Representative Characters in “Heathers”
Imagine sitting in your high school cafeteria and looking out amongst the sea of different cliques and wondering where you fit in, or questioning the clique of which you are a part. While many of us may resent our peers, we wouldn’t go as far as to kill those whom we hate. Such possible real-world experiences resonate in the fictional world of film. Standing on top of the social ladder and granted immunity from scrutiny are the Heathers, your average group of rich mean girls who share the same group identity and share an affinity for playing croquet.
In Heathers (Dir.: Michael Lehmann, 1988), the viewer takes the perspective of Veronica Sawyer, a member of the Heathers who desperately wants to break loose from their grasp because she rejects the social hierarchy entirely. The characters of the film exist within a satirical reality that is conveyed through intertextuality: an integration of several references that provokes an intense sense of déjà vu recognizable by the viewer (Umberto 4). Heathers is a morbid satire that represents high school as an extension of society to show how school cliques experience the same problems as western middle-class social groups, and how teen issues are not taken seriously by dominant culture. Important for my analysis, too, is examining intertextual situations and aesthetics that make Heathers a cult film.
Heathers presents high school as an extension of society in which adolescents, and their respective cliques represent the different social groups in society: the elite, the outcasts, and the rebels. The social elite is represented by the Heathers who are fixated on power and maintaining a high social status, much like adults who compete for a raise, career status, and power. The dialogue in Heathers is carefully crafted and executed to convey the connection from high school social relationships to adulthood relationships. For instance, Veronica compares the members of her clique to being her coworkers and their job “is being popular and shit” and to give a lunchtime poll regarding a social issue is asked to different cliques in the cafeteria to show how different members of society would address a social issue. Notably, Veronica represents the members of society who emotionally suffer even as a member of the social elite because of her rejection of the unnecessary cruelty and demands of being a member of the Heathers. After all, it becomes exhausting having to bite your tongue in a group where your opinion isn’t validated and respected. Without question, Heathers highlights the dark period of adolescence by representing it as an extension of society to show how similar social problems occur within adults and teenage social groups.
The adult characters in Heathers are depicted as out of touch with teenagers and disregard teenage issues. For starters, Veronica’s parents express little emotional concern after J. D. warns them that Veronica might try to kill herself after the recent teen suicides. Also, the reaction of the school faculty to Heather Chandler’s death is satirical in nature; a teacher fixates on the correct usage of vocabulary in Heather’s suicide note whereas camp is used in the presentation of a teacher who is described as a “flake” and a “hippie” because of her intense efforts to raise awareness of teen suicide by coordinating a school assembly that promotes an “emotional outpouring” where students can “talk and feel together.” She is over the top in her performance and stays true to her character but at the expense of not being taken seriously by other characters for forcing students to express their emotions. Susan Sontag’s defines camp as a style of aestheticism in terms of stylization. Once more, the manipulation of satire and camp are used to show the lack of empathy dominant culture has for the dark period of adolescence. However, the most powerful scene in the film is when Veronica becomes “the voice of a generation” when she demands to be treated like a human and “not patronized like a bunny rabbit” to which Veronica’s mom condescending replies: “Just how do you think adults act with other adults?” The power in this scene is the confirmation by an adult of the overlap between teenage problems and its continuation into adulthood.
Equally important to the discussion of how high school cliques are representations of society is by discussing the character archetypes in Heathers. The new kid at school, the outcast, the bad boy archetype that has been overused in several older films is embodied by the character J. D. (Christian Slater) who has an extreme dissatisfaction with life because of childhood trauma. The sound of a harmonica that can be recognized from a scene inside a jail cell or before a western shoot out film is heard during the introduction of the dark horse of the film, J. D. This character is the embodiment of a bad boy with his expressive arched eyebrows, long greaser inspired hair, preference for a dark trench coat, and permanently hunched over posture. Moreover, J. D. could not be a classic bad boy without driving a classic Harley motorcycle, a chain-smoker, and even bares the same initials as the well-known rebel James Dean from Rebel Without a Cause from the 1950s. J. D. represents the members of society who feel responsible to take matters into their own hands and create chaos as a way to stand up the social structure of dominant culture. However, unlike those individuals who get caught, J. D. is not punished for his crimes.
