawyer father and upper crust high school drama translated more gracefully than Shakespeare’s “shrew” turned fiery feminist or unmarried Elizabeth Bennett a self-help wino.  

Clueless and Emma are more intensely paralleled than the average viewer may realize. With the addition of driving tickets and a determination to slyly matchmake grumpy Mr. Hall with frumpy Ms. Geist for a revived report card, Austenian avenues align with the arrival of “adorably clueless” Tai (RIP Brittney Murphy). A.K.A. Emma’s giggly lost lamb Harriet Smith, transforming Tai into well-dressed and popular also means an attempt to link Tai with social director of the “in” crowd, Elton. Not only does the script predict LA’s influence on America’s future frequency of cellphones and plastic surgery, Elton is practically a warning for the IRL sadboy/fuckboy archetype. Following almost identical plots, Elton requests Tai’s photo to Mr. Elton of Harriet’s portrait painting (mixed signals), sexually harasses Cher in his car versus the passionate confession of “ardent attachment” in carriage (hidden agenda), thereafter quickly cuffing with jealous try-hard Amber, based on Austen’s annoying Augusta (mass rejection cover-up).

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The accidental love triangle becomes a major fail that kickstarts the pretty protagonist into a spiral of discontent. On top of social disruption, Cher faces at-home critique outside of her strict father. Her collegiate, couch-surfing stepbrother of a past divorced marriage, Josh (Paul Rudd), replaces Emma’s brother-in-law Mr. Knightley. Judging Cher’s character openly, especially in her treatment of pet project Tai, “vanity working on a weak mind produces every kind of mischief“ is a similar sentiment to “you’re acting out on that poor girl like she’s your Barbie doll”. Josh and Mr. Knightley both point out the follies of Cher and Emma’s goofy ideas of what good-doing actually is.

Cher, however, heavily subscribes to the Shine Theory and relies on her friends to thrive. Walking along with a world-class BFF, the straight forward AF, confidant teen queen, Dionne (Stacey Dash), likely represents Emma’s childhood governess, Mrs. Weston. Nudging her towards honesty and less meddling, both Mrs. Weston and Dionne may be preoccupied with their loverboys, but simple visits or mall runs with this non-bullshit womanly advisor always provides clarity and guidance without force. As the social nucleus of Cher’s universe, Dionne and boyfriend Murray (Donald Faison) are luckily a stronger presence for Cher in the 1995 silver screen adaptation than the Westons.

Cher eventually wants to boo up, too. Emma’s Frank Churchhill becomes Cher’s Christian, both well-dressed, loving to dish the dirt and in the end, after she deals with the let-down (Frank engaged and Christian gay), he becomes quite the great friend. At least Christian wasn’t a fuckboy and just a cakeboy, a mis-match that ends up a pleasant surprise. If only she could computer generate the compatibilities of people like she did her daily outfits (Cher somehow is a rare woman alongside Lil Kim who could pull off yellow in the ‘90s). As much as Cher could convince others to step outside of their comfort zones and try new looks, vocabulary, and midriffs, she was already convinced what was (and wasn’t) good enough for her and everyone else for that matter.

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These baby Bettys were born with silver spoons in their mouths and such standards for success required a certain snobbery. Occupied as a method of self-respect, Cher’s arrogance is exercised by dissuading Tai’s natural connection to stoned skater Travis which comes to bite her in the ass when newly trendy Tai develops feels for a similar grungy upgrade, Josh. Cher then realizes she’s loved (and taken for granted) her stepbrother Josh all along, and friends quickly turn foes, claws out. After all, perfectly polished nails eventually chip. Clueless is a tale of what we miss while trying to control the lives of new friends and lovers that we think fit, our lofty ideas undermining the value in other people and ourselves. Looking for her own purpose and direction, Cher’s loneliness throws her into the throes of humility.

There’s a recurring theme to Austen that make her stories relatable no matter the time frame, whether it be Georgian-Regency dinner parties or freakouts on the LA freeway. Austen’s central characters were always women with “amiable” qualities, but more importantly brilliant minds even if chasing the wrong waterfalls. In the end, each would only ever be content with a partner who challenged her (I, myself, am secretly Disney Princess brain-washed waiting for a Mr. Darcy). Austen tends to conclude her heroines with whom she didn’t initially consider for a partner; in fact these characters saw their future dudes as the offense or obstacle. Emma and Cher were too entranced by the social brewhaha of their society, too busy gossiping, distracted by Luke Perry looks to check in with their gaydar to notice the real deal standing before them. He who is a real friend and challenges the arrogance of our clever ingenue, he who sees the potential and awakens improvements for the better, steals her heart in the end. Surprisingly, he equally learns from her and finds himself humbled, thus both finding their true “match”.

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WUSSY presents Clueless at Plaza Theatre Wednesday 11/8 at 7pm.
Tickets are limited -- buy them here

 

Sunni Johnson is a writer, zinester, and musician based in Atlanta, GA.