Monday, May 8, 2017

Biblical, Shakespearean, and Other Themes in "Heathers"

Let's celebrate my half birthday by sharing my first analytical blog essay in months! :D

For the past few weeks, I have been on a "Heathers" kick. Heathers was a teen movie in 1988 starring Winona Ryder and Christian Slater and it was remade as an Off-Broadway musical in 2014. I watched a YouTube video one Sunday morning, heard "Dead Girl Walking", liked it, looked it up along with the rest of the musical, and the rest was history.

I had heard about the musical when it came out, but still didn't really think that much about it. Although, I will give its Twitter account credit for being the one Broadway musical account to follow me. ;)

I never really knew what "Heathers" was about, hence my current interest to now delve more into it. All I knew was that it is about a clique of girls all with the name Heather and that this teenage bad boy tries to kill everybody. I always sensed the dark tone, but now I have more of an understanding of the story in general.

For example, I never knew that Ryder's character wasn't named Heather. I always thought that she was the fourth Heather or something. However, high school senior Veronica Sawyer (Winona Ryder in the movie, Barrett Wilbert Weed in the musical) is a teenage nobody who longs for life in elementary school when all of her classmates got along with each other. She hooks up with the awful popular girls, the Heathers (Heather Chandler, the Queen Bee, Heather Duke, the bitchy second-in-command, and Heather McNamara, the one that tags along and has some deep issues of her own), in order to avoid being targeted by the bullies. She becomes attracted to new kid Jason "J.D." Dean (Christian Slater in the movie, Ryan McCartan in the musical) when he is the only one strong enough to stand up to the bullies and wishes for him to protect her. The two develop a sort of flirtation and end up accidentally-on-purpose murdering the mean kids for revenge and framing the homicides as suicides to alleviate the blame, thus launching a whole teen suicide awareness campaign at their Westerburg High School. From this, Veronica's life starts to spiral out of control as J.D.'s true dark colors are revealed and he gets more and more determined to purge the bullies in order to sanctify society.

There are some themes in this plot that I believe are worth noticing, so let's dive right in! :) Incidentally, although I will be talking about both the film and the musical, I'll be going by the musical more. They made some changes from the film for the stage version and I feel more familiar with the latter.

Beware of spoilers and adult language!!!

Biblical Themes

J.D. makes plenty of references to God actually. Interestingly, these references show up when his character gradually becomes more and more evil. For instance, he sings his song "Our Love is God" right after he and Veronica kill the jocks Ram Sweeney and Kurt Kelly, Veronica accidentally and J.D. intentionally. J.D. tells her that he worships her and would die for her. In this scene too, Veronica horrifyingly realizes what she has gotten into and that J.D. must be stopped. Later on, J.D. claims that the only place that all social groups can truly get along is in Heaven, another allusion to God.

However, J.D. isn't the first place where I noticed biblical attributes.

I thought about the title of the story. "Heathers." Why the name Heather? Why not the Jessicas? The Lauras? The Melissas? The Katherines? Or...dare I say it...the Stephanies?

Is the name "Heather" just associated with mean girls, particularly in the 80s? You rarely hear the name Heather nowadays, if you think about it. It's a nice name. I like it.

However, in regards to the girls in the story, I immediately connected the name "Heathers" to the word "heathens." I had to look the word up to make sure I was making the correct comparison. "Heathen" is defined as someone who doesn't belong to a widely held religion (Christianity, Judaism, Islam) or believe in one true God. This is the historical context. The second definition is more related to the Heathers' characters: "an unenlightened person; a person regarded as lacking culture or moral principles.", "an irreligious, uncultured, or uncivilized person."

"Heathen" is associated with pagan beliefs. Now, those who don't adhere to specific religious beliefs aren't necessarily bad, but the word does have some negative connotations. Considering this, it makes sense the the girls would be named "Heather."

Now let's look at the other main ladies in the story. So, the girl who directly opposes the "heathen Heathers" should be the most Godly character in the story, correct?

Well, her name is Veronica. In Catholic teachings, Veronica is the woman who wiped the face of Jesus Christ while on his journey to Calvary. Veronica is the only other woman specifically named in the Stations of the Cross besides Jesus's mother Mary, so therefore she is very important. We see that Veronica Sawyer of "Heathers" is "flawed," so therefore she is not fully the "anti-Heather." In fact, during the "Yo, Girl" sequence, she is specifically called a "Heather" to address how her character has transformed. However, she also reflects the biblical Veronica when she gathers up her determined strength to face off with J.D. I always considered Veronica a brave and strong soul because she had to get passed the vicious Roman centurions to get to Jesus.

