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ASU's Jane Austen expert weighs in on 'Clueless,' feminist icons in pop culture

"As If" book cover

“As If! The Oral History of ‘Clueless’ as told by Amy Heckerling and the Cast and Crew” was released earlier this summer in conjunction with the 20th anniversary of the film's release. ASU English professor Devoney Looser contributed to the book.

August 11, 2015

Editor's note: This story is being highlighted in ASU Now's year in review. To read more top stories from 2015, click here.

Say what you will about her rapping abilities but Iggy Azalea knew what she was doing last year when the pop star dressed up as Cher Horowitz and parodied the 1995 film “Clueless” for the music video to her hit song “Fancy.”

Even though many of Azalea’s fans weren’t even born when the film was released, chances are they knew what her video referenced. That’s because “Clueless,” which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, has exhibited some definite staying power in a culture that cycles through trends faster than Horowitz could say, “As if!” Writer and critic Jen Chaney capitalized on that with the recent release of her book “As If! The Oral History of ‘Clueless’ as told by Amy Heckerling and the Cast and Crew.”

The book is a collection of interviews and commentary from people who worked on the film, as well as experts on the subject matter, including Arizona State University English professor Devoney Looser.

Looser is well-known for her love and intimate knowledge of the works of Jane Austen, and even moonlights as “Stone Cold Jane Austen” on the roller derby rink. Austen’s 19th century novel “Emma” was the basis for the plot of “Clueless.”

Looser was also recently featured in “The Interactive Annotated Pride & Prejudice,” which was honored by the Association of American Publishers with a REVERE Award. The Random House interactive e-edition can be downloaded as a free sample from iBooks. Looser’s embedded video is at the end of chapter one.

She will be speaking at Chawton House Library, in Hampshire, United Kingdom, on Sept. 5, with Simon Langton, director of the 1995 BBC film adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice.” Looser will discuss the character of Mr. Darcy and how Lawrence Olivier’s portrayal in the 1940 film adaptation served as a precursor and foil for Colin Firth’s portrayal in Langton’s film.

In honor of the 20th anniversary of “Clueless” and Looser’s contributions to the book that celebrates it, ASU News picked her brain to get a better understanding of the themes and social commentary that have rendered not just the film, but Austen’s work so timeless.

ASU News: How did you feel about being asked to contribute to “As If! The Oral History of ‘Clueless’”? Were you a fan of the film?

Devoney Looser: I was so excited when Jen Chaney contacted me about being a part of this book. She knew from essays I’d published as an Austen critic – including one in the collection “Jane Austen in Hollywood” – that I was a “Clueless” fan. In fact, the last time I was in London, I couldn’t resist buying myself a pair of Clueless-themed pajamas at Primark.

ASUN: Do you have a favorite scene or line from “Clueless”?

Looser: I love the scene outside of the high school when Dionne chastises her boyfriend Murray for calling her “woman.” She says, “Murray, I have asked you repeatedly not to call me ‘woman.’ ” He agrees and calls her “Ms. Dionne” but snaps back, “Street slang is an increasingly valid form of expression. Most of the feminine pronouns do have mocking, but not necessarily misogynistic undertones.”

There is just something so wonderfully funny and smart about having privileged, seemingly shallow teenagers arguing with each other about what is or isn’t woman-hating. When people ask me for evidence of the film’s feminism, I usually end up talking with them about this scene. 

ASUN: Do you think the film remained true to the themes in Austen’s “Emma”?

Looser: I think “Clueless” updated Austen’s themes, characters and tone in ways that are often more true to the novel than the film and TV adaptations that try to be historically accurate. [Amy] Heckerling (the film’s director) obviously gets Austen, and Cher is a beautifully drawn contemporary reinterpretation of Austen’s heroine Emma Woodhouse.

ASUN: Why do you think that character in particular, whether in the form of Cher or Emma Woodhouse, appeals so much to young female audiences?

Looser: Emma Woodhouse is not likable on the face of things. She’s privileged and snobby. But you can also tell that she’s well intentioned and educable. The way the story is told, from her immature, skewed perspective, you find yourself rooting for her in spite of yourself.

The point of the novel for Emma – and the film’s reinterpretation of her in Cher Horowitz – is to bring the heroine into understanding her powers more fully and to using them for social good, not for shallow self-satisfaction. And on the way to learning this, she realizes she’s in love with the man who’s nudging her to this better self-understanding.

ASUN: Aside from “Clueless,” what other contemporary adaptations, film or otherwise, of Austen’s works would you recommend to fellow Janeites?

Looser: The six-hour “Pride and Prejudice” – which also has its 20th anniversary this year, and which I’ll be speaking about in September at Chawton House Library with the film’s director, Simon Langton – is well worth the investment of time for anyone who hasn’t seen it or hasn’t seen it in a while. (See below for more on Looser’s Chawton House Library appearance.)

ASUN: Some people criticize Austen-inspired films as “chick flicks.” Are they right or are they simplifying the argument?

Looser: Personally, I don’t use the term to describe Austen’s novels (chick lit) or films (chick flicks), because I think most people mean it in a derogatory way. If what they mean is that these are brilliant women-centered texts that consider society, relationships and romance, then I'll agree with that part of the label. But if what they mean is that these are little weepy love stories, then I think they are entirely missing the point.

Austen’s stories feature women at the center of complex stories about greed, education, lust, wisdom and making one’s way in an often unfair world. “Clueless” has a lighter touch in approaching these kinds of things than Austen’s “Emma” does, but it’s clear that Heckerling’s film understands them. If you read about what a hard time [she] had selling to Hollywood a brilliant girl-centered teen movie, then you might conclude with me that things haven’t changed as much for women as they ought to have since Austen’s time.

ASUN: Thankfully, Heckerling was successful. But why do you think it is it important to have films and books in which the main character is a strong female?

Looser: I think it’s important to have films and books in which the main character is a strong female for many reasons. One is that our world is made up of females, and we think human strength is a good quality to explore and encourage in our art and literature.

I think that the article published last year in The Atlantic, by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, titled “The Confidence Gap,” gets at this matter, its subtleties and its challenges, very succinctly. “Clueless” comes at it in a way that entertains and delights us but still makes us think.

ASUN: There’s been a little buzz this summer about how Cher from “Clueless” has some feminist traits. But is it accurate to label Austen a feminist?

Looser: I edited a collection of essays twenty years ago, titled “Jane Austen and Discourses of Feminism,” where the contributors and I explored this very question. I wrote more extensively about the question there, but I believe calling Austen a feminist makes sense, in that she was concerned about injustice in women’s lives and roles. But of course the word “feminist” didn’t yet exist in the English language in the 1810s.

ASUN: How about Austen’s characters? Have they become feminist archetypes passed on to later generations?

Looser: Absolutely. I’ve written about this a bit in a short piece I did for the Los Angeles Review of Books called "Jane Austen, Feminist Icon.”

ASUN: How do you think Austen would feel about being labeled a feminist icon?

Looser: I’m not sure how Austen would feel about the label “feminist.” In her own day, there were feminist philosophers, such as Mary Wollstonecraft, who were writing about the “rights of woman,” as they were called. Many of us see signs of Wollstonecraft’s influence on Austen’s fiction.

But Austen was not a feminist philosopher or an activist; she was a novelist and an artist who chose to publish her novels anonymously and didn’t agitate directly for political change in her own time. Still, I think if you asked her how she felt about women as a group deserving more and better opportunities to participate fully in society, in her time or in our own, she’d embrace that without question. For me, that is what feminism means, and that’s why I see Austen as feminist.