Brow Beat

Heathers on Heathers

Three culture writers with a common first name on the ’80s cult classic and the doomed TV reboot.

Top: The original Heathers. Bottom: The new Heathers.
The old Heathers, and the new.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by New World Pictures and Paramount Network.

Editor’s note: The Paramount Network has announced that it is delaying the debut of its Heathers TV series due to sensitivity concerns in the wake of the Parkland, Florida, shooting. But since the pilot was streaming online for a week and no new date for the series premiere has been set, we’re running this previously conducted Q&A between three writers named Heather on growing up with the cult classic movie and their thoughts on the new TV show.

Heather Schwedel: Heathers, it’s time to figure out our collective damage. On the occasion of the cult classic movie Heathers being rebooted for TV, I wanted to assemble an all-star panel of people named Heather to discuss the show, the original movie, and, basically, that Heather life. Thank you both for joining me! I’m a staff writer here at Slate, but don’t assume that means I’m top Heather. Want to introduce yourself, Heather?

Heather Hogan: Hi! I’m Heather Hogan! I’m a senior editor at Autostraddle, the world’s largest website for LGBT women. I’ve been writing about LGBT women in pop culture professionally for 10 years. TV is my main beat.

Heather Cocks: I’m Heather Cocks, and I’ve been co-writing the celebrity fashion blog Go Fug Yourself since 2004. [Editor’s note: She is also the co-author of the delightful novel The Royal We.]

Schwedel: Let’s dive into Heathers, the movie. How and when did you first encounter it?

Cocks: When I was in eighth grade, my best friend was named Heather, and people’s first question to us was always, “OMG have you seen the movie Heathers?” One day we figured we should be able to say yes. (Their second question, because we were both red-haired and blue-eyed and very fair, was, “OMG you’re BOTH named Heather? ARE YOU SISTERS?” Which is not how that works.) So that means I probably saw it for the first time around 1991.

Hogan: I am a child of the ’80s and have always been obsessed with movies, so I encountered Heathers probably way too early to understand anything about it. I rewatched it as a teen and loved it, loved quoting it, but when I revisited it as an adult in a post-Columbine world, I was a little like, “Oof! Yikes!” What about you, Heather S.?

Schwedel: The movie came out only a year or two after I was born, so for a while I was aware of it and frankly loved the idea that there was a movie with my name, but I probably didn’t see it until high school. I grew to love it—and to be a huge Winona Ryder fan—eventually, but honestly, when I first saw it, I wasn’t so into it. I think it was a little dark for millennial me?

Hogan: I think when you grow up with the threat of actual violence in your school, it changes how you engage with a violent high school film.

Cocks: It feels much more outlandish if you’re watching it through the lens of school violence being a very distant thing. Heathers is SO dark. To be honest, even when I saw it in eighth grade, I don’t know if I fully accessed it. I think the parts that seemed too dark or were too hard to think about, I just sort of glossed over because it was quippy and because we were supposed to think Christian Slater was cute. (I did not. SACRILEGE.)

Schwedel: One thing I was thinking about, especially in light of the show, is our image of a Heather. Do we picture a popular cheerleader?

Cocks: I think Heather at least THINKS she’s a popular cheerleader. But might be self-aware enough to know she’s like in the middle of the pyramid.

Hogan: Yeah, I’ve always had the image of like a Heather Morris in my mind for the name Heather, and by extension Brittany from Glee.

Cocks: Ryan Murphy knew what he was doing. Two out of three Heathers in the original Heathers were blond, just like Heather Morris. I wish he’d just named her Heather, but Brittany was more contemporary at that time. (Thanks, Britney.)

Schwedel: There are a few prominent nonwhite Heathers out there, like Heather Headley, but I guess the popular image of a Heather is white.

Cocks: I was thinking about Heather Headley also!

Schwedel: Do we think Heather is a straight name too? Or is there such a thing?

Cocks: I do feel like Heather has a strangely blond connotation overall, which … I mean, Heather Duke endured, and she was a brunette, so riddle me that one. I don’t know if I’ve ever put much thought into whether it’s a straight name, mostly because people don’t have names handed to them after their sexuality is decided.

Hogan: We have ranked Heather as the 13th most lesbian name on Autostraddle.

Schwedel: That’s a great stat to be able to pull out!

Cocks: I love that this list exists.

Hogan: We do important journalism.

Schwedel: There’s also that book, Heather Has Two Mommies, where Heather is the daughter.

Hogan: I think it took me 10 years longer to come out because of that book!

Cocks: I definitely feel like Heather Chandler would have explored all sides of her own sexuality, as long as she was on top.

Hogan: No doubt.

Schwedel: I think for some of these reasons, I was cautiously excited the show was going to feature some different types of Heathers. Speaking of the show …

Cocks: Yes, let’s tuck into the shit sandwich …

Schwedel: To quickly recap, the premise of the reboot is basically that instead of three typical popular-girl Heathers, one is fat, one is black and a lesbian, and one is genderqueer.

Cocks: I was deeply frustrated by this show basically taking the idea of representation and diversity, and using it to … make a bland white straight blond girl [Veronica, the role originated by Winona Ryder] the center of the show.

Hogan: My reaction throughout was horror that folded in on itself so much it became like a horror baklava.

Cocks: That is a perfect description. I found its tone vile, honestly, almost all of the time.

Hogan: I think you can’t even really talk past the pilot without talking about [the influence of] Ryan Murphy, who is not without his problematic depictions of minority characters, but Heathers felt like Ryan Murphy without ANY of the heart.

