Tuesday, December 11, 2012

You're Beautiful

How did you read that title? A little breathlessly, like a teen girl in love with an impossibly handsome man whose form seems to have been carved out of marble? Or sarcastically, as though you meant beautiful as kind of an insult?

I was quoting the 1989 movie Heathers, so in my head it’s sarcastic.

In the film, MC Veronica Sawyer is writing in her diary about her best friend (and worst enemy) Heather Chandler: “I said, so, you teach people how to spread their wings and fly? She said, yes. I said, you're beautiful.” Heather is one of three popular mean girls—all named Heather—who rule Westerberg High in a parody of every teen movie cliché. Heather is predictably blonde, pretty, and evil. She terrorizes the unpopular Martha Dunstalk, and pretty much everyone else. But the crazy thing about this movie is, Heather does not learn and share and grow and change. Instead, her best friend Veronica semi-accidentally kills her, and when Heather's ghost shows up later on, she’s bragging about how many people she had at her funeral.

This movie is black comedy—pitch black. There is no real afterschool special-ness going on. When I watched it again recently I began to wonder when this generation’s Heathers was going to happen.  A lot of folks have said: it’s Mean Girls! But the thing is, in that movie, everyone Learns Their Lesson. All the characters, even those who have been hit by a bus, turn out just fine, and they find their own happy little high school niche.

The best part about Heathers, I think, is that the film takes the usual tropes of teen films and embraces them, but then subverts our expectations by going just a little too far. I’ve written here before about the fact that films and books made for teens are not as populated by stereotypes as they used to be. There’s less trying to force a forty-something’s idea of what’s cool and more actually bothering to find out what is cool in terms of dress, speech, and so on.

So maybe in the late eighties, when those fakey teen movies were still all the rage, there was more of a need to subvert those expectations and mess with our minds. Except I’m not really sure the behavior of teen stock characters has actually changed. On an episode of The Vampire Diaries last year, there was a power struggle between two blonde, mean, control-freaky cheerleaders. They taunted one another at practice—a practice conveniently not attended by any sort of coach or advisor (TV teens are unfettered by most adult figures, not just parents). The only real difference between this show and a scene from an 80s movie was that the teens were probably more accurately teens on the surface: their clothes, hair, and speech were au courant. Underneath, these two characters were the same Blonde Cheerleader from central casting that’s been hauled out in movie after movie, show after show.

Are we all just like endlessly fascinated by the Wakefield twins of Sweet Valley High? Why do these characters keep showing up? We have the aforementioned B.C. We have the Rude Jock Bully. Sensitive Brunette Girl Who Reads Books. Quiet Loner Guy with Cool Hair. Funny Sidekick Guy (or Girl). Mix and repeat.

The most enduring stories, though, take these same elements, lull you into a false sense of security, and then shock the hell out of you. Witness the famous first scene of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in which the cute blonde girl turns into a monster and kills the date we thought was about to force his attentions on her. 

Looking over the TV, movie, and book-scapes right now, I wonder if we need more subversive cult voices out there. For one thing, a lot of these stories take place in an alternate world (though many of the same character archetypes are often employed). But with all the supernatural window dressing, sometimes it’s even less clear that the story, stripped down, is is really just Loner Boy + Brunette Book Girl +conflict=happy ever after.

It’s a super PC world (and I don’t mean vs. Mac) so a Heathers reboot is probably not in the offing. But I am glad to see on that today’s Tumblr teens have rediscovered it. It’s always good to mix a little acid in with the sweet. As long as it’s not liquid Drain-O, of course. 

1 comment:

  1. I not a fan of stereotypical mean girls in books/movies. They just seem so shallow.