Heathers trailer: TV remake flirts clumsily with identity politics

Anne T Donahue
A scene from the 1988 film Heathers. Photograph: World/Kobal/Rex/Shutterstock

Last week, we got our first glimpse of the modern-day Heathers redux. It is an anthology series coming to the US this year, promoted with a trailer that promises more of the vindictive spirit that defined the 1988 movie, but with an updated take on high-school hierarchy. Preppy pod people have been replaced by a diverse group of teen villains (who still share the same name), while adults lament over “politically correct” descriptions now used to self-identify. (Plus, Shannen Doherty shows up. And a lot of people seem to die.)

And already it is being criticised. Where this version of Heathers seems to exist as a #hottake on one generation’s inability to understand the other (the trailer alone contains jokes about ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, size and mental health), it has also come under fire for its heroine, Veronica (Grace Victoria Cox), resembling a Heather of ages past. The argument is that in 2018, we no longer seem to be rooting for a woman who doesn’t fit in and comes to embrace her messiness gloriously – instead, we seem to be rooting for the poster child of the status quo (a white, cis, straight, thin woman) who picks off her “unconventional” nemeses. Yikes.

At least, that’s what we can glean from the trailer.

Of course, the original Heathers isn’t a narrative rooted in concrete rights or wrongs. At its core, it’s a story about the darkness of our teen years and the misunderstandings that come along with thinking in extremes. Veronica, while the protagonist in the original, isn’t so much a hero as she is a vessel through which we recognise the varying shades of right and wrong. And by the end of the movie, despite having helped kill her classmates, she’s still good “enough” to understand that her boyfriend, JD (Christian Slater) is too far gone to be redeemed. Heathers is funny, but it’s also a dark take on a teachable moment. Mainly that everybody, to an extent, is capable of doing bad things. The question is whether you can stand up to someone who is even worse.

And maybe Heathers in 2018 can answer that. Maybe, as we watch its adult characters struggle with respecting the way teens ask to be identified, we can recognise our own shortcomings and see the limitations that come with choosing not to grow or change. Maybe this time Veronica is far worse than the Heathers, and we learn that while everybody can be mean, there are usually extenuating circumstances that dictate said meanness.

Or maybe not. We are a culture defined by remakes and reboots. We are flush with updates and adaptations. We’ve got no less than 4,000 Star Wars films due to open over the next three years, and as of this writing, at least four million Spider-Men exist. We probably don’t need a new Heathers.

Especially since we already had Scream Queens, the two-season series by Ryan Murphy that explored the horrors of Cool Girl politics and the sorority system. There, like Heathers, we watched what happens when power goes unchecked, and how gross it can be when revenge is sought in the form of blood, sweat, tears and much more blood. We also have Riverdale, a soapier answer to the ins and outs of bad boys, queen bees and murder. And at least in the latter (while still having a long way to go), conversations about size, race, sexual orientation and gender aren’t used as punchlines to shock us into tuning in.

Of course, we’re weeks away from finding out whether Heathers has earned a place among the year’s redux-filled landscape, or if it is as misguided as the trailer suggests. In the meantime, we can all pose the question together: what’s your damage, Heathers? And why, in the year of our lord 2018, should we care about you?