by Nick Burns
Cut, no. 36, May 1991, pp. 32-36
Michael Lehman's 1988 release, HEATHERS, a teen film about suicide, was not a box office smash. Critically, however, it had mixed reviews. Bob Mondello, who reports regularly for American University's WAMU and National Public Radio's "All Things Considered," included the film on his ten best of the year list. More important, HEATHERS has achieved a certain cult status with segments of U.S. youth. My sister, for instance, reporting from a white Detroit suburb, says her teenage son and his friends have watched the film over and over. My friend's son, visiting from Iowa, was anxious to see the film again after I mentioned I was working on this paper. And an informal poll among my students at the University of Oregon indicates a wide knowledge of HEATHERS. Any mention of the film in class generates responses from smiles and head-nods to “cool film."
HEATHERS stars Winona Ryder and Christian Slater. They both attend suburban Westerburg High, somewhere in Ohio. Ostensibly, the film is about peer pressure in an upper-middle-class high school; everyone wears nice clothes, yet someone must dominate the school pecking order. At the start, three girls, all named Heather, lead the pack. When Veronica/Winona Ryder wants to be included in their group, the three Heathers let her follow them around to learn the wiles of being popular. Then, a rash of suicides hits the school (eventually there's even a copy-cat suicide attempt). One of the Heathers is the first to die. J.D., Christian Slater, the new boy at school, masterminds the deaths, and he regularly induces Veronica's help.
But HEATHERS is not a teen slasher movie. It has no buckets of blood or other graphic violence; these kids die young and leave beautiful corpses. The film is dark and witty, caustic and sarcastic, a black comedy. These teenagers' alienation leads to drastic results. The initial "suicides" are murders, but HEATHERS is not a murder mystery. The film contains a little bit of all teen genres.[open notes in new window]
What, then, is an appropriate methodology to evaluate HEATHERS? The film falls soundly under the postmodernist blanket, full of what Fredric Jameson defines as "pastiche” and "blank parody." Its cynicism can also be read in a feminist way. However, I think neither of these approaches adequately accounts for the film's style. In this paper I want to show how HEATHERS defuses white suburban teen angst by offering filmic style and twists of conventional film language, instead of possibilities for change (however trite or clichéd). I want to argue that HEATHERS posits suburban teen subculture as aesthetic distinction, a lifestyle offering an aesthetic distance based on privileging form over content.
First, though, a very brief overview of how one might respond to the film from a postmodernist and/or feminist perspective, which I think are important though incomplete approaches. The film is full of empty references to popular culture. For example, when a radio DJ flames Trenton helps teens on a phone-in show called "Hot Probs," one listener complains, "I mean like Skipper's okay, but sometimes I feel like I'm on that island." The DJ answers as he hangs up, "If it wasn't for the courage of the fearless crew, the Minnow would be lost — and you are, too." At another moment, two policemen discover a double "suicide"; their names are "McCord" and "Milner,” a reference to the old television police show ADAM 12. In this scene, one cop prances and moves with all the stage mannerisms typically attributed to Barney Fife/Don Knotts on THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW.
These audio and visual cues match a series of satiric clichés in the film: mineral water signifies homosexuality; students are categorized as "Swatch Dogs" and "Diet Coke Heads"; Marvin Gaye lyrics become used as a drunken come-on ("When I get that feeling, I need sexual healing"); Cliff Notes for Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar seem to offer J.D. his initial inspiration to turn Heather's murder into a suicide. Yet each tidbit is just a simple allusion to other shows, books, movies, songs, etc. Even thematically, this structured emptiness quickly becomes apparent. The very first scene of the film in the school lunch room offers, among other issues, racial stereotyping, anorexia, drug abuse, sports, peer pressure, and world hunger; each subject is picked up and put down in a few quick seconds of film time, never to be mentioned again. Thus, the film seems simply empty at heart: funny, yes, but vacuous.
Meanwhile, the opening song, "Que Será, Será," as arranged by Van Dyke Parks and performed in a lush, camp, vaguely Doris Day rendition by Syd Straw (and reprised during the final credits as a more soulful ballad by Sly Stone), does hold potential thematic value — as does the other song around which the film is built Big Fun's "Teenage Suicide, Don't Do It," "Que Será, Será" seems to fit these teenagers who live in a world built out of images and conspicuous consumption. It makes perfect sense that in the suburban world of the three Heathers, Veronica's "teen angst bullshit has a body count" The first verse of the song goes like this:
Barbara Creed has done work exploring the intersection between feminism and posmodernism. Working predominantly with Fredric Jameson's notion of the "nostalgia film," and also the sci-fi and horror genres, Creed examines the collapse of master narratives. While postmodernism typically analyzes this as resulting from the breakdown of "ideologies which posit universal truths," feminism "would attempt to explain that crisis in terms of patriarchal ideology and the oppression of women and other minority groups." Ultimately Creed finds an alliance between postmodernist and feminist critical methodologies as having "major problems." Furthermore, "the crisis of the master narratives may not necessarily benefit women." HEATHERS is a film wide open to examinations both postmodernist and feminist, but ultimately the oppressed minority group becomes all of suburban youth subculture.