There is one other main female character that deserves the "anti-Heather" label, and this one displays true goodness. She is Veronica's friend...and...wait a minute...her name is MARTHA Dunnstock! MARTHA is a variation of MARY, the name of Jesus's mother, who represents virtue and purity!!

Oh, snap!

Martha is an overweight girl who is often the target of the mean kids' cruel jokes. However, she remains the kindest character throughout the story, which makes her the perfect representation of the Virgin Mary. It's also suggested that Veronica and the Heathers are more sexually active and there's no indication about Martha's sexuality, which further enhances my point. There are also plenty of Martha figures in the Bible who follow Jesus's teachings and have faith.

Color Themes

The color themes in "Heathers" are a bit connected to biblical color themes. What's interesting is that each of the main characters is color coded and those colors represent their personalities. These I'm sure audiences have noticed already before, but maybe I can slightly take these observations to another step.

Red: Heather Chandler wears this color, and her red scrunchie is a recurring motif as a symbol of her power.

In Christianity, Jesus Christ is often portrayed in a red cloak. Now, I am not equating Chandler to Jesus Christ BY ANY MEANS, but the color red is also a symbol of their royal status. Jesus is God, known as the King of Kings, and Chandler is the Queen Bee, so the both of them with red incorporated in their artistic designs makes sense. When Duke and then Veronica inherit the scrunchie, they become, as Veronica puts it, the "new sheriff in town."

Green: Heather Duke wears green, and of course, she's clearly "green with envy" of Chandler's power. Often her whipping girl, when Chandler dies, Duke is able to finally take over.

Yellow: Heather McNamara wears yellow, which could match her blonde hair, but it's also representative of both her cheeriness and fearfulness, both of which she seems to experience the most of the three. "Yellow" or "yellow-belly" is a word to describe her fear. In the sense of her cheeriness, yellow could represent brightness or light, which in turn reminds me of the song "Shine a Light". This song leads into a special focus placed on McNamara that we do not see until this scene.

Blue: Blue is often associated artistically with the Virgin Mary, but I already labeled Martha as such, even though blue is Veronica's color. Veronica is still inherently good, yet confused, and just makes mistakes like any other human. Only hers, you know, lead to murders.

"Good" and "confused" are also two traits of Mary in the story of Jesus's conception and birth, so this could be why Veronica too could represent her. However, this is a long shot because Mary is perfect and Veronica clearly isn't. Martha isn't perfect either, of course, but she's closest thing of all of the characters.

But then we must analyze the symbolism of the color blue. I've already seen blue in Veronica's context described as wisdom and her deep, contemplative thoughtfulness, but to me there's more to it than that.

Blue is the emotion Veronica is feeling when we first meet her, sad and nostalgic, longing for the innocence and happiness that once was. "Blue" is also a song in the musical, sung to and about her by a drunken Ram and Kurt wanting to have sex with her. (The joke is "blue balls," in case you're wondering. It was an "OOOOH! epiphany for me me when I first heard this song and figured it out myself. It's funny. lol)

In regards to sex, blue also has another meaning that I never knew before. Looking up "blue" for this section, I found this informal definition: "(of a movie, joke, or story) with sexual or pornographic content." Veronica actually has a somewhat graphic sex scene with J.D. during "Dead Girl Walking".

So yeah. Veronica is blue in many ways.

Shakespearean Themes

That sex scene is actually a great leeway for this section. So, Veronica and J.D. form a relationship, as I've stated before. The more I studied their romance, the more I began to realize how their tale is very much like a Shakespearean tragedy, particularly Macbeth.

As we all know, in plenty of Shakespeare's tragedies, most lead characters die, usually by murder. In "Heathers", it is no different. Four main characters die at the hands of our tragic heroes. Tragic hero is a term coined by Aristotle meaning an originally decent character that has an error in judgement, usually regarding justice or revenge, which then leads to his or her downfall and he or she must suffer the consequences of his or her actions. This was a character trait I learned about in my drama courses in college, but I needed to brush up my memory, so here is a document I found online that seems to define "tragic hero" pretty well. Both Veronica and J.D. experience this in their own ways.