Equally important is J. D.’s overt expression of his rejection to social norms which attracts Veronica and shortly after they meet, a Bonnie and Clyde alliance forms based on a mutual attitude of “us vs. society.” Consequently, for their mutual hatred towards the social elite at Westerburg High School and blindly influenced by J. D., Veronica becomes an accomplice in the murder of multiple students. At first, Veronica sees J. D. as an escape from the Heathers but also turns her diary entries to life; like her desire to get rid of the popular students. Early on, the viewer is fully aware of her frustration of the clique she is in and even writes that she wants to kill Heather Chandler to be in a world where she is “free.” However, later on in the film, she rejects J. D.’s advances and wants nothing to do with him and wants out of their murder spree. Without a doubt, once Veronica realizes she goes from being influenced by the Heathers to being controlled by J. D., she quickly sees through his bad boy appeal and immediately distances herself from him because she hates to be controlled by anyone.
While J. D. portrays the bad boy, another way of viewing this is seeing the real main villain of the film as society itself. Specifically, the cultural values that glorify power, money, and status and dehumanizes the rest. On the other hand, filmmakers highlight that even the people that are a part of the elite groups in society or in high school are not completely immune to suffering such as Veronica rejecting being a member of the Heathers. In comparison, vigilantes like J. D. who worship anarchy and take it upon themselves to kill those who are representatives of the cultural values that glorify power, such as wealthy businessman or corrupt government politicians. Without question, Heathers uses satire to argue that it would be better if people did not have to sacrifice human decency for the price of power and social status.
Heathers also uses satire to mock the romanticizing of suicide. For instance, after Heather Chandler’s death, close up interview shots of students excited to be talking to reporters on T. V talk about how much they “looked forward to seeing Heather” and speak highly of her, when in reality they despised her. Heathers highlights the status of power and the heavy weight that is placed on your status in high school and by extension, society. Notably, satire is used during the school assembly where students are seen mockingly contributing to the commotion instead of genuinely mourning the suicides. Likewise, a cheerful pop song “Teenage Suicide” is a frequent request on the local radio, to show society glamorizes suicide. Without question, satire is used to show the lack of empathy western dominant culture has for the dark period of adolescence and J. D. and Veronica are in disbelief of the lack of emotional reaction the students and community are expressing to the apparent suicides that they staged.
From now on in the film, the viewer tags along to witness the deviant nature of Veronica and J. D. who threaten social norms through transgression: an act that violates the law or morality (Mathijs and Sexton 100). Throughout the film, J. D. violates the physical and emotional rights of others by expressing a lack of remorse, recklessness, and deceitfulness. Early on in the film, J. D. callously shoots blanks at two students in the cafeteria who come to harass him, but J. D. is never punished for his act of violence. Shortly after, Veronica expresses her desire to get rid of the Heather’s ringleader Heather Chandler and a man of action, J. D. pours blue drain cleaner into a cup that Veronica accidentally grabs and hands to Heather, but J. D. does not bother to point out her lethal mistake. Cut to the next scene, Heather Chandler dramatically plunges face first to her death through her glass coffee table after choking on the drain cleaner. The intertextuality in this scene is inspired by Sylvia Plath’s tragic suicide after J. D. gets inspiration from glancing at Heather’s copy of “The Bell Jar” in this scene and quickly suggests to cover up the death by masking it as a suicide. Not long after, suicide becomes the latest high school trend. The satire used in the scene previously described is to ridicule the lack of genuine emotional reaction from the students and the surrounding community to the news of Heather’s suicide. An example of this is the school newspaper team scrambling to create a “tasteful” front cover of Heather Chandler’s death, and the town’s local news rushes to get footage of students to capitalize on the recent suicide. In other words, Heathers uses satire by purposely not showing legal consequences or academic consequences for the murders committed in the film to highlight how teen issues are not taken seriously by society.
Heathers addresses the severity of peer pressure through a teenager’s perspective. However, similar situations of peer pressure may continue into adulthood. For example, the pressure of being in an abusive social group is illustrated during a scene showing Veronica assisting in her friend’s bulimia. But after the leader of the group dies, the bulimic student begins to eat normally, showing the consequence of peer pressure to look a certain way in a group. Similarly, Martha, an overweight victim of subsequent bullying shows the dangers of peer pressure and recent trend of committing suicide when she attempts to kill herself but unlike Heather Chandler, no one cares that she tried to kill herself and even mock her for not being able to successfully kill herself. Moreover, satire is used when showing scenes of sexual harassment and the perpetrators are never punished for their crimes. For example, there are multiple scenes were J. D. forces himself onto Veronica as she struggles to push him away after she wants to distance herself away from him. Another scene shows a drunk jock that sexually assaults Veronica’s friend in the background, but the camera is purposely zoomed out and out of focus to draw attention away from the assault in the background.
