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Jane Austen’s Emma and Amy Heckerling’s Clueless could be seen, at first glance, to summarise ‘popular culture’ and ‘high culture’. Where Jane Austen might be described as the poster girl for ‘high culture’, Clueless seems to vehemently argue for the triumph of popular culture . However I would argue that both Emma and Clueless perpetuate the superiority of so-called ‘high culture’, Emma through a dismissal of ‘popular culture’ and Clueless through its reliance on intertextuality and argument for constant reinterpretation of the ‘classics’. Where ‘high culture’ tends to be associated with elite activities and goods such as fine art, literature and music, ‘popular culture’ is associated with goods and activities produced and marketed en masse, such as mainstream cinema, and certain genres of books, such as the romance novel. Bourdieu states that “…the main opposition, by overall capital value, is between practices designated by their rarity as distinguished, those of the fraction richest in both economic and cultural capital, and the practices socially identified as vulgar because there are both easy and common, those of the fractions poorest in these respects.” In this essay, I will be using the term ‘high culture’ to refer to the former, and ‘popular culture’ to refer to the latter. Heavily associated with ‘high culture’ is the concept of the ‘classic’ in literature, a “writer or work of the first rank, and of generally acknowledged excellence.” Jane Austen and her novels are generally considered ‘classics’, and I will not be contesting this in my essay. I will also be using the term ‘cultural capital’ to refer to the social value accorded to engagement with ‘high culture’.

One interesting engagement with culture, high and low, in Heckerling’s film is through Christian, the initial object of Cher’s affections, who is set up as the parallel of Frank Churchill. Christian’s homosexuality is evident to the viewers, before it is revealed to Cher, through his stereotyped taste in clothes, music (Billy Holiday) and films (Some Like it Hot and Spartacus), and his obvious interest in and sensitivity to ‘high art’ (as seen through his recognition and assessment of a Claes Oldenberg sculpture). When Christian is ‘outed’ to Cher by Murray, he is described as “a disco-dancing, Oscar Wilde-reading, Streisand ticket-holding friend of Dorothy.” In Christian, a number of cultural ‘levels’ are brought together: on one hand, he appreciates ‘high art’, classic films and jazz music, and is associated with Oscar Wilde (who was also homosexual) – all of which are invested with a certain amount of cultural capital; on the other hand he is associated with disco and Barbra Streisand, which are (arguably) more ‘popular culture’. Furthermore, the higher cultural pursuits associated with Christian are somewhat shaky. As Sonnet points out, ‘the history of popular cinema has from its inception been involved in ‘reframing’ high culture.’ Tony Curtis films were not always invested with high cultural capital, any more than Billy Holiday or Oscar Wilde were. Whilst this could be seen as an attempt to collapse the popular culture versus high culture distinctions, I would tend to see it more as an argument for the need to constantly reassess what is permitted to be ‘high culture’. Christian’s passions have been permitted to join the sacred few after surviving the test of time.

Emma was published in 1816. The previous century had not been easy on the novel as a genre. It had little cultural status and was seen as dangerous and vulgar. Jane Austen’s novels, with their lack of clear morals and ordinary, everyday events and characters were not esteemed to anywhere near the level they are today. Austen was therefore forced to write back against popular opinion, validating her novels and – one would assume – the novel in general. However in Emma, Austen appears to validate her own books by distancing herself from the novel genre. The Romance of the Forest by Ann Radcliffe, The Children of the Abbey by Regina Roche and The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith are all discredited by association with Harriet Smith who, for all her good nature, is not particularly clever. Austen seems to be attempting to elevate herself above these novelists and establish herself as separate from the ‘popular culture’ that they embody. Austen’s gradual move into the ‘high culture’ sphere may be seen as proof of her success. Like classic cinema and Billy Holiday, Austen’s value, and Emma’s value, has (presumably) been decided based on her writing’s ability to outlive its age and appeal to a society which has comparatively little in common, in a superficial sense, with the society about which it was written. Suzanne Ferriss argues that, “In Heckerling’s hands, Austen’s novel proves itself to be surprisingly malleable and readily adaptable to the contemporary period.” I would argue that Ferriss gives Heckerling too much credit. As wonderful an interpretation as Clueless might be, Emma’s longevity suggests that it has been written in a way which lends itself to constant reinterpretation, regardless of the period.

Just as Jane Austen dissociates herself from popular culture, at times, Heckerling seems to be pandering to the high culture ‘set’, filling the film with buried references to Shakespeare , Dickens , Botticelli , Monet and of course, Austen. To view the film as a series of ‘in-jokes’ suggests that Clueless’s link to Emma is based on a desire to legitimise what might otherwise be an empty ‘teenpic’ with little or no cultural capital. This suggests that the real, worthy pleasures of the film are derived from feelings of superiority by those who recognise the intertextual references both to Austen and to a range of other ‘high cultural’ figures. However on closer examination, as Sonnet points out, many of these references seem to be undervaluing those figures to whom they are referring; so Shakespeare’s sonnet is attributed to “Cliff’s Notes” by Cher, with no trace of irony; Dickens is misquoted, Tai is a “Botticelli chick” (although Amber is a “Monet… From far away, it’s OK, but up close, it’s a big old mess”), Nietzsche and Burroughs are ‘style statements to differentiate boys in their ‘post-adolescent idealistic phase’ from those in ‘contempo casual land’’ and Claes Oldenberg sculptures are displayed pool-side. Apparently ‘high culture’ is not being given the respect it supposedly deserves.

