Heathers & The Age of Innocence: Baby, Please Make A Change

by - July 28, 2016

Love is torture makes me more sure
Only love can hurt like this
Paloma Faith - Only Love Can Hurt Like This

Our love is God. Let's get a slushie.

After reading The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton (first published in 1920), I couldn't help but find quite a few similarities between the novel and the 1988 film Heathers. Both stories are based on society, or better: both stories are a comment on society. Particularly the idea that the society they are living in is bullshit (to articulate it highbrow). Both main characters -Newland Archer and Veronica Sawyer (played by Winona Ryder)- want to either escape or change their situation. And both find this change in love. I think for The Age of Innocence as well as Heathers, the notion of change opposite no change (and the way towards it) is very important. You can't always get what you want or you do, unwillingly, and end up in a situation that isn't necessarily better and most probably worse (wishing Heather C. dead and -unknowingly- "serve [her] a wake-up cup full of liquid drainer" or badly wanting to mary 'the love of your life' only to find out another woman -her cousin- is actually the love of your life. Hate when that happens).

Veronica: I just killed my best friend.
J.D.: And your worst enemy.
Veronica: Same difference.

Heathers is set in high school and deals with the hierarchy -your typical groups of poplar kids, nerds etc. which gravitate and bounces off each other- and the idea of outsiders (it's actually a parody of your typical high school movie). This time the 'clear' rebel (as opposed to Veronica who gets 'dragged into' the bad boy life) is a boy called J.D. (played by Christian Slater) with a cause, so it happens to be.

Dear diary, my teen angst bullshit now has a body count.

High school and the 'society of high school' is something that we all reflect upon as a way of life. Even when you're not in high school, the social establishment or division is a representation we often use in further social situations (jobs, parties etc., you can't escape it -it's almost a sort of natural formation of 'being' within bigger social situations). J.D. doesn't like this. As doesn't Veronica. J.D. tries to disrupt this ongoing cycle by killing people and make it look like suicide, dragging Veronica with him into this 'upsetting the natural flow' cause. And indeed, this is almost a literal disruption and formation to change, in the sense that it's a way of eliminating -at first- the core elements that seem to be the drive behind the hierarchy. However, as Veronica learns, by dismanteling one or two (or three or four) of the players within the chain, you don't necessarily disrupt it and therewith change it. By handling only one part, there comes someone else, in this case literally another Heather, to take the place and take up the game as played before. Naturally Heather -or whoever will take the thrown next- will not be the same as Heather (C.). There'll always be a slight change as to how she/he got into that position, but the end result is very much the same. A repetition of history, the head held high of the queen and down of her subjects.

Yes, there is however a change in perception of the characters J.D. and Veronica murdered. An extra -and in this case false- layer is being added to the 'suicides', making them perhaps (anyway in the case of Heather C.) bigger than life. Making the air-headed into profound, deep thinking and 'tortured' creatures (say a fellow student 'realising' he wasn't dumped because he was boring, but because she was dissatisfied with her life). A bittersweet symphony. Again: the act of killing has not disrupt but probably even magnified and enhanced their 'role' of oppressor and power holder -and therewith represents the identity they were trying to oppress or overrule by killing in the first place. As someone pointed out on the internet: Heathers "portrays that killing a problem doesn't always solve it."

His whole future seemed suddenly to be unrolled before him; and passing down its endless emptiness he saw the dwindling figure of a man to whom nothing was ever to happen.

The Age of Innocence also plays with this idea. The never changing hierarchy or 'way of living' and an unendless chain of 'being' (or better: pretending), is what the main character Newland Archer drives to his choices within the novel. Add a feeling of pride or the 'need' to keep up appearences -as he has learned to obtain all his life- brings us to some interesting thoughts. Killing a problem doesn't always solve it. Which is something very important to keep in mind when Newland starts daydreaming, realising, that not only he will one day die but also she (she being May Welland, the wife that he doesn't love). She's young, sure, but young people die too (look at Heathers, lots of young people 'die' before their prime). And if he'd taken the plunge, it would've ended quite differently. But he doesn't, lucky girl. And the disruption he was looking for never comes. Or rather: the disruption comes but confirms that change will not be part of his life (so bye bye Countess Ellen Olenska -the actual love of his life). And although Veronica is actively participating in change, the power or double-sided concept of The Age of Innocence is again the idea of keeping up appearences. Loving from a (safe) distance. And therewith the disruption or change isn't necessarily in the love that enfolds throughout the novel between Newland and Ellen, but the (enforced) 'departure' of the Countess by the society he's being surrounded with (actually: being completely absorbed into it, as a married men instead of -in his eyes- the small piece of freedom he experienced before. But still: it's kinda his own fault, accepting his fate before actually looking in the eyes of it).

