“Lick it up baby, lick – it – up.”
Heathers sort-of came back into vogue with its lauded Off-Broadway play adaption in 2014. But at the risk of having the original 1988 film, directed by the criminally underused Michael Lehmann and written by Daniel Waters (whose only other claim-to-fame is, absurdly enough, 1992’s Batman Returns), lost to Gen Z drama kids and theater geeks, it is important to remember the thematic complexities that make the original Heathers a masterpiece. These nuances extend far beyond the quirky, proto-Mean Girls soundbites and disaffected teen angst now associated with the play, the movie, and the upcoming TV series.
Textually, Heathers functions as a meta-critique of 1980s “teeny bopper” films. It operates with the benefit of hindsight, with a 1988 release date placing it several years after genre mainstays like The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles. Subtextually, however, Heathers reveals a feminist framework that motivates the narrative, character growth, and overarching premise. Even once Heathers gets underway, aiming past Westerburg High’s resident “mean girls” to all teen sub-groups, it continues to mask the feminist undertones behind this ironic, post-teen-culture anarchism for which the film is so famed. But both the internal and the external arcs of Veronica Sawyer (Winona Ryder) are informed by a distinctly Third Wave Feminist realization.
This perhaps is the most remarkable aspect of Heathers – the feminism calcified within the film is not the infamously conservative Second Wave Feminism of the late 1970s and 1980s, marked by a celebration of motherhood, wifehood, and domicile fulfillment. Rather, Heathers espouses a form of progressive feminism that would have been distinctly out-of-place in the socially repressed 80s culture; that of female agency entirely independent of male contextualization. Ryder’s Veronica does not triumph within the male-prescribed feminine sphere, as do characters such as Sally Hawkins in Places in the Heart (1984), Jessica Lange in Country (1984), and Molly Ringwald in Sixteen Candles (1984). She demonstrates the ability to persevere in the face of masculine abuse and influence, ultimately fulfilling her narrative arc on her own terms – and not within the traditional, essentialist roles assigned to women in the 80s. It’s more akin to the “feminism in opposition” narratives popularized by 70s horror such as Halloween (1978), Alien (1979), and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). But even these do not warrant comparison to Heathers, which contents itself with ingraining its feminist ideology within an equally complex, if more esoteric, sociological critique.
In appearing at the tail end of the Reagan era’s great love affair with Gen-X teen culture, Heathers had the opportunity to mock the phenomenon at the metalogical level. The decade relied on generating drama from mawkish critiques of cliquish teen culture, and by building young characters in opposition to the pressures they faced from their peers and societal expectations. It was a decade of poking fun, sometimes meaningfully and sometimes stupidly, at the social stigmas that grew from 1950’s nostalgia and blossomed during the 1980’s big Eisenhower-Culture-Sequel. Only see Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Breakfast Club, The Big Chill, St. Elmo’s Fire, Red Dawn (seriously), Footloose, The Outsiders, Wall Street, 3 O’Clock High, Risky Business, The Karate Kid…need I go on? Heathers tackles this pattern of predictable criticism. It lampoons the trope of mocking tropes.
No one is safe from excoriation, or execution, in Lehmann’s debut. It’s not so much the popular crowd that’s guilty of hypocrisy and cruelty, it’s every crowd – it’s the crowd in general. The notion of groupthink is on trial in Heathers; how it devalues us, how it dumbs our society, and how it ultimately only serves to placate us in the face of Heathers main narrative tool – death. Death by suicide becomes the ultimate ironic champion of groupthink’s destructive influence on youth culture.
After Veronica (Winona Ryder) and Jason Dean (Christian Slater) kill their first Heather (Kim Walker), suicide makes her into a high-school imago. Their spree extends to blockheads Ram (Patrick Labyorteaux) and Kurt (Lance Fenton), and suicide itself becomes popular. In synecdochal fashion, suicide comes to embody all that makes a Heather a Heather(s); the hip, the poised, the cutting-edge, the superior, the cool-alt. As Mrs. Fleming (Penelope Milford), Westerburg High’s resident ex-hippie English teacher, says to Veronica, “Whether to kill yourself or not is one of the most important decisions a teenager can make.” Or, in Heather Chandler’s words, “Fuck me gently with a chainsaw.” Suicide is just the next college entrance exam.
In turn, youth culture itself, so often lionized by society as both moral standard and moral simulacrum, serves as an example for 1980’s obsession with group culture. News crews flock to the school to watch the “grieving” students sing hymns and hold hands, and Veronica’s parents are enraptured by the spectacle of the youth uniting under the shadow of this new, modish tragedy.
