How Emma Became The Ultimate Hate-Watch

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Guys, I figured it out. I have solved the Gwyneth Paltrow Paradox: Why it is that we, as a nation, are so universally irritated by this woman — and yet cannot help but buy her cookbooks, watch her movies, and Google her vaginal steam treatments. Her success is undeniable, but ask anyone on the street what they think of Gwyneth Paltrow, and lo, their eyes shall roll. She is a prime example of our ability to love and loathe at the same time, and last week, while rewatching one of her early films, I finally figured out why: She never stopped being Emma.

If you’re not familiar with the 1996 film (adapted from the eponymous Jane Austen novel) and its heroine, here it is in a nutshell: Emma Woodhouse is a young, wealthy woman who has no desire to get married herself, but spends her time making matches amongst the townspeople. She throws the best parties, wears the best dresses, does the most charitable charity work, and everyone seems to defer to her on questions of etiquette or social grace. In short: Popular rich girl tells everyone what to do.

“In a time when one's town was one's town was one's world, and the actions at a dance excited greater interest than the movement of armies, there lived a young woman who knew how this world should be run.” This, the opening line of the film, is just Exhibit A. Paltrow, as Emma, appears on screen, all white teeth and capped sleeves, literally holding the world on a string. (It’s a tiny globe she’s painted. Did I mention she’s crafty, too?)

“The happiest thing in the world is a match well made,” Emma announces, making sure we have her full attention. Of course, this isn’t her wedding, but that of her friend and former governess, Miss Taylor. True, it might be more appropriate to offer congratulations and focus on, you know, the people getting married. But Emma is the one who set the couple up, so really, this wedding is all about her. Pretty much everything is.
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With that couple married off, Emma looks for someone else’s business she might make her own, setting her sights on newcomer Harriet Smith (Toni Collette). Harriet seems to be doing just fine on her own, FYI. True, she’s not wealthy and she’s of illegitimate birth, but she still gets invited to parties. She even likes a guy who likes her back! But Mr. Martin is a farmer, and that’s just not gonna work for Emma, as her friend. Though she’s totally chill with farmers — it’s just that they’re, “the sort of people with whom I have nothing to do,” she politely informs Harriet. “A degree or two lower, and I might be useful to their families. But a farmer needs none of my help, and is therefore as much above my notice as he is below it.”

This line sounded eerily familiar to some I’d read on all those lists of Most Irritating Gwyneth Quotes (one of which I wrote, full disclosure). A quick googling, and I found it: “I am who I am. I can’t pretend to be somebody who makes $25,000 a year.” Maybe not as clever as Jane Austen, but the recipe is the same: Mix one part insult, two parts politeness — a Gwynethism if I’ve ever heard one.

Emma knows what’s best for everyone — better than they know themselves, obviously — so Harriet becomes her next project. She orchestrates a series of meet-cute setups, trying to force Harriet to catch the eye of Mr. Elton (Alan Cumming), who seems like kind of a sleaze, but at least he’s no farmer. It’s a lot of idyllic walks in the countryside and telling riddles at dinner parties. (Honestly, Clueless, which is also based on the Austen novel, does this whole montage better.) In the end, of course, Mr. Elton professes his love for Emma, not Harriet, and the whole operation is blown because Emma is just too perfect. “Who can think of Miss Smith,” says Mr. Elton, “when Miss Woodhouse is near?”

The only person who appears to see Emma as anything less than an actual angel on earth is Mr. Knightley (Jeremy Northam). He scolds her for being meddlesome and points out the fact that Harriet would have been lucky to marry Mr. Martin, not only because he’d have raised her social rank (hate the game, people), but because they were genuinely in love. Emma’s retort: “A farmer?!” But that’s the closest Emma will come to an all-out argument; she’s above that sort of nonsense. Instead, she just invites Mr. Knightley to have tea.
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This is how Emma rolls when faced with any sort of conflict. The more you dislike someone, the sweeter your compliment. (“When pressed I say she is elegant.”) The more pissed off you are, the nicer you behave. (“I'm so psyched that she sees us as competition! I really am!” — Paltrow once said of Martha Stewart.) Mr. Elton eventually marries a woman so obnoxious that Emma is left with no other option: “I must throw a party for her! Otherwise everyone will feel at once how much I dislike her.” Meanwhile, Harriet’s still hanging around like an unfinished homework assignment, waiting for Emma to tell her who to fall in love with next.

And by this point, we’re waiting for it, too. By 90 minutes in, the viewer is afflicted with a kind of rom-com Stockholm syndrome. Here’s the thing: You cannot deny the almost-too-perfectness of this movie. True, it has all the depth of a kiddie pool, the ending is made clear within the first eight minutes (spoiler: everyone gets married to the exact right people), and rather than actually acting like 18th-century townspeople, most of the actors seem to be modeled off cartoons of 18th-century townspeople. (They gasp a lot, that kind of thing.) The whole film is held up by whimsy and empire waists and a supreme confidence in itself.

More than anything, it is Paltrow’s confidence in the role of Emma that makes the movie work. Both she and the film commit so entirely to their ridiculousness that you cannot help but go along for the ride. When someone is that absolutely sure of herself — whether she’s a snotty 21-year-old matchmaker or a 43-year-old lifestyle guru — it’s hard not to think for a second, Wait, is she right? Should I like that guy? Does my vagina need to be steamed? It takes a sharp and savvy woman to convince us of that nonsense.

That’s why Paltrow (and Emma!) are frustrating and fascinating at the same time. "I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like," Jane Austen wrote before beginning Emma. Mission accomplished, lady. Yet, Miss Woodhouse remains one of her most iconic characters, remembered as much for her relentless charm as she is for being a total know-it-all. Sound familiar?
Photo: Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock.
I do realize that even positing this Gwyneth-Emma theory makes me a bit of a mean-girl know-it-all myself. To her credit, Paltrow is clearly a more evolved person than Emma Woodhouse (though, do you get credit for not being a fictional character?). She’s had some strong moments as a public figure: I applaud her openness about “conscious uncoupling” as a practice, even if the term is a bit much, and sometimes she does seem to have a modicum of self-awareness, even joking about the constant criticism she faces. (“No one has ever said anything bad about me before,” quoth Gwyneth. “So I'm shocked and devastated. I'll try to recover.”)

We could all take to heart the lessons she’s learned about being fearlessly yourself. “I’ve learned a lot about genuinely not caring what strangers think about me. It’s very liberating. It’s very empowering,” she told Harper’s Bazaar in 2013. Of course, she then added, “I’ve learned a lot of that from Jay — Shawn Carter — Z.” So, thanks to Jay Z, the woman has some humility.

But that doesn’t stop her from telling us how to eat better, work out better, bathe better, and even yawn better. And, no matter how sick of her we claim to be, it doesn’t stop us from paying attention. When someone truly believes she knows better, it’s easy for us to believe that she really does.

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