Mean Heathers

Heathers Mean Girls

Hollywood producers long ago figured out that they could repackage audiences' high school experience and sell it back to them. It's a testament to human vanity that a four year stint in what now amounts to a juvenile detention center can be glamorized into a long-running subgenre.

As with everything, 90% of high school movies are forgettable trash. The other 10% are pretty trashy, but in every generation a few carve out a place in the cultural zeitgeist.

Last night I treated myself to an impromptu double feature of Mean Girls (2004) and Heathers (1988).

If you haven't seen these movies, Mean Girls was the brainchild of Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock writer Tina Fey. It's a fish out of water story about a formerly homeschooled student getting embroiled in the nasty inter-clique politics at her new generic high school.

Heathers starts with pretty much the same basic details as Mean Girls, with a few superficial differences. You've got the same social commentary on in-crowd vs out-crowd dynamics, social ostracism, and betrayal.

The differences become apparent in Heathers' tone--which is far darker, themes--also darker, centrally featuring the issue of teen suicide, and plot--which veers into outlaw lovers territory a la Bonnie and Clyde, Wild at Heart, and True Romance.

For starters, I'll rattle off a list of similarities between the two films, many of them trivial, in no particular order.

  • A main clique of four popular girls organized in a rigid hierarchy ruled with an iron fist by a queen bee character.
  • Both are set at cookie cutter high schools in the Midwest.
  • Gay panic subplot
  • Characters turning their backs on childhood friends to join/stay in the popular clique.
  • Exactly one Taco Bell reference each.
  • Hyper-violent dream sequences (though in Heathers, these or similar events often come true).
  • Female character hit, but not killed, by a vehicle.
  • Social blackmail (actual blackmail, in Heathers' case).
  • Protagonist displays exceptional aptitude in a specific field of study (Mean Girls: mathematics, Heathers: literature).
  • Romantic involvement with a male character from outside the protagonist's traditional social circle is the main plot catalyst.
With so many similarities, some of them quite eerie, it's no wonder people frequently compare these two movies. From my recent experience, they made a pretty surreal double feature.

There are significant differences, though, and these are where the most interesting cultural implications lie.

The most obvious differences are generational. Mean Girls is implicitly aimed at Millennials, whereas Heathers is a much more overt Gen X cri de coeur.

If you're wondering about Generation Y's defining high school movie, that would be the aptly titled Clueless--a topic for another time.

These different generational outlooks are embodied by both films' main protagonists. Mean Girls' Cady, played by Lindsay Lohan, is paradoxically cosmopolitan yet sheltered. She grew up in Africa, yet she's hapless in social situations.

Cady is also a math whiz. That's significant because it's used to portray her as breaking down barriers to girls excelling in traditionally male pursuits. It's interesting to see Hollywood already actively blurring distinctions between the sexes back in 2004.

It's also worth noting that, even though smart phones were still a few years off in 2004, a lot of interactions between characters in Mean Girls take place over the phone.

Heathers' protagonist Veronica, played by Winona Ryder, is a completely different character than Cady. She's already a member of the upper crust at the start of her movie, and she's far more socially capable, even defying the titular Heathers to their faces on multiple occasions.

Veronica's parents are rich boomers, as are all of the parents shown in Heathers. Unlike Cady's folks, who are portrayed as kind but somewhat bumbling, all of the parental figures in Heathers are depicted as vain, aloof, venal, and selfish. Veronica does half-jokingly call her dad an idiot to his face, an insult he glibly agrees with and amplifies.

The palpable Gen X vs. Baby Boomer conflict in Heathers is even more explicit in the twisted relationship between male lead J.D., played by Christian Slater, and his boomer father.

From his first scene J.D.'s dad is painted as a sinister sociopath who won't let anything--tradition, morality, family--stand between him and a buck. He's a ruthless real estate developer who is shown quite literally demolishing history to line his own pockets.

The guy is so evil that J.D.'s mom walked into a condemned library seconds before demolition just to get away from her psycho husband. The boomer connections are driven home by the fact that the site of her death is a building in Texas that housed books.

Digressions aside, Veronica is shown to be quite the wordsmith. When she begins forging suicide notes for J.D.'s popular victims, even going so far as to perfectly match the deceased's handwriting, her fake notes are featured first in the school newspaper and then in the news media.

Note that as late as 1988, a female protagonist is shown excelling in the literary arts, where women still dominate today. Heathers spares its audience the contrivance of a smoking hot female extreme mathlete.

Don't get me wrong. The kids in Heathers are hardly pure as the wind-driven snow. Unlike Mean Girls, which mostly hints at sex, Heathers has a couple of sex scenes commensurate with its R rating. Sometime between 1988 and 2004, Hollywood figured out that PG-13 innuendo in a movie kids can legally see is more effective at scandalizing them than gratuitous R-rated debauchery.

Tellingly, the characters in Mean Girls dress far more sluttily. They even lampshade it in the movie.

Another key difference is the kind of degeneracy they were selling back then. Heathers is still pushing sexual revolution style hetero hedonism. Homosexuality is played for laughs or slung as an insult. There's no explicitly gay character you're supposed to sympathize with, as in Mean Girls.

