Heathers is not a movie about teenagers having teen problems. It’s the story of kids dealing with very adult problems that they’ve inherited from society. In the Heathers universe, high school is society’s playground.
The set-up is familiar: at Westerburg high school, there are jocks, nerds, cheerleaders, overachievers, stoners, and sycophants. Anyone who doesn’t fit into a specific category ends up in the merciless reject pile, where friendless rogues like Martha “Dumptruck” Dunnstock (Carrie Lynn) or Betty “Dweebette” Finn (Renée Estevez) battle to survive. It’s business as usual until some of the school’s most popular kids start dying by apparent suicide. Thanks to dramatic irony, the audience knows full well they’re actually being murdered by rebellious Jason “J.D.” Dean (Christian Slater) and his girlfriend Veronica (Winona Ryder).
Westerburg’s kids may have grown-up problems, but the actual grown-ups around them don’t offer solutions. Nobody stops football players from beating up on geeks; people stand by as Martha is humiliated with a fake love note she thinks comes from one of the jocks; even Veronica—the movie’s moral compass—abandons her friend Heather McNamara (Lisanne Falk) as sporty Ram (Patrick Labyorteaux) prepares to date-rape her in the middle of a pasture.
The adults in Heathers are either unaware of or simply indifferent to their childrens’ struggles. Even when they try to help—like when the school’s faculty finally lets hippie teacher Pauline (Penelope Milford) host a love-in following the spate of teenage “suicides”—they’re ineffectual.
Screenwriter Daniel Waters drives this detail home during the exchanges between J.D. and his father (Kirk Scott), in which they blatantly switch roles:
Hey son! I didn’t hear you come in.
Hey Dad! How was work today?
Gosh, Pop. I almost forgot to introduce my girlfriend.
…Son, why don’t you ask your little friend to stay for dinner?
The world is topsy-turvy in Heathers, but J.D. revels in it. He’s the one character prepared to balance out the high school’s inequities—embodied by the eponymous, uber-popular Heathers—with the only thing that puts every single human being on an even keel: death. After killing the top-ranking Heather (Kim Walker) with the unwitting help of Veronica, J.D. embraces his role as judge and executioner of Westerburg’s cruelest kids, moving on to slay football heroes Ram and Kurt (Lance Fenton).
“Chaos is great,” J.D. tells Veronica. “Chaos is what killed the dinosaurs, darling. Our way is the way. We scare people into not being assholes.”
The scariest thing about J.D. isn’t his homicidal streak; it’s that his violence isn’t entirely unwarranted. If the chaos he represents gets rid of the world’s assholes, then order lets them live. Order creates those assholes and allows them to thrive. Westerburg isn’t just full of them; it’s prepping them for adult asshole-hood.
Before attempting to blow up the school, J.D. prophesies:
“People are going to look at the ashes of Westerburg and say, ‘now there was a school that self-destructed not because society didn’t care; but because the school was society.’”
The Problem With the Middle Ground
Our protagonist Veronica isn’t necessarily trying to counter J.D.’s chaos with order; it’s more like she wants to establish a new order that finds a way to deal with chaos. To do that, she has to tap into her innate ability to have it all ways.
Unlike the Heathers she befriends, Veronica is something of a dweebette herself—excelling in school, hanging with the likes of Betty Finn. When she eventually discovers the woes of popularity, Veronica doesn’t necessarily want to return to her nerdy roots. Rather, she hopes to navigate Westerburg’s social ecosystem freely, with no preference for one clique over another.
“They all want me as a friend or a fuck,” Heather Chandler, the nastiest of the three Heathers, explains to Veronica. That statement contains the structure of the obstacle Veronica has to confront. Being renowned doesn’t mean being liked, but being nerdy means no one can even admit they like you for fear of becoming a dork by association.
So, by the film’s end, having rejected the reign of Heathers, Veronica’s first task as “new sheriff” is making sure loners like Martha have a friend, an act that’ll give losers a bigger shield when peers throw malice their way. It’s not the same as eliminating the assholes outright, as J.D. would do, but it might give assholes a chance to learn not to be assholes anymore.
Like Heather C., J.D. isn’t remotely concerned about what others think of him. But he still cares enough about the messed up nature of social statuses in school that he wants to dismantle it, violently, from within. And his ways are legitimately efficient.
As he rightly points out to Veronica after killing Ram and Kurt, the two had “nothing left to offer the school except date rapes and AIDS jokes.” In an alternate universe where Veronica spares them, what does Westerburg gain?
It’s also curious that Veronica is so quick to dismiss J.D.’s methods. Even if what she wants is for her “high school to be a nice place,” the only way she can keep the peace at Westerburg is first by destroying J.D. (or at least trying), and then by ripping the red scrunchy—perhaps the movie’s version of a superpower-granting talisman—out of Heather D.’s hair, and tying her own with it.
Like her main antagonists, Veronica has to take power away from others to institute the order she thinks is best for everyone. The fact that she may be right separates her from the homicidal boyfriends, rapey football players, and conniving cool girls—but she still has to usurp her foes just as mercilessly.
The Redshirts of Westerburg
Heathers isn’t interested in subtle symbolism, even occasionally sauntering into surreal territory. There are the croquet matches, which foreshadow (or mirror) the characters’ various triumphs, methods, and relationships. In another visual cue, seemingly hollow Heather C. owns decade-old fashion magazines, but she also has copies of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and Harold M. Voth’s The Castrated Family.
And then there’s the bold color-coding, introduced to us from the first scene, with Heather M. dressed in yellow, Heather D. in green, Heather C. in red, and Veronica in blue. The only person who transitions is Heather D., who adopts Heather C.’s trademark crimson after she dies.
Like Star Trek’s redshirts, red is the movie’s way of foreshadowing death, or at least warning us that it’s always around the corner. The color is prevalent throughout: Westerburg’s school jerseys, flags, posters, and even its very footballs. It’s as though the school is doomed—and, if J.D. had his way, it would be.
Though his logic may be twisted, J.D. genuinely believes he’s doing a world of good by blasting Westerburg. “The only place social types can genuinely get along is in heaven,” he says to Veronica.
But she’s banking on the alternative. Maybe people don’t get along, and maybe they won’t, but to Veronica, what matters is that they live to try.
Olivia Collette is a journalist and writer based in Montreal. She contributes to the Montreal Gazette, The Huffington Post, RogerEbert.com, and Urbania, among others. Most recently, she wrote an essay in Matt Zoller Seitz's book, The Wes Anderson Collection: The Grand Budapest Hotel, in which she closely studied the film's score.