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Jane Austen, Girlhood, and the Witty Rom-Com

by Oana-Maria Moldovan

When romantic comedies inspired by classic literature started being popular, in the middle of the Shakespearean haze one other writer provided a base for creating timeless movies: Jane Austen. 

Just like their movie counterparts, Austen wrote classic literary novels with more wittiness, sarcasm, and fun, showing girlhood from a new perspective.

In a period when texts for and about women played a pivotal role in shaping societal perceptions – because there were so few of them – Jane Austen crafted certain tales that transcended conventional norms and the beauty of being a woman.

Austen’s works were significant in the 18th and 19th centuries and cannot be overstated as they provided a nuanced exploration of womanhood, expectations within society, and individual agency.

Jane Austen wrote about real women, with faults and vices. The writer pictured women so devastatingly true to the source material that some ended up being hated – take Lydia Bennet as an example.

A universal experience of girlhood is watching Amy Heckerling’s ‘Clueless’ during our formative years (I was 14). And with that viewing came the fact that its book equivalent, ‘Emma,’ was the worst novel written by Austen. 

I don’t know about others, but for me it was love at first sight - with the both Clueless and Emma. 

Emma, the character, was, once upon a time, even more hated than Lydia Bennet. Emma is a very clueless young girl, thinking she can easily meddle in anyone’s life because “she knows best.”

For instance, her well-intentioned but misguided matchmaking attempts, like pairing up Harriet Smith and Mr. Elton, often resulted in comedic chaos, making her a character that readers and viewers found both charming and exasperating.

Emma is twenty-one and embodies each and every one of us during those early adulthood ages.

Cher Horowitz, played by Alicia Silverstone, Austen’s Emma Woodhouse movie counterpart, showcased that there is no singular mold for girlhood. 

The 1995 movie was set in the high-rich end of Beverly Hills, California. Her father was a well-paid lawyer, mirroring the wealthy Mr. Woodhouse from books. She was a spoiled and popular cliché.

Cher, akin to Emma, embraces her unique personality traits, challenging the conventional portrayal of women in literature. 

This film mirrors Austen’s satire, respecting its story above changing it, and underscores the importance of identity and self-discovery for young women.

It’s the same formula that works so well for most rom-coms. We have a teenage girl (bonus points for having one parent dead), the WOC (woman of colour) best friend – and her boyfriend –, the new student, and as many stereotypes as one can fit in a film (the stoner, the posh guy, the gay best friend, and so on). All of this film’s figures are an ode to their book’s analogs.

We also have a slightly inappropriate relationship between the two step-siblings. Although, because it’s a silly fun movie and a good reimagination of “Emma,” hastily it almost works.

Both the movie and the original text created a space where girls were allowed to be girls, to make mistakes, to learn along the way, and to not have a clue about life. These characters are seen as annoying because they are supposed to be. 

Everyone was a bit annoying at this age, and Austen, with all the criticism that she faced, allowed girls to be as annoying as boys.

Another enduring adaptation, Sharon Maguire’s ‘Bridget Jones’s Diary’ pays homage to Jane Austen’s legacy of multifaceted female roles by transposing “Pride and Prejudice” to modern-day London. 

Renée Zellweger’s portrayal of Bridget Jones embodies the spirit of Elizabeth Bennet, a character celebrated for her wit and resilience.

In a society that often prescribed a singular narrative for women, Elizabeth Bennet challenged stereotypes and Bridget Jones continued this tradition.

The 2001 film not only reinterprets the classic love story but also reinforces the importance of embracing one’s imperfections and own journey in life, echoing Austen’s timeless message of women’s agency and self-determination.

What I think most people love about this movie is its interpretation of its source material. The director took Mr. Darcy’s infamous line (meeting Elizabeth and stating “she was not very handsome,” referring to the fact that she was rather ordinary looking) and ran with it.

Renée Zellweger is clearly a beautiful woman, but her character in the movie is made out to be seen as a plain Jane – a thing that was later reflected in the way the media viewed the actress. Despite this fatphobia from the noughties, Austen’s original text allowed women to have heart-wrenching and soul-consuming love stories - without them having to be the most beautiful to do so.

Jane Austen did this thing with her characters; she gave them personalities – which was not a common trait for women in literature at that period. Her women were permitted to be smarter, braver, more insightful, and more sarcastic than any man in any room.

Yes, this is the most famous plot of “will they, won’t they”. The story of a gloomy and prideful Mr. Darcy and an almost rebellious (for her times) and prejudiced Lizzie Bennet. It is also a chronicle about sisterhood, being a young girl, love, compassion, friendship, family dynamics, and societal misconduct.

Jane Austen’s significance lies not only in her masterful storytelling but also in her revolutionary creation of varied female figures. When normative expectations constrained women, Austen’s novels presented readers with a spectrum of personalities, from the spirited and thoughtful Elizabeth Bennet to the flawed yet endearing Emma Woodhouse.

Austen’s commitment to portraying women authentically resonates in contemporary cinema through adaptations like ‘Clueless’ and ‘Bridget Jones’s Diary’ which demonstrate the enduring influence of Jane Austen’s work. 

These films navigate the complexities of girlhood, championing variety, and individuality, mirroring Austen’s groundbreaking approach to female roles when readers are assured that there is no singular way to be a woman.

By creatively reinterpreting Austen’s themes and characters, these films contribute to the ongoing narrative on the importance of celebrating the multifaceted representations of femininity.

They are great love stories, however, they are even greater tales about being a young woman.

Edited by Emily Duff

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