The Story’s Change in Context and Use of Linguistic Devices of Intercultural Communication in Jane Austen’s Emma and Amy Heckerling’s Clueless

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Nature of the study

“A lady’s imagination is very rapid; it jumps from admiration to love, from love to matrimony in a moment.” Through her use of linguistics, these wise words effortlessly show the poise, sense of love, and feminism of the revolutionary woman, Jane Austen. The 18th-century English novelist, one of the originators of modern romance, wrote literary works so ahead of her time regarding matters still completely relevant today. Generations of readers have been delighted with some of her famous works such as Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Emma, each with independently spirited and admirable heroines. Her novel, Emma tells the story about a beautiful, wealthy young woman who is preoccupied with matchmaking her peers and being rather intrusive of other people’s love lives, although she is well-intentioned. Paramount Pictures released Clueless, a pure modernization of Emma on July 19, 1995, targeting teenagers as their specified audience. Their cast mainly consisted of unknown actors, was moderately budgeted, and was not expected to reach even a portion of the success it has now, earning more than $105.7 million in today’s market. One of the highest-grossing female filmmakers in Hollywood history, the genius behind Clueless, Amy Heckerling is able to breathe a new life to the classic tale. This essay intends to explore with in-depth analysis, “From Jane Austen’s 19th-century tale of Emma to Amy Heckerling’s 20th-century pop culture film, Clueless, how do the story’s change in context and use of literary devices of intercultural communication manage to keep the movie relevant in contemporary culture?” Clueless follows a similar plot as Emma but with significant geographical, historical, and social changes. Clueless perfectly illustrates the idea of privileged, popular, audacious teen culture through the life of the heroine, Cher Horowitz. The difference in the cultural background heavily impacts the character’s use of linguistics as it brings a different social environment being depicted. However, Amy Heckerling brilliantly retains the trademarks of particular characters and situations by creating parallels of each as well as certain events in her film. It has gone on to become one of the most beloved movies for its unforgettable clothing pieces and iconic quotes as well. Without abandoning the main plot and character elements, this essay aims to analyze how, “[F]rom Jane Austen’s classic tale of Emma to Amy Heckerling’s pop culture film, Clueless, how does the story’s change in context and use of linguistic devices of intercultural communication manage to keep the movie relevant in contemporary culture?”


A range of sources will be utilized to create a detailed comparison between the two literary texts. The primary source that I will gather firsthand includes directly extracting texts and dialogue from the original novel and movie as supporting evidence, as well as doing an in-depth analysis of the movie as a visual text. Extracting excerpts from the two texts must be done appropriately using proper citations from MLA 8 and it should be interpreted in a way that is beneficial and meaningful for this investigation since not all of the information found in the primary data would be useful or relevant for this inquiry. Analyzing from the original source is advantageous because it provides a detailed overview of the story, told at different times, with different characters, and using different linguistics. Directly reading the novel/script or by watching the movie gives the reader topics and concepts to analyze firsthand without being influenced by external sources and interpretations. The two texts that will be analyzed can be considered as an art form and art is open to interpretation. However, miscommunication is bound to happen if the people of the 21st century read the novel now since they are likely to not understand some of the linguistics being used as language has evolved and developed over time, following trends from globalization. Aside from that, secondary sources will be collected from the Internet such as interviews with Amy Heckerling, novel and movie reviews, as well as critics in which will help reach a greater analysis. The secondary sources can provide background information on the story as well as open up the audience to new interpretations and opinions towards the story. Interviews with the movie director, Amy Heckerling can help the audience gain context regarding the movie, Clueless and understand its intentions and effect on the viewers. Everyone has different preferences and these opinions can be shown by critics through novel and movie reviews. The novel and movie reviews can be advantageous since it can clarify some concepts to the viewer before that was previously unclear but can also harm the viewer’s perception towards the story whether it is in a good or bad way since either instance would result to a loss or decrease of originality in opinion. Nevertheless, the secondary sources must be credited appropriately using the MLA 8 format.

