Welcome everyone, to this, the first article of Fangirl Film Rambles!
Molly: I’m Molly!
Ale: Alejandra here, but you can call me Ale.
Molly: And today we’ll be looking at three classic teen films from three different decades, all centered around Popular Girl Trios, Heathers, Clueless, and Mean Girls!
Ale: We’ll be discussing how these films are similar and how they’re different (sometimes very different) and how the portrayal of high school and popularity changed over these three decades.
Molly: In addition, we’ll be looking at how the three decades handled comedy, at least when it came to these subjects.
Ale: Why did these films become some of the most iconic teenage comedies of their respective decades?
Molly: Let’s Discuss!
Beware of Spoilers ahead!
Heathers was released in 1989 (technically 1988 in Italy). It was produced by Cinemarque Entertainment, and distributed by New World Pictures. Directed by Michael Lehmann, written by Daniel Waters, starring Winona Ryder, fresh off her success in 1988’s Beetlejuice, it has several things that make it stand out among the trio.
For one, it’s the only one of these three to fall solely into the ‘Dark Comedy’ sub-genre. It’s the only of the three to be written and directed by men. It’s the only of the three to not be based off of a previous work as well. And it’s the only one of the three to lose money at the box office, pulling in only 2.2 Million (after inflation) on a budget of 6 Million (again, after inflation).
Heathers follows Veronica, a girl who has worked her way into the popular girl gang known as “The Heathers” (because it is composed of three girls called Heather). Veronica dislikes the girls’ behavior, but enjoys the benefits of popularity. After she falls out with top girl Heather Chandler, she lets her new boyfriend, “bad boy” JD (Christina Slater) pull her into a dangerous game that will spiral out of control. Watch the trailer:
Ale: Walking into this, Heathers was the only one of the three I had never seen. I was lucky enough to be mostly blank about it, and boy, was it a surprise! There is a body count and everything.
Besides some epic one-liners and a healthy dose of 80s teen “bad girl” Winona (who I can never get enough of), I was struck by the thoughtful, poignant comments about popularity, violence and the way adults think about adolescence. Parents and teachers alike making the purported suicide chain reaction in the school into a theater is something out of a horror film.
With the other two films in the back of my head, I was surprised at how many times Mean Girls popped into my head. They are different films, especially in terms of tone, but I did find echoes of Mean Girls in what it has to say about popularity especially. I guess Mean Girls has echoes of Heathers, technically. Plus, Heather Chandler gave off big Regina George Vibes. Or, you know, vice versa.
Molly: Time doesn’t just happen in the order you perceive it, Ale, it’s linear!
Ale: Is it though? Is it?!
Anyway, I can’t believe I had gone my whole life without seeing Winona Ryder writing melodramatically in a diary while wearing a monocle!
Molly: On the opposite end of the spectrum, Heathers was the only one of the three that I had seen before walking into this. So I can’t particularly talk about first reactions (especially given how I’ve got my initial reactions to the movie, the musical, and the pilot of the show floating in my brain, mixing up each other). But yes, this is a very different film from the others tonally. A film that, frankly can’t be made again I don’t think, not given the current climate.
But, for a film from the time period, it’s in, it’s…honestly quite nice, and thoughtful, and dare I say it even a little progressive. It manages to be dark without feeling mean spirited, something I don’t see much these days. A difficult balance to walk, but something they managed to pull off here.
Also, while not quite as gay as the musical, it still has some fun and gay moments, which, as a big ol’ lesbian, I appreciate!
Ale: *puts on gay goggles* Oh, yeah. I see it.
Molly: It ends with Veronica kissing a girl and asking another one to replace her boyfriend for crying out loud!
Ale: Fair enough.
I agree it is a film that can’t be made again, as is proved by the attempts at remakes. Something I find especially interesting about Heathers is the portrayal of boys, which is… the opposite of flattering, might I say. But we can talk more about that later.
Clueless was released in 1995 and was both produced and distributed by Paramount Pictures. It was both written and directed by Amy Heckerling (the only one of the trio to have the director be the same as the writer, and the only one with no male involvement in those two roles). It’s the second most successful of the trio, making 56.6 million on a 12 million budget, and stars 90s darling Alicia Silverstone.
