Heathers (1988)

I’ve heard Mean Girls (2004) referred to as a watered-down Heathers in the past, though I hadn’t seen the latter film until now. I can kind of understand the comparison. For example, both movies take place in the milieu of a bullying-infested high school, include a lot of made-up slang still quoted by people who’ve seen the films, and feature a school assembly that attempts to bring the pupils closer together and become more empathetic. In Mean Girls, the initiative comes from a well-meaning authority figure whose idea ultimately proves cathartic, even if the scene is played for laughs a little bit. Its counterpart in Heathers stems from a deceptive teacher out to aggrandise herself (or at least her philosophy), and it’s completely ineffective. This is symptomatic of the different approaches the two movies take.

Despite its broad comedy overall, Mean Girls is sincere in its depiction of the lead character falling in with a bad crowd and trying to redeem herself, and the titular clique is shown more as misguided and a product of their environment than as evil. The audience and maybe the characters may want the queen bee dead on occasion, but in the end she is more to be pitied than to be murdered. The 1988 version of Regina George, Heather Chandler (one of three Heathers forming a clique), is more openly malicious, less shaded… and actually dead after a few scenes, killed by protagonist Veronica (Winona Ryder) and her psychopathic boyfriend J.D. (Christian Slater).

—Spoilers for both movies posing as thoughtful analysis below—

Several deaths of a bunch of other, unredeemable characters follow, both for real and in dream sequences. J.D. makes them look like suicides, prompting the entire population of the town the movie takes place in to develop a morbid fascination with self-harm. Heathers is a parody of the teen movies of the 80’s such as, say, The Breakfast Club (1985), considering how useless the adults are throughout the film and how on-the-nose some of the clichés the film trades in are, but also a satire of how society deals with death, trends, power and the power of ignorance.

It announces this satirical nature by opening with an ironic version of (sort of) children’s song “Que sera”, posing a question the movie returns to on occasion, and one quite relevant to teenagers on the threshold of adulthood: What will you be when you grow up, and how will your decisions impact that path? In the very first scene, Veronica willingly lets herself be mistreated by the Heathers, and in the one after that she only hesitates a little when it comes to bullying another pupil. She doesn’t really want to participate, but she does it anyway. Her boyfriend, who is clearly deranged and who she nevertheless sleeps with very quickly after first meeting him (perhaps in order to demonstrate agency after being creeped on by a college student at a party Heather dragged her to), starts killing people, and she lets herself be carried along.

J.D. suggests it’s because deep down, she really wants to see the popular but terrible classmates dead; in that way, he is a manifestation of teenagers’ unfocused desire to watch the world burn as retribution for perceived mistreatment by one’s peers and the general shittiness of one’s elders. An alternate ending presented on the DVD (text-only) would have made this all the more explicit – and provocative – by Veronica blowing up the entire school. Now, J.D. is right about a few injustices (the bullying of an overweight classmate, the peer pressure applied particularly by Heather Chandler, the clear hypocrisy in the town’s attitudes towards gay people), but the movie takes pains to point out how all of the primary characters (Heathers, Veronica, J.D.) are wealthy, and Veronica at least is smart in addition to that and only tangentially the target of abuse by the Heathers, her parents or other adults; also, with few exceptions, the vast majority of the teenage characters are terrible in one way or the other, and practically all of them are self-absorbed. The world isn’t always fair, but teens have a tendency to view it too dramatically when it comes to their own lives, a lesson absent from many films of this basic genre (after all, who wants to insult the target audience?). That’s not a reason to destroy the world as irredeemable, but a reason to try to improve the parts of life that are imperfect.

In the actually filmed ending, Veronica also takes charge, finally refusing to be led by others, but the situation is flipped around: Instead of Veronica acting on her “dark passenger”, she rejects him and prevents him from setting off the explosives. Defeated, he kills himself, and Veronica starts anew by being kind to a classmate previously bullied by her. It seems like a soft, harmonious ending, in line with the apparent moral lesson outlined above and similar to that of the 2004 film, where the main character similarly defangs the clique and there is hope for a more acceptable school environment. But it’s not, really, a neat happy ending: Even if she has stopped one crime, Veronica bears some culpability for the deaths and misery she was involved with in the past, but she takes no responsibility. Because of when the film chooses to end, she never tells the truth about what happened (except, vaguely, her diary, anyway). The town never finds out that the “suicides” never really were that, nor does anyone find the bombs or (really) question Veronica’s dishevelled appearance after her fight with J.D. People, the message seems to be, will still look the other way when it’s convenient, and sometimes crimes can remain unpunished. It’s a loose end I was annoyed with at first, but I’ve since come to appreciate it as a subversive acknowledgement of its satirical goals: the studio may have got its “morally-acceptable” ending, but the movie undercuts it, too.

So in the end, Heathers and Mean Girls do indeed share similar DNA, but one is not a mainstreamed rip-off of the other; they’re after different things and both achieve their respective goals quite well.

(Incidentally, and I suppose this must be said, I did occasionally think to myself that the film could never be made today, or even a few years after its original release, giving how blasé it is about topics like school rampages, suicide-bombings, eating disorders, gay suicides and date rape. I was never at any point offended, however, because the movie doesn’t make fun of those things, it uses them as part of its heightened satire to criticize them and what produces them.)

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