The overly sweetened portrayal of high school during the John Hughes era took a turn with the arrival of the cult classic, Heathers, in 1989, which turned typical teen comedy elements like teen angst into violence, bad boys into school shooters, and date nights into murders.
Set in the desolate town of Sherwood, Ohio, at Westerburg High, where the crown of popularity is a red scrunchie, and all the most popular girls are called Heather, we follow Veronica Sawyer (Winona Ryder) as she makes her way through high school as a member of the elite group of Heathers, who entertain themselves by bullying people at lunchtime, and are armed with a myriad of snarky remarks (“Did you have a brain tumour for breakfast?” being a personal favourite). When Veronica falls for the mysterious Jason Dean (Christian Slater), the story quickly turns into a satirical sequence of murder and suicide, all washed down with a cherry slushy. How very.
One of the main questions Heathers prompts us to ask ourselves is: “If everyone jumped off a bridge would you?” After the suicides of some of the popular kids at Westerburg, suicide definitely seems to have become somewhat of a trend for the students, and we even see Heather McNamara admit that if everyone killed themselves, she probably would too. Today, more than ever, we are constantly being influenced by other people with the overwhelming presence of social media, influencing what we buy and how we go about our daily life. By going to the extreme and using suicide as the new trend at Westerburg High, Heathers forces us to question the extent to which we are being influenced by other people. In doing so, the film also highlights how easy it is for something so serious to become so glamorised. This, again, is something that continues to happen today, for example, in the 2017 Netflix original, 13 Reasons Why. Heathers does not glamorise suicide though; instead, it shows how fragile teenagers can be when being influenced by others – something we should always keep in mind.
While most teen comedies of the 80s give teenagers hope for the future, Heathers casts a cynical shadow over this hope, suggesting that the hierarchical structure of high school popularity will never change, even as we progress into adulthood. Veronica and JD initially seek to eliminate all the villains which seem to be leading their society, with the ultimate goal of destroying the system and making everyone equal. They soon realise though, that this isn’t possible – after Heather Chandler’s death, Heather Duke takes the red scrunchie, making it clear that when one Heather dies, another comes along. We see that the true villain isn’t JD, the Heathers, or Veronica, but society itself. This inability of the characters to overcome the main problem is in stark contrast to most 80s teen films, where the characters seem to be able to overcome anything that gets in their way, which perhaps isn’t the reality.
These extreme themes in Heathers not only offer us an edgy take on your typical 80s teen movie, but also an insightful commentary on society and its problems. So despite the shoulder pads and typical 80s film music, Heathers remains just as relatable today, forcing us to realise the similarities between Westerburg and our society in general, making us wonder: does high school ever end?
Image: Nicholas Andrew via Flickr