Cher Horowitz is a well-meaning but near-sighted popular girl in Clueless, a modern adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma. After Cher has a successful first outing as a matchmaker, she decides to take new girl Tai (Brittany Murphy) under her wing, and find her a match, not heeding the criticism of her ex-stepbrother Josh (Paul Rudd). The tables turn on her when Tai becomes more popular than she is, and Cher is forced to confront her own misguided choices.
Watch the trailer:
Molly: Okay, so, this…this was a weird movie to watch after Heathers. Despite the gap between Heathers and Mean Girl being much larger, Clueless genuinely feels like the odd man out of the bunch. I guess I just tend to think of the ’90s as being the irony decade so much that I forget that sometimes it was an era for over the top earnestness and sincerity too.
If I had to find a word to sum up Clueless it’d be ‘wholesome’ (for all that the happy ending includes the main character starting a romantic relationship with her brother). It’s just…a generally happy, kind movie, that feels like it’s just happy to have you watching it. It stands out as being the reason why I can’t just call this the ‘Mean Queen Bee’ trilogy.
Ale: Wholesome is right. On my front, while I had watched Clueless before, I have to admit I didn’t remember much of it besides the broad strokes of the plot. I find it very telling that I remembered Cher as meaner than she is. Goes to show the influence of how the “popular girl” is generally portrayed.
Ultimately it was a feel-good experience for me. Cher is shallow but well-meaning, she doesn’t try to change Tai to use her, but rather because she wants Tai to succeed in the society she knows. While her motivations may be selfish at first (like with her teacher), she finds satisfaction in making people happy and goes about pursuing that goal with her own resources. Here is where I find a direct contrast between Clueless and both Heathers and Mean Girls.
Molly: I can agree with that contrast. We stumble upon Veronica having been self-serving and mean at the beginning of Heathers, and in Mean Girls we see Cady start and end nice but with a middle part of being mean. Cher more or less stays nice and well-meaning throughout.
Ale: The incestuous ending is still extremely weird, though, especially thinking about Cher’s father, who seemingly had “shipped it” for a while. Just… no.
Molly: Which is especially odd given that Cher’s father is the one who emphasized that he considered Josh to be his son still when Cher tried to deny a familial relation.
…Cher’s dad is weird.
Mean Girls came out in 2004 and was produced by Lorne Michaels Productions, with Paramount returning to this list as the distributor. Back to a male director, Mark Waters, but now with a female writer, the lovely Tina Fey. Starring Lindsay Lohan, it was the most successful of our trio by a wide margin, making 129 Million on a 17 Million budget.
In Mean Girls, 16-year-old Cady has just returned from a lifetime of being home-schooled by her zoologist parents and is thrown headfirst into the world of high school. She finds herself favored by a popular girl posse known as “The Plastics”, and her art geek friends enlist her in a revenge plot against top girl Regina George (Rachel McAdams). Cady finds the world of the Plastics more enticing than she initially thought, and before long she realizes she has become one of them. The screenplay (Tina Fey’s first feature) was based on 2002 self-help book Queen Bees and Wannabes, by Rosalind Wiseman, which was aimed at mothers to help their daughters navigate teen girl politics.
Here’s the trailer:
Ale: How do I even begin to describe Mean Girls?
This film is a lot of things for me. It is the big teen movie I watched as an official adolescent (I was 14), and it made an impression on me, to say the least. I remember walking back home with my cousin, repeating the jokes out loud and laughing like maniacs. It is one of the most quotable movies ever and still pops up in conversation on Wednesdays and October 3rd. (Did you wear pink last year on Wednesday, October 3rd? I did).
It also happens to be a near-perfect screenplay in terms of structure, which I have come to appreciate more as a grown-up and aspiring screenwriter. Tina Fey is one of my favorite writers and comedians in the English-speaking world.
Alas, it is not a perfect film. It is very early 2000s, and many aspects have not aged that well (can we talk about Aaron Samuels’ behavior?). Ultimately it is a well-meaning film with “a message”, and it has things to say about popularity, about how we adapt to our society and particularly about how young women relate to each other.
I have to apologize to Molly, as I would not stop pestering her about it through watching Heathers and Clueless!
Molly: No need to apologize!
So, yeah…somehow this was my first time seeing Mean Girls. Despite it being much more culturally significant than Clueless or Heathers. Despite two of the songs from the musical being on my Musicals playlist on Spotify. It just…never got on my watch list somehow. I wasn’t actively avoiding it or anything, I hadn’t heard anything bad…I just hadn’t sought it out before either.
