MS FLEMING: “Veronica? Jason Dean told me you just committed suicide!”
VERONICA: “Yeah? Well, he’s wrong about a lot of things.”
MS FLEMING: “Oh… I threw together a lovely tribute, especially on such short notice…”
–“Dead Girl Walking (Reprise)”
After writing a post a while ago on how media consistently screws up its depictions of mental illness and suicide, I got to thinking – are there any examples of media that does the depictions right?
And ruminating on it a bit, I came to the conclusion that a great piece of media that does discuss both of these topics in a way that is constructive without glorifying either is the musical “Heathers.” And since it’s musical month, what better time is there to talk about it?
I’ve wanted to talk about this musical for a while. In fact, this post has been sitting in my drafts for months. I initially wanted to discuss JD’s morality as a character, and that’s a still a topic I find fascinating and worthy of discussion, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to continue a discussion on suicide depiction in media, a topic that really deserves further conversation.
Besides being just an overall entertaining and amazing musical, “Heathers” also has a lot to say about mental illness and suicide. Especially how our society as a whole tends to handle both topics, and how it harms the people actually in need. In my opinion, you can easily read the events of the musical as an allegory for our world’s honestly garbage treatment of real people with mental illness and suicidal thoughts… teenagers in particular.
So, let’s meet the main players in the musical, shall we?
Veronica Sawyer, A Teen for All
Let us begin with our humble protagonist, Veronica Sawyer. At the beginning of the musical Veronica is your average everyday high school senior. All she wants is to finish up her final year of high school and jet off to an idealized college life. She doesn’t want to stick out. She just wants to survive until her “freedom” arrives.
She is also most certainly the audience stand-in. Her point of view on events, at least in the beginning, most certainly aligns with how the audience would see them. This is aided not only by her role as a “typical” teen, but also by her personality. She is cynical, smart, and witty, allowing her to have the moral upper-hand on most other characters. So, the audience not only understands her well, but also can take her side morally.
For the rest of this analysis, always consider Veronica the audience stand-in. This is especially important when looking at the other major player in “Heathers”.
Jason Dean, Romantic Rogue
When Veronica first meets JD, it’s incredibly easy to see why she would fall in love with him. He’s dark and mysterious, and seems to represent a part of Veronica that wishes she could dismantle the school system and society that has tortured her for years. He’s a loner with an almost comically tragic past. A mother who died when he was young, an abusive father, and no friends to speak of.
And considering Veronica is the audience stand-in, the musical expects the audience to fall in love with JD as well. Why wouldn’t they, really? He’s a sympathetic character with a dash of mystery and intrigue. So when Veronica makes the decision not only to fall in love with him, but also to quote-unquote “fix him,” the audience is probably right there with her.
However, JD is not what he seems. Well, okay, he is actually what he seems exactly. He’s the romanticized ideal of troubled teen. However, it’s that ideal that is the focus. He’s just an ideal. The ideal that you can take someone with such a sad and troubled past and fix them with love.
So, at first, when JD begins taking Veronica along with him on his mission to fight against “society,” the audience roots for the both of them. And even when that fight claims its first victim, Heather Chandler, there still isn’t much moral ambiguity. After all, Heather is the “mythic bitch” of Westerberg High, someone known for her cruelty to others.
And how do they cover up their first victim in their quest to dismantle the “man?” Why, a forged suicide note, of course.
“Me Inside of Me”
PRINCIPAL: “Heather Chandler’s not your everyday suicide!”
COACH: “We should cancel classes.”
PRINCIPAL: “No way, Coach. I send the kids home before lunch, and the switch board will light up like a Christmas tree.”
MS FLEMING: “Our children are dying! I suggest we get everyone in the cafeteria and just talk and feel together… I’m telling you, we all misjudged Heather Chandler. This is the most beautiful suicide note I’ve ever read.”
–“Me Inside of Me”
The suicide note Veronica forges for Heather’s death reeks of martyrdom and meaning. The letter becomes the focus of Ms. Fleming’s attempts to convince her students to reveal their feelings and discuss them. What happens instead, though, is that the entire student body comes to the conclusion that Heather was secretly a tragic figure, who died so others could be happier. And Ms. Fleming, for all her outward desire to help her students, seems more focused on the attention she is getting for spreading Heather’s “message.”
In the meantime, keep in mind that Heather’s death was not at all a suicide. She was murdered in cold blood by JD and Veronica, who go on to commit two more murders under the guise of suicide, this time football stars Kurt and Ram. Kurt and Ram’s supposed suicides lead to a revelation of the suppressed homoerotic desires of their fathers once Veronica forges their suicide note saying that they “died because [they] had to hide [their] gay forbidden love from a misapproving world.”