Related Literature

Primary Sources (En-Text Citations)

The primary sources that will be used are Jane Austen’s novel Emma, Amy Heckerling’s Clueless script from as well as her Clueless dictionary filled with her own made-up slang and the words and phrases 90s teenagers would use. Posted under the username, “qmonroe” on the website “darling.reverie,” it provides examples and explanations to each of the unique slang created and used by Amy Heckerling. A compilation of interviews with Amy Heckerling will also be used to bring more context into this investigation. Amy Heckerling’s intentions and the execution of her ideas is important to be taken note of because it shapes the whole story and how it is perceived by the audience. The interviews will be taken from the source, “The True Confessions of a Female Director” by Lindsay Zoladz and “This is an Amy Heckerling Interview,” by Kolleen Kelsey. Both interviews provide background regarding the director of Clueless; her ambitions, hopes, and dreams about the movie and the future of her career.

Secondary Sources

Particular secondary sources that will be used are novel and film reviews to see how others interpret each of the works as well as their opinion towards it. Specifically, Sir Walter Scott’s review on Emma by Jane Austen on and Roger Ebert’s review on Clueless on will be studied and evaluated to see the different perceptions towards the story and how their opinion about the linguistics being used in both literary works. Research work regarding Victorian era literature will also be conducted to provide more historical context, in which can help during the analysis portion of the linguistic aspects to this story. Websites such as and will be used for this matter.


Data Presentation

The Victorian era of literature flourished during the reign of Queen Victoria from 1837 to 1901. The shifting social norms and upheaval heavily influenced the literary elements and features of this era. The presence of social injustice evoked writers to express their thoughts through developing new elements in literature. Female consciousness arose after Victorian writers began writing about the female empowerment and emancipation. Realism was also explored as writers incorporate relatable situations in their works. Writers of this time period, including Jane Austen, had their stories revolved around relationships, gender politics, class, and emphasized how strong their sense of place in society is. The characters in Emma and Cher undoubtedly have a very distinct way of communicating due to the wide gap between time periods. 19th century English was proper; everyone was expected to be polite and utterly respectful, speaking perfectly structured sentences, with extensive use of vocabulary. 20th century English became lazier, in a sense, as technology advanced and trends were quickly changing.

Cher Horowitz and Emma Woodhouse, the leading heroines of the story were quick to judge Travis and Robert Martin based on their social status, a drug addict and a farmer, respectively. “It’s one thing to spark up a doobie and get laced at parties, but it is quite another thing to be fried all day… Loadies generally hang on the grassy knoll over there. Sometimes they come to class and say bonehead things, and we all laugh of course, but no respectable girl actually dates them (Amy Heckerling). Cher narrates the story by giving background information about Travis, who is a friendly skateboarder with a low social standing. He was objected by Cher as an unfitting match for her friend Tai because he was notoriously associated with drugs. His bad habits urge Cher to find Tai, someone, better. By “spark up a doobie and get laced at parties,” she was referring to drug usage and by “loadies,” she means drug users. To get “fried all day” meant that he was getting made fun of constantly because the stupid or “bonehead” comments he makes. “He is very plain, undoubtedly~ remarkably plain: ~ but that is nothing compared with his entire want of gentility. I had no right to expect much, and I did not expect much; but I had no idea that he could be so very clownish, so totally without air. I had imagined him, I confess, a degree or two near gentility” (Jane Austen). This excerpt expresses Emma’s thoughts about Robert Martin and how Emma’s influences result to Harriet rejecting Robert Martin’s marriage proposal. Because of clear class disparity in Emma’s time period, Emma was concerned about Harriet’s reputation. Emma uses repetition to emphasize how plain he is and how overestimating she was about him. She comments on his lack of gentility, which is rude, but to an extent, politely said.

