High school is home to some of the most ingrained and reproduced archetypes in pop culture. It gave us the Jock, the Rebel, the Nerd, the Princess, the Basketcase—roles that are mapped rigidly onto not only a social hierarchy, but also a moral one where the divide between good and evil is always crystal clear. The nerds and weirdos are our sympathetic victims, attempting to overcome their lowly status and reach a higher, more authentic self. The popular kids are the villainous perpetrators who exert dominance over the nerds and enforce the social order for their own gain. Their relationship as victims and perps, good and evil, intertwines the fates of these archetypes such that a win for one is always a loss for the other.
Yet, this is true only for a typical high school movie, which Heathers is anything but. Somehow a comedy, Heathers centers around two frustrated teens—JD and Veronica — who start murdering the popular kids at their high school to liberate themselves from its oppressive pecking order. However zany and perverted this plot may be, the movie’s depiction of high school is actually deeply rooted in stereotypes. Rather, it’s uniqueness stems from Heathers’ reluctance to accept these stereotypes at face value, forcing it to look past easy answers and reveal a much uglier reality—one where the morality of the underdog and the villainy of the popular crowd are no longer give-ins.
Take Heather Chandler, for instance. The first murder victim, Heather C. is the tall, blonde, beautiful, leader of the Heathers clique, which consists of three girls named Heather plus Veronica. With glaring self awareness, Heathers embraces the trope that Queen Bees must also be Queen Bitches, giving Heather C. lines like “do I look like Mother Theresa? If I did I probably wouldn’t mind talking to the Geek squad.” As she coerces, manipulates, and demands throughout the beginning of the film, Heather C. comes across as a demonic conductor of her peers’ social interactions and statuses. But, without bringing her lack of a conscience into question, the film challenges the limits of the almighty power Heather wields so mercilessly in her high school, by placing her in a different context: a college frat party. An invitation to the party as a high schooler is framed by Heather as an exclusive ticket, awarded to only the most popular and well connected. The irony is that this “prestigious” party is itself actually a terrible experience for Heather, though she never openly admits it. After one of the college boys coerces her to perform oral sex on him, Heather goes to the bathroom to rinse her mouth out, and in an explosion of self hatred and powerlessness, she forcefully spits the water at her reflection. The anger and vulnerability represented in this scene is reflected in the coloring of the costume and set designs. While Heather’s signature red color scheme blends seamlessly with her high school’s colors, visually enforcing her belonging and dominance, here, in the bathroom, her red wardrobe feels out of place, contrasted by blue walls and doors. Her conspicuousness indicates that Heather C., whose dominance was once undeniable, is now in the subordinated position.
But Heathers doesn’t just fix its critical gaze on the popular kids. Instead it subtly turns it on our supposed heros—Veronica and JD. While Veronica embodies a grey area as a popular girl turned outcast, JD’s social role is much more easy to identify. Just in case his greasy hair, earring, and long, dark overcoat didn’t already scream rebel archetype, the name—JD or Jason Dean—confirms JD’s outsider status by evoking references to juvenile delinquency and, of course, James Dean. Yet, as Veronica discovers, life in the thrall of JD is actually not that different from life with the Heathers. Like Heather C., JD is hyper-controlling, at one point forcing her to pen a victim’s suicide note just as Heather once coerced Veronica to write a fake love letter to “loser” Martha Dunstock. At one point JD even tries to rape Veronica, and though she ends up fending him off, the incident reveals that his masculinity and power over Veronica are intertwined. We can trace a subtle throughline connecting JD’s attempted rape of Veronica to Heather’s assault at the college party. Both moments reveal that toxic masculinity breeds violence and domination and can be perpetuated on either end of the high school hierarchy, by boys in both varsity jackets and leather jackets.
Locating toxic masculinity at the basis of the high school hierarchy quickly takes the air out of JD’s proposed “rebellion.” While this idea isn’t fully crystallized till the end of the film, hints of it are present early on in the cafeteria scene, when football players Ram and Kurt confront JD after they see Veronica flirting with him. In it’s very premise, the interaction is driven by Kurt and Ram’s fear that their masculinity and dominance is being threatened. By physically intimidating JD and calling him homophobic slurs, they attempt not only to diminish JD’s masculinity but also reassert their own. According to the high school food chain, Kurt and Ram should have come out on top of this confrontation by either humiliating JD or beating him up. At best, we might also expect JD to own the jocks with a quippy insult that flies over their heads. Instead, JD shatters all notions typical high school behavior by standing up and pulling a gun on Ram and Kurt. In their shock and fear, Ram and Kurt recoil, abdicating their intimidating stances and signaling that JD has now become the dominant one. At first, this act seems in keeping with JD’s character. Like a true rebel he toppled the social hierarchy, rejecting all expectation of ‘proper’ or ‘acceptable’ behavior in the process by incorporating physical violence into an action was originally just based in social violence. While it’s clear how the gun affects the dynamic of the confrontation. It’s less clear exactly what the gun means, or in other words, exactly why it works the way it does. I would argue that the gun’s length and cylindrical shape transforms the gun into a potential symbol of masculinity, which reshapes the initial understanding of the interaction by grounding JD’s retaliation in the same force that inspired Kurt and Ram to confront him in the first place: masculine intimidation. In this sense, JD doesn’t subvert Kurt and Ram’s masculine power as much as reclaim masculine dominance for himself, which begs the question of whether an act can really be considered “rebellious” if it plays by the rules of the dominant social hierarchy?
I would go so far as to say that the pervasiveness of toxic masculinity within both powerful and lowly high school social social circles is not a coincidence. Sexism doesn’t just coexist alongside the hierarchy, as a detached complement. Rather it is the engine that makes the hierarchy operate. Overturning the system is therefore not as simple as just having the nerds or rebels topple the dominance of the popular kids. Whether Kurt and Ram or JD are in charge the social hierarchy will take a similar shape because to truly subvert the social order you have to attack the prejudice at its heart.
by Sophie Hayssen
Sophie is a college student studying English and American Studies. She likes to creative writing as a form of self-expression and procrastination. Her other interests include music, playing guitar badly, and enjoying the great outdoors from the even greater indoors. You can follow her at @filossofee and find links to more of her work here.