There was never any chance of my being popular in school. I was nerdy, I wore weird clothes and I didn’t like many people. I wasn’t a joiner – I was the only high school senior forced to take PE because I belonged to no clubs other than the sad, poorly attended literary magazine of which I was editor. It didn’t cross my mind once to try to fit in with the cheerleaders, dancers and jocks that made up Lufkin High School’s dream team, and they would have laughed if I had. The cool table didn’t want me, and I didn’t want them. I just did my own thing, enjoyed my own small but honest group of friends, and got out as soon as I could.
It didn’t occur to me until much later how lucky I was for that, to have skated through junior high and high school - years that represent the most ardent, fruitless yearning of our lives - wholly deficient in the desire to be popular. Sure, I yearned for things, and I was constantly thwarted, because that’s what being a teenager is: wanting something with a fiery dudgeon only hormones and emotional groundlessness can fuel, and never getting it because you’re still a kid no matter how you feel inside.
But those wants, those futile desires, never included a seat at the popular kids’ table, and that’s a blessing when you’re a little weirdo in a small town. And when I think back to what first incited my own mild iconoclasm, I think of Heathers.
Michael Lehmann’s feature debut offered up a brand new, hypercolor world, one in which the cool kids pass time by playing croquet, teen suicide is the newest fad and the queen bee tells you, “Real life sucks losers dry. You want to fuck with the eagles? You have to learn to fly.” Heather Chandler was a real monstrous bitch, but there’s no more inspiring aphorism than that. Here was a movie, at once neon and pastel and deepest, darkest black, that felt like a distant planet I wanted to visit. It's not only that the killing spree and croquet are surreal - in Heathers, everything is heightened, aspirational. The dialogue, from screenwriter Daniel Waters, is insane, words no real kids would ever say until kids started saying them just because of Heathers, making it a cultural progenitor to Diablo Cody and Joss Whedon. How I longed to tell my parents, "Great pâté, but I gotta motor if I wanna be ready for that funeral," like the most amazing asshole in the entire world. I wanted to be fabulous. I wanted to play croquet and wear blazers. But I never wanted to be a Heather.
At first blush, The Heathers seem like a tidy, tartan beacon lighting the halls of Westerburg High, with their posh perms and impeccably matching ensembles. But we spend a little time with them, and we discover what Heather Chandler already knows and deeply resents in that sarlacc pit where her heart should be: that the coolest Heather of the Heathers isn’t a Heather at all: her name is Veronica Sawyer, and she doesn’t give a shit if you think she’s cool.
Veronica gets no joy from her popularity and would happily surrender it if she could find the guts to do so. Unlike The Heathers, desperately clutching to their status with perfect pink manicures, Veronica’s got nothing to lose. She already gave up the truest friend she’s ever had, the sweetly bespectacled Betty Finn, to join these beautiful, polished vultures that she doesn’t even like. “It’s like they’re just people I work with, and our job is being popular and shit.” That job sounds like a real drag, to be honest.
Any job requires compromise, but Veronica’s been gradually compromising her soul for so long there will soon be nothing left. The first scene at Westerburg shows Veronica’s summons at the hands of Heather Chandler, who wants her to forge a note from football star Kurt to “Martha Dumptruck,” an overweight girl who sits by herself and bothers no one, least of all Veronica. “Shit, Heather, I don’t have anything against Martha Dunstock.” “You don’t have anything for her, either.” That’s all it takes to earn the Heathers’ ire, and Martha is soon openly mocked in the cafeteria after daring to believe Veronica’s forgery could be real. Instead, her “shower nozzle masturbation material” is just another cruel joke in a long streak of punchlines served up to her by the Heathers and by life itself. Everyone laughs, but Veronica doesn’t laugh.
At Westerburg High, cool means cruel, but we never see Veronica exhibit any willing cruelty to anyone – which is saying something, considering she becomes swept up in a chain of murders. Despite her determination to be kind and her covetable insouciance, Veronica spends much of Heathers as a passenger, first to Heather Chandler’s malice and then to J.D.’s. These larger than life, too cool for school villains both need Veronica in a way they themselves don’t understand; their plans for dominance are incomplete without her. She’s the missing piece, the careless loner, and if they can just get her to subscribe to what they’re selling, everybody will buy it.
But she never does – after ninety minutes of breezing through the increasingly fucked up melodrama of this small Ohio town, Veronica finally starts to care about something, and it’s an important something: being a nice person. She rekindles her friendship with Betty Finn, she forgoes prom for a night of popcorn and movies with Heather Dunstock and, oh yeah, she foils J.D.’s plan to blow up the school. Veronica doesn’t want to be popular. She doesn’t care if she’s cool. She just wants her high school “to be a nice place.” She just wants “cool guys” like J.D. and Heather Chandler (and, later, Heather Duke) out of her life. She doesn’t want to fuck with the eagles. She just wants to be free to be a decent human being and not give a shit.
And that’s all I wanted in high school, too. The couple of times I mocked an unpopular kid to make myself look cooler, I felt rotten about it for weeks. (For years, really. I still feel rotten about it.) I wasn’t interested in being the special kind of nasty you’re required to be to sit with the popular kids in high school. I didn’t want to change out of my oversized Pink Floyd t-shirts and platform flip-flops to fit in with the Girbaud and Hilfiger crowd. I didn’t want my friends to feel like a job, when everything else in life was already so much work. I didn’t want to be a Heather. I wanted to be a Veronica. I still do.