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Death and Society: An Analysis of "Heathers"

Updated on February 27, 2016
social thoughts profile image

I have a B.A. in English with a minor in Gender and Sexuality Studies. I've been a Goth since age fourteen, and a Pagan since age fifteen.

Some of the most popular films about high school in the 80s were The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller's Day Off by John Hughs. They scratched the surface of teenaged life, but were never as honest and as morbid as Heathers.

Released in 1988, Heathers is a black comedy written by Daniel Waters, starring Winona Ryder and Christian Slater. At the time the film was being made, teen suicide was highly popular in the news. Shortly before being offered the role, Winona Ryder knew a classmate whose suicide mirrored the film. The student was a goth outcast who had been called several names, but after her death the class swore they always loved her, and they all attended the funeral. This hypocritical situation inspired Winona to accept.

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Have you seen "Heathers?"

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Veronica Sawyer (Winona Ryder) has been popular and unpopular, but prefers to be unpopular. Her determination to be one of the coolest kids in her class has ruined her life. Only one other person, J.D., understands how she now feels about teen popularity; however, once she realizes how unstable her new lover really is and rejects him, she unexpectedly becomes his latest target for murder.

Once Veronica has defeated J.D., she becomes the genuinely happy person she thought she would become by joining the Heathers. Her new freedom from J.D. and the power from saving her school encourages her to take her life back by standing up to Heather Duke, proclaiming herself the new "sheriff," and befriending the outcast Martha because she knows what it's like to risk her life to become popular, too.

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Heather Chandler (Kim Walker) is the leader of the Heathers. She calls the shots and abuses everyone, especially Veronica. Her only aspiration in life is to impress others, and her insecurity makes her narcissistic. When J.D. makes fun of her refusal to accept his hangover cure because it's "too intense," Heather proves him wrong by drinking what is really liquid Drano. Heather becomes J.D's and Veronica's first victim of murder made to look like suicide when Veronica uses her talent for writing like Heather to compose a fake but convincing suicide note.

Heather McNamara (Lisanne Falk) is miserable, follows the crowd, and can't think for herself. No matter who abuses her, she continues to love them. She mourns Heather (Chandler) after she dies, even though she had taken advantage of her. Heather McNamara has such low self-esteem that after Ram date rapes her, and dies the next day, she refers to him as the last guy she had sex with. Veronica is the only one who genuinely cares about her, and prevents her from committing suicide.

Heather Duke (Shannon Doherty) wants to be just like Chandler. Like McNamara, she blindly follows her; however, unlike McNamara, she is happier once Chandler is dead. Before, she practiced bulimia to keep up with Heather's expectations. When she is given an opportunity to take Chandler's place, she jumps on it. She starts bullying Heather and Veronica whenever there is the slightest weakness, but her authority doesn't last long after Veronica takes it.

Jason "J.D." Dean (Christian Slater) considers himself a rebel. He's a sadistic joker who gets his kicks from murder. He is just as controlling as the Heathers, but he's too far in denial to recognize it. He takes his insecurity out on the bullies of the school as though these acts solve everything.

J.D. lost his mother when she purposely entered the building his father was about to blow up. He only loved her; therefore, he decides to kill people as revenge for her death. He sees the similarities between high school clicks and society's socioeconomic categories. It's all about trying to overpower the other. Adults believe teen suicide is about teen problems, but J.D. knows it's really about how teen life mimics the real world. He doesn't believe anyone loves him, so he is punishing the entire school by planning to kill everyone as though he were killing the entire population.

Kurt Kelly (Lance Fenton) and Ram Sweeney (Patrick Labyorteaux) are jocks who bully others through homophobia. After J.D. and Veronica kill them to make it look like a suicide, and write a note to turn their legacy into repressed homosexual love, everyone embraces them as gay, but wouldn't if they were alive. Interestingly enough, the overall suicide rate is greater in terms of LGBT both in teens and adults alike.

Martha "dumptruck" Dunnstock (Carrie Lynn) is only given attention when it's to humiliate her. The Heathers write a note, supposedly from Kurt, probably professing love for her. When she approaches them with the note, she realizes it was all a joke. Since she is ignored, when suicide becomes the new cool thing, she attempts to kill herself with a suicide note as a final attempt to break into the pool of popularity; fortunately and unfortunately, she fails. The failure means she is still alive, but it's also another reason for her to be bullied for trying to fit in.

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Unlike a lot of teen films, Heathers portrays the adults to be as unstable as the teens. Neither the parents nor the teachers really try to understand any of the teenagers. After Heather Chandler's death, the board argues over how early they can let the students leave according to how important she was to the school. Chandler wasn't a cheerleader; therefore, they could only close the school an hour early. After suicide becomes a popular issue, Pauline Fleming (Penelope Milford) comes up with superficial ways to deal with it. For example, she organizes for the students in the cafeteria to be filmed for television to come off as peaceful and loving as though they support each other when they don't.

Today, teen suicide is the third most cause of death for people between 15-24 years old. The only suicide in Heathers is J.D. who spent the whole time inventing ways to kill his classmates and get away with it. The film itself is not so much about teen suicide as the fake emotional response to those who do take their lives.

© 2015 social thoughts

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  • social thoughts profile imageAUTHOR

    social thoughts 

    3 years ago from New Jersey

    Bill, I am saddened to hear that. My heart goes out to you.

    Yes, I think you'll enjoy its complexity. In an interview, Winona said it's a film that would help suffering teens rather than criticize them. It's great that so many later generations love it, too.

  • billybuc profile image

    Bill Holland 

    3 years ago from Olympia, WA

    During eighteen years of teaching I had four students who committed suicide. The survivors are left with an emptiness and a deep, profound sadness. Why didn't we see it? How could it have happened without the clues being unraveled? Why didn't the kids reach out? Why weren't we more aware and empathetic?

    I will watch this film. I believe it's important that I do.

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