How “Heathers” Taught Me To Say No

The original script of Heathers saw the entirety of Westerberg High dead.

Daniel Waters’s original screenplay closed on a soot-and-blood covered Veronica Sawyer standing on the front steps of her high school with a bomb strapped to her chest – the very bomb that JD, her murderous ex-boyfriend, had planned to use to blow up the school. Veronica, unable to stop JD and unable to defuse the bomb, dies in the rubble with her classmates.

Next, a prom scene in heaven shows all the cliques in the social hierarchy mingling, dancing, and having a blast – no pun intended. It’s a sick, dark conclusion, and it validates JD’s philosophy: “The only place different social types can genuinely get along with each other is in heaven.”

In the final version, the film ends on a resigned, smirking JD, the bomb strapped to him as Veronica looks on. When he explodes, the detonation lights the cigarette wedged between her lips. She then stumbles into the school, plucks the power-signifying red scrunchie from Heather Duke’s hair, and befriends Martha Dunnstock, a silent, bullied girl who had the only real suicide attempt amongst a slew of fake ones in the film. As the credits rolled, Veronica took charge and put an end to the Heathers’ dictatorship — not only over their control over their tiny Midwestern high school, but their control over herself.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the release of Heathers. It is a satirical black comedy truly in a league of its own. It is notMean Girls with murder,” because those are fighting words. Heathers served as an antithesis to the flashy optimism of John Hughes films, where teens had their problems but could always band together and find common ground, where the guy always got the girl in the end (or vice versa). Heathers exposed high school for what it was: bleak, uncaring, and hell-bent on keeping everything – including students – in order.

Heathers follows a Veronica trapped in a catty friend group of three Heathers, the most popular clique at her school. Veronica Sawyer hates being popular, hates her so-called friends, hates the clueless adults, hates her mindless small town – and yet, there isn’t much she can do to change it. She understands she is a small, powerless cog in a well oiled bullshit machine. It isn’t until she begins dating the lawless new kid Jason “JD” Dean that all the change comes swinging in at full force. The couple become Ohio’s very own teenage Bonnie and Clyde by accidentally killing Heather Chandler, the leader of the Heathers, and later, purposefully killing football jocks Kurt and Ram. They cover their tracks by staging the murders to look like suicides, complete with forged suicide notes.

When I watched Heathers for the first time, I was 14. It was not love at first sight. Though I’d had a die-hard crush on Winona Ryder since Edward Scissorhands, my post-tween brain just couldn’t wrap itself around the complexity of Veronica Sawyer’s unconventional coming of age story. It wasn’t until I was 17, on the cusp of graduating from high school, that Heathers became my favourite film, having gone through the trenches of adolescence a little more.

Now, if I can indulge for a moment before getting into the nitty gritty stuff: Winona Ryder is perfect, and this movie is perfect, and I, too, want to stand above an ex-lover with a cigarette in my mouth as I stare blankly at his exploded body and become, suddenly, too cool to care about being too cool. Forget prom and boys with boom boxes. This is the real teenage dream girls want.

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If I could sum up Heathers in two words, they would be war and power. And high school is the perfect vessel to explore such a dynamic duo. Westerberg serves as a battleground, its civilians either brainless zombies following their leader, or growling watch dogs foaming at the mouth and attacking the less fortunate runts of the litter. I didn’t go to a high school nearly as war-torn as Westerberg, but how many times did I shrug and scoff and roll my eyes to feel cool and accepted? How many times did we all?

It’s a war that the entire student body willingly participates in, and mourning the casualties make them feel accepted. JD and Veronica’s murders, disguised as suicides, become a spectacle. For students, being sad over the cool kids who died, and even trying suicide on a whim, like Heather McNamara, is the newest hot trend to cash in on. It’s only tragic if it’s the attractive and popular kids killing themselves — not the “wannabes” who are actually experiencing hardship, like the unpopular Martha. For teachers and adults, it’s an opportunity to shove news cameras in the students’ faces and exploit their hardships. Everyone wants to feel sad, and everyone wants to feel like they’re part of something. It’s all one big ironic wink at society and pop culture’s fixation on romanticizing death — but only the deaths of certain people. The murdered Heather, Kurt, and Ram become martyrs. Heather actually had depth and was just a girl trapped by societal confines! Kurt and Ram were actually lovers and killed each other in a “repressed homosexual suicide pact!” And oh, yes, they totally would have been accepted as gay teen royalty in their conservative town had they actually been gay and come out when they were alive, instead of ridiculed to the point of real suicide! No doubt about it!

