Tag Archive for movies

Tackling the teen movie: the role that body image and bulimia plays in Heathers

We’ve all had that movie we completely underestimated when we first approached it. That movie we thought was going to be okay but wasn’t a priority. That movie that ended up changing your life, the one that made you wonder why you waited so long to see it: The Surprise.

One of my dear friends had never seen the Lord of the Rings movies before, assuming they were silly and probably not her thing, but she sat through the first one with me anyway (partially because she’s a saint and partially because I badgered her until she did).

The Lord of the Rings was The Surprise for her. She was never much of a fantasy fan, but there was something really special about the the storyline and the visuals that she hadn’t expected to find there.

I’ve always been willing to give most fantasy movies and cult classics a try, but for some reason I had never gotten around to watching Heathers.

As a fan huge fan of Mean Girls, I was told that Heathers acted almost as a precursor to the film, that there were the same kind of social dynamics addressed, and that, like Mean GirlsHeathers validated the struggles of teenage girls. I was also excited to see that someone had turned it into a musical as well.

Spoilers ahead, so if you haven't seen it, what are you waiting for?

Spoilers ahead, so if you haven’t seen it, what are you waiting for?

What I didn’t expect was for Heathers to draw me in with ’80s movie charm mixed with an irreverent and all-too-honest humor. The focus on murder and suicide was also a little bit jarring.

Heathers is an incredibly important film, putting some serious social weight behind its jokes. It addresses eating disorders and the way that we see food as well as body size as well as the way that our bodies affect how people see us.

 

Grow up, Heather. Bulimia is so ’87.

The film features a trio of beautiful, rich, popular girls that seem to run their high school. All of them are named Heather. Shannen Doherty plays Heather Duke, the bookish opportunist who’s most often seen wearing green and most often victimized by Heather Chandler (played by Kim Walker), the group’s fearless leader.

One of the first scenes in the movie shows Duke calling for help from inside a bathroom stall, after which Veronica (played by Winona Ryder) quips, “A true friend’s work is never done” while wiggling her index finger. Although it’s not shown on camera—thank god—it’s clear that Duke is plagued by an eating disorder, one that makes the other Heathers tell her offhandedly to “Grow up, Heather. Bulimia is so ’87.”

The other Heathers don’t take Duke’s plight seriously, and even Veronica’s suggestion that “maybe you should see a doctor” is quiet and only uttered while she files a nail. Duke reacts by looking uncomfortable, shrugging it off with a “yeah, maybe.”

It’s clear that Heather Duke will not be going to a doctor.

I know I was appalled when I saw that Duke’s friends were barely reacting to her eating disorder, but for them it was a non-issue. In the context of the film, it seems as though Heather is expected to continue to purge if she wants to keep her already shaky spot in the Heathers’ clique, and the dialogue suggests that she’s not the only one dealing with this kind of issue. If bulimia is “so ’87,” then there must be other eating disorders in vogue at the time, maybe not even disguised as crash diets or cleanses.

The exaggerated nonchalance in these characters’ attitudes toward eating disorders isn’t just a product of the movie. Young women in our society are constantly inundated with images of skinnier and skinnier bodies that they have to aspire to, and they often resort to extremes to achieve that kind of body.

And while I’m willing to admit that movies have gotten a little better about including actors of all sizes, the majority of them are still incredibly skinny and, at the same time, actors with bigger bodies are still used as punch lines.

While Hollywood might still have trouble with body image, Heather Duke takes a turn after Heather Chandler’s shocking death. Once the news gets around school, Duke starts stuffing her face with chicken. Her friends notice; Veronica jokes that she needs to “watch it” since she “might be digesting food there,” and Heather McNamarra (played by Lisanne Falk) asks, “where’s your ‘urge to purge’?”

Duke’s response?

heathers fuck it

She says “fuck it,” throwing away the chicken bone like she throws away her attachment to her eating disorder. Duke doesn’t seem to care anymore about how food is going to affect her anymore. Heather Chandler isn’t there to put that kind of pressure on her.

Duke was consistently scrutinized and picked, particularly by Heather Chandler, and with that girl’s death, Duke feels able to eat freely. While it’s not quite that easy to come back from an eating disorder, the sentiment is clear. Sometimes you just need to eat, whatever the consequences.

 

You can live the dream or you can die alone!

If Heather Duke struggled to stay afloat in high school, her classmate Martha Dunstock (played by Carrie Lynn) was virtually drowning. Stuck with the nickname Martha “Dumptruck,” she’s living proof that social hierarchies, especially those in high schools, rest uncomfortably and uncontrollably on the body. Martha doesn’t interact with any of her classmates, sits alone at lunch, and is laughed out of the cafeteria when she tries to speak to one of the football players.

