Heathers: A Writer Finds Her Voice

As offbeat as it is, Heathers is fairly straightforward. It's doubtful a Room 237 will materialize re: "what it all really means." But that's not to say it doesn't lend itself well to alternate readings.

I haven't seen too, too many, but just off the top of my head, can the whole thing be seen as a neo-feminist "self-realization in captivity narrative" for well-off white girls in the 80s? Sure. A straight-up genre deconstruction, as alluded to last time around? Absolutely. A monomyth, substituting Veronica for Perseus/ the male hero? Equally as absolutely.

I wish exploring it as monomyth had occurred to me before this morning, as there's a lot of descent-into-the-underworld stuff in this funeral dream sequence, as well as recurring funeral motifs all around. Logical enough, given the many deaths of the plot, but intriguing conceptual terrain, to be sure. As Wayne Knight says in JFK, "There's a lot of smoke, but there's some fire."
At this point, you might be thinking Anything can be made into anything; doesn't make it so. And while you're certainly correct - and again, I think the film is pretty much what it appears to be: a satire of high school conformity and genre deconstruction - it's at the very least intellectually stimulating to consider different interpretations and discard the ones that work less than others. And maybe even a little fun.

Fun for me, anyway; your mileage may vary.
So, along those lines, what jumped out at me on this last viewing was how the whole story can be read as the writer (Veronica) finding her voice.

In this reading, the Heathers are The System, that entrenched infrasturcture of public taste and opinion and its caretakers, the enemies of any artist, the living obstacles to self-realization via the written word. Ironic, as it Veronica's command of the language that makes her useful in their eyes (i.e. her character's ability to write anyone's handwriting as well as her own.)
It is for this reason that the film begins with Veronica's only look-directly-into-the-camera / speak directly to the audience. She is initiating us into her journey. She is separating her own narrative from the other events of the film.
The Dear Diary motif is pretty consistent through the first half. Through it, we learn of her intense ambivalence re: her situation and the larger prospects of being a PBS mind in an MTV world.

The scene at Remington University, in this read, is the publisher's party, or awards ceremony, where she is simply more fresh meat to be offered up to the preying gatekeepers.

Such as Brad, he of the "Save the speeches for Malcolm X; I just want to get laid" line. When Veronica tells him he "doesn't deserve her fucking speech," is this not the cry of every artist chafing at prostituting his or herself on the altar of vapid popular bestsellers, etc.?
This scene is illuminating. It's preceded by her first meeting with J.D. (who, as we shall see, is the instrument of revenge/ the breakthrough to getting published and being acknowledged on her own terms) and immediately followed by her and J.D.'s first sexual encounter. (I like to think her first novel is called Strip Croquet and that the cover has two mallets suggestively crossed before an inviting wicket.)

And it is interspersed with Veronica writing (in large, sprawling script, i.e. micro "writ large" across the macro)
and narrating the sequence after the fact.
She rejects Brad's "advances," i.e. rejects the casting couch ("these leather coats will be excellent, huh?") which leads to a make-or-break confrontation with her "agent," Heather Chandler.

"I got you into a Remington Party."
Heather has made her own choices re: the casting couh, so naturally she hates herself.
She thus projects her self-loathing unto Veronica.

Heather's "agency" symbolism starts before this, actually, with the whole lunchtime poll topic scene. She utilizes Veronica's talents to forge a letter to Martha Dumptruck for her own sadistic amusement and then chastises Veronica for suggesting they ask more relevant questions of more interesting people rather than the same old drudgery with the same old folks.


The fire that she starts accidentally while rejecting the whole set-up quickly gets out of control. And is visually recalled in the next scene, aka The Big Confrontation:

Veronica's like, "I'm an artist! Not a whore."
And Heather's all "You'll Never Work In This Town Again!"
This leads, as aforementioned to the suicide/murder portion of the story being set in motion, brought to life first in Veronica's diary. (i.e. her plot outline)

Speak of the devil and the devil appears. 

