Why Heathers Changed Teen Movies Forever

Clarisse Loughrey,

We've got so much to thank this 1988 classic for. Not only is Heathers one of those movies that everyone who's ever been worthy of social interaction loves, but it's a sort of landmark in the history of teen movies.

It might have initially been a box office flop, but VHS was its saviour and, combined with frequent TV broadcasts, it finally achieved reverent cult status as the '80s came to a close. And with that status came an influence which cannonballed us out of the sugar-haze daydream of John Hughes movies and into the sharp cynicism of the slacker generation. Without Heathers there'd be no Clueless, there'd be no Mean Girls, and teenage cheerleaders would have nothing to quote in their yearbooks except badly paraphrased Ghandi. So let's raise a glass to this genuine game-changer. You're beautiful, Heathers.

"Dear Diary, my teenage angst bullsh*t now has a body count."   


Unlike the fluff of the teen genre that preceded it, Heathers wasn't afraid to get dark with its subject matter. Like, really dark. Unfortunately, it's hard to talk about Heathers and avoid the pretty grim fate this movie has suffered throughout the years – one it's been burdered with really only because it underestimated how terrible the world can be. Specifically how terrible the world has become for teenagers since the movie's inception. It's forgivable to be left with a bad taste in your mouth at seeing a film poke fun of school bombings and LGBT suicides, but we're talking way back in 1988, in a pre-Columbine world, and without the awareness spread by the It Gets Better campaign. Back then there was still a veil of innocence that meant those topics were removed enough from reality to be appropriate targets for a comedy.

So while Heathers is arguably a lot less dark than it comes across to modern viewers, it's not exactly a bucket of sunshine and puppies. I'm not sure there's ever been a teen comedy as dark as this, and, yes, we're including whatever lame copycat attempt Jawbreaker was supposed to be. There's barely a corner of this film safe from malevolent undertones: Heather Duke suffers from bulimia, JD's father is implied to have driven his mother to suicide, and even mega-bitch Heather Chandler has some serious self-esteem issues. There's something really sad about seeing a character we're meant to revile spit at her own reflection after going down on a guy at a party. Heathers simply broke barriers with its sickly dark brand of black comedy.

"The only place different social types can genuinely get along with each other is in heaven."


People like to talk about John Hughes movies as if they really understood the teenage condition. And while I'll never turn down a decent Hughes movie, especially in a situation which involves gal pals and buckets of cookie dough, we're honestly kidding each other if we think that a bunch of kids in detention could sort their issues out and suddenly become friends with an afternoon of circle time. As if. Heathers knew what was up though, and you have to wonder whether hippie teacher Pauline Fleming's attempts to incite in-school crying, hugging, and bonding sessions was a sarcastic tribute the naive optimism of The Breakfast Club. The first classroom session is a great deconstruction of the idea, with Veronica barely containing her laughter watching these kids continue to be just as self-involved as they were before Heather Chandler's suicide. That one guy who says Heather always said he was boring but really it was because she bored of life? Yeah, that guy sucks, but that guy was also definitely someone you went to school with.


"Now there's a school that self-destructed, not because society didn't care, but because the school was society."


On a scale of 1 to 10, how surprising is it to learn that screenwriter Daniel Waters originally intended Stanley Kubrick to direct? OK, so I can't really imagine a world where that actually would have happened, but it does speak a lot to the fact that because Heathers looked past the rose-tinted glasses of teen comedies, it actually intended to bring some kind of real, potent social message to the whole thing. While we all tend to focus our attentions on the dangerous romance between Veronica and JD (because, duh, Christian Slater), or the fight for power between the Heathers and Veronica, the film's screenwriter originally intended the whole thing to be a satire of the problematic sensationalism of teen suicide. It's basically a parody of the media's responsibility in over-coverage of events such as teen suicide influencing others to do the same; pretty much summed up in the throwaway line of a radio broadcaster that if he has to listen to Big Fun's number #1 single "Teen Suicide (Don't Do It)", he might just kill himself.

"All we want is to be treated like human beings, not to be experimented on like guinea pigs or patronized like bunny rabbits. "


Do you really want to know why Heathers is such a cult movie among teens? Because it's exactly the kind of thing parents hate. Not only does this movie unashamedly show teens behaving badly, but it's not afraid to call out parents and teachers and portray them as embarassingly clueless. Hughes movies weren't exactly painting portraits of domestic bliss, I mean THEY FORGET HER BIRTHDAY in Sixteen Candles; what kind of terrible crime is that? However, there's not quite the same sense of total alienation as exists in Heathers. Veronica's parents always seem to speak with the same blank level of cheerfulness to the point I always start suspecting there's a deleted alien-parents subplot somewhere in there. And they are most definitely the prototype for Amy Poehler's "cool mom" in Mean Girls with their constant offers of pâté. And let's not get started on the teachers, totally unable to properly deal with a student's suicide and instead concentrating on the victim's use of the word "myriad" in her suicide note or whether a girl who's not a cheerleader really merits an entire half day off. 

"Did you eat a brain tumour for breakfast?" 


All this good stuff aside, Heathers' greatest contribution to the teen movie must be the dialogue. I mean, Heathers changed the ways teens talked on screen forever. They'd just never sounded so...cool. You can bet for sure that without Heathers, Juno MacGuff never would have been so honest to blog about things, and Cher Horowitz wouldn't have been so concerned with Bettys and Baldwins. It's just one of those movies you could quote for the rest of eternity. Damn right I've briefly considered having "what's your damage, Heather?" inscribed on my tombstone.

Is Heathers really the movie that changed the face of teen movies forever? Let us know in the comments!

Follow Clarisse on Twitter: @clarisselou

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