A few months ago, I took three friends to see Heathers: the Musical. I was really excited because I loved the movie and wanted to see how the dark humor would translate into song form. It wasn’t until we arrived at the theatre, with the movie playing in the foyer, that I learned that none of the people I had invited had ever seen the movie. It went downhill from there, and I was lucky to get them to even come back to our seats after intermission. At our wine bar postmortem, I agreed that perhaps the black comedy did not translate into singing and dancing, then found myself reading articles about how the movie itself is more than problematic. It led to me to wonder…is there something wrong with me that I love movies like Heathers, Drop Dead Gorgeous, and Jawbreaker?
Because I genuinely thought we were all in on the joke. It was Mean Girls ad absurdum, right? If the popular girls at Westerburg High are murdering each other with Drano and Regina George runs out in front of a bus, then surely the petty dramas happening at my school couldn’t be taken seriously. We actually had one of those “all sophomore girls report to the gymnasium for an intervention” meetings at my school, except it took place in the counselor’s office and only included the mean and popular girls, so there was none of the democratic, kumbaya equality of “look, the field hockey girls have problems too!”
When I read Jia Tolentino’s New Yorker piece on how Drop Dead Gorgeous bombed critically but is possibly her favorite movie, I felt so validated. I’d loved it too, and I can remember watching it in my freshman dorm with a bunch of other girls. I’m going to have to bow to Jia here, because she’s just that good: “The black comedy of Drop Dead Gorgeous is guided by a deranged value system that’s particular to the world of teen-age girls…But what Drop Dead Gorgeous understands so well is that being a teen-age girl is, in fact, deranged and dehumanizing and frequently unsubtle.” See?
Finally, Jawbreaker, with it’s breakout role for Judy Greer, one of our most consistently underrated comedic actresses. And let us not forget the Noxzema Girl! Her very existence on magazine pages throughout the 90s was probably the single worst contributing factor to my insecurities about my skin. And hair. Jawbreaker is arguably the most messed up of the three (Marilyn Manson’s cameo), but it also has Pam Grier.
Because I’m tired and struggling to finish here, I just followed the Wiki links and confirmed another name for what I’m talking about is “gallows humor.” One of the oldest and best examples finds Mercutio making a bad-pun dad joke after he is mortally wounded by Tybalt (setting into effect the entire tragic chain of events):
“…ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man.
[He dies, offstage, but not before cursing everyone.]