It’s clear that while Veronica and some of the other students have the opportunity to get on the Heathers’ good sides and move up in social status, Martha never has that chance. The Heathers even test Veronica by writing a fake love note from a football player and pressuring her to put it on Martha’s tray. Veronica keeps saying that she doesn’t have an issue with Martha, but since her friends think it’s funny, she makes herself complicit in Martha’s humiliation.

It’s a minor moment, but the prank that the Heathers and Veronica pull on Martha illustrates how difficult it is to be fat in high school. Even Veronica, who has no issue with Martha, is willing to help make her life a living hell because she doesn’t want to say no to the Heathers. The message is that it doesn’t matter how you feel if you don’t act accordingly; Veronica could have easily been Martha’s ally, but it was easier for her to let her othering continue.

Veronica manages to get it right by the end of the film though. After watching her classmates die at her the hands of her boyfriend (played by Christian Slater) and desperately fighting to stop him from blowing up the school, it’s a lot easier for her to put her values in perspective. She gives up on the school’s social hierarchy, snatching the red scrunchie from Heather Duke and proclaiming herself the new sheriff in town before inviting Martha over for a movie.

By renouncing the Heathers’ high school pettiness, Veronica is able to begin making amends for the harm she helped cause. She’s not absolved of responsibility, but the movie ends on a hopeful note as Martha and Veronica walk away together, metaphorically into the sunset.

—Molly C.

Tackling the Teen Movie:
How the messages in Mean Girls go beyond “On Wednesdays, we wear pink!”

Usually when I start a new show or look for a new movie, I try to gauge whether or not it’s going to frustrate me too much.

There are some movie tropes that I absolutely adore despite how problematic they might be—for instance, the makeover montage, the mean girl’s comeuppance, the pining best friend, and the musical number (thanks Ferris Bueller and Easy A!).

But there are a few things that end up being deal breakers for me.

If there’s a diverse cast, queer characters, or even just a cast that’s made up mostly of women, I’ll look into it. However, I can’t stand it when all the women hate each other or are competing for This One Guy who’s actually not that attractive when it comes right down to it.

Has anyone seen John Tucker Must Die and understood why he was that sought after?

Has anyone seen John Tucker Must Die and understood why he was that sought after?

Or when two female leads are both drop dead gorgeous, but one of them isn’t blond and has glasses so she’s the one that’s presented as undesirable or even ugly.

“Designated Ugly Fat Friend” where?

“Designated Ugly Fat Friend” where?

As a writer and an English major, I literally cannot stop myself from analyzing the media that I consume and support, and the more I do so, the more I realize that it’s something we all should be doing.

To start with, Mean Girls is a great example of a film that offers a fascinating commentary on the struggles of young women as they grow up and learn to navigate the world, specifically in regards to dieting, diversity, and solidarity.

beware of the plastics

Mean Girls established itself as a cultural fixture not long after it was released in 2004. So much so that it’s rare for me to meet anyone who hasn’t seen the movie, and I can still quote almost the entire movie with the same tone and inflection that the original actors used.

It’s easy to tell that the script was written by Tina Fey, who also plays a significant role in the film, as the biting wit and humor mirrors the very real issues that women—teenage girls in particular, mostly demonstrated through the main character of Cady (played by Lindsey Lohan)—face when trying to navigate the path to adulthood. Romance, friendships, school, work, beauty, body image, and self-respect are all addressed in different parts of the film, and while they’re not always addressed perfectly, Mean Girls has a lot of really important messages to communicate.

One of those important messages is about dieting…

Despite being considered one of the most beautiful girls in her high school, the character of Regina George (played by Rachel McAdams) complains throughout the film about how she needs to lose a few pounds and keeps trying crash diets like juice cleanses, all-carb diets, or “weight loss nutrition bars.” She is so obsessed with losing weight that one of the first times we hear about Cady’s interest in math is when Regina is worried about the caloric content of her food.

While it’s played off as a joke, this behavior and the references to “girls who eat their feelings” and “girls who don’t eat anything” mirror the terrifying behavioral patterns that young women fall into while trying to achieve American beauty standards. The connection between eating disorders and dieting, while not stated outright, is made abundantly clear.

Additionally, after Regina says, “I really want to lose three pounds,” she pauses expectantly for her friends to tell her—in what sounds like a rehearsed, ritualistic response—“Oh my god what are you talking about? You’re so skinny.”

But why is this comment necessary? What is so bad about not being skinny? Skinny doesn’t mean healthy, and healthy doesn’t mean skinny either.

