You’ve probably heard about Room 237, the new documentary about all the strange theories behind Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (i.e., it’s really about the Native American genocide, or the Holocaust, or the faked moon landing, etc.). Personally, I think The Shining is really all about Shelley Duvall’s killer style, because nothing in that film made a bigger impression on me than her brown overall dress, plaid house dress over long-johns, and prairie shag. I guess the waves of blood were creepy and all, but if I were to enthusiastically use the words “crazy” and “killer” in describing that movie, they’d be followed by “wardrobe.”
Heathers, on the other hand, is a movie that made a huge impact on my life. The 1988 black comedy, which effectively killed the ‘80s teen genre (along with Heather Chandler, Kurt and Ram), was about so much more than high school, popularity, and Christian Slater’s hair. Sure, it’s fundamentally about high school, but to paraphrase Christian Slater’s character, JD, as he’s attempting to blow up the school, Westerberg high school is society. That leaves a lot of room for interpretation, and lord knows, I’ve taken up most of it. This is my very own Room 237.
Kubrick leaves alleged clues—the Tang cans (space!), the Native American art (genocide!), the huge pile of luggage (Holocaust! Sort of!)—but Heathers' visual motifs are obvious from the very first scene where the three Heathers play croquet. Heather Chandler, the blonde, plays with a red ball, wears red clothes, and always wears a red scrunchie (as people did in 1988). Heather McNamara, the sunnier blonde, is all yellow, and Heather Duke, Shannon Doherty, is green. Veronica Sawyer, Winona Ryder at her finest, is all blacks, whites, and blues.
The main colors in the movie are red and blue; everything in Heather C’s house is accented red, and she’s even lit red at the Remington party (thanks to the fire accidentally set by Veronica, as she sits bathed in blue light). When JD killed Heather C, it’s by getting her to drink blue Drano-like fluid. The high school’s colors are red and black, but when JD comes to rescue Veronica from cow tipping, he’s dramatically backlit with blue light. When Heather Duke is coaxed to take over as queen bee when Heather C dies, she becomes red, and then Veronica victoriously claims the red scrungee at the film’s end.
With this red/blue framework in place, here are a few ways to interpret the film’s deeper message. Of course, these won’t make much sense unless you’ve seen Heathers, but if you haven’t seen it, I can only assume you’ve had a brain tumor for breakfast.
The Cold War: The ‘80s was Reagan’s decade, and as Heathers was being made, the Gipper was losing both his short-term memory and the presidency. The movie then would be a bitter commentary on the Reagan years, with red being the obvious symbol for communism, and blue representing the US of A; Heather Chandler-the-red is certainly an oppressive dictator, and when the hippie art teacher, Ms. Flemming, holds a group togetherness rally, it’s in front of a giant red Westerberg High School banner. When JD shows up to free Veronica was the jocks, he’s a blue beacon of light, while the oppressive jocks wear red varsity jackets. Red is evil, blue is good, and freedom (from the Heathers/Communists) is our hero’s goal.
Everyone’s always compared Christian Slater to Jack Nicholson, but I think he’s got a bit of Reagan in him, too, at least in this film, where he’s a gun-toting cowboy seeking freedom by any means necessary. His color isn’t red or blue, but black, making him the embodiment of the covert nature of the Cold War and threats made by both sides.
As he attempts to set up the dynamite in the school’s boiler room under the sea of red above in the pep rally, there’s blue light everywhere. The buttons on the bomb are all red, and when he blows himself up outside of the school, it’s in front of the red steps. The filmmakers aren’t saying that communism is the way since red wins out, just that total destruction isn’t the answer; if the high school is society—nay, the world—than the only way to destroy the red menace is to blow the whole thing up, which isn’t a worthy sacrifice.
Veronica, clad always in blues and greys, still takes control/the red scrunchie at the film’s end without mass casualties, but even as she’s “new sheriff in town,” as she says, she breaks tradition and pals around with Martha “Dumptruck” Dunstock; this is the idealized new global economy, where the US is pals with China, signs arms treaties, and doesn’t get so tied up with wars that we neglect the weakest of our own people, even if they’re fat and in a wheelchair. The two women are blue (Martha wears jeans and carries a blue box), but are lit orange. The days of ruthless leaders, red and blue, are over, and it’s time for a new world order.
