As the outrageous and controversial pitch-black teen comedy enters its thirties, we wonder how the world has grown up with it.
I can’t remember how I heard about Heathers. It must have been in some cool kids’ magazine like Sassy, though I was not cool, and never would be. I do remember when I first saw it—it was at my grandparents’ house, after I rented it from the tiny video store down the street, the same video store that was instrumental in my becoming a horror movie fan. After watching it late one evening, I rewound the tape, and immediately watched it again, the first time I had ever done such a thing. It was the summer of 1989, I was seventeen, and I had never seen anything like it before.
A black as pitch comedy about high school hierarchies, the petty cruelties teenagers inflict upon each other, and how no one—absolutely no one—knows how to handle suicide, Heathers came at a time when the choices for movies about teenagers were largely limited to the upper-class fantasylands of John Hughes, or smutty sex romps like Porky’s. It was smart, and mean, and addressed a hard truth that perhaps parents had difficulty facing – that the notion of “popularity,” and who was blessed with it and who wasn’t, was somehow both a mug’s game and the most overarching issue in a teenager’s life. If you’re one of those people who claims they never cared about being popular when they were in school, congratulations – this movie’s not for you.
For the rest of us, Heathers, written by Daniel Waters and directed by Michael Lehman, has two interesting stories at play. The first is about Veronica (Winona Ryder), and her inner circle of friends, all of them named Heather, and distinguishable largely by the color of the clothes they wear. Heather Chandler (Kim Walker), wears red, the color of power, and is the leader, greeting virtually everyone she encounters with a withering smirk. Heather McNamara (Lisanne Falk), wears yellow, the color of cowardice, and meekly stands behind Heather Chandler, barely speaking much of the time. Heather Duke (Shannen Doherty) wear green, the color of envy, and we later learn that she’s prayed for Heather Chandler’s death. Veronica wears black and blue, the color of…well, you can probably figure that out.
The question that’s never answered is what’s Veronica doing with the Heathers? Other than her smart jacket and skirt combinations she doesn’t look like them, and certainly doesn’t act like them. She seems to be friends with them on a provisional basis. At one point, Veronica refers to Heather Chandler as her “best friend,” but it doesn’t feel like that. If anything, they feel like stepsisters grudgingly (at best) tolerating each other for the sake of their parents. It’s implied that Heather rescued Veronica from the dregs of unpopularity, from “playing Barbies with Betty Finn,” though whether she viewed that as a charitable endeavor, or if it was part of some Pygmalion-esque bet, is unclear.
Veronica admits to J.D. (Christian Slater), the very interesting new boy in school, that she doesn’t really like her new friends, but she seems to enjoy the benefits that come from being drawn into their orbit, walking around Westerburg High like she owns the place, while the other students look at her with a sort of awe. “They’re people I work with, and our job is being popular and shit,” she says. It’s nice work if you can get it.
She learns after an argument at a college party that friendship with Heather Chandler is ephemeral, and that without her and the other two Heathers, Veronica would be just another member of the faceless horde in the cafeteria. Infuriated that she has that much power over her, Veronica lets J.D. talk her into getting revenge on Heather, by playing a prank that accidentally kills her. Of course, we know, and Veronica will eventually find out, that it wasn’t an accident.
Heathers lands at its best when you’re seventeen and sitting at home by yourself, and you know it to be true—real life sucks losers dry.
And here we get to the second interesting story: how teenage suicide (don’t do it) is handled. Heather’s death is made to look like a suicide, and thanks to a small, almost throwaway piece of evidence suggested by J.D., she’s given depth and a profound inner world, and all of her sins are immediately wiped away. Later, when thuggish football players Kurt and Ram, whom J.D. says “had nothing left to offer the school but date rape and AIDS jokes,” are also “accidentally” killed, their staged suicides give them souls.
If we talk about suicide at all, we talk about it in the wrong way—we focus on the beautiful people, turning their suffering into something romantic. “They had so much to live for, why would they do it?” we ask, over and over, not understanding that we’re asking the wrong question, and if they believed that had so much to live for, they wouldn’t have done it. Meanwhile, poor Martha “Dumptruck” Dunnstock, relegated to the faceless horde for the crime of being fat, actually does try to kill herself, and her attempt is treated like a joke—here’s another loser trying to emulate the popular people, and failing miserably.
Veronica soon learns that she’s just as much in over her head with J.D. as she was with the Heathers, and that he really doesn’t care about righting the wrongs of the high school caste system as much as he enjoys being an agent of chaos and hurting people. To get back to the person she knows herself to be, she has to rid herself of both him and the remaining Heathers, and in the end, she makes amends with former childhood friend Martha, who greets her with warmth and sincerity, perhaps the first time Veronica’s experienced such a thing from a peer in a very long time.
Media critic Lindsay Ellis recently wrote about Blazing Saddles, and the concept of “you couldn’t make that movie today.” She stated that you
So is the case with Heathers, provided you get that the movie isn’t poking fun at suicide, but rather how people react to it. Thirty years later and we still can’t talk about it until it’s too late, and without the gross assumption that there are certain kinds of kids who kill themselves, and it’s not newsworthy until one of them isn’t. With public schools working on shoestring budgets, mental health services are low on the priority list, and the kids in the shadows, the faceless horde, they’re left to suffer in silence.
So, yes, minus the “blowing up the school” plan, Heathers could be made today, and they’ve tried, to decidedly mixed results. A musical exists, with a song that’s literally called “My Dead Gay Son.” After three failed attempts starting as early as 1990, a disastrous Heathers TV show aired in 2018. Reportedly a “parody” of social justice warriors and their shaking up of white cishet society, it landed with a thud that registered a 4.6 on the Richter Scale. For one thing, we’re not yet living in a world where the queer and fat kids are the most popular kids in school, so what exactly they were “parodying” is unclear. For another, it was a show ostensibly about teenagers, but made with an adult audience in mind, with campy soap opera subplots involving the characters’ parents.
In the original Heathers, except for Veronica’s nice but out of touch parents, and the well-meaning but ineffective guidance counselor, adults are almost non-existent (the other Heathers don’t appear to have parents at all). It isn’t their story, this isn’t about them, and it’s not for them. Heathers lands at its best when you’re seventeen and sitting at home by yourself, and you know it to be true—real life sucks losers dry.