Female Agency in Clueless & Emma

‘Agency’ essentially refers to one’s own free will, in their capacity to act independently, and to make their own choices. It is, sadly, not uncommon to read of female literary characters who portray a lack of agency, in that they lack a sort of consciousness of themselves. The presence of female agency in Austen’s narratives, I think, will be in perpetual debate, especially regarding the characters of Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse. However, it is my opinion that most of Austen’s female characters find human agency throughout the novel, through different, unconventional attitudes. Emma portrays female agency negatively, through meddling and displaying power over other people’s actions, but also positively, through charitable actions of helping the poor. This binary contrast displays female agency in her ability to think for herself, and eventually succumb to her own morality, portrayed through her remorse for her ill treatment of Miss Bates. Her conscious, moral dimension as a female character is her female agency—giving her the conscious control over her own decisions based on her emotions.

This essence of female agency is not only carried into Clueless, but amplified with its cultural shifts of feminism. Cher mirrors Emma’s autonomy closely, in her seemingly spoiled, self-absorbed nature, contrasted with her charitable actions of fundraising for the Pismo Beach Disaster. However, Cher’s charitable actions in the film could be argued as depictions of her ironic subsets of her whimsical, rich girl attitude. However, Cher’s agency is present in other aspects of the films contemporary culture that reinforce Heckerling’s avocation for and transposition of Emma’s female agency. Cher displays autonomy in the control she has over her own body, in that, she remains a virgin in coinciding with her beliefs of waiting till she meets the right guy. The pressures of losing of virginity on young women is woven into the film, through Cher’s date with Christian, her friendships with Tai and Dionne, and I would also argue its placement in her (half) car ride home with Elton. However, Cher proves to be headstrong throughout the film in this aspect, displaying a sense of female agency regarding decisions involving herself and her body.

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One thought on “Female Agency in Clueless & Emma

  1. In a sense, Heckerling makes achieving female agency easy by setting Clueless in a wealthy part of Beverley Hills, and not getting into the problems that the terrified maid, Lucy, has with agency. Cher’s choice to make her own decisions about her body also coincide with an era when contraception is easy to find and effective and when abortions are legal and safe. (In fact Austen’s Emma had no tough decisions to make in the way that Eliot’s Hetty Sorrel and Hardy’s Tess Durbeyfield did.) And it’s also true that Cher is in many ways smarter and better natured than the two “serious” semi-adults we see, Josh’s girlfriend and the junior lawyer working for her father Mel.

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