So let's compare them to Macbeth and his wife. In Macbeth, Macbeth receives three predictions about his life, leading up to him becoming King of Scotland. He tells this exciting yet puzzling news to his wife Lady Macbeth, who proposes that they kill King Duncan to make this suggested prediction a reality. At first Macbeth's conscience takes hold, but Lady Macbeth convinces him to do the deed. He does, but then his thirst for power runs viciously and he becomes unstable. So does Lady Macbeth, but in her case, she becomes haunted by their actions and starts to sleepwalk. Basically, the attitudes of both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth switch.

Veronica and J.D. don't necessarily switch, for neither of them really change their desires throughout the story, but we do witness their individual descents into madness. For much of the story, J.D. takes on the role of LADY Macbeth whereas Veronica is Macbeth. This works because Veronica/Macbeth is the main character and J.D./Lady Macbeth is the significant other. J.D., like Lady Macbeth, is often the catalyst for causing and covering up the murders whereas Veronica is manipulated into the schemes and experiences extreme guilt afterward, to the point where she sees ghosts of their victims. Macbeth as well sees a vision of one of his victims, Banquo. J.D. eventually switches into Macbeth himself when he wants to murder everyone who gets in the way of his plans for ultimate control. Veronica actually then turns into Macduff because she wants to put an end to the mayhem once and for all. Like Macduff with Macbeth, she battles one on one with J.D.

I'll take this further and also consider how the characters die.

I don't recall the play or class, but I do remember the following being discussed in school when we were studying Shakespeare or at least when Shakespeare was brought into the conversation (I think). I'm pretty sure it was once again in one of my college drama courses. Either that or I read it somewhere. Either way, this theory has stayed with me and now resides in "Heathers".

In the case of any female death, particularly at the hands of a man, it is never gruesome, nor even seen onstage. Women are either poisoned, drowned, smothered, etc. In other words, they are never mutilated. This is to preserve her femininity and overall looks and to I guess "glamorize" her death. However, male deaths are usually seen and are much more gory, probably because men are more associated with aggression and violence and lack of concern for their looks. Men are the only ones who kill using weapons that break the skin, usually daggers given the time periods the plays are set. Women rarely, if at all, commit any murders on their own in Shakespeare's plays. In fact, the only Shakespearean female character that I recall who stabs or gets stabbed is Juliet, but she does this to herself. However, she does initially try to ingest the poison that Romeo uses to kill himself. Basically the two kill themselves in opposite ways of the theory but still contribute to the teen suicide theme of "Heathers".

Macbeth's big moment is when he envisions a dagger in front of him to kill Duncan. In Macbeth's hesitation, Lady Macbeth offers to stab Duncan herself. But would that not go against the theory? Not really, because in Lady Macbeth's introduction scene, she asks to be "unsexed" to pull this all off, meaning that she is pleading to have her femininity and womanhood taken away from her so that she has more of a freedom to do it (and maybe perhaps become a man).

This is because daggers are a phallic symbol (anything remotely resembling a penis and/or erections). That's right. In Shakespearean literature, men kill (and are killed) the same way they have sex. With penetration. Men wield daggers and other such phallic symbols because they already wield their own penises.

That being said, my belief is that "Heathers" seems to follow this unwritten Shakespearean rule. Let's see how it all checks out.

Heather Chandler follows suit with this theory because she ends up drinking toxic drain cleaner, which takes her life, and Heather McNamara unsuccessfully attempts to overdose on pills. So the theory proves true for these two characters.

As for the guys, J.D. uses a gun, another considerable phallic symbol, to shoot Ram and Kurt, thus piercing their skin and causing blood to burst out. Finally, completing his end of the theory, even though there are no bombs in Shakespeare, J.D. blows himself up. He doesn't use a phallic symbol for this, of course, but we can assume that he ended up mutilating his body. Now we could say that Veronica alters this theory because she uses a gun to shoot J.D., but she doesn't end up killing him, so therefore I am not counting it.

I'm going to take this home by bringing Hamlet into the ring. In "Heathers", Martha represents Ophelia because of her unrequited love for Ram. Ophelia is Hamlet's girlfriend/love interest, but because he is trying to convict his Uncle Claudius of murdering his father, he starts to go crazy and eventually treats Ophelia badly as a result. Ophelia, who becomes mad herself due to Hamlet's poor treatment of her, drowns herself. In "Heathers", like Hamlet to Ophelia, Ram rudely rebuffs Martha's advances, but she doesn't understand why because of a prank the Heathers convince Veronica to play on her. Her bafflement could much mirror that of Ophelia. Mourning Ram's death and feeling neglected by everyone, Martha jumps off of a bridge. But unlike Ophelia, she survives her fall.

