January 15, 2013

"Veronica’s Monocle: On Anger and Late Girlhood" by Katharine Jager

I watched the darkly campy teen angst comedy Heathers (1989) with my dad, one weekend evening in the uncomfortable side room where the TV lived.  I was thirteen and we had rented it from Video Adventure, the store where stoner dudes who dropped out of college got stuck shilling tapes.

In some ways Heathers is the worst movie to watch when you are a 13 year old girl.  For a girl who’s just leaving childhood, your media shouldn’t have curse words and terrifying violence and drinking and wanton sex.  You need things that are a little soothing, that harken towards female friendship and togetherness.  This of course was what my more carefully curated, innocent girlfriends got.  They were reading Little Women or Anne of Green Gables, maybe even Jane Eyre when they felt super advanced.  But in all of those stories, the smart, tough, capable female heroine gives it all up in the end for her man.  She never goes on to live her own adventurous, decent life.  Instead, she marries Mr. Rochester and has to take care of him in his blinded disability.  As bildungsromans, those books for early teen girls kind of suck.

But in Heathers, the female heroine shoots off her sociopathic boyfriend’s middle finger, watches as he blows himself up, and then wrests power away from the mean girls to begin a socially equal utopia in which subaltern fat girls like Martha Dumptruck can be treated like actual human beings.  Which is to say, Heathers was the best thing to see when you are a thirteen year old girl with an angry, intellectual bent.
From the vicious cliques and infighting to the popular girl who knows she’s sold her soul to the devil, Heathers was the first movie I’d ever seen that depicted—even if campily—the hallway horror show I already knew.  One minute you were a girl’s BFF.  The next, she’d turned everyone against you so that no one would sit with you in the cafeteria but threw garbage at you instead.  On your birthday.  There were knives buried in the heart of every female friendship.

Heathers is the preface for every school shooting, every bullied-kid-commits-suicide story, every nauseating sexting drama, of the last fifteen years.  Christian Slater in a black trenchcoat blowing himself up at the school steps presaged Columbine, Virginia Tech, Northern Illinois.  And the evilly cruel pack of alpha girls was the first iteration of Mean Girls.  For nobody was ever more mean than the Heathers of Heathers.  Replete with the crisply big hair of the late eighties held back by fabric scrunchies, the Heathers were breathtakingly savage in their manipulation, control and social subterfuge.  They also spoke in perfect, profane bon mots.  Every line in that movie is a bon mot, actually.  “Fuck me gently with a chainsaw,” for instance.  Or Veronica’s lament regarding her childhood friend: “I sold out Betty Finn for a bunch of Swatch dogs and Diet Cokeheads.”

The alpha-Heather wears a signature flame colored scrunchie in her blond hair.  The Heathers are rich girls, cheerleaders, eating disordered (“Grow up, Heather, bulimia is so ’87.”)  And Veronica is their dark-eyed, rich girl sidekick who can’t quite figure out if she wants to even be friends with them in the first place.  Played by a sixteen year old, alarming thin Winona Ryder, Veronica is affluent enough to be popular.  The croquet scenes are set are her parents’ house and her parents eat pate just about every day.  But Veronica’s smart enough to realize that there is more to life than giving blowjobs to college boys at frat parties.  If this were a Disney movie, Veronica would rail against her mean friends in a thrilling speech and the audience would love her.  But Heathers is an anti-Disney movie, so instead Veronica waffles and observes.  She goes along when her friends are cruel.  She fakes her own hanging.  She injures herself with a red hot car lighter, the wound from which her boyfriend uses to ignite his cigarette.

Veronica wears pale blue tights underneath broadly shoulder-padded navy sweater dresses that look like they just came off the hangers at The Limited.  She has glossy brown hair.  She drinks vodka in her despair.  She smokes cigarettes with a lack of guilt.  She resists the clumsy attempts at date rape the omega-Heather has to give in to. When the homosocial football duo, Kurt and Ram (and were there ever any better names for teenage football bullies than Kurt and Ram?) spread the rumor that they’d “had a swordfight” in Veronica’s mouth, she feels rage that they’d lie so baldly.  And so she gets even.

As a dark haired smart girl stuck myself in the sexual roil and horror of public school, Veronica’s rejections of her obscene suitors made a kind of feminist sense.  For as much as the Heathers rule the female roost, they never resist male advances.  Even when those advances are repulsive.  But Veronica has the wherewithal to refuse.  She casts withering scorn.  She vomits in a guy’s lap after she rejects him and doesn’t care.  So when my male friends came calling like the dogs they were, having decided that oh, say, the post-bar mitzvah summer would be a great time to lose our virginities together, I had some kind of a model in mind for refusing.  When the social blowback inevitably arrived, I could scoff.  Like Veronica, I had refused a crappy offer, after all.  And rightly so.

It wasn’t that Veronica was anti-sex.  She just got to decide when and with whom she wanted to do it, and also, importantly, she had a good time.  When she does have sex, it isn’t a big emotional deal.  Climbing out the window with JD to do it on the croquet field is not some halcyon moment that they’ve “saved themselves for.”  They don’t run off into the sunset together like in “Say Anything.”  Nope, they just have sex and it’s fun and she doesn’t feel shame the next morning.  This kind of insouciance and independence mattered.  It was a bulwark against the real threats that are everyday lobbed against young women.  Veronica got to be a person.  Who, like most persons, happened to have sex with someone to whom she felt attracted.