So, having watched it now, what do I think? Uhm…well, I still feel like I like Heathers at least a little bit more, but yeah, no, Mean Girls was good! Some problematic elements perhaps, but nothing deal-breaking I don’t feel. And unlike the other two films, which were mostly attempting to entertain, with any moralizing being relatively subtle, this film comes down hard and open about its message, but, well, it’s a good and important message, so fair. And it managed to make a pretty coherent and cohesive plot out of a self-help book to boot!
All hail Janis!
Ale: Janis Ian is my spirit animal. I always want more Lizzy Caplan…
Mean Girls does really have some memorable characters.
Out of the three, I think perhaps Mean Girls will be the one to stick around the longest in the general public’s immediate pop culture references (though Heathers will remain a cult classic).
Also, if you squint, you can find some gay…
Molly: Fun fact, Barrett Wilbert Weed, the actor who played Janis in the first run of the Mean Girls Broadway musical (and who played Veronica in the original run of the Heathers musical funnily enough) has stated that she deliberately played Janis as being gay.
Ale: There we go!
Popularity and the Portrayal of Popular Girls
Molly: So, each of the three films handles popularity a little differently. Heathers, for its part, views popularity, and by extension popular girls, as a social necessity. Something that is both needed and unavoidable. Insert ‘Thanos-I am inevitable’ gif here. One can try to do away with them, but a new one will always take the place of the previous one. This is, by and large, treated as a relatively neutral thing. Certainly two of the Heathers wind up being shown as not that nice, but one of them is shown hurting and sad and lonely, and the film ends with Veronica taking the metaphorical crown and declaring herself the new head girl. And that’s treated as a triumphant moment, rather than something bad.
Ale: You’re absolutely right. You may knock one down, but another one will rise to take their place, for sure. That idea itself is imbued in the very name of the film. It’s Heathers, plural. It is part of the thematic core of the story, I’d wager.
I would argue, though, that Veronica taking the crown is meant to symbolize a change in their microcosm of society. Because after all, Veronica is not a Heather. And the first thing she does after taking the crown for herself is to invite one of the least popular people in school into her circle, with an olive branch of friendship, as opposed to Heather Chandler’s dictatorial approach with Veronica herself. In that sense, I would say the ultimate takeaway is that popularity doesn’t have to be bad.
Veronica taking the crown is also perhaps a comment on the performative nature of popularity, which has previously been demonstrated by Heather Duke taking the crown only after being imbued with confidence by JD.
Molly: Well sure, if you want to be all nuanced and deep about it.
In all seriousness, you have a good point. And the fact that popularity is created by your appearance and attitude more than anything else is a recurring theme in all three of these movies. Though unlike Mean Girls, where being the popular girl is an inherently bad thing, and Clueless, where only the positives are shown, Heathers arguably takes the most balanced look at the phenomena.
Ale: I try, I try…
As you mentioned, Clueless presents popularity as something good, or at least not bad. Cher is popular, and the only person who seems to see negative effects is Amber, and it seems to be because she’s jealous of Cher.
If I really think about it, ultimately Clueless has nothing to say about the inherent nature of being popular besides the fact that it’s about style and attitude (and money). The film makes no comment about the politics of popularity, at all.
Molly: Yes, the wholesome nature of Clueless means that it’s not really out there to say anything especially deep. Now, due to its nature as an adaptation of a book that did have something to say, I wouldn’t say that Clueless is without anything to say at all…it’s just that it’s lightly poking fun at 90’s teen culture, particularly valley girls in a fun and wholesome way. Not mean-spirited, but not exactly thought-provoking either.
Now, Mean Girls has something to say on the topic. And that is that popularity, seeking it out, trying to maintain a position at the top of the social food chain, the struggles and performances, are inherently corrupting and toxic. That the best way to be is to simply be yourself, and not worry overly much about what other people think about you (unless they think you’re mean, in which case you should consider your own behaviors). Where Heathers tried to say that the problems with the power popularity brings depend on the person with the power, Mean Girls says that ‘no, it’s always bad, avoid it like the plague’.
That’s not a…bad message, exactly. A little lacking in depth, perhaps, but overall it comes from a good place, and is trying its best to help young women out during a remarkably trying part of our lives. So while it’s blunt and black and white, it isn’t bad.
