Heathers: Does High School Ever Really End?
Being a teenager is tough, no doubt about it. In addition to being asked to make some of the biggest decisions in your life in terms of your future career, there’s friendships to navigate, bullies to avoid and cliques to get into. In the weird middle ground between childhood and adulthood, all most teenagers want is to be seen as valid. To be respected, not patronised.
30 years ago, a small indie film was released. Heathers, though a box office flop on its 1988 release, has gone on to attain cult status and is still enthusiastically discussed today for its portrayal of suicidal fads, hormonal vengeance and the coming of age story at its dark heart.
There are very few films which have presented an audience with a version of high school which is as dark and as troubling as Michael Lehmann’s Heathers - the only comparison that springs to mind immediately is Mean Girls. Whilst similar in tone and subject matter, Mean Girls never reaches into the disturbing places that Heathers saunters into willingly. Cady’s teen angst doesn’t even have a body count.
Though described as a black comedy, Heathers is undoubtedly a biting satire of the high school experience. It’s been held up as an antithesis to the sugary sweet coming of age movies of the 1980s (the John Hughes set, for example) and has been regarded as a film which details the ghastly realities of teenage-hood. It’s true that the film neglects the standard messages of life-long friendship and finding your first love that Pretty in Pink or The Breakfast club aspire to. Instead, Heathers not-so-subtly critiques shallow acquaintances, the incompetence of teachers, the herd-like mentality of students and the concept of teen love.
Even Lehmann himself is stunned at how the long legacy of Heathers has lived on for. Speaking with The Guardian, he talks about why the film might still hold so much sway with today’s audiences. “One of the reasons the movie still has an afterlife is it’s such a perverse vision of what people looked like and acted like at the time. And it’s not that far from the way things really were but stylised enough to make it clear that we were doing satire, you know?”
The heroine of Heathers, Veronica, played by Winona Ryder in one of her first roles, is part of the popular clique at Westerburg High School - the Heathers. Named because the other three all share the same name, all (including Veronica) are pretty, white girls from affluent families.
Like most popular cliques, the Heathers are feared and respected - mostly because they spend their time humiliating the outcasts of Westerburg. Veronica, already slightly outcast from the group because of her name, quickly falls for the new ‘bad’ boy at school - Christian Slater’s JD. They joke about offing the Heathers and teaching everyone a lesson, but it transpires that JD is deadly serious.
A ripple effect follows. The suicides of Heather Chandler (Kim Walker), and the suspected double suicide of popular jocks Kurt (Lance Renton) and Ram (Patrick Labyorteaux) turn the three of them into martyrs. After death, Heather Chandler becomes a poet and the boys become idolised for standing up against homophobia. Instead of tearing down the social systems, JD and Veronica only make them stronger.
In Heathers, it isn’t the vulnerable youth who are satirised so much as the adults. There isn’t a single adult who is nearly equipped enough to deal with the suicide fad which is quickly gaining traction. Veronica’s parents repeat the same circular conversations, in the same location, rendering themselves useless (“would you like some pâté?”). JD’s father is obsessed with blowing things up, possibly including JD’s mother, and his entire character is the epitome of the term toxic masculinity.
Last but by no means least, the teachers of Westerburg High are utterly incompetent at dealing with students issues, as exemplified in the character Miss Fleming (Penelope Milford), who positively revels in the wake of the suicides and proceeds to hold grief rallies for the students. None of the adults provide a safe or nurturing environment for the teenagers of Heathers to express their own emotions.
In JD’s final rant, he explicitly talks about how high school is society, which is a sort of callback to an earlier conversation between Veronica and her mother about teenagers wanted to be treated as human beings. Veronica’s mother responds that when teenagers complain that they want to be treated like humans, it’s usually because they are being treated like humans already. The implication that being a teenager, and living through high school, is simply a forerunner to the ‘real world’. This concept is probably largely to thank for Heathers continued popularity and universality - it’s relatable even to those whose high school days are long gone.
It’s also that Heathers tackles adult issues, many of which are rarely even alluded to let alone dissected. Eating disorders, rape culture and gun violence are all explored - albeit not in the same way they would be today - but all of these topics are given gravitas and legitimacy. Heather Duke's (Shannen Doherty) bulimia is seen as a direct response to the pressures exerted upon her by her ‘friend and overlord’, JD’s penchant for extreme violence can be directly attributed to his relationship with his cruel and destructive father. Though there are a few scenes which might make today's audience blanch (specifically a moment of sexual assault after the cow tipping), Heathers does make a point of showing just how insidious rape culture is. Heather C and Veronica’s experiences exemplify the age old dichotomy for young women - if you put out then you’re a slut and if you don’t then you’re frigid.
As Lehmann says, Heathers walks a thin-line between all out satire and actuality. The characters are relatable enough for audiences to see themselves in Veronica’s shoes. High school, though over dramatised, resembles the cliquey, stifled corridors of all of our teenage years. The desire to break free from the stereotypes and to be taken seriously for once runs straight through it and so too through the vast majority of teens. The film takes its young voices seriously.
The lasting message of Heathers? That it’s okay to forge your own path. Veronica rejects life with the Heathers in favour of JD, but realises that life with JD isn’t any better. She’s still being asked to conform to someone she isn’t - first a soulless popular girl, then a soulless murderer. So Veronica chooses neither. She rejects the notion that, to succeed in school or even life, one must fit in with a group. The last shot of Veronica and Martha (Carrie Lynn) leaving the school corridor is a moment of utter triumph. You can be an individual and you will be okay.
Heathers is currently screening in several cinemas across the UK.