Veronica didn’t anticipate any of this fake-deep mourning. She watches her school morph into an ongoing funeral, feeling paradoxically guilty but not sad at being responsible for the deaths of her peers.

There’s nothing that I love more in fiction than a fundamentally good person who makes terrible, terrible decisions. And with all her horrible deeds in mind, I still wanted to be Veronica Sawyer, like how little kids want to be superheroes. Not in the sense that she’s entwined with murder – although, that sure does tempt me when life gets especially unliveable. Veronica looks beautiful, is beauty by the law of her school, and yet is deeply disillusioned by the mere concept of beauty. “You’re beautiful,” she says, with every ounce of sarcasm she can muster to a passive-aggressive preppy girl. Is all this beauty and power worth it if it means trading freedom? If it means being stepped on by an even more beautiful, more powerful girl’s penny loafer?

Veronica is cool, but also extremely pretentious — a way in which I was already like her. She’s a real teen girl, snide and blase but smart enough to recognize bullshit when it’s in front of her. She sprouts the courage necessary to save herself and all the others in the bitter, bloody end. And that ending stretches beyond the credits and bleeds into our world. When I was 16, courage was certainly something I didn’t have, and it left me starry-eyed to see a teenage girl character played by an actual teenage girl that did.

Winona Ryder herself revealed on an episode of The Rookie Podcast that when she was in high school, a student who was relentlessly bullied had killed herself, and everyone who tormented or ignored this girl suddenly mourned her as though they’d been best friends with her all along. The girl committed suicide just one week before Ryder read the script for Heathers. As haunting as the coincidence was, the story resonated deeply with her, and she knew she had to play Veronica Sawyer.

“To me, it said so much about how society treats teenagers, and how teenagers treat teenagers,” she said on Rookie. “…My whole theory is that it doesn’t change, and there’s Heathers out there in the real world.”

Some may call the characters one-dimensional, but it’s all in good satire, baby. Sometimes, people are genuinely no better than they appear. There is no shiny gold to be mined beneath a stone exterior.

And yet, at the same time, the script wants to remind us that these characters are in high school. Why else would we see Heather Chandler spit at herself in a mirror after being sexually pressured, even if for a single fleeting moment of vulnerability? Why else would we see Heather Duke, Chandler’s replacement, have bulimia triggered by Chandler’s abuse? And while no tragic backstory can justify murder and terrorism, JD watched his mother commit suicide and is forced to live with a father that has no love for him.

I make no excuses for rapists, no matter their age (see: Kurt and Ram). And believe me, when the boys in my Grade 8 class pushed me to the ground at recess and ran away snickering, I never wondered if they had tragic backstories that drove them to hurt me. I still don’t, and I hope they’ve tripped and fell on their faces in front of a large crowd at some point in their lives, wherever they are. In high school, people are assholes. But they’re also children learning how to be people. It’s all very contradictory and frustrating.

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Heather Chandler does not see the error of her ways and shake hands with Veronica at the end. She downs a cup of drain-cleaner given to her by JD and Veronica, crashes through a glass table, and dies half-an-hour into the story. Veronica never rallies the school into a Kumbaya session. She is isolated from genuine moments of friendship, save for her occasional scenes with her childhood best friend Betty Finn. And instead of being the rebellious “bad boy” with a sad past, whose attitude can be fixed if a nice girl loves him hard enough, JD rejects the status quo by embracing chaos and murder.  These characters are all archetypes imbued with a flicker of intense reality, flawed people with fears and insecurities — some in ways that cannot be fixed with fairy dust at the end of the story, some that end in death. They are still teenagers growing up in a world of baffling power structures, all doing what they think they need to do to make it out alive.

30 years after its release, Heathers is gaining a glut of new fans. An Off-Broadway musical adaptation premiered in 2014 and spawned a devoted fandom on sites like Tumblr, YouTube, and Archive of Our Own. I confess that I enjoy the campy, glitzy musical and had quite the phase with it a few years ago despite my gripes with its missteps in characterization and tone – I still don’t love how much the stage changed JD and Veronica’s characters, and the cinematic movie Heather Duke is far more dynamic, and even sympathetic, than the 24/7 bitchy villain she’s butchered to be in the musical. But I can’t resist jamming to “Dead Girl Walking” and “Meant to be Yours.” I even worked backstage in a production of the show in Toronto, and I got to watch it from the wings a few nights a week. I found myself drawing even closer to the material, and delighted to see the rest of the crew fall in love with it.