I should address the inestimable JD, here, played with oleaginous charisma by a pubescent Christian Slater.  I was not the kind of girl who screamed at a New Kids on the Block concert.  I never collected magazine covers of my favorite masculine heart throb.  Indeed, I scorned the girls who did.  But I can’t help but wonder in retrospect about all the teenage boys I did swoon over.   There were the skate-punk boys with the asymmetrical hair, long over one eye and their black-and-white checked Van’s.  The boys who played in a band, curls halfway to their trench-coated shoulders.  The misanthropes.  The angry vandals.  The boys who shoved safety pins into their ears and ate tabs of acid and made me mixtapes of REM and The Cure.  They never killed anybody, though I am sure they harbored thoughts of doing so.  Each one of them some version of the Heathers anti-hero JD.  Now of course JD is an actual sociopath.  He sets out murdering the Heathers, as well as the football bros (“I love my dead gay son!”), and tries to detonate the pep rally.  And Veronica slowly comes to understand that her boyfriend is, well, a creepy psycho.  She writes about it, actually.

Veronica wears a monocle.   She carries it on a chain around her neck and fastens it into place when she sits, archly, at her desk to write.  And she writes with abandon, by hand, in her journal late into the night.  Indeed, some of the best bon mots are found in the writing montage scenes: “This can’t be just a spoke in my menstrual cycle;” “My teen angst bullshit has a body count.”  She writes of her hatred for her tacky, venal friends.  She writes about her fears concerning JD.  She writes for the school newspaper, even.  Veronica was smart.  Indeed, she was smarter than everyone around her, and even her peers were reading The Bell Jar and Moby Dick.

Heathers was never high art.  The point was the enjoyment.  Veronica and JD give Heather Chandler Drano to drink, and she does!  They imply that the football boys are gay lovers caught in a suicide pact!  They exact revenge on all the jerks and dickheads who’ve become their so called friends!  Which was, of course, completely hilarious.  And rather thrilling.

The spring I turned thirteen, sometime parallel to watching Heathers, my 8th grade class took a trip down to Springfield, IL.  A kind of pilgrimage to Lincoln’s tomb.  It was April, verdant and softly humid, the cornfields just turning themselves over to the weight of green, and we drove down for hours until we got to Lincoln’s memorial bust.  His face was the same as a penny’s profile, but his enormous nose was brassily shiny from the rubbing of millions of prepubescent fingers.  Every 8th grader in Illinois made this trip, went to see the cabin where Lincoln had been born, stood in the mouse-smelling courtroom where he’d made his arguments.  My peers, as usual, were idiots.  The bullies and the bitches, the sycophants and the sex-crazed, all of them lobbing insults at each other and jockeying for power.  The girls I’d been friends with as a child, exhilarated then by a welter of possibility and strength, were still having The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe read to them.  But I was sitting on the front porch with a skate-punk boy, desperately wishing that he would, no, please, that he would not ever, kiss me.  I was miserable in the way that only thirteen year old girls can be miserable.  And I was taking books like Leaves of Grass along with me on the school trip.

There was something totally earnest about my Whitman fetish.  I meant it without affect or awareness.  But I had a mind and I was supposed to use it.  I mumbled “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” to myself, alone on the school bus, that spring I stood on the cusp of adulthood.  I was wearing a mint green, polka-dotted, shoulder-padded shorts set I’d bought on sale at the Limited, with a braided leather belt and white Keds.  I had my hair pulled back in a scrunchy and towered over the boys in my class.  I had terrible acne already.  My incisors were slowly yellowing even then and the popular kids intermittently allowed me into their circle or cast me out.  I was angry and I felt ugly and I was alone.

If I’d had a monocle, then, I’d have used it for circumspection, for perspective.  I’d have plugged it to my eye in order to spy an “It Gets Better” sort of future for smart chicks.  Wherein you get to lose your virginity pleasantly to a boy you actually like, who grows up himself to be a rocket scientist.  Where you get to read as much as you want and make friends with other people who actually also give a shit about philosophy and history and poetry, all of you together, seeking “to get ideas to eat from your hand,” as Auden once said.

I’d use my cyclopean gaze to peer ahead at all those people I once knew in our leafily liberal suburb, the many Heathers I’d hated and those who hated me, the gangster vandals and football thugs, those bound for Harvard and for Video Adventure alike.  I could sift through “friend” requests from all of them.  And I could be magnanimous and say, yes, we can be electronically linked and yes, I will look at your tasteless high status wedding photos in which you have twelve bridesmaids and a fourteen karat gold embroidered chuppah.  Yes, I will click through your photos of yacht parties and babies and med school and law school and all night dancing reggae clubs.  Yes, I will be somewhat aghast that you send your kids to our old elementary school.  The bullies would want to be friends too, even including the ones who ended up in prison, or worse, as Kangol-hat wearing party promoters in Soho.  We’d all have grown up and generally gone to college and voted for Obama, for the most part.  And then my monocle might alight upon my own adult self.  Dark haired and narrow, near sighted, still taller in heels than a lot of men, I’d be sitting in an office high above a subtropical city.  I’d have a wall of books studding the shelves behind me, and my own constellation of children and accomplishments, as I sat there writing this.

Katharine Jager is a poet and medieval scholar.  Her poetry has appeared in The Yale Anthology of Younger American Poets, The Gettysburg Review, Friends Journal, Commonweal, The Bellevue Review, and Canteen, among other journals, and has also been published as broadsides by the Center for Book Arts and Red Dragon Fly Press.  Recent critical essays on poetics, gender and late medieval identity have appeared in Medieval Perspectives.  She lives in Houston and teaches literature and writing at the University of Houston-Downtown. 

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