The act of defining oneself by any group, not just those negatively portrayed in pro-pariah narratives such as Perks of Being a Wallflower, Say Anything, Sixteen Candles, Adventureland, etc… , is alone worthy of execution in the world of Heathers. To belong is to die.
Veronica flirts with this anarchist notion even before she and J.D. conspire to kill their first Heather. From the outset, Ryder’s Veronica is struggling with dual identities, both cynical and complicit. She recognizes the hypocrisy of her friendship with the Heathers, calling them manipulative and pointlessly cruel in her diary, much in the same way previous 1980’s rat-pack films criticized popular kids for being vapid, vindictive, and sadistic.
But Lehmann and Waters artfully stop shy of turning Veronica into an Ally Sheedy-type monotype of the alt or goth girl – she’s not Natalie Portman’s character in Garden State, or Zooey Deschanel’s in 500 Days of Summer, or even Winona Ryder’s other breakout role as Lydia Deetz in Beetlejuice (1986). She’s clearly heavily influenced by the chief Heather, Heather Chandler (all the Heathers are given apropos surnames: Chandler = Chancellor, Duke = Duke, McNamara = a really over-the-top reference to Johnson’s bellicose Secretary of Defense). And regardless of her disdain, Veronica admits in her diary soliloquies to putting stock into the opinions of her popular friends, even as she tries to distance herself from them. When she introduces herself to J.D, he asks, “Are you another Heather?” to which she responds, “No, I’m a Veronica.” In this regard, Veronica is lent the sort of complexity that actual teenagers have in real life, not the sort of blasé one-dimensionality forced on teen character tropes in the 80s.
Heathers takes a bold step in identifying Veronica as a Third Wave Feminist character. She identifies as “self” first – not as “Heather,” or “teenager,” or “alt-girl,” or even “girl” – rejecting the notions of essentialism and “feminine-in-opposition” thinking propagated by 70s and 80s film. The movie is about Veronica learning what it means to be “a Veronica” – not just what it means to be Veronica in contrast to Heather, or even what it means to be Veronica in contrast to the teen society which she and J.D. soon set about demolishing. It’s about learning what it means to be Veronica in a world shaped by men.
It is men who create Heather Chandler, and in turn, bring about her death. Veronica only becomes fed up with her friendship with Heather after she is dragged to a college party, in which borderline caricatures of date-rapists force Chandler into performing oral sex, grope Veronica shamelessly, and pressure the teen girls into drinking. These profanities are committed casually, and the movie forces you to acknowledge their banality in this world; neither Heather nor Veronica is particularly shocked by these events. Heather, tellingly, is most disgusted with herself during the night’s proceedings. After performing oral sex on one of the men, we see Heather alone, in a bathroom, spitting water out at a reflection of herself in the mirror. The abuses of men have shaped her reflection from the outset; have pressured her into abusing others, into traipsing around the school asking pointless questions for her yearbook in the name of popularity, bullying other girls that don’t receive the same perverse sexual attention as she, tormenting her friends as a form of projection.
Veronica, too, is guilty of this projection – the reflection in her proverbial mirror is Heather, and indeed all Heathers, to whom she might attribute all the ills done to her by men. Despite their position at the top, these Heathers are simply easier targets; the last in a long line of women targeted by their peers in lieu of men. That’s where J.D. comes in.
Jason Dean, a deliberately oblique play on “James Dean,” is shown from the start to be a cowboy. He wears a long duster, rides a motorcycle, and literally carries a revolver full of blanks to school. A soft little twang, reminiscent of Monument Valley woodwinds and Ennio Morricone compositions, enters the soundtrack when J.D. rides by. He’s the outlaw, the renegade, the rouge sheriff – doling out justice without trial or jury as he sees fit. At the beginning, Veronica is enamoured by this vision; here stands a man who embodies all those surface-level criticisms the film seems to encourage. The rejection of categorization, the dismissal of societal pressure, the cynicism and the rage with the skill and the gumption to do something about it. She’s swept off her feet, recognizing in J.D. that same misplaced anger she feels toward Heather Chandler and all the popular crowd.
The two sleep together the night of the college party, and Veronica spends the evening blaming Heather Chandler for all the ill in her life, in her school environment, in society. The next day, the two enter Heather Chandler’s home and kill her by passing off drain-cleaner as a hangover cure. At her funeral, Veronica laments; “I just want my high school to be a nice place.” At the outset, it seems J.D. shares this goal. But it quickly becomes apparent J.D. represents more than the unbound, vengeful justice of the cowboy; he also stands for the imposing presence of masculine pressure on women, and how women manifest their anger toward that pressure as contempt for other women.
