To some, this post will come off as nothing more than the frustrated rambles of a teenager denied of explicit content. Attempting to discuss censorship in a completely objective manner is no simple task, and I won’t pretend it is or claim that my vision is necessarily the “right” one. Rather, these are simply problems I see that have more to do with our societal norms and less with the idea of simply restricting content for certain age groups. There’s no issue with the latter; I wouldn’t suggest a middle school class to see The Godfather or Chinatown . It’s only when morals about what’s “right” and “wrong” come into play that censorship becomes a large gray area.
In 2016, Kevin Murphy and Laurence O’Keefe, the writers of Heathers: The Musical, set about creating a tweaked version of their work that would be suitable for performance in high schools. The result–Heathers 101: High School Edition–is true to the original both plot-wise and thematically. If one considers simply removing more intense swears and drugs to be making something “PG,” then it does its job well.
But that brings me to our first issue. Heathers: The Musical is based off the R-rated 1988 film Heathers, directed by Michael Lehmann. The content warnings for both works is a mile long, including suicide, sexual content, and first-degree, teen-on-teen murder. So why is it that Heathers is even being considered for high school theaters? Why were scenes mentioning alcohol, drugs, and eating disorders changed, but the copious amount of death and manipulation stays? Are we at the point in society where it’s considered acceptable for children to view on-screen homicide, but God forbid there’s binge-drinking shown?
If it was only a matter of sensitivity to certain topics, that’s understandable. However, Heathers is a dark, morbid story in the first place. The aforementioned deaths are the core of the plot. In the big, climactic ending, one of the main characters almost succeeds in blowing up the school with everyone inside. No matter how you look at it, you just can’t see a story like this and say, “Well, this would be great to perform in a high school, if only it didn’t have that pesky drunken party scene followed by underage sex.”
According to the writers, Heathers is at its crux about “adolescents trying to be cruel to each other or trying to be kind to each other, trying to hurt each other or trying to save each other…” But if one wanted a story like that, they could watch any typical high school flick. Mean Girls (2004) is a pop culture phenomenon that is also about the danger of cliques and social norms. What set Heathers apart is how purposefully morbid and gruesome it is while also being strangely humorous. While other works may shy away from the realities of adolescence, Heathers is the one that says, “Look. This is what our youth does, this is how they hurt each other, and this is how it’s solved.”
I’m not suggesting that content such as Heathers’ infamous sex scene in “Dead Girl Walking” should be acted out by teenagers, nor should they simulate irresponsible heavy drinking, both for various ethical reasons. But at the same time, what kind of effects does it have on a kid’s psyche to act out a literal, hopeful serial killer? Just because it takes place in a high school doesn’t mean that high schoolers should perform it; are we suggesting that a “properly censored” South Park could be reenacted by elementary school students? When one censors a work in this matter, focusing on removing swears and drugs, that doesn’t make it child-safe. It only becomes a more infantile version of itself.
To end on a note of slight morbid humor, as is fitting of Heathers, and to further illustrate my point, here are some of the edits made between the original musical and Heathers 101. As these are provided by an observant, anonymous internet user, complete accuracy is hazy. Also, swears ahead.
You’ve already got the intent of murder, why not go whole hog? Or is cursing just that evil?
As someone who has heard “kill yourself” being uttered as a joke far more than is necessary, this particular edit is both humorously misguided and not nearly as impactful as it could have been.
Say it with me: nudity does not equal sex. What does it mean to censor the ending number where everyone learns to better get along and have age-appropriate fun, the entire theme of the “Seventeen” reprise?
Again, apparently mass murder is kosher (in an age where it’s shockingly rampant, no less) but swears are too crude.