Once more, the suicides of teenagers is used to derive meaning for those left alive. Kurt and Ram’s deaths are seen as symbolic of the need for acceptance of LGBT identities, and leads two men to stop denying their feelings for one another. Like with Heather Chandler, Kurt and Ram’s deaths aren’t seen as the tragedy they are, but is rather shown as a positive decision they made that improved the lives of others around them.
And again I must stress – these deaths aren’t actually suicides. They’re murders. But in the frenzy of celebrating the “positive effects” of these suicides, everyone ignores the actual problem lurking beneath.
“The Tiniest Lifeboat”
As all this fake suicide goes on, two actual suicide attempts are more or less glossed over by the Westerberg community as a whole.
The first, Heather McNamara’s in “Lifeboat” and “Shine a Light (Reprise)”, is brought on by the bullying of Heather Duke, who calls her “pathetic” and tells her to “kill herself”. How much help is given to Heather McNamara by the supposedly mental health-conscious community as a whole? None. Nada.
(It’s also symbolic that the scene where Heather Duke tells Heather McNamara to kill herself is a reprise of the earlier song where Ms. Fleming urges the children to share their deepest fears in an attempt to prevent future suicides. Clearly, her efforts are not at all working.)
The second is Martha’s, the constantly-bullied former best friend of Veronica. After crooning out her sadness over the loss of her childhood innocence in “Kindergarten Boyfriend,” she leaps from the Old Mill Bridge holding a suicide note.
Neither Martha nor Heather McNamara succeed in their attempts to kill themselves, and I think this is an incredibly important fact to understanding what “Heathers” has to say about suicide.
Think about it. Thus far, the only two actual suicidal teens fail in killing themselves. Meanwhile, three teens who supposedly succeeded in killing themselves were not actually suicidal. But because they were the ones who actually died, society as a whole pays attention to them and them alone, while people like Heather McNamara and Martha slip between the cracks. Unless you’ve already succeeded in killing yourself, the world of “Heathers” doesn’t care about your mental health.
And Now Back to Our Protagonists
Remember back when I told you to remember that Veronica stands in for the audience? Keeping this in mind, let’s examine her role in the events of “Heathers”.
Veronica, while not being the one to orchestrate the murders, is very complicit in all of them. She is the one who forges both suicide notes, and she keeps what she knows of Heather, Kurt, and Ram’s deaths a secret from the powers that be.
And JD, on the other hand, sweet, troubled JD, is the one to mastermind it all. The musical purposefully writes him to be likeable in the beginning of the musical, so even as he murders people in cold blood, the audience goes along with it. He’s sweet! He just has a troubled past! He loves Veronica! It’s all okay. And Veronica, our audience stand-in, loves him too.
But keep in mind, remembering that she’s the audience stand-in, this implicates the audience as just as complicit in these deaths as Veronica is. They trust JD too, at first, and they give a silent cheer when he slays the “mythic bitch”. Perhaps they’re impressed by his and Veronica’s cleverness when they fake the suicide notes. And maybe they chuckle a little bit at the humorous nature of Kurt and Ram’s deaths. Either way, the full weight of what has happened never really sets in.
Like the rest of the community of “Heathers,” the audience is lead to focus more on these fake suicides than the actual mental health of the still-living teenagers in the musical. Martha and Heather McNamara’s suicide attempts, though heart-wrenching and accompanied by beautiful musical numbers, are mere blips on the overall plotline. And Veronica herself is not around to witness either. It’s only at Veronica’s lowest point in “Yo Girl” that she learns of Martha’s suicide attempt, and it’s only during the last song that she makes peace with Martha once more.
So what does this have to say about the nature of suicide and mental health in society? Well, it’s the sad truth that society as a whole doesn’t really pay attention to the still-living teenagers struggling with mental illness and suicidal thoughts. For those who have already committed suicide, it’s easy for society and media at large to grieve and make something meaningful of it, but “Heathers” points out that very little is done to prevent those still living from meeting the same fate.
In an exaggerated microcosm of our world, the adults of Westerberg High are tricked by two teenagers into romanticizing the murders of three teenagers while ultimately ignoring the actual suicide attempts of two still-living teenagers.
So what does this say about our world and the people in it? What does “Heathers” say about mental health and suicide? Well, it stresses prevention. It points out that we live in a world where it’s far easier to provide commentary after-the-fact. It shows how easy it is to ignore the still-living mentally-ill people at risk for suicide in favor of trying to draw some selfish meaning from the deaths of those who are already gone.
It’s also a kickass musical with a great plot and musical score. Social consciousness and overall quality… what else could you ask for?