There is something prophetic about Heathers, something which would have prevented it from being released today. There were two attempts to modernize the material, but the film is the most successful and well-known venture. The musical has a small but resilient fandom, and the 2018 television series was canceled following multiple school shootings in the United States. This unfortunately tells us that what the film classifies as satire is far too familiar to the world we now inhabit. It might be set in 1988, but the issues it discusses are just as relevant today, perhaps even more so.
Although Heathers has a dark sense of humour about violence, gender, and the media, it still takes these issues seriously. It asks us to pay attention to these situations and ideologies by both exaggerating them and illustrating that they underlie the very structures of our society. The film is such a unique take on the high school misfit genre because it trusts its audience enough to not preach at them, but still asks them to reflect on violence and our society. Its opening scene is a good example of this, as it challenges the conventions and symbols of passive femininity through exaggeration and music.
The film opens with a black screen and Doris Day’s nostalgic yet optimistic tune “Que Sera, Sera”. This song has a specific reputation attached to it, as it was first performed in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much. In that film, the song came to represent a traditional and celebrated version of femininity and motherhood. It’s about a young woman who asks her mother “Will I be pretty”, rich, etc., and her mother replying, “What will be will be”. It focuses on a very old-fashioned version of womanhood, one which encourages young women to just let things happen rather than take responsibility in their life. Although its sentiment “The future’s not ours to see” is true, the song still represents a contrary perspective than the one found in Heathers. Two of the big issues in Heathers are admitting responsibility and realizing that being rich and popular comes with sacrifice, sometimes literal ones. So why does it use this song?
Heathers does something unusual with the song, as it’s not Day singing, but Syd Straw, a rock singer. Her cover amplifies and distorts Day’s original sweetness, and the film continues this distortion by highlighting how ignorant the song’s subject matter is. In its first shot, we hear the line “Will I be pretty, will I be rich” as Heather Chandler ties up her hair with a distinct red scrunchie. Her vibrant outfit and pristine red nails correspond with the lyric, as Heather Chandler is both pretty and rich. However, these loud colours and Heather’s characterization also imply that yes, one can become pretty and rich, but at what cost?
The scene goes on to interrupt symbols of femininity just as it interrupts Day’s song. For instance, the first diegetic sound in the film happens when the girls squish some flowers. As they do, we hear, “When I was just a child in school”, which implies that the Heathers trample both flowers and students. This moment also attaches violence onto a feminine landscape. The garden is no longer a safe and lovely place, it’s a warzone. Heather Chandler pokes fun at this violent undertone when she picks up her croquet ball, kisses it, and then uses it to hit Veronica. This is a different kind of violence than what Hollywood generally fixates on. Yes, it’s disruptive, but it’s also more sinister because it disguises itself using these outdated feminine symbols.
The opening scene also challenges the assertion “What will be will be” by playing with power dynamics. One of the prominent anxieties in the film is that someone will replace you in the social hierarchy. Each of the girls are named Heather, which implies that they are interchangeable pieces in a larger network. To define themselves against a different Heather, each must fight for the qualities mentioned in Day’s song. This explains why the Heathers appear in a specific colour scheme and order.
It’s noteworthy that although Veronica is not playing croquet, she is an instrument in the game. She is the target, not the player. This introduces Veronica’s role in the group, as they only keep her around because she can write forgeries. This says something about Heather’s character, as she is defined by her ability to pretend to be another person. She is not a Heather, but she certainly appears like one. This suggests that she and the Heathers are aware of the conventions and expectations around them. To become the traits mentioned in Day’s song requires a level of forgery and performance, those which Veronica and the Heathers demonstrate in this opening.