Within the film, Veronica is oppressed by J.D.; he finagles her assistance in three murders. (Throughout the film Veronica's only exchange with her dad/Bill Cm is to repeatedly inform him, "because you're an idiot"; Dad's clearly useless.) At the beginning of the film, she is hopelessly bemoaning her own fate:
Veronica falls for J.D. immediately. A game of strip-croquet leads to both high school romance and murder as their simple cures for high school existentialism. J.D. entices, badgers, and tricks Veronica into getting wrapped up in the murder/"suicides." For example, he lies that the bullets will only stun the victims.
After the second murders, "hippie" teacher Pauline Fleming/ Penelope Milford organizes an emotional "Be-in" in the cafeteria — in order for everyone to "revel in the revealing." In her diary, Veronica writes: "I've seen J.D.'s way; I've seen Miss Fleming's way and nothing has changed. I guess that's Heather's way." Heather Chandler/Kim Walker originally leads "the most powerful clique in school." Her scepter is a prominently large, bright red hair-tie, which matches her red clothes. After her death, the second leader, Heather Duke/ Shannon Doherty simply reaches in to Heather Chandler's locker, removes the red hair-tie and takes her place as the school "mega-bitch.”
Regardless who leads the pack, everyone is a loser. To merely examine the film's blank parody and broken chains of signification would overlook the film's primary message: this film robs youth, all youth. It takes away teen subculture and teenage anger and offers instead self-reflexive media humor and simplistic pop culture. From LEAVE IT TO BEAVER to the Kennedy assassination, from "Turbo Dogs" at the "Snappy Snack Shack" to tipping cows, nothing in this film holds value or even meaning.
Even suicide becomes a joke. Eventually, the overweight scapegoat Martha "Dumptruck" Dunnstock/ Carrie Lynn tries to kill herself to gain popularity. She survives her jump from a freeway overpass and ends up in a neck brace, riding a motorized cart around the Westerburg halls. Miss Fleming says, "Whether or not you kill yourself is one of the most important decisions a teenager can make." Heather (Duke) is more practical in referring to Martha: "Just another case of a geek trying to imitate the popular kids and failing miserably."
Life at Westerburg High goes on pretty much unchanged. A third Heather (Heather McNamara/ Lisanne Falk) tries to kill herself but is stopped by Veronica, who asks, "If everyone jumped off a bridge, would you?" Answers Heather: "Probably." But this Heather soon cheers up and eventually becomes a cheerleader. Veronica is thus the film's "winner," befriending Martha and saving the entire school from J.D.'s using a bomb to create a mass "suicide." Significantly, Veronica's first act as class leader is to pull that red hair-tie off of Heather (Duke): "Heather, my love," Veronica says, "there's a new Sheriff in town." The "Heather way" is thus replaced with the Veronica way. Sure, Veronica will be more beneficent and kind, but nothing has really changed. The cliques remain the cliques — except now four teenagers are dead.
Dick Hebdige has written about subculture and style. While much of his work centers on the punk movement in England, his basic notions about subculture and dominant culture clearly apply to a thoroughly U.S. film like HEATHERS. Dominant culture is continually trying to subsume subculture, continually trying to reform it as a part of dominant culture. Hebdige finds two ways that this is at work.
One way is by diffusion, spreading subculture out. As an example of diffusion, the fashion industry picks upon punk styles and then mass-markets them. Defusion means how the dominant culture can simply "pull the plug" on some aspect of a subculture. For example, a parent tells a teenager that when he or she grows up things will be better; the teen's problem is trivialized, defused. The original ending of Anthony Burgess' novel A Clockwork Orange (the final chapter that was deleted from the U.S. version of the text) offers another prime example of defusion. After a few years have passed, Alex is simply ready to get married, settle down. It's as if the rapes and murders were just a phase — no big deal — since now he's finally become an adult.
HEATHERS robs suburban youth subculture, primarily through the latter method: defusion. The film's humor trivializes the angst typically attributed to youth subculture. The big joke is that three people are killed in the story for nothing — except to rid the school of two sexist jocks and one prima donna Heather. Finally, J.D. kills himself. Veronica has no great change of heart. In the end she does still want to be popular and lead the pack, and she succeeds. Although she seems to operate a bit differently than her two predecessors, she now proudly wears that red hair-tie. Even more ominous, on the way to individuation, Veronica has gunned down J.D., who realizes, "You got power, power I didn't know you had."
