There is something fascinating about the evolution of the "mean girl" in teen movies. Often depicted as beautiful, unobtainable, and self-righteous to an annoying level, the mean girl (also referred to as a Heather) is a character we love to hate.
They are the characters that walk in slow motion, wear the best clothes in the school, and everyone either wants to be them or be with them. Think Cassie Howards (Sydney Sweeny) from Euphoriaor Cher (Alicia Silverstone) from Clueless. They are not bad people, but they do make some bad decisions and look great while doing it.
The Heather trope is an interesting one that often gets a bad rap. So let’s break down exactly what a Heather is, and how you can write one for your next screenplay.
What Is a Heather?
A Heather is a character trope that describes the popular person of the high school. Typically, a Heather is a female character who is traditionally beautiful and is desired by both men and women. A character who falls into the Heather trope is often complex and is driven by the desire to keep up a well-manicured appearance.
Similar to the mean girl, the Heather can come off as mean-spirited even if they are trying to be nice. This is due to the audience’s prescription of these types of characters, which leads to a later understanding of the character’s complexities that make them feel the need to appear a certain way.
A Brief History of the Heather
The trope comes from Michael Lehmann’s cult classic Heathers. Three popular girls, all named Heather, rule the school. They are classic mean girls who bully other students relentlessly and are seemingly untouchable.
The film was a dark comedy that played against the era of John Hughes’ teen movies that highlighted characters from different cliques and social standings as equally misunderstood and misrepresented. Screenwriter Daniel Waters wanted to blend the teen angst represented in John Hughes’ movies with the horrors of being a teenager that Brian De Palma showed in Carrie.
When reflecting on the film for its 30th anniversary, Waters told the Irish Times, “When men are assholes, they are pretty straightforward and stupid about it. When women are mean to other women, it’s completely fascinating.”
Unlike the mean girl trope, the Heather trope has always been about complex female villains in teen movies. In Heathers, we see the damaging consequences of this hyper-competitive, mean-spirited social hierarchy that leads to a literal explosion.
Teenage girls can be ruthless, but they are also the most ignored group by most of society. The Heather trope highlights this.
'Heathers'Credit: New World Pictures
The Complexities of the Heather
We admire and despise these characters for a very specific reason—they are justified villains.
We saw this a little bit in Heathers with all three Heathers, but primarily Heather McNamara (Lisanne Falk). McNamara’s signature color is yellow, symbolizing her cautious and timid nature. She is the head cheerleader and falls into the Heather clique because the others accept her and she longs to follow whatever everyone else is doing.
Near the end of the film, McNamara reveals that she has depression and a fear of missing out. She is grouped in with the Heather clique, which is viewed as the villain of the story, but she has a lot more going on underneath the surface.
A Heather isn’t always mean, but she is “othered.” There is something unrelatable and unobtainable about her appearance and presence, even if the character wants to be understood and accepted like Heather McNamara, or Helen Harris III (Rose Byrne) from Bridesmaids.
For a more modern-day Heather, look no further than Jennifer Check (Megan Fox) from Jennifer’s Body. She is undeniably beautiful, well-off, and well-liked by everyone at the high school despite her condescending attitude. Jennifer becomes a demonically possessed girl who kills her male classmates after a band tried to sacrifice her for fame.
The Heather trope appeals to the female desire to be understood and accepted as they are rather than what they appear to be. It is a trope that can often be misunderstood and misrepresented, creating a character that is mean just because they’re pretty.
'Jennifer's Body'Credit: 20th Century Fox
How to Write the Heather Trope
The Heather trope is ever-evolving and adapting to culture, but there are a few characteristics that all stay the same. Here are a few characteristics of the Heather trope:
- Traditionally pretty/attractive
- Envied but still desirable by men and women
- Privileged due to family’s wealth
- Looking for a sense of belonging
- Challenges our assumptions near the end of the story
Popularity is the currency of high school social structures, and it often romanticizes the popular crowd rather than the individuals. Oftentimes, the popular individual or the Heather is often portrayed as an idea or a social construct rather than a complex individual struggling to find their sense of self-worth.
The Heather is not a bad trope by any means when executed correctly. We should view the character as untouchable in the beginning, but then we start to understand that the Heather character is not so different from the protagonist as the story unfolds. In the end, the two characters that were viewed as so different from each other share a mutual respect.
'Clueless'Credit: Paramount Pictures
The Heather trope is like an onion—more and more is revealed about that character as the layers are pulled back. But it’s on you to remember to pull those layers back to view these antagonists as human and justified in their actions.
Think about if the story was told from their perspective. Would they see themselves as the bad guy in their story? No, because no one is the villain in their own story, so make sure their actions and position in the story have a purpose.
Who is your favorite character in film or TV that falls into the Heather trope? Let us know in the comments below!
Source: The Take