You may not agree with the views in the article below - there are many points I'd disagree with - but you will certainly find useful material to help contextualise your own work as filmmakers putting representations of gender on-screen, and reflecting (probably still quite unconsciously at this stage) contemporary ideas and ideologies in doing so.
Article URL: http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2009/mar/22/heathers-mean-girls-hairspray
Talking about bad girlsMichael Lehmann's 1988 masterpiece Heathers ushered in a new type of film, one in which schoolgirls were not simply one-dimensional caricatures, says Eva Wiseman
Girlhood is a horrid thing, a time awash with sebum, diaries read out loud and all your friends a desirable nine out of 10 to your un-gorgeous six. Lunch hours spent with your arms folded to mock up a cleavage and notes in the margin of a GCSE poetry textbook that, in the dim light of your parents' TV, take on such meaning, such teenage magnitude, that you're tearful by teatime.
The years before you leave home are largely nightmarish, or at least, through the haze of alcopops and hormones, for many of us they seemed that way. I never really knew the girls who were having the times of their lives - they moved faster. They got the boys they wanted, they learned to manage and maintain all the embarrassments of puberty within a single half-term. But one thing they never "got" the way we did, with our lank hair and uneven skin tone, were certain films. Heathers (the 1988 murder comedy starring 16-year-old Winona Ryder as Veronica Sawyer, a breakaway member of a popular girl gang), with its poisoned cheerleaders and vision of high school as a Technicolor battleground, spoke to us, the girls who didn't quite fit in.
The teenage girl on film, says Kate Random Love, a feminist theorist, "is a wonderful barometer for measuring a culture's fantasies and anxieties about femininity at the time. For example, it's surely no coincidence that in the 1970s - the decade that began with the second wave of feminist uprisings - the most notable representations of female adolescence were in horror films such as The Exorcist and Carrie. Femininity itself became a monstrous force rising up with the potential to destroy everything." In the 1980s, the teenage girl on film (Pretty in Pink, The Breakfast Club) was obsessed with cash; in the 1990s and early 2000s she was a beacon of spiritual development (Clueless, Legally Blonde) and dangerous sexuality (But I'm a Cheerleader, Boys Don't Cry). "Since then, teen girls in film have become more complex and less one-dimensional, and invite a much more ambivalent response from the viewer - in Mean Girls  we spend a lot of our time actually hating Cady Heron, the main protagonist," says Random Love.
Heathers' first murder is half-accident - Veronica's new boyfriend JD (Christian Slater channelling Jack Nicholson) feeds gang-leader Heather Chandler a hangover cure of navy-blue bleach and persuades Veronica to forge a suicide note. In death, it turns out, Heather Chandler is more popular than ever. The first Heather's death allows the second Heather to bloom. She takes over Westerburg High School, and, in my favourite scene, sunbathes in the warm suburban light, unfurling like time-lapsed ivy. Veronica, our troubled and literate heroine, finishes the film by lighting a cigarette on her boyfriend's burning body, and with dirty hands and bruised make-up invites the least popular girl in school home to watch videos. God, it's good.
Dr Catherine Grant, an art historian and specialist in the representation of female adolescence in art, loves Heathers because, she says, "it replays the juvenile delinquent movie with a female protagonist - not something that you see very often". Plus, with Winona Ryder's furious teen, "it really rips into the sweetness of all those John Hughes movies". John Hughes's films shared a Brat Pack cast and a stifling sense of nostalgia. With films such as Pretty in Pink, Hughes did comedy, tragedy, self-doubt, but he didn't do darkness, or even shame. While he loved an outcast, for me his heroines never rang as true as Veronica Sawyer. Random Love agrees. "Of all the portrayals of female adolescence in film, Heathers stands out as one of the best, mainly, I think, because it focuses on one of the key traumas of being a teenage girl: negotiating your social position. What made Veronica such a compelling character was that she wasn't an outsider trying to fit in, à la Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink, rather, as part of the 'most powerful clique in school', she was an insider trying to get out." Plus, she adds, "Heathers doesn't ignore female aggression, the violent hatred that women are capable of feeling. Veronica is beautiful, clever, sexy, rebellious, popular and aggressive. Heathers has been hugely important in changing the way teenage girls are represented on screen because it was one of the first films to acknowledge the complexity of the female adolescent and it broke the vacuous/pretty/popular versus clever/in need of a makeover/unpopular mould. It's been at least as influential as films such as Pretty in Pink, and I think this is because it explores teen-girl aggression between women, and not just sexuality."