When she shoots him and saves the day for Westerburg High, what kind of power does the film give her, and thus give to youth? J.D., wounded and bleeding, straps his bomb to himself, staggers out to the parking lot, and becomes the only true suicide in the film. Meanwhile, Heather, Heather, and Heather, dressed in red, green, and yellow respectively, are only interested in their social standing in the school pecking order. Martha "Dumptruck" and Betty Finn/ Reneé Estevez remain followers, equally hungry for what their weight and poor looks deny them within the film. And the rest of the male characters are either "geeks" or "stoners." The instructors are the same eccentric clichés that frequently surface in teen films, and the parental figures are jokes.
Ultimately, HEATHERS as a film offers the viewer nothing more than purely formalistic cinematic considerations. HEATHERS is clearly a bastard child of Hollywood Cinema. This is how HEATHERS rips off youth. The film plays with the conventions of characterization and it deliberately twists the character-based causality so common in U.S. film. While most films base plot on clear character motivation defined by psychology, HEATHERS offers none of this basic character psychology until very late in the plot. After J.D. has lied to Veronica about the blanks in the guns they use on Earn and Curt, after he's killed at least three people, only then does HEATHERS show that his actions are based on heredity and environment (his dad is clearly, equally twisted and his mom had killed herself years before). Only so late in the plot development does the film give the kind of character-based clues typically expected very early on in most U.S. cinema. In fact, Christian Slater's performance as J.D. easily can be seen merely as a parody/ pastiche of many early Jack Nicholson roles: the tilt of his head, the eyebrows, and even the nasal voice quality are all reminiscent of Nicholson.
HEATHERS obscurs even a simple plot — indeed there is little plot beyond who is wearing that red hair-tie. It leaves only formal values such as light, editing, etc. Pierre Bourdieu writes of the "aesthetic sense as the sense of distinction": 
“The aesthetic disposition is one dimension of a distant, self-assured relation to the world and to others which presupposes objective assurance and distance…It unites all those who are the product of similar conditions while distinguishing them from all others.”
HEATHERS offers just such a distinction. The film unites all those who recognize and understand filmic references to THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW, LEAVE IT TO BEAVER and many other shows, movies, songs, etc.; all those who recognize the jargon and language of high school and the "convenience speak" of the Snappy Snack Shack mini-mart; all those who yearn to act cool and look good as a way to escape their feelings of desperate alienation. Yet at the same time, HEATHERS robs this same teen group of any power except that power which unites them in their cultural void. There is no empowerment toward addressing or redressing any of these issues or concerns. The film does nothing except laugh at problems: no solutions, no answers. Not even murder is ultimately endorsed because the murderer kills himself. The film even deliberately avoids the simplistic, macho, stereotyped love responses that many teen films give as the ultimate solution to every problem.
The distinction that HEATHERS offers is the distinction of distance from the very problems that youth subculture constantly battles; spectators are united in recognizing (and laughing at) images and conspicuous consumption. Spectators are united in recognizing filmic devices and artifice. Spectators can recognize the unique language of high school. Early in the film, Veronica says: "Heather told me she teaches people real life. She said, 'Real life sucks losers dry. If you want to fuck with the eagles, you have to learn to fly'." Spectators can recognize the problems of youth: I use my grand IQ to decide what color lip gloss to wear and how to make three keggers before curfew." And most important, spectators can recognize small twists in conventional film language, which contribute to give HEATHERS the stylistic artifice which holds the rest of the emptiness together.
Ultimately, spectators are united as a group who can read twists of film language. This is their final distinction: to recognize style. Style and form are thus endorsed over content. This becomes a kind of formalistic imperialism, which defuses the problems of youth subculture. Such distinction, when offered to spectators, matches what Fredric Jameson calls a "Formalist Projection," in which content becomes overlooked in favor of identifying "whatever specific dominant elements the individual work of art proposes.” In the case of HEATHERS, such "formalist projection" works quite clearly to remove from youth subculture those feelings usually intrinsic to it (alienation, angst, insecurity, peer pressure, etc.), and instead supply youth with a distanced perspective based on structure, style, and form, but not emotion.
