By Jeff Fuller
Photos: IMBD, New World Pictures
For Gen X gays, the groundbreaking, high-school comedy-satire Heathers (1988) has been a favorite. This movie was our generation’s Mean Girls, but it was much darker and edgier. Set in a preppy high school set in suburban Ohio, the Heathers reign as the most popular girls. The Heathers are the beautiful and bitchy Heather Chandler, the leader of the group; Heather McNamara, a pretty, but witless follower; and the scheming and ambitious Heather Duke. The Heathers accept the artsy Veronica (played by Winona Ryder) into their group, but she quickly becomes disillusioned with the clique’s cruel treatment of their less popular classmates and secretly dreams of getting back at them in some way. She eventually meets JD (played by Christian Slater), a smooth talking, new kid in school with a sketchy past. JD fools Veronica into killing Heather Chandler by giving her a hangover drink, which, unknown to Veronica, is poisoned with drain cleaner, sending Heather crashing headfirst into a coffee table. Veronica is shocked, but JD convinces her to stage Heather’s death as a suicide, complete with a forged note and cleverly placed Cliff’s Notes for The Bell Jar. The madness continues as JD and Veronica kill two homophobic football-player bullies and arrange their deaths to look like a secret gay-love suicide pact.
The one-liners in Heathers were just so— very: “Did you have a brain tumor for breakfast?”, “Grow Up Heather, bulimia is so 87,” “Fuck me gently with a chainsaw!” I think the movie resonated especially for gay people, not only because of the revenge scene acted out on the homophobic bullies, but for its witty, bitchy humor, outlandish plot, and because Veronica, the protagonist, feels alienated and disillusioned with the high-school pecking order. It is also the timeless tale of a person witnessing their darkest revenge fantasies become a reality and soon everything becomes more than they can control. I think it was also successful in its time as a satire of 1980s coming of age movies, especially those by John Hughes. While his movies also dealt with the high school caste system, popularity and alienation, they depicted an overly idealistic world. Heathers seem to mark the emergence of a more edgy, cynical generation, harkening the transition from the glam-rock 80s to the grunge/goth 90s.
At the same time, watching Heathers now, parts of it make me cringe. Several important topics, namely teen suicide, gun violence in school, and date rape aren’t addressed with any sensitivity. In one chilling scene, JD fires off a gun in a school cafeteria wearing a black trenchcoat, an image which would forever be molded into American consciousness with the Columbine shootings as well as the countless school shootings that followed in its wake. However, despite these problematic issues and themes, Heathers still has a cult following. The movie was made into a musical and a TV show; however, the TV show was cancelled in the wake of yet another mass shooting in America. Significantly, one of the major themes of Heathers is how the mass media depicts and fetishizes tragedy, seeking to draw in audiences hooked on daily outrage. Unfortunately, this theme rings even truer in 2019 than in 1989. In this respect, Heathers may have been ahead of its time.