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Another example is when Elton and Mr. Elton reveals that they would not want to pursue any romantic relationships with Tai and Harriet, respectively. Elton responds to Cher by saying, “You know, I don’t get you, Cher. You flirt with me all year…Tai? Why would I go with Tai? … Don’t you even know who my father is?” (Amy Heckerling). Elton is the snobbish son of a powerful, wealthy, music-industry executive father. He takes great offense to Cher because she assumed that he would be interested with someone like Tai, who was a “nobody” made popular by Cher. He evidently shows his conceited side when he emphasizes his high social standing by saying, “do you even know who my father is?” making it clear that he thinks he deserves much better treatment and respect. Mr. Elton in the other hand responds to Emma by saying, “Never, madam, ‘ cried he, he affronted in his turn: ‘never, I assure you. I think seriously of Miss Smith! ~ Miss Smith is a very good sort of girl: and I should be happy to see her respectably settled. I wish her extremely well: and, no doubt, there are men who might not object to ~ everybody has their level: but as for myself, I am not, I think, quite so much at a loss. I need not so totally despair of an equal alliance, as to be addressing myself to Miss Smith! ~ No, madam, my visits to Hartfield have been for yourself only; and the encouragement I received~ ”(Jane Austen). Mr. Elton is a handsome, proud, and superficial “gentleman” who gets invited to lots of events due to his popularity. He declines Emma’s suggestion to give Harriet a chance to love in a very polite manner. He starts off by first complimenting Harriet and then wished her the best for her future love life but then proceeds to say that they are not on the same level. He mentions that he, “need not so totally despair of an equal alliance” meaning that he sees himself standing at a much higher hierarchy than her, and therefore is not interested. Both men are shallow, rude, and disrespectful to women’s rights. They were smitten over Cher and Emma and believe that they should be together because of their similar family status and social circle, thus breaking the heart of the young, naïve girls.


Historical context

Jane Austen was one of the first authors who had suggested that women should marry for love and not for wealth or an increased social standing, which was a big, controversial deal for a 19th-century woman. She gives the readers a glimpse of the lifestyle, manners, morals, and portrayal of women in society. Jane Austen stood out because she gave her strong female characters the right to be happy in their own way as they fight their respective battles. To fit the interest of a modern day audience, Heckerling takes note of the shift in values between these time periods to make the story more relevant. Heckerling’s version depicts great deviation from all the other iterations of Jane Austen’s, Emma as it does not replicate the manners, fashion choices, values, or language of the original text but rather modernizes them to create something fresh and original.

Mr. Knightley is a respected landowner and brother in law of Emma through her sister’s marriage. Josh is a college student and is the ex-brother of Cher. During Cher’s dramatic scene of self-realization, she narrates the thoughts in her head; “He’s just like this slug who hangs around the house… What am I stressing about? This is, like, Josh! Okay, okay, he’s kind of a Baldwin. But what does he want with Tai? She couldn’t make him happy. Josh needs someone with imagination, someone to take care of him, someone to laugh at his jokes, in case he ever makes any. Oh my God, I love Josh. I’m major, totally, butt-crazy in love with Josh!” Cher eventually realizes how much she actually loves Josh, and in a romantic way. She describes her feelings in a valley girl language as she occasionally uses slang to convey her emotions. She describes Josh as a “slug,” meaning a person with lazy tendencies. She also mentions how he is kind of a “Baldwin” and this refers to the good-looking Baldwin brothers, who were popular in the 90s, which therefore, serves as a compliment. She repeatedly uses the world “someone,” to emphasize how he needs a specific person to be with him as she pertains to herself. The adjectives Cher uses to describe her love is also very informal: “majorly, totally, butt-crazy in love with Josh.”

Emma’s version of self-realization involves a third person speaking her thoughts. “Till now that she was threatened with its loss, Emma had never known of how much of her happiness depended on being first with Mr. Knightley, first in interest and affection. ~ Satisfied that it was so, and feeling it her due, she had enjoyed it without reflection; and only in the dread of being supplanted, found how inexpressibly important it had been. She had herself been first with him for many years past. She had not deserved it; she had often been negligent or perverse, slighting his advice, or even wilfully opposing him, insensible of half his merits, and quarreling with him because he would not acknowledge her false and insolent estimate of her own.” The sentences are structured beautifully as the flow offers greater sophistication. Mr. Knightley and Josh both act as foil characters to Emma and Cher, as they both underestimate the two ladies’ capabilities. They are the only people who are openly critical to Emma and Cher, respectively, as they are not afraid to point out their mistakes. But, they often guide them as well due to genuine concern and care. Both are well matched in the end because their partners challenged and were comfortable with them, and they guided the girls to do the right thing.

