What's Your Damage?: Why the Heathers reboot must tread lightly
TVLand has announced plans to develop an anthology series based on the 1988 black comedy flick, Heathers, featuring a newly diversified set of characters. Whilst updating the cast of cult classics is surely one of the most appealing aspects of rebooting them, the description of the series left something to be desired and many fans wary:
“[The reboot] features a new set of popular-yet-evil Heathers — only this time the outcasts have become high school royalty. Heather McNamara (originally played by Lisanne Falk) is a black lesbian; Heather Duke (Shannen Doherty) is a male who identifies as gender-queer whose real name is Heath; and Heather Chandler (Kim Walker) has a body like Martha Dumptruck.” (The Hollywood Reporter, 03/16/16).
For context: The Heathers are ostensibly framed as villains of the movie; three conventionally attractive, privileged white girls who act as antagonists to social outcasts Veronica and J.D. (originally played by Winona Ryder and Christian Slater respectively). The pair resort to increasingly disturbing acts of violence towards their classmates as the story progresses.
The potential issue here is not that a reboot itself is happening or that the characters have been diversified, but what this attempt at a subversive, modern twist means in today’s socio-political climate.
If the original Heathers was about challenging the privileged, it seems this reboot will be about killing off the marginalized and portraying them as villains.
Introducing POC and LGBT+ characters to portray them in a negative light does little for the cause of representation. In fact, it may have more negative impact than positive, as bad representation has the potential to perpetuate stereotypes and fuel misconceptions.
Diversifying your cast as an attempt at being subversive only to kill those characters off in increasingly gruesome ways doesn't actually subvert the expectations of anyone even remotely plugged in to the issues surrounding representation and diversity in the media. There is nothing subversive about causing harm to already vulnerable communities.
This isn't a plea for full immunity from pain, death or villainous archetypes, but a desire that creators would consider how adding more negative representation to the already teetering pile can impact upon the communities they claim they wish to represent.
Heathers also touches on delicate material such as school violence and teen suicide, so the creators must tread lightly if they want to avoid trivializing sensitive issues that are still culturally relevant today.
Of course, it is entirely within the realm of possibility that these concerns are unfounded. A diverse representation of race, sexuality, gender identity and even body shape is something more showrunners should strive to include, especially those aiming to repackage cult classics for a modern audience. But only time will tell if the Heathers reboot can manage to traverse the waters between comedy and social commentary without dashing its newly diversified cast (and its audience in the process) on the rocks of shock value.
In the meantime however, many fans will likely wait anxiously to see whether the reboot will subvert the potentially harmful expected genre tropes, or simply reinforce them.