It is important to note that Heather Chandler only drinks the poison after J.D. dares her: “I told you this stuff would be too intense for her,” he says. Veronica spends the rest of the movie blaming her best friend’s death on herself. But in fact it is J.D. who pressures Heather into suicide. And as usual, victim-blaming passes the responsibility off to the female: “I was wearing something revealing…I was drunk…I was asking for it… I didn’t try to stop him.” It’s textbook victim-blaming, and we see it from J.D. early on.
The next victims are Ram and Kurt, two cartoonish jocks who make crude sexual advances on the girls in the cafeteria and even during Heather Chandler’s funeral. That same night, they go on a double date with Heather McNamara (Lisanne Falk) and Veronica, much to her protest. The two men take the girls to a pasture to tip cows (a scene introduced by an absolutely hysterical smash cut), where J.D. finds them in the middle of drunkenly trying to rape Veronica and Heather. Kurt falls over in his attempts to assault Veronica, while Ram is busy assaulting an unwilling Heather on the ground nearby. Again, like the college party, the scene takes on a disaffected comedic effect – this is sexual assault, plain and clear on the screen, but we’re made to laugh at it, and hate ourselves for doing so. J.D. makes the decision for Veronica this time – these two men have to die. They set up an elaborate plot to kill Ram and Kurt and disguise the murders as suicide, just as they did with Heather Chandler – this time by planting evidence to encourage others to believe the two men were closeted gay lovers.
Again, J.D. is the agent behind the murder – forcing Veronica to pull the trigger on what she believes is a gun loaded with tranquilizer rounds. Afterward, when she realizes the bullets were real, J.D. drums up a typically chauvinist, rapey excuse: “You believed it because you wanted to believe it,” he says, once again putting the blame on Veronica.
The portrayal of these two jocks as closeted homosexuals, intended as a joke by J.D. and Veronica, brings about an entirely new wave of suicide fetishization at Westerburg High. Heathers uses this overt subversion of toxic masculinity to emphasize the ignorant notions of sexual identity in 80s culture. After all, it is only in a fundamentally masculine culture, one damaged and ruled by heterosexual men, that two homosexuals would need to kill themselves. Of course, no one in the movie takes this lesson away from the deaths of Ram and Kurt, but that’s the point – in Heathers, no one ever gets it. The villain is always society; the pressures, the restraints, the demands. The Westerburg High kids are missing the forest for the trees. The real problem here is the overt masculinity that informs this caste-driven culture, the kind of masculinity that demands self-categorization and self-labeling from men and women alike.
But J.D. – the cowboy, the romanticized outlaw, the male who sinisterly stalks in the shadows and claims to fight for libertine ideals of freedom-from-control, of anarchy and upheaval – is not the solution. Here Heathers shines in thematic complexity. The easy solution would be to cast J.D. as the beat-all-end-all cure for a rotten society, much like the over-simplified V in V For Vendetta. But Heathers is more nuanced than that. The notion of a male anarchist bringing salvation to an overbearing society created by other men is absurd. J.D. embodies all the fragile fringe-masculinity, the kind that professes an anti-establishment vigilantism, but actually just seeks out its own forms of destructive control. It’s up to Veronica to reconcile her infatuation with J.D.’s persona, with the male cool factor, and regain control in a meaningful and effective way.
J.D, from the outset, is the agent of Westerburg High’s downfall. After Veronica breaks up with him, J.D. seeks to push events in the school in a direction that will allow him to “win” her back, while also continuing to justify his anarchist ideals. He blackmails Heather Duke into taking up the mantle of Heather Chandler. In a symbolic coronation, J.D. gifts Heather Duke with Chandler’s old red headscarf, as if bestowing upon her the Red Queen’s scepter. And because Veronica does not learn of J.D.’s influence in Duke’s ascension, she once again turns to blaming the other women in her life; calling Heather Duke the metaphorical hydra-head that rose in place of Chandler. Ostensibly, this second-act reversal of fortune seems to reinforce Heathers’ textual assertion; that social castes will always force teens into assigning leaders, followers, and rulers. But the cynicism on display here is a macguffin, just as J.D. wants it to be – he wants Veronica to believe, wholeheartedly, that her school is not worthy of saving.