Which of the two do I prefer? Using the word "deep" in reference to a high school movie comes off as absurd on its face, but there are degrees, and depth is relative.

In the final analysis,Mean Girls is a delivery mechanism for trite Barbie commercial style "Friendship is magic!" moralizing and "Girls can do anything!" third wave feminism.There are some crafted jokes that elicit a chuckle or two, since Tina Fey does mirror her protagonist's success in a male-dominated field. Though ironically, more like Veronica in Heathers, her forte is the arts.

Though Heathers has fewer laugh-out-loud gags, its humor is darker and subtler. For example, J.D. is able to unfailingly manipulate the local authority figures through such seemingly innocuous acts as leaving a bottle of mineral water or a marked-up copy of Moby Dick at the scenes of his crimes.

The humor in Mean Girls revolves around the characters. The humor in Heathers is derived from and concerned with the world. That's a telltale difference between female and male writing. It's also probably why I gravitate toward the latter.

A final note on aesthetics. Heathers was produced in the 80s and is unmistakably a product of its time. Looking at one still from the opening scene will tell you exactly when the movie was made.

Mean Girls, on the other hand, is a product of post-1997 Hollywood. Almost exactly the same amount of time separates us from 2004 as separates Mean Girls from Heathers. But other than the conspicuous absence of smart phones, Mean Girls could take place anytime from the year 2000 up until today.

We're about due for the definitive Gen Zed high school movie. My money's on a shot-for-shot remake of Mean Girls with a Mary Sue transsexual character and a carefully edited gay sex scene shoehorned in.


  1. These types of movies have never done it for me.

    I just watched My Science Project yesterday despite not having seen it since high school. Now there's a movie that could never exist today.

    1. How about Weird Science? Hollywood lynching would follow.

  2. Many people, it seems, recall high school as the best years of their lives.

    Terrifying thought.

    1. Joseph

      Agreed. I found that time period as a real burden and the least enjoyable phase of my life.

  3. Should I be glad I never went to high school?

  4. For some of us, high school was a once on a lifetime experience, with once being one time too many. I dislike these kind of movies, though the 80's ones at least tried to be entertaining. Maybe it's a question of age, but movies that feature teenagers (even pretend teens as the actors are usually in their 20's) having sex have never been my thing.

  5. Heathers was a more honest movie than Mean Girls.

    Tina Fey is hoping if she sucks up to Boomers, they'll give her a seat at the table.

    1. "Heathers was a more honest movie than Mean Girls."

      It struck me that way, too, despite its occasional campiness.

  6. High School and College are sadly considered by many to be the best years of their lives, simply because such days lacked responsibility and were mostly spent in activities of dissipation. In other words, they loved those years because they were the years where they were “grown up” children.

    My best years are now, with my wife and little kids, and my community of friends.

  7. Your 1997-as-ground-zero hypothesis appears spot-on. Seinfeld, which ended in '98, has a similar uncanny valley-like effect where it seems both contemporary and distant. Ditto The Office, which ended "only" six years ago. A future historian could be forgiven for developing a "phantom time hypothesis" if they had to reconstruct events using only post-1997 pop culture.

    1. That's a good point. We date the lives of most figures from antiquity by often fragmentary copies of the few ancient documents to survive into the present. Most of those aren't even contemporary with the persons in question.

      I don't envy future historians tasked with establishing timelines for the late 20th-early 21st centuries, especially since we're entering a Dark Age.

  8. High school is a great setting for character based comedy. You get to see characters who would never otherwise cross each other's paths, and see them confined in close proximity under varying degrees of duress. So much potential for humor. You can't get that out of adults. The choices of adulthood separate people. The ambitious types go one way, the tough kids go down a different path, dreamers and art fags gravitate toward their own, rich ones and poor ones part ways forever, and so on. You can't tell a story with all these human elements anymore. It would be contrived.

    True story, until his death John Hughes continued to write out the life stories of the characters in his movies. He filled up notebooks upon notebooks with these people growing up, getting old, marrying, etc. But when he got asked about writing a sequel to the Breakfast Club, he said it was impossible. Reason being there was no plausible premise for ever putting those same characters in a room together ever again. Wouldn't work!

    1. Very interesting. Thanks for this!

    2. John Hughes was the court chronicler of Generation X. His untimely death was a huge cultural loss.

      I wasn't aware that Hughes kept tabs on his characters like that, but from a writer's point of view, it makes sense. His characters always came off as so vivid because to him, they were real.

      I'm sure there are readers of this blog who had an algebra class with a guy just like Farmer Ted. Or got the number for the modem in the school library from a fixer like Ferris Bueller. Or got busted sneaking beer into a dance by an educator turned disillusioned juvie hall warden like Richard Vernon.

      I hope Hughes' estate publishes his notes someday.

    3. There are whole blogs dedicated to some of John Hughes' unproduced material.


      I'm amazed Hollywood hasn't tried to cash in on any of this yet. But perhaps his family would rather keep this material closer to the chest.

      It isn't as if modern Hollywood could film a John Hughes movie now without gutting the script.

    4. I'd rather the scripts be burned than let the ghouls who run Current Year Hollywood desecrate them.

    5. Holy smokes, what a great find! Thank YOU, sir!