Ale: You hit the nail on the head. Though I would argue Mean Girls criticizes a very specific type of popularity; one that is practically fame, where the top girl controls who others date, who they are, what they wear. At the end of the film, Cady is sitting in a big circle of friends, making it clear her circle has extended from just the art geeks to include a more varied group, including Karen Smith former Plastic. In some ways, that could be described as being popular (having many friends).
Mean Girls also makes a point about what makes girls susceptible to the hunger for this type of popularity. Each of the Plastics has deep-rooted insecurities, voids they fill with the wielding of power: family trouble like Regina, not feeling smart enough, like Karen, feeling out of depth, like Cady. While Mean Girls may have bad things to say about popularity itself, it is indulgent and kind to the girls who represent the status.
Molly: You make a good point. Mean Girls is certainly nicer than most forms of media to the Queen Bees of its setting. It does make a point to show that they only reach any happiness when they find some level of self-acceptance and quit striving for power, but it does show them reaching that level and being happy at the end. And that’s something to praise the film for, no doubt.
Ale: Did you notice that Gretchen was the only one who didn’t change her ways?
Let’s Talk About Boys
Ale: Boys in films about teenage girls are a whole topic. All three films have their token love interest who represents a type that generally attracts heterosexual teenage girls. Heathers has the Bad Boy, Clueless has the Cute Nerd and Mean Girls has the Harmless Jock.
Out of all three, my favorite has to be Heathers’ JD. Don’t misunderstand me, I don’t like JD as a person, on the contrary. The Bad Boy Woobie is perhaps my least favorite male love interest trope ever, and Heathers turns it right on its head.
Sometimes bad boys are just… bad for you. Bad influences, abusive and toxic, and the best thing to do is throw them out of your life. Or, alternatively, blow them the eff up!
Molly: Yeah…as someone who is not attracted to men in any way, shape, or form, I might be the wrong person to cover this topic. If you want to romanticize characters like JD…I mean, I don’t get it, and it’s a tad problematic, but everyone’s allowed their problematic faves when it comes to fiction. But on the other hand, well…people like JD are bad when it comes to real life, and since they do exist, it’s nice to see them get handled like the toxic and harmful people they are. Sure, JD is a child, but…no, this is a bad person, and I appreciate the film for handling that.
Clueless…uhm…the boy is Cher’s step-brother. I mean…that’s something I feel we need to address and not let slip away. But beyond that…he’s a kind, smart boy. So…uhm…look Clueless isn’t especially deep, and I’m lacking much to say about it in depth on this front. Ale, want to help me out?
Ale: I’m not sure I can!
Josh is nice. He’s respectful even when he’s teasing Cher at first, and is appropriately schooled about his judgment on her and rectifies. It’s Paul Rudd, what can I say?
He’s still her ex-stepbrother, and, also, seemingly much older than her!
Of the three, the portrayal I find most head-scratching is Aaron Samuels. I never much saw his appeal even way back when I was a teen myself. He was okay, I guess, and I get why Cady felt betrayed enough about him being taken away: he’s her first crush, and Regina is one of her first friends.
However, as I’ve grown older I have begun to find his behavior more and more inconsistent. He disapproves of Regina’s behavior, yet takes her back immediately at the Halloween party. With very little prompting he offers Cady tutoring, guaranteeing one-on-one time with a girl he knows has a crush on him. Then he acts all high and mighty about Cady being “just like Regina”. I just… don’t like Aaron Samuels, okay?
Molly: …fair enough! I’ve always found him about as interesting as a piece of dry cardboard, and as someone who never really had a crush in high school I found the fact that he was technically the instigator of the conflict and plot to be a little insulting, but you make good points!
The ’90s Were Weird
Molly: So if we’ve established one thing in particular about this trio it’s that Clueless…doesn’t really fit in. It’s sugary sweet and wholesome (mostly), it’s not trying to drive any particular point home, it doesn’t really take a stance on anything beyond ‘being nice to people is good’. It’s just…there. It’s entertaining and well-acted, but it frankly just sort of…exists in its own little bubble.
There are clear points in Mean Girls where you can see ways that Heathers influenced it (and, funnily enough, clear ways that Mean Girls influenced the Heathers musical, but that’s a topic for another day). There’s…not really many ways that Clueless influenced Mean Girls though, and despite it being relatively soon after, Clueless feels very different from Heathers. But…why? What happened?
