Romola Garai as Emma (BBC 2009)Unknowingly, I was familiar with Jane Austen before I had ever picked up one of her novels. As a child of the 90s, I was captivated with the film Clueless. The film offered a glimpse into a glamorous world of designer clothes, wealth and romance. Although it was wildly out of my everyday reality, I viewed Cher Horowitz's Beverly Hills world as the quintessential representation of popularity in teenage America. It wasn't until years later, when I was studying English literature in college, that I discovered the movie had been written as an adaptation of Jane Austen's Emma. After re-watching the movie and reading the novel, I was pleasantly surprised at how well each of the works captured the snobbery, frivolity and generosity that is transferred between social classes. Cher Horowitz and Emma Woodhouse are both arrogant, spoiled daughters of over-indulgent fathers. Though their time periods are separated by more than a century, there remain distinct similarities among the demands and expectations of their elitist societies. While Emma lives in the well-bred haven of nineteenth century England, Cher's Beverly Hill high school is ruled by a similar combination of money and charm. In both instances, snobbery is rampant.
Despite their snobbish and rather materialistic existences, Emma and Cher are popular for a reason. Both are beautiful, fashionable, well-mannered and extremely clever. Austen claimed that she was fashioning Emma to be “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like,” and at first, this could be said of both Emma and Cher. They are both seemingly shallow and self-important; and their interests of matchmaking are little more than a childish response to boredom. In both stories, members of the lower class are transformed into pet projects. Emma adopts Harriet Smith, a beautiful girl of questionable birth as her constant companion; and Cher gives the grungy new girl, Tai, a complete makeover. In Emma, Harriet finds herself surrounded by high society and eligible bachelors, while clueless Tai is given a new image. Both Harriet and Tai are ushered into a higher level of society on a whim of charity. Though both Emma is trying her hand at benevolent friendship, there is an underlying pretentious quality of the endeavor that neither party grasps.
Alicia Silverstone as Cher in CluelessIf the reader is unaccustomed to aristocratic manners or the genteel lifestyle – as Harriet Smith and Tai are – the sheer glamor and materialism of the Emma character is a source of interest and even admiration, which could account for why the girls so willingly follow their socially superior friends. To be fair, modern readers are still fascinated by the drama and comedy of manners and genteel figures of the past; and glimpses into the lifestyles of the rich and famous still draw audiences today. High society is a secret club that few are allowed to see. It is a glamor that is destined to wear thin. As Emma's plots unfold, and her schemes become more adverse to the natural order of society, her poor friend Harriet is exposed to rejection and embarrassment. The same is true with Tai, who is crushed after she discovers Elton is not interested in dating her. For all of their faults, Emma and Cher are both forced into a new level of maturity when their popularity suffers. Emma’s popularity languishes after she is rude to Mrs. Bates at a garden party; while Cher’s popularity wanes after Tai begins to overshadow her. Cher and Emma are both dear to me because they undergo a transition from materialism into maturity. There is a phase in every teenage girl’s life in which boys, fashion and trends are the epitome of conversation and focus. Part of growing up is realizing the responsibility we have to our friends and to our society, no matter how high or low that may be. Melissa Miller Melissa Miller is blogger and freelance writer for associatedegreeonline.com. She is interested in all things education and writes to help recent college graduates navigate the challenging world of first-time employment, adult responsibility, and finances. Throw your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.