J.D., for if he did not exist, Veronica would have to invent him. She now has her instrument of vengeance and transformation.
The morning after, Veronica and J.D. bring Heather Chandler her cup of poison, and hi-jinks ensue. At first, it's wildly successful. Veronica's book - written on, she assumes, her own terms - is a wild success. Sure, it's "ghost-written" in more ways than one. But all seems to be going well. 

Until Kurt and Ram, the football bimbos, slander Veronica's name.
And of course, in the publishing world, you're only as good as your last novel. Ergo:
RIP, Kurt and Ram.
At this point, Veronica begins to realize the literal danger of playing with fire and despite J.D.'s somewhat reasonable (if sociopathic) attempt to make her feel better about playing God with her characters ("Football season's over, Veronica; Kurt and Ram had nothing left to offer the school except date rape and AIDS jokes") she begins to feel remorse over the events she has set in motion.

At the risk of appearing gratuitous, Veronica's attempt to cleanse herself in the shower is too symbolic not to include.

Beyond remorse, though, she fears her voice is once again in danger of being appropriated by or subsumed by others. She begins to question whether her new favorite character is actually worse than the one she killed, more destructively stereotypical than realized. When J.D. makes one too many wackjob-teenage-anarchist lines too many,

she gives him the boot.
At this point, J.D. - who has been both her new agent and her collaborator, and she is "in bed with" both - attempts to build up another writer (Heather Duke) as her rival and achieves great success. But he yearns to continue corrupting Veronica.

At this point, the Dear Diary motif returns to the narration more forcefully, and we see her re-acquiring her monocle and Vodka bottle and writing feverishly by her bedside.
She slowly comes to terms with what she must do to be free:

kill her own creation.
There should be a reality TV show entitled HUNGOVER WRITER. This would be the perfect cover for it.
The rest of the film details this final struggle between Veronica and J.D., between artist and inspiration, artist and "the establishment." In a symbiotic relationship, when the parasite becomes too strong, it must be removed or the host dies. Will Veronica's growth as a writer escape this phase that threatens to consume both her and her classmates in ever-escalating violence?

J.D. won't go out without a fight. If he can't be her favorite creation, he plans to take her down with him. And everybody else. (Writers who try to leave their most famous creations behind can likely relate very well to this; shades of Paul Sheldon, shades of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.) But she manages to thwart this plan and maneuvers him away from the boiler room so his death-by-explosion is confined to himself. J.D., beaten, submits willingly to his exile into oblivion.

Veronica, independent at last, her voice hard-won, emerges triumphant. She is free to rehsape the school (i.e. her novel) any way she sees fit, no longer beholden to the old regime. Meet the new boss.
This image immediately above recalls an earlier scene. After Veronica realizes she and J.D. actually killed Ram and Kurt, she is overcome with emotion and burns herself with the cigarette lighter.

Yes, kids, cars once all came with cigarette lighters.
J.D. seizes her hand and lights his cigarette off the burning flesh.
i.e. he uses her (the writer's) pain to get what he needs. Writing is only a violent means of gratifying immediate impulses, regardless of pain and consequences.
She non-verbally answers his deathbed question (as in-captioned above) by letting the flames from his self-immolation light her cigarette. Thus achieving the ultimate goal of any writer: to out-French the French. Je veux seulement l'oublier et puis je fume. ("I want only to forget, and so: I smoke.")
Smoking is all over this film. I wonder sometimes what is more controversial to the sensibilities of 21st century audiences (who don't blink at gratuitous violence, torture, or sex:) the smoking? Or the school shootings?
Admittedly more difficult to view purely as satire/ symbolism in a post-Columbine (or insert-school-shooting-of-your-choice) world.

Or the existence of homophobia without at least one character explicitly saying "Homophobia is wrong?"