Cocks: There is one moment when Veronica is complaining about how everyone is something, and why can’t the next new thing be just “normal,” implying that she is the embodiment and definition of normality. When in fact, the world is trying to progress to a place where nobody is telling anyone who or what is normal. Think of all the kids who are racially or sexually diverse—you’ve just told them they’re not normal, and worse, you’ve implied what they are is merely du jour rather than an actual identity. When kids are grappling with that AND in fact actually getting bullied and pilloried for it still, it’s tone deaf AT BEST to discuss and present those things in this way.

Schwedel: It reminded me of some of the contrarian/backlash discussions people have been having about #MeToo, in that it is not brave to speak up for the side that is basically already the majority.

Cocks: Right? It feels like punching down.

Hogan: There was this moment in the pilot where I thought the show was going to go in on callout culture in liberal and activist communities in an interesting way, but instead it just doubled down on the paranoia of Reddit.

Cocks: Can we talk about how they made “how very” into “how just”?

Schwedel: Oh, yes!

Hogan: No, I refuse to acknowledge that.

Cocks: It might not be important, but it made me nuts. Slang doesn’t really evolve that way. We didn’t replace “awesome” with “neatsome.”

Schwedel: I think it didn’t quite work, but maybe I appreciate the effort.

Cocks: To me it was a symptom of lazy satire/parody/rebooting. “Let’s just take X and make it Y and ha ha ha we’re so funny.”

Hogan: For the worst slang change, I have to nominate “Gotta Tesla.” “Gotta motor” still works!

Schwedel: Yes, that felt so horned in.

Cocks: I have so many thoughts about JD. Namely … why does he look 45?

Hogan: Valid.

Cocks: He’s not charismatic at all. I wasn’t a huge Slater girl, as I noted, but something about the JD-Veronica relationship clicked better in the movie and felt perfunctory here. The show could never figure out exactly what it was trying to skewer. Everything? The fact that they have the adults sitting around going, “The FAT kid is popular? She’s just SO FAT,” was … what the hell WAS that, anyway?

Hogan: The fat-shaming was out of control.

Cocks: Paramount Network used to be Spike TV. This show began life on TV Land, right? But it felt like it was written for the very worst stereotype of a Spike TV dude-bro audience.

Hogan: Absolutely re: Spike!

Cocks: Kurt Fuller actually got paid to sit there and say, over and over, “She’s JUST SOOOO FAT.” Also, newsflash: SHE ISN’T. I often wonder if they sit down with the actress(es) in situations like this and say, “Look, some characters are going to stay stuff about how you look and it’s not how we feel.” Unless it is how they feel.

Schwedel: That’s a good point! I wish the actress playing Heather Chandler had better material to work with.

Cocks: Yes. Me too. I think she’s quite good.

Schwedel: I thought the genderqueer Heather was also pretty charming.

Cocks: Genderqueer Heather feels a lot like—wait for it—Extreme Kurt, from Glee.

Schwedel: Totally! They even look alike.

Cocks: So many parallels. It’s a really weird feeling when you watch a show and think, “This needs the deft, subtle touch of RYAN MURPHY.”

Hogan: I think it’s very cool to have an assigned-male-at-birth genderqueer character on TV.
We hardly ever get to see that. And I did think they were the most sympathetic Heather. But it was very, very Kurt Hummel. As for Heather McNamara, I’ve been writing about queer women on TV for 10 years, and I can honestly say I have never seen any character written as tone-deafly as her. It was like these writers looked up every single trope for queer black women and checked off the boxes.

Schwedel: I wonder what high-schoolers of today will make of it—the politics feel like such a mismatch.

Hogan: High-schoolers won’t watch this. They’ll make the correct choice and watch Riverdale.

Cocks: Right? Who is the intended audience, even?

Hogan: It’s 30–40-year-old women who voted for Trump.

Schwedel: I don’t even see Trump voters watching this.

Hogan: Right, Trump voters would never tune into a show with a black woman and genderqueer lead.

Schwedel: It makes me sad that this show is mostly a mess. I feel some ownership over the concept of Heathers. I don’t want us to be some one-season also-ran!

Cocks: Right? The name needs to come BACK, not be POISONED.

Hogan: I think the real failure of these writers was not understanding the culture they were putting the show into.

Cocks: Do we think an America under Hillary Clinton would have gotten as mad about this show as people seem to be? I like to think we would have seen it for what is, but this presidency has ripped off a lot of blinkers.

Hogan: Right—if this show was being made in 2016–2017, what it really does is shine a light on just how wrong we all were about what was festering in our culture. If we thought the time was ever right for this, we weren’t paying attention in the way Trump has forced us to pay attention. Though I wonder if, in 2018, with violence in high schools being what it is, there was any way for this show to work?

Cocks: I think at the end of the day, the show had to have something cogent and coherent that it was trying to say. And if that was ever true, I think it got stamped out of the show along the way. Satire needs a message. This one was just chortling over its own (incorrectly) perceived cleverness. As dark as the original Heathers was, it had something to say, in a way that, by the end, made you think maybe it wasn’t gratuitous after all.

Schwedel: I would love to see an actual worthy successor to Heathers come along.

Cocks: I agree. Mean Girls really wasn’t it. Mean Girls exists in its own space.

Schwedel: Oh, Shannen Doherty was admittedly fun to see. So was Selma Blair.

Cocks: I was SO HAPPY to see Brenda “Heather Duke” Walsh looking so healthy after her breast cancer.

Hogan: She looked amazing! She looked better than everyone!

Cocks: I just want you all to know that I found a red scrunchie in an old suitcase like six months ago, and I meant to wear it today.

Schwedel: It’s funny, scrunchies are making a comeback.

Cocks: I couldn’t find the red scrunchie, so I have a gray one around my wrist. A stretched out, faded, useless thing that can’t even be a good scrunchie anymore. Which feels like a good metaphor for the reboot.