Mean Girls (2004) Themes

Heathers was one of the original mean girls movies, so therefore it has paved the way for 2004's Mean Girls. The stories are similar in the way they introduce the Heathers and the Plastics with their own characteristics. This could be a Character Equivalents piece, but I'll just do a real quick small comparison listicle here. As I thought about it, the characters aren't THAT equivalent.

Heather Chandler = Regina George
Rich, queen bee. Blonde. Will ruin your social life. Gets into serious medical damage because of leading lady.

Heather Duke = Gretchen Wieners
Gretchen is not mean at all to me like Duke is, but like Duke, she is the second-in-command and brunette of the group often chastised by the Queen Bee.

Heather McNamara = Karen Smith
The "dumb blonde" stereotype and nicest of the three. Bonds the most with leading lady.

Veronica Sawyer = Cady Heron
Lead character. Only child. Nobody girl gets involved with bitchy popular clique, abandons her original friends, tries to see the good in the Queen Bee, becomes tied up in manipulative schemes, and gets her world turned upside down because of it. Her goal at the end is the same as her goal in the beginning: to reunite her classmates.

Jason Dean = Janis Ian
This one is interesting. Both have similar names and wear black clothes and have dark features. They initiate revenge on the popular kids, wishing to ruin their lives, and weave the unsuspecting leading lady into their plans. It is also suggested that this character is obsessed and in love with the leading lady.

Not to mention that the parents of all of these kids are totally oblivious to their children's actions. :P This is possibly another blog post that I am planning for another time.

OMG I'm taking this Buzzfeed quiz about the two and JUST discovered that Daniel Waters, the screenwriter for Heathers, and Mark Waters, the director of Mean Girls, are BROTHERS!! That explains everything!! The similarities make so much sense now!!! WOW!

And now they are currently developing a "Mean Girls" musical.

So, I hope you enjoyed my observations. Now I just pretty much have one question for "Heathers"...

...What does "Candy Store" relate to? Why "Candy Store"? Is it a metaphor for something? What does it mean???

Also, what does Moby Dick have to do with suicide?


  1. What a great analysis. I rewatched it today and DEFINITELY got the Macbeth vibe.

    I think Candy Store is a metaphor for something that's enticing but ultimately bad for you. Sugar and popularity can be sweet but can also rot your insides if consumed unchecked. Veronica is enticed by the Heathers. She made a deal with the devil in ditching her true friend for the popular crowd. In the movie, it's said she wanted the popularity. In the musical, she sees them as the only students not affected by the bullying at Westerburg and therefore safety, unaware of the miserable depths this choice leads her to.

    As for Moby Dick, it was supposed to be Catcher in the Rye, a book about teen angst and alienation that is also associated with real life murders. The filmmakers couldn't get the rights to the book and said it makes a lot more sense if you picture Catcher in the Rye instead. However, Moby Dick is about a man's obsessive revenge quest on a whale that bit off his leg. This can be applied to the quest for power in the form of popularity, especially with Heather Duke.

    Though the movie was intended as a satire on how anti-suicide specials unintentionally glorify suicide which comes through more in the second half of the film, I took out different messages as a whole like "popularity truly isn't worth fighting for," and "no matter how big a bully someone is, killing them isn't the answer."

    The movie definitely could not have been made nowadays, at least not as a comedy, considering the increased epidemic of school shootings. I'd love to hear your thoughts on that topic.

    1. Hey, Amazzon Kan! Thank you so much for your awesome comment! I appreciate your analysis as well. Perhaps Moby Dick could also represent J.D's obsession for revenge.

      Yeah, I was actually thinking about how this story hits too close to home nowadays to be made today given that it would be considered way too controversial, but what's interesting too is that Heathers also now got a TV series remake. Fans don't seem to be too pleased with it.

    2. Hey cool! Check this out!

    3. Thank you! You actually inspired me to make my own video analysis on YouTube which I did last night.

      That's very possible about JD. Great point.

      I only saw the trailer of the new TV show, but I heard the show is exactly like that. It really misses the mark on what makes the original great in a pretty insulting way. The 2014 musical modernizes the storytelling by making it look like a Glee episode at least on the surface, fitting the stage medium perfectly while still keeping the spirit and story of the original.

      Thank you so much for that article. I definitely haven't seen this yet and am REALLY excited to read it. I'll love hearing about the thought process behind these songs.

    4. Wow! Great video! That's so cool that I inspired you to make it! Thanks for sharing it with me! :-D