Indeed, CommonSenseMedia site lists "homophobic language" as one of the things parents "need to know" before letting their children watch the movie. Though how anyone could walk away from viewing Heathers without grokking that homophobia is presented as a negative is beyond me.
The film's portrayal of organized religion (an ineffective force that desperately exploits the teen deaths to increase its own influence) is interestingly enough not named in that Common Sense Media review.
And so, at film's end, the writer has journeyed outside her comfort zone, smashed the bars of her cage, and circled back to her roots. The film begins and ends with different versions of "Que Sera, Sera" ("Whatever will be, will be.") The version that plays over the opening credits is lush and accompanied by the Heathers cavorting in fine linens, playing croquet, cackling over the misery they inflict. The version at film's end is bluesy and gritty, accompanied by a bloody and battered Veronica - but smiling - meandering down the emptied high school halls with a wheel-chaired Martha Dunnstock in tow. Roll credits.

Post Mortem

"Look... Heather left behind one of her Swatches."
"She'd want you to have it, Veronica."
"She always said you couldn't accessorize for shit."

So ends our examination of Heathers (1988.) Go forth and preach the gospel.


  1. In a sense, we HAVE seen "Hungover Writer," since Snooki DID, after all, publish a book.

    Waters has written an adaptation of the novel "Vampire Academy," and it -- which is directed by his brother -- looks like it could, theoretically, recapture some of the glory from "Heathers." I doubt it will happen, but you never know.

    Great retrospective, Bryan!

    1. I'll keep an eye out for Vampire Academy. You never know. (Michael Lehmann directed a pilot for Cassandra French's Finishing School for Boys, which, on paper, sounds like it'd be perfectly attuned to a Heather sensibility. I haven't seen it, tho. I did - largely because things like Heathers turned me onto acidic high school metaphors - make an attempt with the book, but it was incredibly bad. So it goes.

      I've found, too, that the further I get away from high school, the more difficulty I have relating to even the more sarcastic or self-aware deconstructions of it. Which is probably as it should be. I knew when Gossip Girl failed to tickle my ironic-aesthetic-distance that I'd turned a corner.

      (Cut to my Dad shaking his head and going outside to clear some brush.)

    2. That's probably as it should be. The last time a new high-school drama engaged me was (I think) "Veronica Mars." Unless "Harry Potter" counts, which it probably does.

      I saw a preview for "Vampire Academy." It has a few mild chuckles in it; what with the "Heathers" connection, I guess I'm kinda rooting for it.

  2. Well, this off topic but it's the day for it.

    I came across a Popmatters article for Stone's JFK (what else). It's basic point: it's flawed though useful film, and I tend to agree with that. My thinking on Stone is I think he makes a good enough case that there a conspiracy involved, I've just never seen a reason to go as over the top paranoid as him.

    In way, seeing as it's the holidays, reflecting on an event like JFK strikes me as kind of morbid, however I couldn't help listing a few interesting items that might make for interesting reading.

    The first was a book I had pointed out to me by Richardx on the SK Message Board:

    Dallas, 1963 by Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis


    It gives an interesting overview of the underside of the city leading up to Nov. 22nd. It's worth a look, but it seems to lean toward the lone gunman theory.

    A more interesting book I ran across at Barnes and Noble is The Poison Patriarch: How the Betrayals of Joseph P. Kennedy Caused the Assassination of JFK.


    Focusing more on the figure of Joe Kennedy, it tells the standard story of how old "Business Dealings" can come back to haunt, however it's got some insight on Ruby.

    To close this all out, It's worth looking at two similar yet different books that deal with Kennedy's term in office:

    Camelot's Court: Inside the Kennedy White House by Robert Dallek.


    And David Talbot's Brothers.


    What's interesting to me about both books is that in his introduction, Dallek admits he doesn't know why people think JFK is such an impressive president when, in Dallek's view, he never accomplished anything. The irony is that Talbot's book outlines the accomplishments he made in office that detail precisely why so many think of him as the last halfway decent (sort of) leader this country ever had.

    The biggest criticism I've heard about Dallek's book is that either he's treading the same ground he's covered before, or he only sticks to the surface and doesn't dig into the various motivations, and now that I think about it. Both Dallek and Talbot books are in part about the cold war culture in the White House, and yet Dallek never seems to go that much into the thinking of the various organizations and the people in charge of them at the time, people who Talbot makes clear always kept butting heads R. and JFK.

    In a way, that makes Talbot's book somewhat superficial to me.

    Well, for whatever it's worth, here's leaving off with the Popmatters article: