In 2018, themes of female rage appear to be, well, all the rage. With movements like #MeToo and Time’s Up, women are fed up with the status quo and the rampant harassment and assault that we face on a day to day basis in our everyday lives. And this wonderful inability to stay silent any longer has really seeped into art.
Just in the past few months, there’ve been books like Megan Abbott’s Give Me Your Hand and Social Creature by Tara Isabella Burton that have looked at the sometimes fraught interpersonal dynamics between women. And this summer, no portrait of female rage was bigger than HBO’s Sharp Objects, a slow burn mystery about a journalist—played with depressing vigor by Amy Adams—investigating a string of dead girls in her hometown, where she’s confronted by her myriad of demons—none worse than her vindictive mother. What’s interesting about these different portrayals of the ever bubbling fountains of rage these women feel is how much of that boiling anger isn’t pointed at men or structures of oppression, but mostly at other women and themselves.
On one hand that totally sucks, but on the other it’s unfortunately truthful about how bad, evil and capable of horrors women can truly be in this world. And that’s why one of the best portrayals of female rage is the 1988 dark comedy Heathers, starring Winona Ryder. Directed by Michael Lehmann and written by Daniel Waters—yes, we all know men were behind this but it doesn’t make it any less compelling)—Heathers received positive critical acclaim on release but didn’t do so hot at the box office. When it was released on VHS, though, it quickly became a cult hit.
It’s, uh, simple. We, heh, kill the Heathers.
Winona Ryder plays Veronica Sawyer, a hot popular girl at Westerburg High School, but a mere peon to her HBIC BFF Heather Chandler (Kim Walker). Veronica’s deeply unhappy being part of the bitchiest group at school, yet also isn’t willing to sacrifice her social status. But once transfer student J.D.—the hottest Christian Slater’s ever been on film—gets under her skin and into her pants, Veronica’s worldview is changed. When she and J.D. start amassing a body count of the most popular kids at Westerburg is when it gets really fucked up.
Obviously the plot of Heathers—a cool girl ends up murdering all her friends who she secretly hates—screams “HEY THIS WOMAN IS ANGRY.” But I’d argue that the strongest portrayals of female rage here are in the smaller gestures of Veronica and her group of Heathers—which also help to explain how Veronica was capable of this kind of behavior even without J.D’s nudging. They also hint that Heather Chandler, Duke or McNamara could have just as easily stepped into Veronica’s blood covered penny loafers.
Dear Diary: My teen angst bullshit now has a body count.
Just look at the microaggressions the group lob at one another during their favorite game—croquet. On the surface, croquet totally seems like a stuffy, buttoned up game that you’d associate with Victorian women in high necked blouses and ankle grazing skirts, but the way that Veronica and the Heathers play is bloody and mean.
Heather Chandler will never take two shots, she’ll always hit the ball out as far as she can. And while Veronica fronts like that’s not the way she’d actually play, when she plays with Betty Finn—her childhood friend and decidedly uncool girl in the eyes of the Heathers—she ends up hitting out Betty’s ball, after a bit of convincing from Betty herself. The ways in which they treat each other during their routine matches demonstrate how fully awful they are in their daily interactions with one another.
These people aren’t friends. They have so much built up anger and loathing towards one another that there’s very few genuinely kind interactions between them—the main one that comes to mind is when Veronica saves Heather McNamara from stuffing her face full of pills. Everything is punctuated by a barbed statement or an unkind order. And while Veronica might be the least bad of all of them, she uses her diary and even self-harm as ways to conceal her anger.
The best example of this is after the frat party that Heather Chandler takes Veronica to. The pair argue in an alleyway, and when Veronica throws up all the stale keg beer she drank, Heather’s face is a picture of absolute joy. It’s an expression that’s not unlike Amma’s in the post-credits scene of the Sharp Objects finale. It’s a hauntingly terrifying look at the satisfaction that a potion of rage, anger, and evil can concoct. If that’s the way Heather looks at her friends when they’re ill or suffering, the rest of the group’s reactions to Heather’s “suicide” make complete sense.
Veronica, of all of them, has a reaction closest to grief—but that’s only because she’s trying to mask her guilt and more than likely the surreal feeling that she murdered her best friend and worst enemy. Heather McNamara is blasé, going through Heather’s things in her locker. She hands Veronica a Swatch, saying Heather would have wanted Veronica to have it because she always said she “couldn’t accessorize for shit.” And the most extreme reaction is that of Heather Duke, who after previously upchucking all her meals begins wolfing down wings in the locker room. She’s positively liberated with Heather Chandler’s death, but also ends up becoming the version of herself she always wanted to be—which, hilariously, is Heather Chandler.
I say we just grow up, be adults and die.
The thing I love most about Heathers is that it doesn’t really try to justify the characters’ behaviors, explain them, or even have them pay penance for it. And there are a number of different reasons that could explain these women’s actions. They’re too bored with their high school curriculums and small town Ohio lives to not be utter terrors; they’re so mired in their own dramas and social structures they’ve created for themselves that they can’t even begin the process of digging themselves out; they’re pissed about being underestimated by each other, authority figures, and the frat guys they give blowjobs to, the jocks they fuck in cow fields.
Look at after Heather Chandler’s “suicide—how everyone portrayed her as a secret intellectual, a girl with a rich inner life that they couldn’t even fathom her having. But honestly, what it might all just boil down to is that maybe these girls are just assholes. And frankly, that’s refreshing.
Because in order to portray female rage, we also have to portray that women can just be bad fucking people too in the ways that male anti-heroes are lauded for on prestige cable dramas.
That’s what makes Heathers so timeless and compelling—because it’s ultimately about a bunch of angry women who don’t have any sort of healthy vessel to pour that anger into Instead, they point it at one another. Veronica just takes it to the next level by murdering people. And with more and more portraits of the anger that women feel visible onscreen, it’s great to just be able to see women as the complete and complicated dicks that we can be too.