But again, it is worth re-examining this view. How, for example, does comparing a beautiful young woman to a woman in one of Botticelli’s paintings devalue the work of the artist? Surely this displays the timeless quality of the art. Why is it an insult to Oldenberg to display one of his ‘pieces’ purely for its aesthetic (and perhaps capitalist) value rather than for its cultural capital? Dionne recognises Shakespeare’s sonnet as “beautiful”. Why does it matter that she does not know who wrote it? In fact, should this not invest her opinion with more value, given that she is uncorrupted by ‘bardolatry’? As such, is Heckerling deliberately undervaluing ‘high culture’, as Sonnet suggests, or is she merely updating its interpretation? When Heather misquotes Hamlet, Cher corrects her, making use of her obviously detailed knowledge of Mel Gibson films. I would suggest that this is not so much a triumph of ‘popular culture’ as it is a triumph of the modern interpretation of ‘high culture’. In this way Heckerling’s film might be interpreted as a clever self-perpetuating argument for modern interpretations of the ‘classics’, maintaining the implicit value of ‘high culture’ but arguing for its constant reanalysis and reexamination by new generations.

In Clueless, Cher’s portrait photography is seen as equivalent to Emma’s portrait painting in Emma. It is, perhaps, worth noting that whilst both Cher and Emma seem to be imitating practitioners of ‘high arts’, they neither of them really aspire to be true artists. Neither even considers, when asked for access to their work, that it might be the work’s merit, rather than the subject matter that draws admiration. In the end of course, in both cases, it is the ‘artist’ who has drawn attention. In considering these scenes, it is worth questioning whether Austen meant Emma’s toying with ‘high culture’ as a mirror of her own artistry, or as a direct opposition. It is doubtful that she meant to demean her own efforts in the field. Whether consciously or unconsciously, Austen has structured a critique on those who focus on the artist rather than the art. The readers’ knowledge of Emma’s persistently bad judgement also begs questioning of the relevance of subject matter in the judgement of art. The sequence seems to essentially ask that art be judged on its own merit, on the skill with which it is executed, rather than on its artist or subject. This makes Heckerling’s position particularly interesting. In appropriating the situation without any substantial, core changes, it would seem she is making an identical argument to Austen, that art be judged apart from artist and subject. Yet this places Clueless in a vacuum, because much of its subject matter is from Emma, and whilst this is not necessary to the enjoyment of the film, it certainly greatly enhances it and lends it further layers of meaning. This lends further credence to the view of Clueless as an interpretation of ‘high culture’ – an interpretation is not expected to stand alone. Whilst Emma can exist safely as a ‘great’ novel apart from its author and its subject, Clueless needs its intertextuality with ‘high culture’ to achieve any measure of greatness.

Of course, it is possible that Clueless’ engagement with Emma is a mere marketing ploy, designed to bring both the ‘teenpic’ set and the ‘literary’ set to the cinemas, allowing the latter to bask in their superior understanding of many of the jokes. Nachumi points out that ‘Heckerling’s Clueless has been dismissed as a charming, but ‘light’ version of Austen,’ so perhaps Clueless was intended as a ‘dumbing down’ of high culture. However I do not believe that either of these views gives Clueless the credit it deserves. Its clever dialogue and constant intertextual references belie its supposed status as a ‘light’, ‘dumbed down’ version of Austen, and its argument is too complex and far reaching in its implications to be a mere marketing ploy. Emma, with its hard earned cultural capital, is a highly relevant text, with highly relevant themes and characters. Heckerling, in reinterpreting the novel, argues for the constant reassessment and reanalysis of the ‘classic’, whilst reinforcing its inherent value. In this way, both Austen’s Emma and Heckerling’s Clueless aspire to, and prioritise ‘high culture’ over ‘popular culture’.

Austen, Jane. Emma. London: Penguin Books Ltd., 2003.
Cuddon, J.A. The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. London: Penguin Books Ltd., 1998.
Farrell, Kelly. ‘Lecture 7: Emma, the Novel Genre and Cultural Capital’. Literature, Culture, History. University of Melbourne, 2004.
Ferriss, Suzanne. ‘Emma Becomes Clueless’, in Troost, Linda and Greenfield, Sayre (eds.). Jane Austen in Hollywood. Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky, 1998. 122-129.
Heckerling, Amy (director). Clueless. United States of America: Paramount Studio, 1995
Nachumi, Nora. ‘“As If!”: Translating Austen’s Ironic Narrator to Film’, in Linda Troost and Sayre Greenfield (eds.). Jane Austen in Hollywood. Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky, 1998. 130-139.
Sonnet, Esther. ‘From Emma to Clueless: Taste, pleasure and the scene of history’, in Cartmell, Deborah and Whelehan, Imelda (eds.). Adaptations: From Text to Screen, Screen to Text. London: Routledge, 1999. 51-62.

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