The Civil War: Not literally, but rather the broader war between red states and blue states, conservatives and liberals, with a pro-blue state slant. Veronica’s last name is Sawyer, the best friend she abandoned in order to become popular/a “Heather” is Betty Finn. While Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn’s specific geographic origins in the red South don’t jive with two not-red characters (both Veronica and Betty stick to blues, whites, and grays), making a connection to somebody as quintessentially American as Mark Twain makes it conspiracy-theory clear this is a movie not about global relations, but domestic politics, specifically those of the decade about to end.
As such, in this analysis, it’s Heather C and not JD who takes on the wartime 80s presidential role, bullying the weak and labeling the less fortunate as "pathetic." Veronica wants power, but remains a bleeding heart—she cannot be cruel to Betty Finn, nor can she turn her back on Martha Dunstock without a guilty conscience (Martha: also the name of our nation’s original first lady). Veronica doesn’t want to kill Heather C, just make her throw up, like she did— to make like the liberal motto and “level the playing field,” as it were.
She doesn’t want to hurt Kurt and Ram, either, but she has no problem making them look gay, or with homosexuality in general. Incidentally, at their funeral, Kurt and Ram wear red helmets, and a grieving father holds a red football while declaring, “I love my dead gay son.” In a strange bit of foreshadowing (or, OK, coincidence), Heathers takes place in Ohio, and it was Ohio Senator Bob Portman who recently reversed his stance on gay marriage due to his own live gay son. He loves his living gay son! When JD places a (blue) bottle of mineral water at the murder scene to make it look like a suicide; “this is Ohio,” he explains. “I mean, if you don't have a brewski in your hand you might as well be wearing a dress.”
Red is the warmongering agenda—as JD goes to kill Veronica and explains his plan to blow up the school, he wears a red shirt under his trademark black trenchcoat—and the red hues in the final Westerberg pep rally turn it into a literal rallying of the troops, even though they don’t know that they’re on the cusp of entering a losing battle as JD prepares to blow up the school underneath them. The film’s ending tells us that the only way this country can survive is if red and blue come together and combine our strengths (Veronica’s determination in achieving the red scrungee) and weaknesses (poor Martha Dumptruck in her wheelchair).
The Replacements: This is the longest shot, but The Replacements were one of the finest, messiest Americans bands of the ‘80s, and since their lead singer was Paul Westerberg, it’s possible to see Heathers as the story of the band’s rise and fall, especially as it relates to Westerberg’s relationship to his talented-yet-troubled guitar player, Bob Stinson. By 1988, Bob Stinson was out of the band, they’d released their most commercial record yet (Pleased to Meet Me) on a major label, and the band would break up a few years later.
Since Westerberg High’s color is red, we can only assume that Paul is seen as the controlling one, wanting to put order and a horn section on his music, which would not jive well with a blue individual like Bob, who drank way too much and liked to wear tutus on stage. One of the best Replacements songs from when Bob was still in the band is called “Sixteen Blue” (although it was written by Westerberg), and includes the line, “and you’re thinking to yourself that you might be gay,” which ties in not just to Kurt and Ram’s fake romance, but to their constant homophobic jokes.
JD often calls his father “son” and vice versa, which evokes one of the most famous Replacements songs, “Bastards of Young,” and its chorus, “we are the sons of no one, Bastards of Young! The fathers and the sons!” The song is on Tim, which is the last record Bob appeared on. One of JD’s last lines is “color me impressed,” which is also the name of another great Replacements song from the Bob era (and there’s a decent-if-lacking-any-actual-members-of-the-Replacements documentary, Color Me Obsessed, can be seen for free here).
It was Westerberg who fired Stinson due to his erratic behavior—he was, as Veronica calls Heather Duke-the-red, “a megabitch”—and while Bob’s departure might have saved The Replacements, at least for a few more years, he didn’t have a Martha Dunstock to reach out to post-explosion, just booze. Like JD, Bob’s own life went boom, and he died in 1995 of organ failure due to years of alcoholism.