Heathers: A Descent Into Satirical Darkness

Writer Sophia Zhang reviews the 1998 cult movie Heathers.

The poster for Heathers (1989), starring Winona Ryder and Christian Slater.


The poster for Heathers (1989), starring Winona Ryder and Christian Slater.

Sophia Zhang

The 80s were the Hughian era for teen flicks. Influenced by movies directed by John Hughes like The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, and  Sixteen Candles, every teen flick was cheesy, saccharine, and filled with lighthearted messages of high school being the best period of your life and fairytale endings. 

Heathers (1989), directed by Michael Lehmann was a sharp contrast.  It said no–the perfect romantic movie ending doesn’t happen, and high school is at the very least, hell. Titled after a clique of four girls in an Ohio high school, composed of three Heathers–Heather Chandler (Kim Walker), Heather Duke (Shannan Doherty), and Heather Macamara (Lisanne Falk)–and one Veronica (Winona Ryder), the clique enforced a reign of psychotic terror over the school. Veronica is the film’s heroine and is appalled by the behavior of her clique; she still has some vestiges of empathy left, yet she keeps her opinion to herself and doesn’t speak out. That is, until she falls in love with a rebel named J. D. (Christian Slater), short for James Dean.

In an attempt to destroy Westerberg High’s oppressive hierarchy, J.D. embarks on a killing spree with Veronica’s help, murdering the “populars” and disguising their deaths as suicide. During the process, Heathers satirically touches upon and offers sophisticated takes on subjects like suicide, eating disorders, bullying, school shootings, and sexual assult. Bleak and macabre, the movie also highlights adolescent cruelty while casting it in a humorous light. With deliciously witty dialogues and timeless slang, it’s contributed infinitely quotable lines from “what’s your damage?” to “I love my dead, gay son” to “f*ck me gently with a chainsaw” and “my teen angst bullsh*t has a body count.”

Another source of humor in Heather’s comes from the way it cleverly subverts tropes and messages by amplifying them to the point of grotesque. The bad boy is no longer simply a bad boy, but a trigger-happy psychopathic murderer. Similarly, mocking society’s tendency to ascribe deeper meaning to everything, it’s popular kids and outcasts didn’t have hidden depths and weren’t misunderstood. They were just as shallow, nasty, and stupid as they appeared on the surface. 

These cynical messages are juxtaposed with ridiculous visuals.  The movie opens with a scene is over the three Heathers playing croquet with Veronica’s head as a target. It’s stuck through a hole in the ground and the audience sees bright croquet balls slapping against it.. The movie has an almost garishly bright color palette that’s composed pretty much solely of red, blue, yellow, and green. Every character also has their own color story. These visuals serve to distance the observer and heighten the absurdity of the film, adding to its satirical nature.

The dark subject matter that Heathers depicts is what resulted in it being a complete box office flop at that time. However, that’s also what garnered it love, amassing a devoted cult following, multiple remakes, and a broadway show. Those who’d never related to the paradisian portrayal of high school embraced Heathers because they felt that despite being an exaggeration, it was the only movie that had portrayed high school as the cutthroat world it was: a world where students battle with bulimia, bullying, depression, and parental indifference. It was a world where the cool kids are secretly insecure, where the faculty is failing their students, where teens are cynical, depressed, and often cruel. It felt real and raw and resonated in a way no movie before it had.

A trailblazer, it also left an undeniable impact on all the teen movies that followed it, from Beverly Hills, to Jawbreaker, 90210,  Clueless, Thirteen, Gossip Girl, Glee, and most significantly, Mean Girl.  Yet even to this day no high school comedy film has matched Heathers in its courage to heavily criticize high school, the popular kids, and even society itself. And until one does, Heathers will never fade from its iconic cult status.

In today’s times, Heather can often feel too extreme and it’s satire can hit too close to home. But it’s also important to remember it’s satire was never at the expense of victims of bullying or cruelty. Instead, it was used to mock society’s flipplant and ignorant attitude towards the problems of teens and the way earlier shows romanticized suicide. Intent is key to being able to laugh at dark humor, and there’s a purpose for Heather’s “edginess”. This dark and obviously satirical tone is meant to expose the worst of humanity, not to make light of sensitive topics or tackle them for the sake of being controversial.

So if you’re ever in the mood for a brilliant, dark, disturbing, and hilarious ride, press play on Heathers and buckle up; you’ll definitely get one.