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Heathers - A Postfeminist Fantasy?

by Dan Lark

What do we make of Paramount Network’s television adaptation of Michael Lehmmann’s 1988 film, Heathers? Heathers exaggerates the characteristics of third-wave feminist critique to craft a fantasy of the new social order - where the old hierarchy of white heterosexuality has been upended and the politically correct genderqueer teens reign supreme. In the new adaptation, the Heathers are no longer the blinding white wealthy girls we remember. The queen bee, Heather Chandler, is a plus-size young woman, Heather MacNamara is a black lesbian, and Heather Duke is a genderqueer individual.

Visually, the show is not at all subdued. The costuming is highly stylized to emphasize the Heathers’ fashion sense. The use of black-lighting throughout the episode, though not shown in this clip, serves to literally highlight the dark undercurrent that runs through the school. If you watch Riverdale, you’ll also recognize the neon color palette. Veronica and Heather Chandler are consistently contrasted with blues and red, respectively, like in the film. Right before this clip starts, the Heathers have a slow-motion walk through the cafeteria with close-ups on each aspect of their outfits, bringing your attention to hair, clothes, bodies, and accessories. But, this also signifies their position at the top of the school hierarchy. As we know from the high school films this show draws from, only the popular clique get a slow-mo power walk.

Based on this clip, we can see how it fits into some of Jess Butler’s (2013) characteristics of postfeminist media: there is the implication that not only has gender equality been achieved but that all sorts of hierarchies have been overturned. There is a shift from sexual objectification to sexual subjectification, as seen in the reversal of roles between Ram, the jock, and the Heathers. The threat of online shaming demands acts of self-surveillance and self-discipline, with Heather’s call out serving as an object lesson for the whole school. And, the costuming and fashion judgements link consumption and style with empowerment and individuation.

Sarah Banet-Weiser observes that “empowered girls function as a lucrative commodity in the media marketplace” (2007) The Heathers wield their commodity power with pleasure, establishing a link between the ability to clearly articulate and market one’s identity and the accrual of social and cultural capital. Many scenes serves to remind us that Veronica’s status as a thin, straight white girl who is only half-Jewish is a problematic source of of both shame and discrimination. In the clip, Heather Chandler remarks that Heather’s fashion choices are too Banana Republic, or too normative. (In the background of this clip, you can also see a poster that says “Who are you? Join the identity club!”) Further, in a prior scene, the school guidance counselor asserts that unless she find something unique and marginalized about herself, such as being a “hermaphrodite”, Veronica will never get into a top college. Veronica is tired of the performances of the self she is required to do and the cruel things the Heathers do with their power, which sparks the plot to destroy the Heathers. Or, to quote her later on in the episode: “What if the next truly revolutionary thing was just to be totally normal?”

Heathers could be considered one of the texts of enjoyment that normalize post-feminist anxieties that Angela McRobbie (2007) describes. Unlike Bridget Jones's Diary, the film McRobbie analyzes, the central anxiety of Heathers is not marriage. Instead, perhaps the central anxiety is identity. Or, rather, the commodification of gender and racial identity that Banet-Weiser notes (2007). The question I have about this show, then, is the question of irony. Do we read the new Heathers as a sort of queer fantasy or as a conservative nightmare? On the one hand, the over the top dialogue, the costuming, and the plot are full of camp, like the original film. But, on the other hand, I don’t think the show sees everything “in quotation marks,” to borrow Susan Sontag’s framing of camp (1964). As Banet-Weiser observes, “postfeminist gender identity is a slippery category precisely because of the ways in which it intervenes in·productive ways in traditional ideological frameworks even as it works in other ways to shore up those same frameworks” (2007).

Is the show ironic, then? I don’t think so. I think the show is quite earnest in its mocking of marginalized teens. As Heather Chandler says in the clip, “We don’t do irony anymore.” The idea that the white, heterosexual high school students are the real social outcasts that need to take back control is a bit absurd, particularly when you juxtapose it with the images of teens across the country walking out of their high schools to protest school shootings and demand gun control and the teachers strike in West Virginia that went on for 9 days before the teachers won all their demands. But the show suggests we take Veronica’s plight - her uncertainty about her authentic self in a community saturated with difference - seriously. The show presents a postfeminist anxiety over the commodification of identity, but it resolves the anxiety through a murderous fantasy that longs for the “affirmation of a white, heterosexual subject” (Butler 2013).

Heathers TV Adaptation - Queer Teens Rule The School

In this clip from Paramount Network's (formerly Spike TV) adaptation of the 1988 cult film, we're introduced to the school's popular clique, the Heathers, for the first time.

from Heathers (TV) (2018)
Creator: Jason Micallef
Distributor: Paramount Network
Posted by Dan Lark