Translating the dark period of adolescence to the viewer can feel like another teenage angst film but Heathers is unafraid to show extremely sensitive taboo material to provoke a reception of extreme anger and concern in the viewer using aesthetic style. Aesthetic style can include several carefully placed cues within the film to stimulate certain emotions in the viewer. For example, fast camera movement can be used to heighten the viewer’s engagement and raise their heart rate while watching a particular chase scene. Consider, for example, the lighting, editing, and score during the high-speed chase scene in Heathers that uses hastened string music as J. D. runs after one of the jocks that Veronica fails to shoot when aiming at him. Prior to this scene, J. D. deceitfully convinces Veronica that the gun they were going to use was supposed to be loaded with tranquilizers but instead the gun was loaded with real bullets that led to a framing of a “repressed homosexual suicide pact” by Veronica and J. D. Notably, the editing in this scene alludes to the device of satire to ridicule the perspective of the local police who are smoking pot near the edge of the action and filmmakers purposely present the policeman failing to catch the perpetrators of the crime and therefore no one is seen convicted of murder. Heathers uses stylistic devices to show the viewer of the judgement adult culture places on the dark nature of teen suicide and to represent law enforcement as brainless and judgmental of teenage problems.
Additionally, the stylistic element of camp is seen during the scene of the Kurt and Ram’s funeral with how they are dressed; in their complete football attire topped with a football helmet and holding a football while lying in their caskets. Similarly, the exaggeration of camp is seen to portray Veronica’s literal dream of J. D. killing Heather Duke and her subsequent funeral. This scene is purposely infused to make it look like a dream; everyone in the church is wearing a white robe wearing 3-D glasses and the camera is position behind the casket to get a straight frame of the attendees in the audience to make it look like they are staring straight at the viewer. We confirm this scene is a product of Veronica’s imagination and how her murders are haunting her dreams. Furthermore, the overly expressive priest is in on the joke as he practically chants that Heather’s “soul was in Antarctica… freezing because teenagers can be cruel and parents unresponsive.” Note that this quote references the main theme of the film: society’s lack of empathy for the dark period of adolescence.
The aesthetic features also depend on the context in which they appear. For instance, the mood of a scene can elicit a similar mood in viewers, such as suspense and fear with the use of specific stylistic cues such as dark lighting, or a close up of a weapon. For example, there is a scene that is meant to evoke tension in the viewer and the scene is purposely lit with a blue floodlight, and a light fog during a close up of J. D. holding a large knife with a maniacal glare in his eyes as he advances towards Veronica after she expresses that she wants out of the relationship. Camp can also be seen during the scene of Heather Chandler’s funeral because it is over the top; the church was dark and foggy with loud organ music playing in the background, the priest was overly dramatic when describing her life and people lavishly dressed up. The editing shows 5 second shots of different characters coming up to the casket to say their goodbyes to Heather, but the viewer hears their true thoughts as they smirk over her corpse, “I prayed for the death of Heather Chandler many times.” Another example of learning a character’s emotions besides seeing them on screen is hearing Veronica’s diary read out loud, such as, “Dear diary my teen angst has a body count…are we going to prom or to hell?” The mood the filmmakers attempt to engage the viewer by manipulating the use of a dark color palette, high intensity sound, and abrupt editing techniques.
To better appreciate the cult value of the film, it is worth examining the aesthetics of the film which can elicit different reactions from a homogenous audience. As a whole, the director incorporates highly saturated cheerful colors to contrast the film’s dark themes. Moreover, the effective manipulation of color in the film is used to evoke a certain mood in the viewer and to emphasize certain scenes. For example, red and orange flood lights set the scene for a heavy/saturated party combined with 80s music in the background. Whereas, the high school scenes are always foggy and almost dream-like as if someone had put a smoke machine near the camera as these scenes were being shot. Heathers brilliantly uses color schemes in the character’s wardrobes to describe a particular character. For instance, the color red (red scrunchie) worn by Heather Chandler symbolizes power and is later seen passed down based on who is the new ringleader of the Heathers. The anti-hero J. D. is always dressed in black, symbolizing evil and coincidentally always prepared for a funeral. Veronica is often wearing blue, symbolizing her teen angst and guilt and even the walls and trinkets in her room are blue. Lastly, Heather Duke wears green because she was always green with envy over Heather Chandler’s power.