Of course, Regina’s skinny body—and the skinny bodies of almost all the main characters—send a message about which characters  have worth, about characters are valid. Most of the time, movies that are marketed towards young, American, and usually female audiences have a thin lead actor and a cast full of similarly skinny actors. The movies and television shows that follow this pattern all send the message that the only stories worth telling are about skinny people.

Janis (Cady’s best friend played by Lizzy Caplan) also identifies this conception of a thin female body as a “hot” body—with “hot” in quotation marks—as she maintains that Regina has a “technically good physique.”

regina georges resources

It’s striking to see the way that Janis writes hot with quotation marks. It seems that in doing so she recognizes the way that hotness is constructed rather than inherent and that Regina’s shape and size have a lot to do with this concept of hotness.

In recognizing this pattern, the girls in the film are able to exploit it for their own agendas. During Janis and Cady’s plan to sabotage Regina, they give her nutrition bars meant to put more weight on her and recommend that she eat all kinds of food that could do the same.

It’s honestly really depressing how much Regina’s weight gain affects her. It’s difficult to tell that she’s gained weight just by looking at her (and maybe that’s the point), but the other characters make sure that the audience is in on the joke when they laugh at Regina after she puts on a few pounds.

That’s always how it happens, isn’t it? Other people feel the need to comment on your weight in real life, and this truth is demonstrated in the film as the others make jokes both behind her back and to her face.

At one point, she even tries on a dress that she’d put on hold only to find it no longer fits. While this scene is mostly there for laughs, the moment is actually heartbreaking. There are few things more discouraging than going shopping and finding that the clothes you thought would fit don’t anymore. This is the moment in Mean Girls when the comedy becomes all too real.

 

Another important message in Mean Girls is about diversity…

The majority of the cast is female, and the fact that this is something that we need to celebrate is a little bit sad. But stories like these are essential: stories about women, by women, and for women, stories that acknowledge the limitations that popular culture and the powers-that-be place upon us. These stories can expose and criticize these limitations by pointing out how gender roles and stereotypes consistently devalue women and their contributions to the world around them.

The movie also features a few people of color, such as the principal, some of the boys on the Mathletes team, and others in more minor roles.

Furthermore, women of all body types are featured in the film as well. Tall girls, short girls, skinny girls, chubby girls, and even a girl in a wheelchair. Some of them even look like they’re actual high schoolers instead of just hot twenty-something actors.

In these ways, Mean Girls does an excellent job of being inclusive and showing a more accurate picture of the world we live in than most teen movies.

However, one thing that’s always bothered me about this movie is the treatment of queer characters.

Damien (played by Daniel Franzese) is very obviously a gay man, but most of the time it seems as though he’s played off as a joke. And he doesn’t get the typical teen movie happy ending—a romantic partner—which sets him apart from the other main characters: Janis who ends up with a boyfriend and Cady who finally wins over Aaron Samuels by being herself.

Additionally, the rumor that Regina started about Janis that sparked Janis’s resentment back in middle school was that Janis was a lesbian. Not only did Janis vehemently deny that accusation in the past and not want to mention it to her new friend Cady in the present, but it’s also implied that she was severely hurt by the rumor as well as being ridiculed and isolated because of it.

And in the end, it’s all treated like a big joke that Regina made, brushing off the major impact of the rumor and ignoring the harmful message that it sent.

Sure, Damien is allowed to be the token gay character—albeit a flat one without his own storyline—but the thought that a straight person like Janis is called a lesbian is laughable, even unthinkable. The implication is that there is no worse insult than calling someone gay who isn’t.

This movie came out years ago, so I suppose that this kind of homophobia is a smaller problem in the grand scheme of things, but it’s important to note that there’s definitely room for improvement.

 

Finally Mean Girls says something important about solidarity…

In a somewhat cheesy speech toward the end of the movie—even the principal tells Cady that a speech isn’t necessary—Cady reinforces why girls fighting amongst each other is the worst thing we can do. During the speech she makes sure to compliment the girls who aren’t considered pretty by “Plastic” standards, girls who are chubby or disabled or isolated, and in the same speech she equates all the girls with each other, no matter how pretty or popular people think that they are. Cady says:

“I mean, I think everybody looks great tonight. Look at Jessica Lopez! That dress is amazing, and Emma Gerber that hairdo must have taken hours and you look really pretty. So why is everybody stressing over this thing? I mean it’s just plastic, it’s really just [she breaks the crown and starts passing it out]. A piece for Gretchen Wieners, a partial Spring Fling Queen. A piece for Janis Ian, and a piece for Regina George. She fractured her spine and she still looks like a rockstar, and some for everybody else.”

