Fair warning, this article is going to spoil the hell out of the pilot episode of Heathers. The short, spoiler-free version is that it’s reprehensible garbage, not even worthy of hate-watching.
However, there is the germ of a good idea in the Paramount Network’s television reboot of the 1988 cult classic. An early scene finds protagonist Veronica Sawyer (Grace Victoria Cox) meeting with her guidance counselor, who asks what Veronica’s “brand” is so that she may better sell herself to prospective colleges. Veronica replies that she’s a good friend and a good person, but that’s apparently not enough. There’s something legitimate to explore in the notion that today’s teenagers are now under more pressure than ever to define themselves definitively before entering the adult world, as competition for jobs in a market that is adjusting poorly to changes in production and the necessity for human labor has meant that every advantage a person can get is necessary from the earliest moment.
…And then the guidance counselor asks “By any chance, are you a hermaphrodite?” in an attempt to find a label that would look good as a piece of affirmative action recruitment.
In that moment my kneejerk philosophical pondering was suffocated by the realization that not only was this show going to be remarkably and purposely offensive, but it wasn’t going to give today’s youth a fair shake. The show goes on to paint Generation Z’s penchant for radical progressivism and technological interconnectivity as not only strange and laughable, but also as a main reason for the issues that plague their generation. I can’t think of the last time a piece of popular culture was so viciously cruel to a group of people it purported to represent, and the result is a show that bears the trappings of a teen comedy but is more akin to your racist grandpa’s rambling diatribe about how things used to be simpler.
We are soon thereafter introduced to the Heathers, conceived in the original film as photocopied archetypes of popular attractiveness, but are here best described as aggressively diverse. Heather Chandler (Melanie Field) is the heavyset leader of the group; Heather McNamara (Jasmine Matthews) is the self-described black lesbian of the group; and Heather Duke (Brendan Scannell) is the genderqueer Heather with a penchant for flamboyant women’s clothing, more on that in a moment. Veronica is ostensibly friends with these three, even though the entirety of her personality seems to revolve around how being white and rich doesn’t afford her any distinguishing identity.
But the mean popular Heathers aren’t just content to be their unique selves, but rather must make an example of those who transgress the progressive ideals of… basic human decency I suppose? Heather Chandler picks out a cafeteria-dwelling jock wearing a t-shirt bearing the logo of the Remington Squaws—an obvious homage to Chief Wahoo of the Washington Redskins—takes a picture of him, and promises to turn him into a viral racist sensation if he doesn’t take off his shirt immediately. The large sports fan, who let’s remember was wearing a piece of overtly racist memorabilia, is shamed into taking off his shirt and then forced to ask a religious girl, derogatively named Jesus Julie, if she would like to receive anal sex, effectively painting the Heathers as social justice warriors who wield their social media influence with reckless abandon.
We’re then introduced to JD (James Scully), a philosophically morose teenager who acts as the cynical psychoanalyst for the entirety of his generation, ranting screeds against affirming and accepting non-normative labels and the tendency of today’s teenagers to reframe the normal, more problematic aspects of achieving adulthood so as to paint themselves as society’s heroes. He’s effectively little more than a mouthpiece for the self-righteous anger of the show’s writing staff, and though he plays much the same role in goading Veronica toward fatal consequence as his 1988 counterpart, he is at least for this pilot shown to be righteous in his pursuits.
Later, Heather Chandler and Veronica have a falling out when Veronica dares to ask whether “the next revolutionary thing is just to be totally normal.” Of course, according to this show, “totally normal” is apparently white, straight, rich, and thin, and the Heathers are in the wrong for even acknowledging their differences. This show sets up a bizarre paradigm where groups that have always held more social capital in American society are suddenly treated as if they were themselves an oppressed minority, which is no more true for today’s teenagers than it was for mine or previous generations, despite their increased social consciousness. And yet Heather Chandler belittles Veronica for her blandness, calling her Panera, Sbarro, and Cheesecake Factory in the most bizarre dig at corporate homogeneity I’ve ever heard, probably because the writers clearly don’t believe it.
It’s after this fallout that JD suggests drugging Heather Chandler and taking “selfies” of her wearing a Nazi officer’s cap to implode her social media presence. After getting into Heather Chandler’s bedroom with narratively convenient ease, Veronica and JD trick Heather Chandler into eating a package of corn nuts by implying that not doing so would be evidence that she’s trying to lose weight. (What!?) Of course, this goes awry when Heather Chandler chokes on the nuts, apparently dying in the process. JD then has a strangely calm “aw shucks” moment when he realizes that he accidentally gave her a suicide pill instead of a roofie, and the pair rather nonchalantly decide to use Heather Chandler’s social media to make the incident look like a suicide.
It’s obvious that the show’s writers are trying to make a point about the callous way in which teenagers approach death and the ways in which their social media presence is supposedly more valuable than their own lives, but this is little more than a technophobic guise to both minimize the perpetual numbing impact of teen suicide and depression and the globalized support network that the information age has afforded those who aren’t empowered by hegemonic structures. Students proudly proclaim that Heather Chandler must have been a good person because of her immense number of followers, people say the words “sad face emoji” and “pill emoji” as part of casual conversation without a hint of irony, and teachers are more concerned with presenting a publicly affirming message than with the lost life of their student. And when the episode ends on the revelation that Heather Chandler didn’t actually die from the suicide pill, it comes with the sinister revelation that she’ll continue to play dead for the fame her internet suicide affords her. This is all presented as comically inane, but the real issues that inform this farce are too pressing and too far from actual solutions to treat with this much cynical levity.
But this leads me to what is probably the straw that for most people will break the back of this already excessively beaten camel: the complete and utter contempt for LGBT characters, namely Heather McNamara and Heather Duke. Heather Duke at one point gains evidence that Heather McNamara has been having sex with one of the male teachers, blowing open the notion that Heather McNamara is a lesbian and costing her social capital as if bisexuality doesn’t exist. Heathers treats queer identities as badges that teenagers wear as indicators of their progressiveness, completely dismissing the notion that these queer identities are legitimate and that we have socially progressed to a point where kids now feel comfortable expressing those identities. This is nowhere more apparent than in how Heather Duke is presented are a flamboyant boy who doesn’t just wear women’s clothing, but costumes of exaggerated femininity, something that we as the audience are meant to mock and deride as silly in its opulence. This queer critic is far from amused by the notion that everyday queer expression needs to be put back in the closet.
But at the end of the day, that sort of open hostility is precisely what the new Heathers is all about. Though the show may have the glossy dark aesthetic of a teen drama like Riverdale, it is a show more explicitly targeted at an older, more conservative demographic, one that clings to notions of a high school pecking order that had started to feel dated even in my high school days over a decade ago but reinforces their notion that they still belong at the top of the adult hierarchy. Heathers is an attempt to weaponize nostalgia for a cult film into an angry diatribe against the bugbears of social progressivism, painting the oppressed as oppressors so that the beneficiaries of oppression can feel good about trying to stamp out those whom they feel threaten their standing. This is a longing for the good old days when non-whites and queers knew their place, and it was okay to go about one’s life without questioning the social privileges conferred by a cultural order that only recognizes the validity of an imperially obtained majority. Heathers is a hateful, bigoted exercise in regression hiding behind the guise of dark comedy, and I can only hope it doesn’t gain the Trumpian audience it so clearly craves.