Furthermore, Jameson has posited a contemporary breakdown of "cognitive mapping." In HEATHERS, spectators are left with no map of the film's content. Except for using a conventional time period and the teen film form, HEATHERS offers no "map" for predicting or understanding the emotions raised within the plot. Traditional Hollywood causality is missing throughout most of the film. Effects appear before cause. Near the end, Veronica even fakes her own suicide to confuse J.D.: "Dear Diary, Now it's my turn. Let's see how the son of a bitch reacts to a suicide he didn't perform himself?” Yet this faked death isn't clear to spectators until minutes later. And the ultimate causality in the film — why J.D. acts the way he does — is only fully explained in the last scene, when he justifies his plan to blow up the school: "Our burning bodies will be the ultimate protest to a society that degrades us… [it will be] the Woodstock of the 80's."
What signifiers are offered in HEATHERS, usually involving skewed referents, are built on simple disposable consumer items — for example, the red hair-tie. One important consumer item in the film is strangely lacking a film definition of any sort Big Fun's "Teenage Suicide, Don't Do IT." Mentioned a number of times in the film as "number one on the charts," etc., the song's lyrics are never exactly heard anywhere. Significantly, the song is playing on the radio near the end of the film, when Veronica and J,D. break up and he talks about his mother: "They said her death was an accident but she knew what she was doing,' As this moment of causality-come-late in the film explains J.D.'s personality, "Teenage Suicide, Don't Do It" is layered underneath the dialog, but not really loud enough to hear. Later in the scene, J.D. shoots the radio into silence with his gun, a pistol at least as big as the guns of most current police/ thriller films. Spectators never hear the song. What exactly does it say — aside from the title? The group Big Fun gets a song credit at the end of the film, but where's the music, the lyrics? This song offers a title, nothing more; within HEATHERS, it becomes only another moment of pastiche.
In fact, the film says, teenage suicide, do it. During the last few scenes, J.D. is shown as psychotic — Veronica even calls him that. Causality is postulated in the final moments, in time for J.D. to tape the bomb to his chest. Knowing he's psychotic validates his suicide.
When the new boss replaces the old, it is not fair to say things have simply stayed the same. The style of the song "Que Será, Será” has changed. The distinction in the plot favors Veronica's leadership over the Heathers' or J.D.'s: she is neither dead nor a cheerleader. But in Westerburg High School, the power structure remains unchanged. For the spectator, distinction operates slightly differently. Viewers are invited to recognize style over content, obvious in the film's postmodern twists of pastiche, kinds of lighting and color, distortions of classic Hollywood film form, and reversals of narrative and character causality. What unites spectators are not in the problems of teens trying to cope with the everyday world, but in the distance offered from those very problems, a social separation based on identifying film style. These social problems are not only diffused in HEATHERS — laughed at on major cineplex screens, and repeatedly rented out on videocassette — but more importantly these issues are defused, trivialized in a filmic process which emphasizes form over content
To sing "Que será, será" in the face of teen suicide is indeed a revealing comment on contemporary culture. It is a comment which proves dominant culture would rather exploit subcultures, would rather giggle than help, and would rather encourage youth subculture to hurry up and laugh, too, as they join the dominant masses.
1. "There are two genres of teen film — the Gee-Life-la-Hard-as-a Teen comedy, spiced with megadoses of angst or T&A, and the Psychopath-Kills-All-the-Teens-But-One flick…HEATHERS — smart, snide and eventually kind of scary — is more or less both." Laurie Ochoa, "HEATHERS: Murder at the Mall," American Film, January/February 1989, p. 10.
2. Fredric Jameson, "Postmodernism and Consumer Society" in E. Ann Kaplan (ed.), Postmodernism and Its Discontents (London:, Verso, 1988), p. 16. See also Fredric Jameson, "Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism," New Left Review 146 (July-August 1984).
3. Barbara Creed, "From Here to Modernity: Feminism and Postmodernism," Screen 28 (Spring 1987), 52-66.
4. Dick Hebdige, Subculture: The Meaning of Style (London: Metheun, 1979), pp. 92-102.
5. David Bordwell. Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson, The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), pp. 13-18, 177-181, 192-193.
6. "With cocked eyebrow and gleaming eyes, J.D. is a teen version of Jack Nicholson," Laurie Ochoa, p. 10.
7. Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984), p. 56.
8. I'm thinking of every teen film from REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE to SAY ANYTHING — in which the happy couple jets off to Germany in the end: she with her college scholarship, he to become a kick boxer.
9. Fredric Jameson, The Prison House of Language (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972, p. 43
10. Fredric Jameson, “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism," pp. 89-90.
11. Bordwell, Staiger, and Thompson, pp. 63-69.
12. DIRTY HARRY, TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A., THE TERMINATOR, COLORS, etc.
13. "But what would happen if one no longer believed in the existence of normal language, of ordinary speech, of the linguistic norm?...That is the moment at which pastiche appears and parody has become impossible." Fredric Jameson, "Postmodernism and Consumer Society," p. 16.