The breaking of the crown represents Cady’s final denial of an unattainable ideal. Talk about a powerful moment. She’s literally taking a symbol of feminine power, breaking it down, and distributing the power to all the women around her, empowering and uniting all the girls who now share ownership of the crown.

Mean Girls might seem like typical teenage comedy, but it’s really important to emphasize messages of female solidarity, and Cady’s speech does just that. The “divide and conquer” approach is a legitimate strategy to weaken a group of people since they can’t organize and challenge authority or an opponent if they’re fighting among themselves. Women share common struggles, so why shouldn’t these same struggles bring us together instead of allowing petty competitiveness to keep us apart?

tina fey sluts and whores

Say what you want about Tina Fey, but this teen movie has become iconic for quite a few excellent reasons… it’s quotable, it’s hilarious, it’s relatable, and, most importantly, it speaks to issues central to being a woman. I cannot stress how refreshing it is to see an articulation of the struggles that women go through and have them treated as relevant difficulties, even in a lighthearted manner. No, it’s not a perfect film, but it’s just as important to celebrate what is working as it is to be critical of what’s not working.

 

janis and damien scared popcorn
—Molly Couch

The Importance of Body Acceptance: Because We Can’t All Be Amanda Seyfried and Channing Tatum

These days you can’t get on the internet without hearing another scary story about obesity or body image. As a country, we are obsessed with the subject.

That’s part of the reason I started I Will Not Diet and The Real You Project—to encourage people to question the consequences of that obsession since 45 million Americans go on a diet every year.

This may seem like a good idea given that we are collectively more obese than ever before, but, in truth, dieting is bad for us. Ninety percent or more of the people who go on diets gain back more weight than they lose. That means that every time you go on a diet, chances are you end up gaining weight in the long run, not losing it. And if you go on a diet every year or so, that weight gain multiplies.

These statistics are the reason why I believe diets play a significant role in the obesity epidemic. In countries where people are not obsessed with dieting—France, for instance—obesity isn’t nearly as big of a problem.

This raises the question: why do we gain weight after a diet is over and what can be done about it?

The simple reason we gain weight after dieting is because diets are not sustainable over the long haul, so we go back to our old habits once it’s all over. And as soon as we start eating more, the pounds come back.

Another reason we gain weight post-diet is because, after denying ourselves the foods we love for so long, we want them even more than we did before. I went on the only diet of my adult life before I got married, and after my “wedding diet” was over, I gained thirty pounds (I’d only lost seventeen) because I was so hungry for all the foods I hadn’t been allowed to have for almost a year.

That was when I realized how unhealthy it is to diet.

But the American obsession with dieting is also fueled by our obsession with celebrities. Everywhere you go in America, you see celebrities—on the covers of magazines in grocery stores and drug stores and bookstores, on our television and movie screens, and even on our computers through the magic of the internet. It sometimes feels like you can’t do anything without seeing Danica Patrick popping up in a GoDaddy ad.

And the effect of that celebrity culture is that we, unconsciously or not, want to emulate those celebrities—we want to be as rich as them, as successful as them, as thin as them.

The only problem is that in order to be as thin as a celebrity, you have to make it your job. You have to exercise several hours every day and eat healthy foods at every meal. I don’t know about you, but I don’t have several hours a day to exercise, nor do I have a cook to prepare all of my meals—which is the ONLY reason why I don’t look like Cameron Diaz.

Seriously though—when we try to look like Cameron Diaz or Justin Timberlake (I will never get over their breakup) and fail (because we can’t live at the gym or eat healthy all the time), we give up. We give up and stop exercising entirely and start eating Taco Bell so much it feels like we’re living inside a Super Bowl commercial.

And why wouldn’t we?

If we can’t look like Amanda Seyfried and Channing Tatum, we might as well sit on the couch all night and eat White Castle, playing Call of Duty 2 until we hear our alarm clocks going off the next morning.

This is why we need better role models. If we didn’t aspire to look like impossibly thin or buff celebrities, we might actually be healthier. That’s why celebrities like Lena Dunham and Seth Rogen are so important.

We need real people to emulate, not people who don’t have a bit of extra flesh around the middle or under their arms.

At the same time, we need to realize that—despite Dunham’s and Rogen’s success—things aren’t going to change overnight. Seyfried and Tatum aren’t going anywhere. (they’re probably making a Nicholas Sparks movie somewhere right now), so we have to accept that celebrities are not good role models.

And only after we do that, can we begin to accept ourselves and be healthy.

*

A shorter version of this article first appeared in The College Heights Herald.

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