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Why "Heathers" works: "Mean Girls," violence, and the power of cliché

Updated: Aug 22, 2022

Art by Shepherd Williams

Very large CW: mention of school shootings and bombings, murder, suicide, and mental illness. Also, massive spoilers ahead.

An introduction to Heathers and Mean Girls

Heathers (1989) and Mean Girls (2004) are virtually the same movie, at least in the first half of each. They feature the same archetypes, the same jokes, and the same heavily satirized portrayal of high school in America. Heathers quickly becomes a very different kind of film, though: namely, a brutally deadpan comedy about suicide, murder, school shooters, emotional abuse, and manipulation. And, surprisingly, it works.

Heathers protagonist Veronica Sawyer (Winona Ryder), while a decently good person, surrounds herself with the three most popular (and terrible) girls at Westerburg High: Heather Chandler (Kim Walker), Heather Duke (Shannen Doherty), and Heather McNamara (Lisanne Falk). The Heathers are cruel, and Veronica clearly doesn’t enjoy being apart of their clique. “It’s like, they’re people I work with,” she explains in the film, “and our job is being popular.”

Jason “JD” Dean (Christian Slater), the movie’s second main character, is Veronica’s dashing, silver-tongued, and sociopathic love interest — a bad boy with a martyr complex and a gun. He slowly convinces Veronica to stray further and further from the Heathers and their demands. Eventually, fueled by his hatred of high school hierarchies and mindless cruelty, he poisons and kills Heather Chandler, the leader of the pack. This starts them down a Bonnie and Clyde-esque murder binge, and JD only stops once Veronica realizes she’s being manipulated, confronts him about his actions, shoots him in the foot, and watches JD kill himself with a bomb he had intended for the entire school.

Heathers is a cheesy high school comedy about some very, very serious topics. Logically, this movie shouldn’t work; it’s all set up to be flippant, disrespectful, and deeply inappropriate. But somehow, it succeeds — and actually comes off as deeply profound, compassionate, and strangely stereotype-defying for its many stereotypes.

Mental illness and suicide are extremely important topics and should under no circumstances be addressed flippantly. That’s why I think Heathers is so important: it draws serious attention to these issues, as well as the very real threat of school shootings, in a pre-Columbine era. It’s very possible that at the time, the only way to draw actual attention to the matters addressed in this film was in the context of a cheesy high school “comedy.”

Mean Girls has an almost identical premise as Heathers. It follows naive and formerly homeschooled Cady Heron (Lindsay Lohan) as she comes to the U.S. for the first time after living in Africa for years and befriends two infuriatingly charming social outcasts, Janis and Damian. She quickly gets snatched up by Regina George (Rachel McAdams), Gretchen Wieners (Lacey Chabert), and Karen Smith (Amanda Seyfried), otherwise known as the Plastics — a group of the most popular (and meanest, hence the title) girls at North Shore High. Mean Girls is very noticeably a Tina Fey comedy, though, and a late-90s/early-2000s dumb-teenage-girl movie in the same family as Clueless (1995) and Legally Blonde (2001). No one dies at the end — instead, the fictional social ladder is neatly wrecked and neatly put back together again, this time in a (in my opinion) deeply unrealistic happily-ever-after one-scene-long conclusion. While it’s an iconic film for many reasons, plot isn’t one of them. This separates it from the legacy of Heathers on a superficial level, but there's plenty more to unpack with these two films.

How do the stereotypes of each film interact with each other? Why does Heathers feel like a response?

The main characters of "Mean Girls," from left to right: Gretchen, Regina, Cady, and Karen; Image from Playbill

To try to figure out why Heathers works, we need to think about how the stereotypes in both it and Mean Girls interact with each other. Simply put, they’re one and the same: Veronica Sawyer, as a protagonist who’s ever-so-slightly more masculine, suspicious of the world around her, and yet still involved with the popular trio, lines up with Cady Heron perfectly. Heather Chandler, as the ambitious and cruel leader of the pack, is the predecessor to Regina George. The other two Plastics fall into much clearer stereotypes than the Heathers — Gretchen is a hustling and scurrying second-in-command, Karen is dumb and pretty — but their pyramids still have the same basic structure. The most important difference comes in when we consider the role of JD in Heathers, and his complete lack of a corresponding character.

If I had to pick someone in Mean Girls who lines up with JD, I would probably have to combine Aaron, the completely unimportant love interest, and Janis, who is the opposing force to the Plastics. But really, JD is an anomaly. He’s our first glance into the strangely well-developed psyche of every character in the 1980s cult classic. Because, really, there’s not a single shallow character in this film. That, and the sheer existence of JD, is what makes it have the impact it does.

Heathers seems to try and convince us that Veronica is the main character — and in many ways, she is. But who really sets the story in motion, and whose death ends the story entirely, is Jason Dean. He’s a basket case — a weaponized wild card with opinions as dangerous as his bombs. But his unpredictability and sly charm are exactly what allows him to transcend all stereotypes that came before him and most that will come after. If the structure of a clique-centric fictional high school is a brick wall, JD single-handedly knocked it down. He has what all other teenage comedies (if you can call Heathers a comedy) are too scared to include: daddy issues, a poorly manifested hatred of bigotry, and multiple murders to his name. And his sudden manic outburst and attempted bombing of the school at the end of the film are only metaphors for the destruction of all the stereotypes he’s surrounded by.

Gender, JD, and Cady

Still of JD from "Heathers"; Image from People Magazine

One of the tools both of these films use to highlight the contrast between the popular kids and our heroes is a very approachable method of distinction: gender presentation. For Cady, it makes sense. While the Plastics wear pink, Cady wears blue. While the Plastics wear dresses and skirts and other traditionally feminine articles of clothing, Cady wears what she wore as a homeschooled only child in Africa: long pants, blue flannels, boring colors, and even a safari vest in the musical adaptation. As she becomes more and more plastic, she starts to act more traditionally feminine — doing her makeup and hair, wearing dresses and pink — even though it doesn’t reflect who she truly is.

JD’s gender expression is a little more complicated, considering he dresses almost exclusively in black and brown and wears his signature black trench coat every day. However, in the 80s, he definitely would not be considered a “masculine” man, at least visually. He wears a hoop earring, is strongly against all forms of bigotry (including misogyny and homophobia), and speaks in an almost satirically graceful way: “Chaos is great,” he iconically quips in the film. “Chaos is what killed the dinosaurs, darling.”

While Veronica’s style is more in keeping with the rest of the Heathers throughout the movie, it’s worth noting that her signature color is blue — not only the universal color for masculinity, but almost the direct opposite of red, Heather Chandler’s signature color, on the color wheel.