The Heathers Conundrum

Heathers 1

It’s been a while since I’ve posted in the blog.  I try not to post raging screeds on here, and these times call for a lot of raging screeds – that’s for Facebook or Twitter.  Instead, I work hard to keep my posts here measured and thoughtful.  There’s a significant backlog of ideas I’d like to write about, but let me start with something topical.

Heathers is an amazing film (the original (1988), not the rather concerning planned Remake?).  It was surreal, raw, and touched something painfully and laughably real about high school life, particularly life for people who are “different.” The Breakfast Club tackled high school cliques several years earlier, and while it’s dramatically a better film, that is, had characters with much more emotional depth, the overall message of The Breakfast Club is “Gee, everyone is facing problems, maybe we just need to reach across the aisle and empathize just a little.”  But in Heathers Kum is definitely not Baya, and it pulls no punches.

The characters are designed to be shallow and utterly and surreally devoid of empathy.  The only character even capable of flawed empathy is the protagonist, Veronica (Winona Ryder in one of her best performances).  There are a few characters worthy of empathy – Martha “Dumptruck” Dunnstock, Heather McNamara, Betty Flynn – but they aren’t given opportunities in the story to model empathy, they rather serve as opportunities for Veronica to develop hers.  The “prophet” of empathy, Pauline Fleming, the “hippy” on the school faculty, wants to hold group mourning sessions (with press recording) and help everyone get in touch with their feelings (to the intense eye-rolling of the rest of the apathetic faculty).  Students are only too willing to get out of class to play along.  Fleming states that, “Whether to kill yourself or not is one of the most important decisions a teenager can make.”  The earned cynicism of the film scorns the liberal “let’s all just hug” approach as much as the conservative “Goddamit, even the football guys were fags?” approach.  Adults just don’t get it, and neither do most of the kids.

There are some very dark themes in this movie, and even at the time I first saw it, my genuine laughter was tinged with just as genuine discomfort (by design, I suspect).  Veronica, despite wanting to run with the popular trio of Heathers, despises the way their social power is used to demean and further marginalize the cliques further down the hierarchy.  They force her to use her talent for mimicking the handwriting of others to create embarrassing fake love notes simply for amusement.  She confesses in her diary to fantasizing about killing Heather Chandler, the Queen Bitch, who makes Veronica and the other two Heathers act upon her cruel whims.

J.D. (Christian Slater) is only to happy to oblige, and so begins an adaptation of Faust on par with Little Shop of Horrors – the innocent desire for justice and kindness becomes a brick road of blood and moral decline.  J.D. drags Veronica into being an accomplice to a number of homicides, staged as the suicides of popular people that “just weren’t understood,” thanks to Veronica’s ability to mimic handwriting.  But knocking down one Heather only apotheosizes her after death and raises another in her place.  Likewise, the prominent suicide prompts some people who truly weren’t understood and the victims of Heathers’ (and Veronica’s unwilling) bullying to attempt suicide, culminating in J.D.’s plot to blow up the entire school as some sort of symbolic teen message to an uncaring adult world.  Veronica breaks free of his influence, foils his plot, claims the crown of popular girl, but in the service of empathy to the marginalized (a happy, but bitter and qualified, ending).

An amazing film, but a squirm fest for anyone who has lived through the endless stream of school shootings since Columbine.  One of the things that has upset me about the response to the most recent (as of this writing) school shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida is the compartmentalization of school shootings from other mass shootings.  It has allowed the NRA and opponents of any gun control to deflect the underlying gun problem in our overall society to the specific problems of high school culture.  So, age limits and armed teachers are proposed, which in the best of scenarios may only reduce mass shootings (and overall gun deaths) by a miniscule fraction (still, a miniscule fraction is a step farther than the NRA has let us come before, so, sure, let’s entertain the ideas for a moment).

Heathers 2'

But, as much as I want to embark on a raging screed against the idea of arming teachers, I told you at the beginning that wasn’t my goal here.  So, despite the overall problem of gun violence not being a problem specific to schools, I want to focus on a high school specific dimension of the issue – the high school revenge fantasy.

Heathers didn’t originate this fantasy, but it expresses it in an honest and dissectible form.  Veronica, the most able to see the cruelty and evil of the teenage amplification of the general human trend to hierarchize and marginalize, is also the most able to articulate a fantastic destruction of that system – kill the bullies, tear it all down.  It’s important to note, that at every turn, Veronica does not actually want her fantasies to become reality.  She doesn’t actually want anyone to die, and J.D.’s Mephistophelian literal interpretation of her fantasies eventually forces her to confront the implications of her fantasy.

But seriously, didn’t most of us have some version of that in high school?  In my case, I created haikus for each member of my (relatively small, geez who writes hundreds of haikus?) class imagining creative death scenarios for each – this included some of my best friends.  It was meant to be humorous, and I shared it with some friends, including those mentioned.  It was sort of a Gashlycrumb Tinies sort of thing.  Some others in my class designed bombs in their spare time, which they tested on local wildlife – some of them went on to become rather successful engineers with happy and loving families.  Nowadays, they and I would probably be ferried off to the guidance counselor’s office.  I would hope they would probe more deeply before red-flagging us or sending us off to the proposed asylums.

It’s a dilemma that some of the same sorts of people who have a robust fantasy life can either be the best at delineating fantasy from reality or the worst.  What is a parent, teacher, guardian, or security guard armed to the teeth supposed to do with that fact?  Heathers, unfortunately, offers a rather cynical view.  Parents, teachers, and fellow students are so caught up in their own petty concerns that they are blind to the crisis of meaning of those very few students who are, in fact, grappling with questions on meaning, positive or negative.

In reality, I think people are capable of more empathy than Heathers allows, even if we live in a very empathy-challenged era of our history.  But, even the brave high schoolers from Stoneman Douglas cry that everyone knew the shooter was weird and dangerous.  Yes, the many tips given to local law enforcement seem to have been insufficiently investigated in this case.  But what if we start harassing everyone deemed “weird and dangerous”?  In some communities that might mean people who “look at you funny” or “acted like some autistic kid” or were seen “dressing like a goddamn girl” or were really into Japanese anime cosplay.  In this case, the reports of weirdness perhaps needed to be investigated further, but this is a fine line, and in the hands of the wrong people it can become a state-sponsored sanction of further bullying.  Even though, for though love of the gods, a better mental health system in our schools is desperately needed, that must be done without stigmatizing those who are simply not the norm – and as Heathers grasps, not even the apparently normal are really normal.

How do we distinguish, and how do we balance?  This is the Heathers conundrum.