An Ode to ‘Heathers,’ and the Beginning of the Queen Bees

HeathersNew World Pictures

When Heathers hit movie theaters in 1988 there wasn’t even a phrase yet to describe the A-list alpha clique that Winona Ryder‘s character found herself a part of. Rosalind Wiseman’s book Queen Bees and Wannabes was still 14 years away from being released, and Tina Fey’s Mean Girls, based in part on said book, was an even more distant entity.

With an off-Broadway musical version of the dark teenage comedy just debuting, and Mean Girls streaming on Netflix for its 10 year anniversary, it’s time to throw some love at the original that spawned it all.

Heathers was not a hit movie. The film had a modest $3 million budget and still didn’t make it all back, earning a little over a million dollars at the box office (for comparison, Mean Girls made $129 million, though inflation is responsible for part of that discrepancy). Even in the days when the subject matter of high school murders was less “taboo,” it wasn’t an easy concept to market.

It took word-of-mouth at the local video store — remember when that was a thing? — to start the movie on its way to a cult following. While almost no one saw the movie in the theaters, by the early ’90s, seemingly everyone under the age of 30 had seen it either on video or cable.

Heathers shined a light on a different kind of high school clique: one where the girls had little to no regard for other people’s feelings and seem to be on a track that will either lead to them marrying rich or running a fortune 500 company, or both. Boys were just kept arond as playthings. Lesser students were to be used and abused. Heathers showed us a side of high school that other movies hadn’t… but that we all had seen in the flesh growing up. That’s why the film was so effective: we knew, and understood, so much of it.

When Ryder’s Veronica wanted to be like the Heathers (Kim Walker, Lisanne Falk, and Shannen Doherty), we understood. And we understood why she hated herself for wanting to be like them, too. And when the lead Heather vowed to ruin Veronica for not putting out at a frat party, we understood why she wanted to hit back… hard.

Of course, what makes Heathers different from other teen revenge flicks is the way in which she gets back at her rivals. Hooking up with Christian Slater‘s psychotic J.D., suddenly Veronica is staging murder-suicides and starts a trend that has local counselors working overtime. Veronica figures out that she has power and then soon has to come to terms with the ramifications and responsibility. It’s a coming-of-age teen revenge fantasy played out to the Nth degree.

Heathers ended up giving us language to start the dialogue about how teenage girls interact. It quickly became apparent that many wanted to be a Heather but felt like a Veronica — or one of the cast-aside “others” — and a few too many saw the Heathers as role models.  Its influence can be seen in everything from Clueless to Jawbreaker to Jennifer’s Body.  

So, before you stream Rachel McAdams and Lindsay Lohan fighting for supremacy in Mean Girls, go back to the original and rewatch Heathers. All these years later, it will still blow you away, especially its explosive conclusion.