When Duke eventually reveals that it was J.D.’s idea to turn her into the next Red Queen, Veronica finally realizes J.D. is happy to reinforce her school’s cliquish caste-system if it serves his self-righteous goals. After all, the outlaw cannot rebel against a just society, and so J.D. takes aims to shape Westerburg High into the deplorable, shallow ruin he wants it to be, that he needs it to be, to justify its destruction.
Nowhere is his villainy better illustrated than in the characterization of J.D.’s father. The two keep up this weird, mutually-agreed role reversal; J.D. will address his father as “son,” saying all the things his father is “supposed” to say in that particular situation, and vice-versa. “Aren’t you going to introduce me to your girlfriend, son?” he asks his father when he brings Veronica over. Later on, when J.D. is building the explosive he will use to blow up the school, his father calls from downstairs, “Hey Dad, can you help me with my homework!?” J.D. and his father are almost interchangeable. Veronica even says, at one point, “Like father, like son,” when confronting J.D. in the boiler room. And when his father, who works in demolition, complains about the “bitches” at the town planning board preventing him from demolishing a dilapidated hotel, is it the father talking about his job, or is it the son talking about his school? The “bitches” are stopping J.D. as well – first it was the Heathers, then it was Veronica, the woman he loves, who turned on him – kept him from doing his duty as a marginalized male. J.D. also mentions how he “hasn’t given the matter much thought” when Veronica asks him if he likes his father. He admits to liking his mother, but she committed suicide years ago, leaving J.D. without the influence of an external anima during his formative years.
Also, in a more obvious though nonetheless effective turn, J.D. sexually assaults Veronica twice: once when Veronica first dumps him, and again during their fight in the boiler room.
J.D. is symbolically castrated at the end of the film. His confrontation with Veronica in the boiler room is brief and almost disturbingly violent, with J.D. viciously kneeing Veronica in the mouth. Finally, as J.D. holds up his knife in a fighting stance, Veronica demands he disarm the explosive. She swears she’ll shoot him, but as usual, J.D. doesn’t believe she will act on her words – believing she has no agency. He flips her off. In response, Veronica blows his middle finger off. This can be read as a castration only due to a seemingly minor, but important, scene earlier in the film: after Heather Chandler’s funeral, Ram and Kurt accost two of the film’s background nerds in front of the Church. One of the nerds turns around and raises his middle finger, shouting, “Sit and spin!” The direct effect here is that, after Chandler’s death, the school order has been thrown into chaos; nerds are talking back to jocks, etc… But the latent effect here is the “middle-finger-as-dick” metaphor. It makes sense, in a crude way; in the face of the woman who has overpowered him, and the society that has shunned him, all J.D. can do is whip out his dick. When Veronica turns his revolver – the most overt symbol of his John Wayne-type masculinity, against J.D, she sterilizes him.
Before shooting him one final time, Veronica drops an absolutely flawless one-liner: “You know what I want babe?…cool guys like you out of my life.” In shock, J.D. stumbles, stabbing the bomb with his switchblade, deactivating it. His mutilation negates the threat to Veronica and society, both internally and externally – the cowboy no longer holds sway over culture. The key takeaway here is presumably the “cool” part of the line, but it’s not. It’s “guy” – Veronica has finally pushed the ugly specter of masculine influence to the ground.
When J.D. dies like a “martyr” at the end of the film, hands outstretched, bomb strapped to his chest, Veronica is looking down at him from the school steps – a position of power on the threshold of society. She is the gatekeeper, keeping his anarchist bullshit from the safety of an albeit corrupt society, but one that can still be saved. He can’t destroy society. He can’t even destroy her. He can only blow himself up while she watches, smiling, smoking a cigarette. Who’s cool now?
The icing on the cake here, and my personal favorite image, is the final conversation between Veronica and Heather Duke (Shannen Doherty). Duke took up Chandler’s mantle after her death, even going so far as to claim her red headscarf as a sort of queenly scepter. But when Veronica meets Duke in the hall after J.D’s death, covered in soot and blood, she whips the red scarf off Duke’s head. The scarf has come to represent many connotative and illustrative themes in Heathers – the allusion to Alice In Wonderland (an effect compounded by the Heathers always playing croquet), a place atop the social hierarchy, the destructive potency of caste-culture, the blood-red look of suicide and murder. But in one swoop, Veronica negates all of this. She ties the scarf around her hair and says, “Heather, my love, there’s a new sheriff in town.” The scarf becomes a lawwoman’s badge. A dead outlaw, order restored, hope for the future, all bookended by a cigarette chomping heroine waltzing off into the sunset? Yeah, I’d say so.