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35 Years Ago, ‘Heathers’ Set The (Pitch-Black) Tone For The Macabre Teen Genre

35 Years Ago, ‘Heathers’ Set The (Pitch-Black) Tone For The Macabre Teen Genre

Heathers is not your typical teen movie. When it first arrived in theaters 35 years ago on March 31, 1989, the few people who saw it didn’t entirely know what to make of it. In a period when movies like Sixteen Candles were raking in cash, this grim morality play was prophetic — and what was on the horizon was Gen X.

Heathers is a sardonic coming-of-age story with a deeper meaning. It’s American Psycho meets Pretty in Pink, a biting satire of teenybopper rom-coms combining teen angst with a body count. The movie is dark and explosive in more ways than one, looking at what it means to become a woman and, more so, one prepared for life after high school.

It set the tone for an upheaval in how teens in the ’90s fit into society and served as a reminder that life wasn’t perfect, and that’s OK.

Trigger warning: This post contains mentions of suicide and violence.

What’s Heathers about?

High school is eat or be eaten. For her safety, Veronica (Winona Ryder) aligned herself with the apex predators at Westerburg High, the three-pronged clique known as The Heathers. The trio of popular girls with the same first name (played by Kim Walker, Shannen Doherty, and Lisanne Falk) run this small-town school, using Veronica’s intelligence to humiliate and dominate their classmates.

She hates her so-called friends and the actions she feels forced to do to survive. Everything changes when Veronica meets J.D. (Christian Slater), a rebellious loner who makes an impression by unloading his Colt Python in the cafeteria aimed at two bullying jocks.

Despite being in different social circles, Veronica and J.D. instantly fall for each other based on their mutual cynicism for the schoolyard status quo. Their romance morphs into something sinister when he takes Veronica’s animosity too far, suggesting the world would be better off without the Heathers. When Heather Chandler croaks after guzzling drain cleaner given to her by J.D., the pair leave a note implying death by suicide to conceal their crime.

This sets off a chain of events that leads to more murders, elevating their victim’s popularity while transforming them into martyrs. As the social balance is upset, J.D. reveals his darker intentions while Veronica gets forced to grow up in a hurry and stop her homicidal ex-boyfriend from blowing up the school.

Veronica just wanted to graduate high school, but she drank J.D.’s Kool-Aid… and so did Heather #1.

New World Pictures

The extreme always makes an impression.

The MTV Generation was growing up, and suddenly, the typical carefree teen romance film seemed trivial compared with what was happening in the world. Heathers was among the first of its era to examine that cynicism, and what better setting than an idyllic high school that could seamlessly fit into a John Hughes film? Hughes’ movies embraced a caste system that wasn’t far from the truth but viewed it all through rose-colored glasses. Heathers strayed from those stereotypes and showed high school for the teenage wasteland it could be.

Heathers paved the way for Beverly Hills 90210, once again casting Shannen Doherty in the spotlight of a project that frequently centered on how nasty teens can be to one another. Fifteen years later, Mark Waters — brother of Heathers screenwriter Daniel Waters — directed Mean Girls, a film that was Heathers for modern times (albeit less gloomy).

“I picked the wrong time to be a human being.”

Interestingly, Heathers has a little-known feminist origin story.

When Daniel Waters was a senior in high school, he read a book that changed his perspective about the world. Sure, he loved reading about “angsty young girls” in Seventeen magazine as an adolescent, but after discovering Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, he was rocked to his core. This feminist tome from 1949 questioned readers to consider “what is a woman?” as well as the role men played in the development of a woman’s life and the societal imbalance that positioned women as inferior to them.

Waters wrote Heathers with that book in mind, using the experiences of his sister and her friends to flesh out the concept. The part that stuck out most was de Beauvoir’s commentary on how many women will tear each other down, systemically reinforcing their perceived place in the world. High school was the perfect analog to this, and Heathers brutally demonstrated the point.

No matter how powerful the Heathers believe they are, they give themselves to men whose only purpose is to use them.

Veronica never fit in with The Heathers, and there’s a good reason why.

New World Pictures

While the Heathers use Veronica’s brain to maintain their rank in the school hierarchy, J.D. takes advantage of it for his sadistic agenda. He’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing, living in a shrine to the phallus filled with obelisks and exercise equipment to emphasize manhood. It’s a trait he inherited from his misogynist father, whose disdain for women is far from subtle. Today, we’d call that toxic masculinity, but in 1989, this behavior was accepted.

After Veronica realizes she’s being used by her psychotic boyfriend just as the Heathers used her, she rises above it and liberates herself from the situation — saving the student body in the process. Befriending Martha at the end isn’t just wholesome but an optimistic demonstration of her newfound confidence and budding womanhood. Veronica doesn’t have time for petty drama. She just wants to live her best life with the people she chooses to do it with, cruelty-free.

Real life sucks a loser dry.

A testament to Gen X, Heathers is not your average anti-establishment flick. It drives beyond teen angst and into smashing the patriarchy.

If the Brat Pack was the old guard, Ryder was part of the new, and Heathers was just the beginning of a genre of films that saw disillusioned teens take control of their lives from the adults who didn’t understand them.

The bigger picture is how Heathers shows the masks teenagers wear that often carry over into adulthood. Many remain shackled to the rungs of the high school social ladder, and that mindset is more childish than the people they complain about to “act like adults.”

Of course, not all of the film has aged well — some of which is to be expected due to the passage of time and societal “norms.” But the film still largely holds up as a satirical movie with some razor-sharp commentary about teens, women, and the society that holds both to such wild standards.

Heathers was ’90s counter-culture on the big screen moments before that became the next big trend and stayed impactful decades later. How very!

Heathers is streaming on Tubi, Roku, Amazon and other platforms.

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