The taste of the usual was like cinders in his mouth, and there were moments when he felt as if he were being buried alive under his future.

It somehow comes as now surprise that in the end Newland becomes what he despised to be. Not actually living a lie, but rather I guess -again- keeping up appearences. Telling us in a surprise how he actually mournes about May's death (no worries, natural cause) as if we ought to be proud of him, that he achieved 'so much' by actually mourning for her. Round of applause, everyone. And in this way there's still no change. No change in running away with Ellen, perhaps change in the way Newland approaches life (but no change opposed to that of which he tried to break from -something he wanted to change in the first place) and there's no change in the end between the love for his wife that's been disrupted by the love for Ellen. And it's funny to think that this notion of 'no change' actually is an annoyance to Newland (and kids) towards his wife. He becomes all that he didn't wanted to be, a replica of the world he'd known and grew up in, and therewith blames his wife for being the same (although it must be said that she wasn't looking for change in the beginning). I guess by being confronted by this replica or creation of his need for change, he fosters a kind of narrative around her -which I personally think isn't always as true as he wants them to be or May's fault in the first place. And I think the ending -in some way- reflects this idea. The change is to be found in the surroundings and customs. So for instance before mentioned kids and not to forget the telephone. The telephone -who'd thought- plays actually a crucial role in the last chapter. It's an immediately clear signifier of change. The revolution of electricity, faster communication, less bamboozle and more action! So when his son calls the Countess on a whim -because he can- it's an accepted fact of change -by her of all means (because son-dear grew up with that stuff).

However when it comes to the point of reunion, Newland stays glued or stuck to old traditions and/or lingers on the thought he has of her. He's actually grown afraid of the possible change between them. The change in lifestyle and the change in 'being' she must've endured inbetween those 30 years apart. He eventually decides against the matter -against the reunion and the possible change he saw flashing before his eyes (of a finally 'happy ever after' life with Ellen). Why? Because he's old-fashioned. Or better: he's embodied the idea of his generation -quite literally- and is still in a way keeping up appearences. Changing the possible change, perhaps, and therewith presenting the idea or morality that the choices we make (or are made for us) grow with(in) us. Decisions, man.

In reality they all lived in a kind of hieroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs.

Heathers and The Age of Innocence, besides change, also play with this idea of having a choice. Or rather: making a choice. Which made me thing of French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre's (1905-1980) idea of 'bad faith'. Sartre is part of the Existentialism movement (aka what it is or means to be human). Central to his work is the idea of choosing and therewith perhaps 'fashioning oneself and thereby fashioning humanity'. In his book Existentialism is Humanism he states: "Man, born into an empty, godless universe, is nothing to begin with. He creates his essence -his self, his being- through the choices he freely makes ('existence preceeds essence'). (...) In choosing to be this or that is to affirm the value of what we choose. In choosing we commit not only to ourselves but all of mankind." Important to add to this is the idea that Sartre has about the freedom of our choice (often referred to as 'bad faith'). Sartre believes we're all free. Although we might be tight to our time and space, we're all free to live our life or give meaning to our life the way we choose it to be. We're free to choose another way of being, another self, at any point in our life. It's having bad faith to think otherwise, that there's no choice (and therewith thus no change). But as Sartre would argue: there's always a choice. There are even so many choices we can't even comprehend them all. Just think about all the possibilities you could do right now, all the choice you have, all the decisions you could make and all the change that lies behind all of that. Too much, perhaps? And that's why, Sartre says, we don't act upon them, why we limit ourselves. Like Newland we think we're stuck in our habits, our society -and even 'breaking free' from it (or having the chance to break free from it)- he's being pulled back again by the idea or fear of change (and therewith of choice). J.D. on the other hand acted greatly on his choices, on his disruption and change. Although we might question if they were the right decisions to make, he still believed -to some extend- in change (or murder) and to be free within his actions (again: murder). And so did Veronica. She believed there needed to be change, and although she didn't intuitively act upon those wishes, with help from J.D. she finally realized that -say it with me: by killing a problem you don't necessariy solve it. She undertakes action herself. Not by blowing up her school (although she sort of blew up J.D.), but by taking Heathers red hairband (the source of all evil).

