Let me first say that I adored the original 1988 film Heathers, on which this new show is based. It was a stunning and highly relevant piece of high school and teenage social commentary that still holds its weight today as a cult classic. But paired with unhinged and unrestrained creative expression in an era of reboots and forced sequels, this new show is cringeworthy and misses the mark. Not only that, but it completely replaces the target. In the original film, the Heathers–Chandler, Duke, and McNamara, respectively–were privileged white popular girls who everyone wanted to be. Killing them and a few jocks off for their popularity backfires in the film, as it likely will in the show, as Veronica teams up with J.D. and slowly begins to realize he has his own agenda–one that culminates in setting up a bomb to blow up Westerburg High.
While the film takes the tone of a dark comedy, and Heather Chandler’s popularity only increases in death, the focus remains on how far Veronica will go before social justice is served and the high school hierarchy upended. In giving J.D. the reigns, she loses a part of herself which she must then go through hell to gain back. She is, in many ways, the archetypal teenage outcast who is just cynical and incredulous enough to fight for the underdog, and yet she remains vulnerable throughout. The influence of peer pressure is still a strong one–she laughs with J.D. at Heather Chandler’s funeral, he gets her to assist him in killing people under the guise of revenge pranks, and for a while it’s a fun experiment until she realizes the truth.
The point was that anybody can turn evil if they let their desire for justice consume them. Killing people solves nothing and will only immortalize them–of course, it’s a well-known fact that no matter how bad a person may be, someone will always have nice things to say at their funeral. But this pursuit of social justice becomes problematic in the new show for several reasons, not least of which is the recasting of the ‘Heathers’ group.
Heather Chandler has been cast as an overweight queen bee, Heather Duke is genderqueer, and Heather McNamara is an African-American lesbian. They are the most popular group in school, and those who, in most generations of youth, have been labeled outcasts. But considering where the story ends, one can see why this was a terrible idea.
Veronica Sawyer even says to Heather Duke, ‘what if the new most radical thing is to be normal’?
Meanwhile, showrunner Jason Micallef continues to defend his radical interpretation of the source material, stating that “Today, all different types of people are more aspirational. People that wouldn’t have necessarily been considered the most popular kids in school in 1988 could very well be — and probably most likely are — the more popular kids today.”
Perhaps it’s just me, but I highly doubt that man has ever walked the halls of a modern-day high school for long enough to find out if that’s true (spoilers: it probably isn’t). While I do believe the LGBT+ community has gained more mainstream traction in recent years thanks to shows like Glee, Shameless, Degrassi, RuPaul’s Drag Race, and others, it has not yet risen to the level where such outcasts are the more popular kids in school. Many teenage youth are still struggling with coming out because in many areas and situations, it is still dangerous, perhaps even life-threatening to do so. Prejudice and bullying are still very real, and flipping it around for the sake of a television show does not make it any less of an issue–in fact, it swipes it under the carpet, along with racism and all the other uncomfortable things people of privilege don’t commonly like to deal with.
I can appreciate that they are, in a sense, making it clear that nobody is infallible, not even those in marginalized groups.
But the Heathers themselves are the victims, in this case. And they face malice and destruction at the hands of a white, cisgender, heterosexual couple. It is not a message the LGBT+ community needs, and certainly not one that encourages closeted kids to come out. This is not because we are “special snowflakes”, but because we have already been historically marginalized enough. While the original Heathers film had a lot of crass and gallows humor moments, those moments were delivered in an intelligent manner as relevant, scathing social commentary that didn’t carry the risk of marginalizing or alienating anyone. While the overall message the showrunner and writers are attempting to convey is much the same for the television show, representing LGBT+ characters can quickly get you into murky territory if not done in a tactful, sensitive way.
As far as I can tell, Heather Duke and McNamara are caricature stereotypes of what has been represented in the media countless times. This is even less helpful, as is their social media obsession. Not all LGBT+ people are popular, nor do many aspire to be. Taking it to that level carries the risk of downplaying their personal struggles as well, portraying a mere surface-level characterization the rings more like token traits than actual sexual identity. It’s even pretty blatant, considering the lines of other characters, that their popularity is due more to their inherent queerness than any other aspect.
If the most revolutionary thing is to be “normal”, as Veronica puts it, then is that not the equivalent of calling our entire marginalized community “snowflakes”? That our identity is just something we want special–not equal–rights for? Of course if the entire underlying message of Heathers is that nobody is special, perhaps this first episode is best taken with a grain of salt.
But in my opinion, it’s simply not worth the risk.