The Vicious Lie of ‘Heathers’ New Genderqueer Villain
Paramount’s take on ‘Heathers’ includes a villainous genderqueer character. Upending stereotypes is one thing, but the new series looks like a reactionary, conservative fantasy.
The official trailer for Paramount Network’s television remake of the 1988 cult classic Heathers currently has over three times as many downvotes on YouTube as it does upvotes—a sign that the show’s take on the movie’s darkly comic premise hasn’t exactly struck a chord with a young audience.
One obvious reason why the show might end up missing its intended target: Millennials and Gen Zers identify as LGBT and gender non-conforming at record rates—and the new Heathers has a genderqueer villain. Anyone who has stepped foot inside an American high school recently knows that the genderqueer kids are still ostracized.
In the original Heathers, a high schooler named Veronica gets ejected from “the most powerful clique in school”—a group of white, upper-crust, shoulder-pad-wearing, status-quo-upholding girls who are all named Heather—before teaming up with the charismatic but violent outcast J.D. to get revenge.
The movie was a dark, twisted and, yes, deeply funny dive into the social politics of the hallway and the mindset of a frustrated teen who flirts with the margins of morality—before violently crossing them.
But in the new Heathers—at least in the two and a half minutes of the series we have been shown thus far—Veronica is a normative-looking girl with strawberry blonde hair and the eponymous clique is comprised of a genderqueer person, a black girl, and a flair-wearing diva described by one teacher as being “body positive.”
In other words: Unlike the original Heathers, the villains now come from demographics who are disproportionately likely to be bullied in high school—especially the genderqueer character Heather Duke, played by gay actor Brendan Scannell.
The trailer seems to have a “tables have turned” theme, suggesting that the kids who were once bullied now rule the roost.
“Fat kids can be popular,” one mystified adult says of Heather Chandler.
“The preferred term is body positive,” another corrects him.
“Obviously, the gays and Jews are over,” a third says later in the trailer, suggesting that the minority groups of yesteryear are now hopelessly passé.
One of the reasons why the original Heathers eventually found such an adoring audience was because it took power dynamics that were familiar to anyone who had gone through high school, and then pushed them to violent extremes.
Viewed today, it makes Mean Girls look about as tame as a Saturday morning cartoon.
Everyone—except those lucky few who were in one, of course—remembers what it was like to be on the outside of the popular clique—and how badly they wanted to see its leaders lose status. So, with a healthy dose of drain cleaner and gunpowder, Heathers delivered both bloody catharsis and, ultimately, a repudiation of the very violence that occupied its runtime.
If we lived in a world where marginalized groups like genderqueer people had controlled the brutal sociality of U.S. high schools for the last several decades, this trailer for a new, 21st-century version of Heathers might have hit a less sour note. But we don’t live in that world. For biting social commentary to work effectively, it has to actually bear some resemblance to the social world that its subjects occupy.
In response to GLSEN’s 2015 School Climate Survey, 43 percent of LGBTQ students reported feeling “unsafe” due to their gender expression and nearly a quarter said that “most of their peers made negative remarks about someone’s gender expression.”
More alarming still is the fact that 64 percent said that they had overheard faculty making such comments. Over 11 percent of the LGBTQ students GLSEN surveyed identified as genderqueer, which, as GLSEN notes, “generally refers to someone whose gender is outside the… binary system of male or female.” And a full half of these students said that they had been verbally harassed at school.
In stark contrast to these statistical realities, the genderqueer Heather Duke of the Heathers remake—whose pronouns aren’t used in the trailer—is shown striding the hallway with the other Heathers in the exact sort of slow motion formation that suggests absolute social dominance.
One teacher derisively refers to Duke as “the genderqueer” but it’s clear that, outside of the faculty break room, the character is either feared, held in high esteem, or both.
That disconnect between the reality of the show and the reality of high school life is one reason why the new trailer seems to have landed with a thud.
The AV Club called it “baffling,” saying that it “ends up playing more like a conservative fantasy of restoring the white, slim, and heterosexual to their proper place atop the teenage hierarchy than any sort of trenchant commentary on 21st-century teen culture.”
Indeed, in a country where, according to Pew Research Center data, almost a third of adults believe that that society has “gone too far” in accepting transgender people, the Heathers of the trailer seems to only feed the line of thinking that those on the margins of society are threatening to overtake the center.
The reception on Twitter was even icier, with several users pointing out that genderqueer kids were not all that popular in school.
In defense of his new take on Heathers, showrunner Jason Micallef told EW that he “[doesn’t] view the Heathers as the villains,” calling them the “aspirational characters,” or, “the people you would want to be.”
As EW also noted, Scannell acknowledged at the Television Critics Association press tour that the Heathers come from “marginalized communities” that “still face discrimination.”
“But our show is turning that on its head and using the power of the internet and the power of like pure self-confidence to trash everybody around them,” Scannell added.
There is a chance, however slight it may seem to those who have seen the trailer, that the full series will deliver some nuance that undercuts the current criticism. When characters from marginalized communities are villains—and when their villainy is not inherently tied to stereotypes around their particular demographic—they can be absolutely delightful to watch.
No one wants a media environment in which every LGBT or gender non-conforming character is an untouchable saint who can do no wrong.
The genderqueer Duke could end up becoming an endlessly quotable, delightfully acerbic sort of villain, like one of the Plastics in Mean Girls—and at least one Twitter user who saw the trailer seems to be looking forward to that possibility.
But whatever becomes of the Duke character when the series premieres in March, one thing is certain: Genderqueer kids are far from being the Heathers of their schools, and it will take a Herculean suspension of disbelief if we are asked to pretend otherwise.