Heather, my love, there's a new sheriff in town.

Naturally we don't know if she succeeds in making this decision into a reality, the film ends way too early to tell. But at least she made her choice in the end. Not letting her life rule anymore by a rebel boy (or a psychotic boy for that matter -although it must be noted that there are theories saying that J.D. doesn't actually exist and is a reflection or hallucination of Veronica's own dissatisfaction), but by on her own terms. Something -again- Newland never reaches (although at the end -the decision to not go and see Ellen- could be seen as something that came as his own choice, but then again the motivation behind it could be seen as a choice burdened by others).

We can't behave like people in novels, though, can we?

After reading the novel, I actually watched the 1993 adaption of the story with -you'll never guess- Winona Ryder playing May Welland! So I thought I had to (briefly) include it in this post. Firstly The Age of Innocence film is absolutely beautiful to look at. It was directed by Martin Scorsese and is full of iconography and symbolism (same goes actually for Heathers). And to my surprise there weren't that many changes made within the adaption and the story told by Edith Wharton. Some side-tracks weren't shown, but nothing lacking the main story. However I did find that the passing of time in the novel is better illustrated. The growing love affair between Ellen and Newland -and therewith the graving of Newland to break free from his life and to start anew, was much more clearer in words than on screen I think (I had the idea that one moment they met and the other they were rolling around in the back of the carriage).

Both stories could be classified as a dangerous romance. Not only putting everything at risk by Newland Archer in The Age of Innocence (and therewith not keeping up appearences as pleased), and quite literally in Heathers. I personally didn't initially really like Newland. I thought him to be unfair opposed to his counterparts within the story. Especially opposed to May, portraying her as some kind of lightbulb that was already broken by birth. He always puts himself on top of the hierarchy (or perhaps even besides it), although he never -in 'reality'- stood on top of his society (as is clearly to be read from the goodbye party for Countess Ellen Olenska). Within his mind he stood above or beside, in reality he stood within (but never on top) and with Olenska he didn't even wanted to be part of it. She was different. She was a change already in itself -a change he was aching for. A change that could've changed his life, his being. But it wasn't meant to be. Or again: maybe even planned out not to be. The society, the hierarchy he stayed related to through the love affair, despises change and difference. It protects itself from chaos (which in some way is understandable and maybe even -to some extend- relatable).

The same idea could actually be projected onto J.D. and his 'mission'. We all do agree there's a problem, but the solution he proposes (mostly chaos) isn't what most of us were thinking about as a solution in the first place. Not only is it a bad solution because it doesn't actually lead to a sustainable or maintained change (what else did you expect to get from chaos?), but also because killing people and make it look like suicide is illegal (and a generally bad thing to do). Although the chain is broken by J.D., it's still there. Rather than an actual change within the system of hierarchy, the places shifted (giving him more room to play with and actually being or becoming an active part within the in's-and-out's of the development of the hierarchy). He plays a dangerous game (remember: not a rebel but a psycho). Creating chaos, reinforcing some kind of order under his control, to eventually wanting to make a bigger statement (chaos extreme). He fails and instead of the school, he blows himself up. Interestingly though, you -as a viewer- don't really condemn his actions in the end (or at least I didn't -at some point I actually wanted him to blow up that school, which makes you question what happened inbetween those scenes with the audience -me- to think such a thing. I blame it on the charm of Slater). J.D. was quite literally the change, a choice to make. A decision. Voluntarily or not. And Veronica isn't like Newland. She doesn't 'accept' or falls back into 'same old, same old'. She takes or even embraces this idea of difference and change and tries to use it - not to make a disruption within the line- but to actually change it. No Heather in charge, but a Veronica. Again: we never find out if she actually succeeds, but it's the thought that counts.


What I'm wearing: Blouse - Made by me / Trousers - Charity Shop / Sunglasses - Vintage / Belt - My dad's / Bag - Charity Shop / Hat - Primark (old) / Shoes - Van Haren /
Sources: 1 / 2 / 3 / 4 /

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  1. I love both stories! I agree both of them are quite similar, and Heathers is just such an iconic movie!
    I like how in your style you've portrayed both stories! Great post, keep it up!
    Kinga x

    1. Thank you! Heathers must be one of my favourite films. And although the death count is significantly higher than in The Age of Innocence, I personally think it has a more 'positive' (or hopeful) message for us all... ;) <3