Ale: What happened indeed? Even though I grew up (from 0 to 10) in the 90s, it has always been a decade I can’t pinpoint, really.
I look at a list of teen movies from the decade, and there is none that belongs in the list more than Clueless: a movie centered on three popular girls. And still, after watching it, we debated even including it. Ultimately it serves to compare the way 90s films addressed teenage issues and popularity.
It’s unclear why this is one of the most remembered teen films of the 90s, while other contenders like 10 Things I Hate About You (a Shakespeare adaptation) isn’t as safe or happy-go-lucky.
My only guess is that it is bright and funny and memorable in the way of fashion, visuals and some quotes (“As if!”). Cher is, in the end, a truly likeable girl whose hyper-femininity is generally portrayed as bad, vapid and invalid. If I think long and hard about it, I can see Cher becoming someone like Elle Woods from Legally Blonde. Almost like this is the spiritual predecessor of that film. Perhaps there lies the appeal.
Molly: …yeah, you definitely hit on something there I think. And while it’s odd that from a sub-genre standpoint Clueless exists as an obvious link between the other two films but doesn’t in terms of tone and content, I can certainly see an appeal, and it makes sense.
Fangirl Rambles Rankings
Perhaps we’ve raved and ranted enough about these films. All that’s left is a good old game of who wore it best. We mean, did it best. So, without further ado, we’ve compiled a list of categories and winners, according to us. Feel free to disagree and tell us why in the comments.
Ale: I am biased. I would give this to the Plastics just because I love their dynamic. Though if we’re talking about the most functional trio, that’d probably be Cher, Dionne, and Tai.
Molly: …if I were allowed to use sources outside the movie, I’d give it to the Heathers. But..since we can only use the movie…and Chandler dies very early into the movie proper…I’m going to give it to the Plastics.
Ale: Veronica “my teen angst has a body count” Sawyer. No. Competition.
Molly: Agreed. Veronica is the one with an arc centered on constant growth and never lets her mean streak take full control.
Ale: She’s the most iconic for sure. Followed by Cher. If you notice, Cady just… exists. Everyone else has the one-liners. Veronica has a monocle!
MOST ICONIC LINES (OVERALL)
Molly: Heathers has the best lines in my opinion. However, I cannot deny that Mean Girls has influenced pop culture more, so I suppose I am obligated to give the victory to Mean Girls.
Ale: Maybe we’ll live to see the day when people stop trying to make Fetch happen. But for now, it’s happening. Mean Girls, hands down for me!
Molly: Heather Chandler. I…Heather Chandler. What more can I say? To quote the musical (cause I have to at some point in this piece!) “She is a mythic bitch.”
Ale: She was mean, even in death.
BEST LOVE INTEREST
Ale: I’d have to give this to Josh. Despite the creep factor, he is ultimately the best man out of the three, consistently.
Molly: …using canonical, explicitly stated love interests? Yes. But If we go off of my personal beliefs, no, Heather Chandler is the best love interest.
Ale: Ah… I see what you did there.
Molly: The Heathers and Veronica. Shoulder pads and coats and bold colors!
Ale: I have to agree. No one really could wear shoulder pads and poofy hair quite like Winona Ryder… The 80s become her.
Ale: I am torn between Tai and Dionne here. I mean, those hats! The 90s were weird… Not even shoulder pads beat those terrible, terrible hats.
Molly: …yeah. The ’70s were by far the worst time period for fashion, that was when everyone decided to dress like an insane clown had a nightmare, but the 90’s were pretty bad.
The final category, and hardest of all:
TOP GOTH: VERONICA SAWYER, OR JANIS IAN?
Ale: I’m… so torn.
*Insert agony gif from Into The Woods*
Molly: …Janis is more deliberately, and exceedingly, goth…but…Winona Ryder…I guess…I like Heathers more than I like Mean Girls, so I give the win to Veronica.
Ale: Veronica is a True Goth. I feel like Janis is a wounded animal hiding under goth make-up.
So Veronica wins this category, but Janis wins my heart of hearts.
Molly: Very fair assessment.
Well, everyone, that’s all we’ve got for you in this first piece! Thank you for clicking and for listening to us ramble! And please join us again next month when we discuss the Disney Channel Original trilogy, Descendants! Thanks again!