Aside from being highly quotable, the film never falls short of intertextual references. Heathers is rich in intertextual detail consisting of a carefully crafted character archetypes and situations influenced by other films and thus relies upon the viewer to understand it, which adds to the cult mentality of an “us vs. them.” However, the amount of references recognized will vary for every viewer. The presentation of the various cliques depicting the elite, the nerds, and the jocks in Heathers is clear in their overtly expressive behaviors and in what they wear; textually referencing high school cliques in society and influenced by cliques seen in other teenager exploitative high school films like The Breakfast Club (1985) or Grease (1978). It could be argued that Heathers served as the inspiration for the “mean girl” trope that is seen in films like Mean Girls (2004) and Clueless (1995). Unlike the previously stated films who focus on popularity and an outsider trying to fit in the social elite, Heathers chooses to focus on an insider trying to get out.
The viewer learns that J. D. is a broken child who has not recovered from the trauma of losing his mother in a building explosion. He projects his anger of losing his mother and collectively sees the world as evil which led to adopting a callous attitude towards people. Also, his father, a shady character who celebrates building explosions for his construction company may have inspired J. D.’s plan of exploding his high school that he considers a micro society: “our burning bodies will be the ultimate protest to society that degrades us.” Indeed, a film review on Heathers from the Washington Post states: “These teens aren’t boy-crazy, giggly or mall-fixated… They are political animals” (Kempley). We learn that J. D. truly believes that blowing up his school will somehow change the social structure of dominant culture because “the only place different social types can genuinely get along with each other is in heaven.” However, after a couple of blows to the head by our heroine Veronica, J. D. breaks down and confesses that he wants to kill everyone in the school because no one loves him. The editing of the final scene described above includes frequent shots back and forth between hero (Veronica) and villain (J. D.) fighting while a bright and cheerful pep rally is happening above them. The scene ends with J. D. strapping on a bomb and blows himself up as Veronica calmly watches and lights her cigarette from his explosion.
While many may praise the movie for its several themes, those who watch Heathers now may see it a deeply offensive film. A review from 1989, the year Heathers was released, a journalist praised the film as “one of the best movies so far this year… a revolution in young-adult entertainment” (Kempley). This review represents a common belief amongst many reviewers who found the movie ahead of its time with its satirical perspective on hot button issues and distinguishes itself from other teenager films for its dark undertones and use of violence. Furthermore, The Guardian evaluated the cult value of Heathers as a “cult satirical smash of 1988… a word-of-mouth VHS rental hit” and compared it to being a viral hit today (Bradshaw). However, in today’s society, Heathers may produce outrage for casually presenting sensitive topics. Such responses are understandable given the recent shootings and frequent suicides that are happening across the country, reflecting a change in social attitudes.
The dark themes explored in Heathers are used to mock society’s lenient attitude towards teen problems but also provides the opportunity to empathetically connect with subversive characters. The nihilistic view of society and the dark subject matter of Heathers even in the form of satire can implicitly spread the wrong message about suicide, gun use, sexual harassment, and eating disorders that are already prevalent in dominant culture. After all Heathers came out in 1989, exactly ten years before the Columbine High School massacre in 1999 but also before the Virginia Tech massacre, Sandy Hook school shooting, and the recent Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting in 2018. Although the fear of school shooters existed during the time when Heathers was released, the fear has heightened with the recent occurrences of school shootings. Indeed, director Michael Lehmann admits that Heathers “could not work now because of the violence in schools” (Bradshaw). Regarding its cult value, the graphic transgressions seen in the film contribute to the film’s cult value because of the shock value during reception (Mathijs and Sexton 5). Director Michael Lehmann said in an interview that he “always knew that it would be viewed as offensive and provocative” but later added, “part of why you’d make a satire is to rile people up a bit and look at things in a different way, so I wasn’t too bothered when people were offended” (Jones). Well aware of the consequences, cult films like Heathers often lead to controversies over the appropriateness of a film and its cult value is higher if it contains highly shocking content (Mathijs and Sexton 10).
A genuine cult film, Umberto Eco emphasizes, is “”living textuality,”” stating that a cult film should have many central ideas (Eco 4). Indeed, Heathers pays homage to several references to other films and the aesthetic style of the film elicits the mood of frustration and outrage towards the flawed societal structure that overlooks teen issues. While many may praise the movie for its several themes, those who watch Heathers now may see it a deeply offensive film. However, without question, Heathers highlights the dark period of adolescence by representing it as an extension of society to show how similar social problems occur within both periods of a person’s life but also highlights how teen issues are not taken seriously by western middle-class dominant American culture. Although deadpan reactions are expected from black comedy films, director Michael Lehmann successfully created a film about morality.
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