Less than 15 minutes into 1989’s dark comedy “Heathers,” a rebel teenager played by Christian Slater pulls out a gun and fires blanks at two homophobic jocks, a move that would get him arrested today. My roommates and I sat there with our jaws open: Was this supposed to be funny?
We turned on “Heathers” Sunday night because we wanted to watch something from the ’80s. I knew Slater from “Mr. Robot,” and Winona Ryder from “Stranger Things,” so we figured, why not? It wasn’t until later that I learned that Sunday marked the 30th anniversary of the movie’s original release date, March 31, 1989.
But watching “Heathers” is a very different experience in 2019, a time of school shootings and trigger warnings, than it was in 1989. The film is designed to shock and disturb. So if we find “Heathers” to be in bad taste, does that confirm the stereotype that my generation is too sensitive? Or has society degenerated so much since “Heathers” that the film’s references to suicide and school violence feel too real to register as satire?
I had high expectations for “Heathers.” As a kid growing up in the Chicago suburbs, who often visited friends in white households, watching every John Hughes movie felt like a requirement. The high school in “Breakfast Club” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” is an actual high school in suburban Illinois, and Hughes’ movies left you feeling hopeful about the future. I expected something similar from “Heathers.”
But when my roommates and I started watching, the movie rubbed us the wrong way from the start. For my generation, the way to beat the popular girls and the jocks in 2019 isn’t to stoop lower than they are on the moral totem pole. Our technique is to vent on Twitter and let the likes and retweets console you. No crimes required.
The movie first introduces us to Veronica as she tries to please her group of posh high school frenemies, the Heathers: Heather Duke (Shannen Doherty), Heather McNamara (Lisanne Falk)and “Heather one,” Heather Chandler (Kim Walker). Veronica soon meets Dean (Slater), an early adopter of the grunge look who tries to lead Veronica to hurt the Heathers when he learns the girls are controlling her life.
Dean, aka JD, later explains why he pretended to kill the two jocks: “The extreme always seems to make an impression.”
The quote sounded creepily like the justification of someone who has committed a school shooting. But Veronica laughs off the situation, saying the jocks had it coming.
I was surprised to find myself siding with a Heather, who tells Veronica that JD should leave school because of what he did. To me, watching in 2019, JD wasn’t a savior. He was a coward.
In 2018, the “Heathers” TV adaptation premiere was delayed because of the then-recent Parkland shooting. That made sense out of respect to the grieving families. But it’s also a sign of more conscientious times.
If a movie like “Heathers” is to be shown today, it makes sense to tag a content warning before viewing. And no, it won’t ruin the viewing experience: Most people of my generation breeze over content warnings as quickly as we do the new terms of a Facebook update. But for those who want to avoid reigniting past traumas, the warnings can be crucial. It’s not a cure-all, but it’s a start.
In season one of Netflix’s recent “13 Reasons Why, a graphic depiction of a suicide led viewers to speak out. Netflix responded by adding a warning card. In season 2, a scene depicting sexual assault had people questioning its entertainment value — even though the episode came with a warning card. If we need them for new content, why should the pre-Netflix era be treated differently?
“Heathers” doesn’t just deserve a warning because of the shooting. The whole movie seems to take sexual assault and suicide more lightly than it should.
Veronica is sexually assaulted multiple times in the movie, including by JD. And at one point the Heathers make Veronica forge a love letter to a student they call “Martha Dumptruck” so it appears to be from a popular jock. Later, Martha intentionally walks into oncoming traffic because of the embarrassment of the letter. The popular kids treat her like a punchline.
One Heather says that Martha “dialed suicide hotlines in her diapers.”
Try to imagine the response those jokes would get today.
The humor of “Heathers” only worked for me only when the shock was outlandish enough that I couldn’t imagine the events on film happening in real life today.
At the end of the film, JD attempts to bomb his high school to create a “clean slate.” The actual bomb is cartoonish, with a countdown clock on the front and three flashing red buttons like something from Looney Tunes. It’s outrageous in a way the fake cafeteria shooting isn’t.
After 30 years, the shocks of real life have reset the Richter scale of offensiveness. What seemed absurd in 1989 feels entirely plausible after Columbine, Parkland, and too many other school atrocities to list.
And since “Heathers,” plenty of other movies have made the same points it does with less hyperbole and nastiness. If you want to see the cool kids get their due, and mass killings aren’t your thing, there’s always “Mean Girls.”