Simmering away under the shoulder pads and quick comebacks of teen-girl films, there is always the sex. "I think the teenager represents something important in contemporary culture about identity, particularly sexual identity," says Grant. "The age between childhood and adulthood is one that is traditionally about transformation and therefore has the potential to question adulthood, often merging characteristics that are defined as masculine and feminine. For women, the teen genre is a format that allows for the representation of strong female identities that are not linked into romantic narratives or family. In teen films, popularity is key. It's the way that girls vie for alpha status, and show insecurities - through the social hierarchy. Boys would just have a fight. Also, in teen movies, all the way back to Rebel Without a Cause and the juvenile delinquent films of the 1950s, there is the theme of the family having failed the teenager."
Veronica's parents don't change their tone, whether asking her about murder or pâté. They don't get up from the sofa when tipped off that their daughter will hang herself.
In Heathers, Veronica walks into the locker-room showers in her Lycra dress to wash away the guilt of Heather Chandler's murder. In Brian De Palma's Carrie, another film for girls with issues, Sissy Spacek's fiercely unpopular schoolgirl gets her period in the locker-room showers, a scene with touches of Psycho and rumblings of the bloody horror to come.
To be clear, these aren't films about outsiderness - tales of a "kooky oddball", shambling their wacky way through "life and love". These aren't Ghost Worlds or Breakfast Clubs, teen films that scream "misfit"; these are films where our heroine doesn't think of herself as unusual, where in among the murders she battles with puberty, ennui and cheerleaders - and wins. In Carrie, we side with the funny-looking teenage witch. We laugh, we scream, we hide our eyes! We quietly thank our stars for blessing us simply with a lack of social graces rather than a murderous mother and enemies with the foresight and energy to rig up a bucket of cold pig's blood.
Carrie, says Dr Grant, is one of cinema's seminal teens. "She represents the potential of repressed sexuality that is often attributed to teenage girls, and the conflict that occurs between being a 'nice girl' and a sexual adult. She literally explodes with her repressed teen powers." While Carrie White's budding telekinesis and eventual breakdown are a little way removed from our own secondary school experiences, we share her issues: self-hate, female destruction, sexual frustration, awkward hair.
In 1988, John Waters made Hairspray, the story of a fat white girl who wants to dance. Hairspray was a Grease for the weird and hungry. Similarly nostalgic but infinitely odder, it put segregation and obesity to a swinging 1960s soundtrack, inspiring fans (my sister, four when the film came out) to ask their grandmothers if they wanted to "get naked and smoke". Ricki Lake was beautiful as Tracy Turnblad, giddy to the point of nausea. She was poor, bullied and odd: she was us, without the cynicism or world-weary Morrissey quotes. But she gets the boy, integrates Baltimore, and is crowned Miss Auto Show 1963 - like Veronica in Heathers, little Tracy Turnblad saves the world.
But could Lindsay Lohan do the same? In Mean Girls (dubbed by critics "Heathers with a heart"), Lohan's Cady is the new girl at a high school ruled by the Plastics, a fiendishly popular girl-gang that decides she's pretty enough to join them. Fresh out of Africa, Cady is a blank canvas, a nice girl and maths whiz who sees the cruel intricacies of the clique from her own sage anthropological perspective, and, as an experiment, joins them. But in the process of trying to bring them down she falls under their spell. She dumps maths to chase a boy, and dumps her friends to chase popularity, and drops delicious lines like, "I know it may look like I was being a bitch, but that's only because I was acting like a bitch." It's a theme! In Heathers, Veronica explains to JD that she doesn't really like her bitchy friends. "It's like, they're people I work with, and our job is being popular."
In real life, in the late 1990s, our job was similar, though we weren't especially good at it and most of us were fired over the summer. We awkward indie girls had less going for us than Cady. We were all angles and offence-taken. Our bodies were very much London zone three, rather than the Hollywood glories seen at Westerburg High, and our dialogue 1,000% sloppier. Still, these heroines were us and we loved them. Teenage girlhood, with its broken relationships and conversations about weight, was far easier to watch than to live through.