The Mid-’90s Female Bildungsroman, Part 3 : “Clueless” and Supratextual Intertextuality

Every tumblr girl’s favorite cult film “Clueless” turns 21 years old this very week! Some ragin’ celebrations are in order, of course, but first and foremost, I’d like to raise a toast to the film’s writer/director Amy Heckerling, without whom we may never have uttered a single “whatever.” Much has been written about the enduring influence of “Clueless” on popular fashion and language (ranging from outfit listicles and .gif recaps to academic papers in film studies and linguistics)–rather than retread these stylistic grounds, I’d like to take a look at how these lasting influences turn “Clueless” into a locus for a supratextual* intertextuality†.

Now, of course, Heckerling isn’t the only author responsible for the genesis of “Clueless”; indeed, the film’s central conceit and characters are themselves reinterpretations from Jane Austen’s 1815 novel Emma, whose titular character shares the same affably scampish spirit of Heckerling’s Cher Horowitz (played by Alicia Silverstone). Austen wrote Emma as “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like” (see her memoir here); she wrote Emma for herself, for her own titillation, perhaps for a therapeutic literary companionship. The personal nature of this character creation evokes a sense of the autobiographical, a personification of the ego specific to Austen, or at the very least an idealized confidante or partner.

One-hundred and eighty years later, Heckerling picks up the thread of Emma through Cher and extends the same affection for Cher that Austen held towards Emma: though our protagonist may be ostensibly superficial, “Clueless” is entirely compassionate and demonstrative of Cher’s essential goodness. In developing Cher, Heckerling invokes not only Austen’s Emma, but her own Emma; Cher is constituted through the crossing paths of each author’s interpretation of Emma. And since Cher is borne from Emma–an entity that always already contained the constituting signifiers of Cher–when Austen created Emma, she also created Cher. So then both authors are continually in the process of creating both images of the Emma/Cher persona–this persona is not static but is instead continually constituted through her relationships with her authors and with the audience that simultaneously consumes and produces specific personal inflections of her. So when we see Cher, we see double: we see her, we see Emma, we see Heckerling, we see Austen, and we see ourself constituted within her, all done up in Fred Segal.

Beyond this constitution-via-reception, we also embody and deploy the multitudinous persona of Emma/Cher when we adopt the most salient of Cher’s sartorial and linguistic signifiers. Just as Heckerling reconstituted the Emma persona through Cher, when we send off a dismissive “As if!” or wear coordinating plaids, we reach back through Cher to Heckerling, through Emma to Austen, re-re-constituting the image of Emma/Cher by way of these non-textual “texts.” In this way, “Clueless” serves as an intertextual crossroads, whereby any number of casual watchers enter into a personal dialogue with one of English literature’s greatest figures. We are active participants in the present-day continual development of Austen’s and Heckerling’s protagonist–her bildungsroman becomes ours.


* As in, beyond a literal or narrative text proper. As discussed with “Party Girl,” clothing can serve as a sartorial text; similarly, neologism and slang can serve as a non-narrative linguistic text.

Intertextuality, as discussed by Julia Kristeva, acknowledges that any text does not exist as essentially separate but instead is an intersection of other texts, is not fixed in meaning but instead dialogic. All texts are inherently (at least) “double” in meaning by nature of their intertextuality.