Safe Spaces, Self-Censorship, and My Aversion to Heathers
By: Lisa M. Rand
Whenever I have a conversation with a teen at my library I try to include a reminder. “Your ideas are important to me,” I say. “I want to know what you want to see and do at the library.” Once in a while, thanks to this invitation, I bang into a wall. Someone suggests a program that I do not want to run. I resist and wrestle.
During a very fun and successful celebration of Hamilton the Musical at one teen event, I posted a large paper asking “Other favorite musicals?” It was a way to learn about each other, and also to draw out future program ideas. The clear winner was Heathers. I sighed heavily.
This was not any help. Heathers, for me, is off limits.
I saw the movie Heathers, which came out when I was 14 and had a crush on Winona Ryder. It was a dark comedy, and I would have written the ending differently. It started out clever, full of witty observations about the banality of high school, and then it lost its way was my assessment as a young critic. I did not like JD’s arrogance, ad I felt he was showing off. Fast forward to the day when I have a 14 year old daughter and schools in the U.S. have regularly scheduled active shooter drills. Heathers, satire or not, just isn’t funny anymore. Twenty years after the shooting at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999, the shootings have not stopped.
Part of my job is to give the teens what they ask for, when possible and within reason. But an event celebrating Heathers feels entirely off limits. My first reaction is to think that a comedy about school shootings and teen suicide my need to create safe space in the library. Yet part of me thinks that teens love this musical because there must be a need to talk about the very real danger they have lived with for all their school years. Maybe through talking about suicide and bomb threats at a fictional school in Heathers, we could create a space to share awful fears. Through art and conversation, we could look at scary issues.
In the story, Veronica mets JD, a perfect anti-hero who wants to make life easier by eliminating a bullying popular trio of girls named Heather. It is a revenge fantasy. Spoiler alert: he kills them and stages their deaths to look like suicides.
With darkly humorous lines like Veronica asking, “Are we going to prom or to hell?” I certainly can appreciate the writing. I think the teens must love it because it mirrors some of the absurdity of daily life in high school. But for me, the movie hits too close to home.
Watching this movie as an adult who cares about youth, it was not funny. Watching the movie for the first time in twenty years, I felt my whole body go cold. There was JD, looking the part of a school shooter straight out of a news headline. There was JD, faking the suicides of his classmates. The Trevor Project reports that suicide is the second leading cause of death for people ages 10 to 24 in the US. An astonishing 1 out of 6 students in grades 9 to 12 has considered suicide in the past year. It does not seem a laughing matter, even in the context of a dark and satirical film.
However, at the library every day I hear people say, “Why are these teen books so dark?” And I always reply that readers need these books. Teens need to know they are not alone, and they need to see possible solutions to their challenges. Above all they need hope. Author Mindy McGinnis said it best: “It’s not Nancy Drew out there.” Teens are dealing with dark, heavy matters. Film, theater, literature, and other art forms are perhaps the most cathartic and helpful resource they can lean on.
What am I to do with these feelings? When my teens want a program where we listen to songs from Heathers, do I lighten up and just do it? I can’t laugh about it, for sure. But I can facilitate a space where we can, in the guise of recreation, create a safe room where teens can look at one another and let out the breath of fear they are holding.
I can look at each of them with love and show that I care by listening. Censoring myself will not help anybody. We can watch Heathers (as long as it’s under our license, of course), or sing songs from the musical, and recite quotes. We can immerse ourselves in a story that addresses some very weighty issues, and do so in a safe, relatively controlled environment. Laughter can release some of the stress. And we can look around at one another and give a deep sigh because all the dark comedy in this story is rooted in real life: cliques, pressures, suicide, weapons in schools.
Teens need a safe space to talk about the challenging issues they face every day. If I can offer the library as that safe space, then I am successful in fulfilling part of my mission. Sometimes the most important conversations sneak up on us when we are engrossed in popcorn, musical theater, and unexpected hilarity.
Lisa M. Rand is the youth services coordinator at Boyertown Community Library in southeastern Pennsylvania, a role that carries a special interest in protecting youth access to diverse programs and materials. She exercises her commitment to equity and access for everyone by serving on the Intellectual Freedom Committee of the Pennsylvania Library Association. Lisa developed a passion for Constitutional Law and First Amendment issues while at Simmons College, and continued her studies at the New School in New York City. Whenever possible she travels, visiting libraries and walking in the footsteps of favorite fictional characters. Find her on Twitter @lisa_m_rand.