Rewatching Heathers, the Violent Dark Comedy That Made '80s Teen Films Seem Like Reindeer Games

Rewatching Heathers, the Violent Dark Comedy That Made '80s Teen Films Seem Like Reindeer Games

This week marks the 32nd anniversary of the release of the cult classic film Heathers, an inauspicious milestone that nonetheless reminds me that I am becoming old. Released in 1989 at the cusp of Winona Ryder’s meteoric rise, Heathers used extremely of-its-time dark humor to spoof suburban white high school culture, the absurdity of teen-parent interaction during the dissolution of the nuclear family fantasy and, after a decade of John Hughes, the concept of the teen movie itself. Its cynicism and biting humor were a cultural signal that the ’80s were over and the alternative ’90s were about to come crashing, or maybe languidly and skeptically sauntering, in; its depiction of Ryder as a goth-adjacent popular girl who hates it and teams up with hot loner Jason Dean (Christian Slater, serving his best Jack Nicholson) to unwittingly off her tyrannical clique was a tacit acknowledgment that the American status quo would no longer do. Teens were sick of the shit and the outcasts would soon rise up.

I have seen Heathers approximately one thousand times—rewatching it Thursday night I found myself repeating scores of lines on cue that I’d memorized by osmosis back in the 7th grade—but this week, it came to my attention that Shannon Melero, one of Jezebel’s Youngs, had not seen it. And so we came together to watch, and discuss. Lick it up, baby. Lick. It. Up. —Julianne Escobedo Shepherd

JES: Shannon, you know how I feel about this film. But what did you think of it?

Shannon Melero: Going into this movie for the first time ever, I had a certain idea of what I thought it was about based on pop culture references I’ve heard over the years. It turns out that this movie is not a wholesome teen flick about the outcasts taking down the school bullies. It is actually super violent! And while I know this is from a different era, I found it weird that this movie is still considered such a cultural touchstone despite how lightly it takes suicide, bullying, and guns in a school setting. Hits different in a post 9/11, post-Columbine, post-Sandy Hook, post-Parkland reality!

JES: This is absolutely where our generation gap is showing; when this film came out, Columbine was still a decade off, and I remember my immediate concerns around this time were the war in Iraq (the first one) and what we then called “global warming.” But I wondered how it would hold up for someone much younger who hasn’t seen it—beyond the concerns you note, one thing that struck me most rewatching it was how cavalierly it used homophobic terms. The homophobes get murdered (spoiler!) and I remember that being satisfying and I felt like the terms were deployed as a way to show what assholes the jocks were, but it also included stereotyping that just wouldn’t be done today. (I.e. the mineral water set-up.) What did you think of that, Shannon?

SM: Honestly I didn’t feel any sort of satisfaction when the homophobes were murdered, mostly because of the manner in which they were murdered. It felt to me like, sure, let’s kill them—not because they are homophobic and vile, but simply because they spread a rumor about Veronica—and then let’s stage their death using equally homophobic tropes. I will say though, the mineral water thing really went over my head and my husband’s head. He was also seeing it for the first time and all he had to say about that was, “I love mineral water.”

JES: So basically, mineral water in the ’80s wasn’t widespread in the U.S. and was seen as a sort of bougie, erudite thing, which here implied femininity—and therefore male queerness—because it was in contrast with the hulking, conservative ideas of the masculine that were the norm. So that whole part was pretty homophobic! But also I want to note that they were murdered because they spread a sexist rumor about Veronica giving them simultaneous blowjobs, which wasn’t true. And if this happened now, who knows how it would play out—I have to say, being old sucks but I’m glad I spent my childhood unmussed by the internet. Still had a reputation as the school slut, though, even though I was a virgin. Teen boys are shitty no matter the era!

SM: Another thing that really confused me about this film was the fashion. Maybe I am unaware because I went to a school that required uniforms but did people really put this much effort into getting dressed and ratting their hair every single day just to go sit in a classroom? It seems like a lot! Also, did school dress codes not exist in the ’80s? Because you cannot walk into a public school these days with so much as a shoulder exposed but the cheerleaders were full vag during some of their cartwheels. As a former cheerleader myself that one really took me aback because I got in trouble for my spankies (the spandex underwear that goes under the uniform to hide your bits) revealed too much of my butt cheeks during any kicks. Those spankies weren’t ready for all this jelly.

JES: Dress codes existed but definitely not in suburban teen public schools, and they were absolutely selectively applied to target specifically girls and Black and brown kids. But yes, there was a ton of hair ratting in the ’80s; a lot of my friends lived and died by the gods of Aquanet. That said, I adore the fashion in this film; the costuming is genius to me. One thing that was specifically ‘80s here that I wanted to ask you about, though, was whether there were still cliques divided by fashion in the same way there were in the ‘80s and ‘90s in the suburbs. Did your school divide up into like jocks, cheerleaders, weird stoners, skate kids, etc? Or is that a specifically pre-internet thing?

SM: Well, I went to an all-girls school so our cliques were a little bit different. The internet also really changed how groupings worked, because if you didn’t have a lot of in-person charisma but your MySpace or your Tumblr was popping, that lent you more popularity IRL. If I can remember that far back into my memory, every grade had its own group of popular girls, then there were the jocks, the geniuses, and the girls who fucked. That may seem like a weird clique, but this was an all-girls Catholic school that was a stone’s throw away from an all-boys Jesuit school (if you’re from the BX you already know what I’m talking about) so it was a big deal if you were fucking, and you made sure to tell everyone about it.

JES: Catholicism does that to a person, in my experience. (See: school slut.) So in my trillionth viewing, I have to say I still loved it, even though it hasn’t entirely aged well. I love how Veronica outsmarts her homicidal, stalking teen boyfriend; I love how she realizes the value of friendship; I love its subtle references to Charlotte’s Web (“greetings and salutations”) and Guy Debord (the funeral dream sequence with 3D glasses). I love that the screenwriter, Daniel Waters—who also wrote the script for Tim Burton’s widely reviled classic Batman Returns—wrote Heathers with the express idea that it would be directed by Stanley Kubrick. STANLEY KUBRICK! On one hand, I cannot imagine the hubris, on the other, I really want to see Stanley Kubrick’s Heathers. But you didn’t like it so much, I take it.

SM: I did not love this movie but what I did enjoy was the teen jargon. This style of teen movie which I now understand was fully replicated (and perfected) in movies like Clueless and Mean Girls really killed it in making its own vernacular that (a) works in any situation and (b) readily identifies you as someone who has seen this movie and is therefore in the loop on life. My personal favorite from Heathers is “so very” which I now see as the ‘80s version of “fetch” and “why are you pulling on my dick,” which can be interpreted as the original “as if” or “way harsh Ty.”

JES: This is correct and I’m so goddamn old. My final question for you: Were you even alive when this movie came out?

SM: As if! No, I was not alive when this movie came out but you know who was born around the same time as this movie? Taylor Swift. So 1989 was really just a great year for pop culture in general.

JES: I’m going to lie my decrepit body on the floor now.

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