Role of Women

A key concept both stories attain is how they reflect the role of women in their respective societies and time periods. Emma and Cher both lost their mothers at such a young age, which influenced both of these young ladies to take on a bigger role in their household and make their mothers proud. In Emma’s male-dominated time period, women at that time were expected to marry, have children, and be responsible for their household, whereas Emma refuses to find love or marry, which was quite odd for her time. Women were also not allowed to have relationships with the opposite gender if they were not to marry or at least be engaged to them, which leaves quite limited options and chances to find a fitting partner. Being single is considered quite normal in the modern day, especially at such a young age. Marriage is less of a priority but women are expected to get an education and find a job themselves. Boyfriends and sex before marriage are not too shocking amongst teenagers in the 1990s so this time period allowed more flexibility and time to find their right partner. The gender roles have also shifted slightly where Emma who was a confident and self-assured young lady by herself was trapped in a male dominant society that prioritized marriage. However, Emma, like Cher was not afraid to say no and stand up to boys she did not like. But, there is more sense of equality shown in Clueless because of Cher sort of takes more lead in her life choices.

Social Hierarchy and Financial Standing

Both works reinforce the social expectations and conventions of their time. In Clueless, the dating specifications are not only determined through the social class but also through common interests and intelligence. The cliques such as the rich kids, jocks, nerds, druggies, etc. are all placed in different social rankings. But, their social standing may also be changed through sudden popularity and how much people like you, which proves that it is not solely based on financial status and Tai provides perfect supporting evidence as she was transformed by Cher and turned to Miss popular regardless of her dark past. In Emma’s world, financial status is crucial in determining where a person stands in a social circle. Emma often acts reluctant regarding social class and merely associates with people belonging in the lower hierarchy, which is purely defined in financial terms, making the people of her timeless open-minded and extremely materialistic.


Manners and etiquette was a significant theme in Emma. Everyone was polite no matter their social and financial standing, and nobody was overly rude although some might be discreet about it but were nevertheless worded nicely. The teenagers portrayed in Clueless mostly showed lack of manners as they were still young and etiquette wasn’t as important or as strict as it was considered in Emma. Often times, respect greatly interrelates to social standing. For example, Emma did not show much respect for Mr. Martin compared to Mr. Elton because of his low social standing although Mr. Martin is personally a far better and more humble man than him. Cher was considered to be such a classy person and was wildly popular but some teenage boys still do not know how to respect her. Respect for people in lower social standings or people with bad reputations were also not really being practiced where druggies like Travis were extremely looked-down-upon in the 1990s.


Amy Heckerling’s fashion choices for Clueless became real eye-openers for the fashion industry as it made popular styles such as plaid and layering specific pieces, making them iconic, easily recognizable, and intertwined with the movie. The fashion choices in Emma did not receive as much attention as Clueless had but in both versions, the character’s outfits and the way they present themselves still indicate their social status.


Amy Heckerling’s attempt to satisfy the modern audience was proven to be such a huge success through her bubbly and exciting film, Clueless. The reinterpretation of Jane Austen’s Emma from literary to cinematic still brilliantly attains similar character dynamics and plot-twisting scenarios while capturing its original essence. Jane Austen and Amy Heckerling are so well respected because they stayed completely in control of their material, which shows that the topic is focused on does not need to revolve around big themes in order to be relevant. Both works remind the importance of relationships, growing up, and self- realization. Both stories remain timeless where Clueless can be considered as a fun trip down memory lane whilst Emma shows a classier historical take on the story. Because Emma is set in an early time period, it gives the modern audience a more challenging and less relatable story to read compared to a story set in the 1990s. Lots of adaptation films of Jane Austen were released in the 1990s but mostly took a more traditional route instead of making something fresh and new out of it. Heckerling has successfully modernized the characters, plot, and dialogue in very inventive ways, in which its success influenced other directors and writers to use a modern twist on other Jane Austen novels, hoping it would reach or possibly exceed the love and popularity Amy Heckerling’s Clueless has received. The success of Clueless proves that adaptations of originals really do aid in determining the work’s true greatness. Jane Austen’s legacy will continue to strive for more centuries because of the honesty in her work, which will always drive people to discover the truth about themselves and the people around them.

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