The Parkland Shooting Delayed the 'Heathers' TV Show Premiere for a Good Reason
On February 14, 2018 -- Valentine's Day -- a gunman terrorized Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in one of the deadliest school massacres in history. The event has already sparked a quantifiable amount of activist momentum, with surviving teens organizing the March For Our Lives rally, a nationwide anti-gun demonstration on March 24. The Parkland shooting has also had an effect on pop culture: This week, the Paramount Network announced that it would delay the release of its upcoming Heathers TV series, a reboot of the 1989 cult classic film ripe with student-on-student violence.
The choice to adapt the film for TV was a contentious decision even before the Parkland massacre, with several critics asking the question: How is this a good idea? In the original film, high school bad boy J.D. (Christian Slater) casually wields a gun at school. He fires blanks at two students in the lunchroom and is barely punished for it. Later, he shoots and kills two jocks, and poisons the popular and titular Heather Chandler (Kim Walker), framing their deaths as suicides. But J.D.'s sociopathic desire to disrupt the status quo backfires, as Heather's popularity only grows once she's dead, setting off a suicide trend at their Ohio-set high school.
It's a conceit that, in a post-Columbine, post-Sandy Hook, post-Marjory Stoneman Douglas era, sounds deeply problematic. But the 1989 film is cased in amber; it's so very of its time as a commentary on teenage power dynamics and high school caste systems. It couldn't possibly foretell the violence it portrayed satirically would become an everyday American reality. Watching J.D. get a brief suspension for pulling a pistol out in the lunchroom feels like it exists in an alternate timeline. So much has changed, and so terribly.
That's why the reboot had to work extra-hard to justify its existence, and so far, its case hasn't been convincing. The delay is a result of the Parkland shooting, yes, but early reception of the series' announcement was overwhelmingly negative for reasons that have less to do with violence and more to do with murky politics and role-reversals.
In the new Heathers, the three same-name queen bees are an inversion of the thin, white, conventionally attractive leads in the original. Their ringleader, Heather Chandler, is a self-identified fat girl, and her cronies are the genderqueer Heather Duke, and the black "lesbian" Heather McNamara. The series is highly critical of "SJW" culture; Heather Chandler has 245,000 Twitter followers, a tool she uses to bully her less-woke classmates. There's an attempted commentary on the dangerous power of social media, but the show struggles to get it right. It also backtracks on a lot of its so-called representation; Heather McNamara, it turns out, isn't really a lesbian, but pretends to be so she can fit in with the Heathers, who pride themselves on being as non-conformist as possible.
It's an odd choice to villainize your minorities, and at the same time sympathize with your traditionally hot white lead, and humanize your murderous school-shooter type. (The show centers much of its narrative on Heather latchkey Veronica Sawyer, Winona Ryder's character in the original, and the pilot opens with a montage of J.D. witnessing his mother's suicide in a misbegotten attempt to explain his violent tendencies.) The show presumes that fat, queer, and black kids are at an advantage in the Internet age. We see Heather Duke controlling the women's restroom; in reality, trans and genderqueer people are still fighting for that basic human right.
There's a huge disconnect between watching Heathers, a show that actively hates and mocks Millennial teenagers -- often coming from the school's staff, who pop in like a Greek chorus to needlessly ridicule their student body -- and watching the real-world Parkland teens demanding change after a devastating event. One wonders if delaying the show was a result of the actual shooting or the youth activism it initiated. Today's generation of high schoolers are more concerned with fighting for their lives than worshipping the pseudo-suicide of a popular girl, and the Parkland massacre proved that we shouldn't underestimate American youth -- they're probably going to save us all.