"Fuck me gently with a chainsaw" is one of the more famous quotations from Heathers, the 1989 black comedy starring Winona Ryder and Christian Slater about teen hierarchies, suicide, and murder.
The line is reused in the 2018 television reboot of Heathers — one of many homages to the cult classic that inspired it. But it also encapsulates some of the early reactions to the Paramount Network production, which leaked its first episode in advance of its March 7 premiere.
The episode, while full of Easter eggs and a cameo from actress Shannen Doherty (who originated the role of Heather Duke), shows a very different world from its cinematic predecessor's. The Heathers — once a trio of affluent white girls with a tyrannical grip on high school society — have been replaced by those from society's fringes.
This revisionist telling shows Heather Chandler (Melanie Field) as a heavyset queen bee, Heather Duke (Brendan Scannell) as a genderqueer subordinate, and Heather McNamara (Jasmine Mathews) as a biracial girl posing as a lesbian in order to gain admittance into this popular clique.
The character originated by Ryder, Veronica Sawyer (Grace Victoria Cox), now blond-haired and blue-eyed, may still occasionally don a monocle and scribble in her diary. But in comparison with the Heathers, she is basic. At one point, a guidance counselor asks Sawyer, hopefully, if she might be "a hermaphrodite." She fears Sawyer's stellar grades and SAT scores will not be enough to admit her into her dream school without a personal essay hook like LGBT identity.
The reversal of power from the white patriarchy to a diverse trio has led to some bizarro-world reactions to the new Heathers. Theoretically, a show that features LGBT leads (and a faculty member played by the incomparable Drew Droege) would be a darling of liberal millennial media. The series also features many LGBT people behind the scenes, including creator Jason Micallef, executive producer Leslye Headland, and director Sydney Freedland.
Yet The Daily Beast panned the series in its review, titled "The New Heathers Is a Trumpian, LGBT-Bashing Nightmare." The article takes issue with its casual use of anti-LGBT slurs as well as the show's portrayal of queer young people as bullies — members of the P.C. police who use their social media followings to shame their heteronormative peers.
In an early scene, for example, Chandler takes a photo of a jock wearing a T-shirt with a sports logo akin to the racially insensitive caricature of the Cleveland Indians. She then threatens to post it online unless he perform a series of humiliating tasks in front of the high school populace. Afterward, Chandler posts the photo anyway.
Later, Sawyer calls Chandler a "fatty" during a public confrontation. Chandler rightfully calls the term fat-shaming but then threatens to ruin Sawyer's reputation by exposing her as a bigot online, a move that is meant to further illustrate her diabolical nature. This toxic behavior infects her clique. Duke, who discovers McNamara is not the lesbian she purported to be, likewise threatens a form of social-media blackmail.
This portrayal is, of course, at odds with the reality for queer teens, who themselves have faced escalated rates of bullying and suicide since the 2016 presidential election. As Beast writer Samantha Allen argues, it conversely fits into a conservative narrative, which is not based in fact but is a tactic to avoid addressing anti-LGBT bias:
If you believe that kids these days are fragile “snowflakes,” that political correctness is running amok, and that LGBT people are now society’s true bullies, this new Heathers is the show for you. The premiere of the rebooted cult classic, now airing for free online, takes place in a universe — clearly a fictional one—where the football team is oppressed and yesteryear’s fat, queer, and black victims now rule the school with manicured fists. The show feels like it was written for aging Fox News viewers who get angry about people’s gender pronouns — which is odd because it’s clearly being marketed to a young and therefore progressive-leaning audience who may not remember the ... original.
Micallef responded to Allen's review on Twitter, in a post that criticized her as missing the point.
We get a lot of dumb ‘hot takes’ but this one takes the cake. I think I speak for the mostly queer staff when I say ‘YOU KNOW YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO THINK THE ADULTS/TEACHERS ARE IDIOTS, RIGHT???’ https://t.co/zJJyijWZA3
— Jason Micallef (@MicallefJason) February 23, 2018
But The Daily Beast was not the only outlet to be befuddled by the identity politics of Heathers. The Hollywood Reporter, which called the show "a pale imitation" of the 1989 film, wrote, "Having the high school tyranny associated with a gang of students who, in a different era, might have been marginalized produces a dark and almost reactionary undercurrent in which the disenfranchised aren't being bullied, but rather are wielding identity politics and political correctness as weapons."
"Is that the point the show wants to make? That a pendulum has swung too far? Or is it just an accidental underlying message? It's unclear," the review surmised.
Leigh Monson of Birth.Movies.Death saw in the show's dynamics "a longing for the good old days when non-whites and queers knew their place." Monson concluded, "Heathers is a hateful, bigoted exercise in regression hiding behind the guise of dark comedy, and I can only hope it doesn’t gain the Trumpian audience it so clearly craves."
Indeed, those who possess alt-right beliefs — or at least traffic in them — have embraced this message (accidental or otherwise) of the new Heathers, as Into's Nico Lang first reported. Cassandra Fairbanks, a writer for the alt-right site The Gateway Pundit, wrote on Twitter, "I just watched the pilot and I kind of love it." This sentiment was echoed by Ian Miles Cheong, who writes for the alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos.
The Unapologetic Canadian, a social media user who describes themselves as "formerly 'Anti-Feminazi'," wrote that "SJWS" — a pejorative acronym for social justice warriors — "are going to collectively lose their shit" over the new Heathers. The user excitedly pointed to the fat-shaming scene as "an accurate portrayal of how they are."
Heather: “YOU SPILLED ART ALL OVER MY BRAND NEW PUSSY SKIRT”
Veronica: “Well then lick it up, fatty. Lick. It. Up.”
Heather: “Did you just fatshame me....in public?”
This is such an accurate portrayal of how they are lmfao pic.twitter.com/zmaHRK3orm
— The Unapologetic Canadian (@Audacious_Leaf) February 20, 2018
The first episode of Heathers is available to watch at the Paramount Network. Its official premiere is March 7.