Shortcomings and all, the musical deserves props for introducing new fans to the much superior movie, and building, for the first time ever, a community of fans. As ugly and combative as it can sometimes get, the “Heathers” fandom  simply wasn’t a prominent thing in the ‘80s — or, at least, it wasn’t as widely accessible as it is today. Now, fans old and new can go online and exchange their headcanons, display fan-art, and discuss in depth what the story means to them. The Heathers renaissance proves the timeless appeal of its key ingredients: the dread of high school, the difficulty of friendships, and a young female protagonist who finds strength in a society that wants to pin her down.

Underneath the colour-coordinated outfits, the hilarious one-liners, and the iconic slang, Heathers is ultimately a story about a girl who learns to say no – to oppressive forces at school and at home, to her destructive relationship with a boy whose chaos she is not responsible for fixing, and to the power structures that rule both teens and adults alike. As much as fans, myself included, idolize Winona Ryder’s sarcastic and clever Veronica, we never acknowledge that she starts off as, well, weak. At the outset, Veronica is jaded, passive, and inclined to go along with the Heathers’ mean-spirited antics. It’s a stark change from the typical heroic misfit who stands up to the bullies and protects the bullied. Veronica, while a part of the in-crowd, is a misfit within that in-crowd. She allows the Heathers to walk all over her and follows JD’s lead on forging suicide notes and shooting Kurt and Ram with “ich luge” bullets.

It’s only in the final 15 minutes of the film that Veronica decides she’s finally had enough. She confronts JD in the school’s boiler room to protect her classmates, even if it means giving her own life. She says no. No, JD, I will not be a part of this. No, I will not let you hurt innocent people. No, I will not give in to you or fuel your destructiveness anymore. In the film’s final scene, she says no to Heather Duke. No, this school has a new sheriff in town. No, you will not continue to treat me and everyone else like shit. And if you still do, I won’t care anymore.

“You know what I want, babe?” Veronica spits. “Cool guys like you out of my life.” And then she shoots JD and stops the bomb seconds before it can blow the school up.

As much as I would have loved to see the prom-in-heaven original ending, it’s David Newman’s tinny score building in the background as the image of Veronica nonchalantly watching her ex-boyfriend blow up in front of her, the look in her eyes saying I won, that has struck me profoundly and stayed with me for years. It’s an image I wouldn’t trade for anything.

I imagine that no massive change really came to Westerberg after Veronica took the red scrunchie from Heather Duke’s hair. The cliquiness and unkindness probably would have continued. It takes a lot for one girl to change a whole group of people, and red scrunchies are really just metaphors. But Veronica befriended Martha, a girl who had one line, and who by the end is recovering in a wheelchair after her suicide attempt.

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Heathers made me feel like one of the blind sheeple we have all been at some point, and then it made me feel like a not so great person for all the times I went along with something unsavory to be deemed socially acceptable. And then, it made me feel okay. Because you have the option to not be so bad. You can say no. Life will probably be just as full of Heathers and restrictive hierarchies as it was in school, and these things never actually crumble. But you can still find little ways to say no to it all. Perhaps Daniel Waters would gouge his eyes out after reading my corny take on the ending to his most popular work, but to me, at least, it resonates as the one semi-optimistic needle in the film’s haystack of nihilism.

Veronica might not have been able to end the zombie-like mentality of high school or the corrupt power structures that put Heathers at the top and Marthas at the bottom, but she did change one person’s life for the better, and her own. That is worth something, no matter how small. Veronica’s coming-of-age narrative did not centre on a boy loving her or the student body accepting her. Instead, she said, “fuck all of that,” walked down the empty hallway with Martha, and carried on her own way.

And isn’t that so very?

 

2 thoughts on “How “Heathers” Taught Me To Say No

  1. flora says:

    This was wonderful to read, I relate so much in finding a connection to this film that feels so very personal- it was a case of one of those things you find at precisely the right time in your life (case in point, me as a pretentious younger teenager still sticking at faking it all to be with the in crowd).
    It’s really interesting to see a proper examination of the evolution of the ending, as the dream-sequence esque original has been mentioned online, but little has actually been said about it. I love the agency Veronica gains in the ending as-is, the cyclicality of her lighting her cigarette off of JD, him having done so off her hand previously, feeling very just!

    Thank you!

    Like

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