Welcome back to Dear Diary, our second installment of a column regarding “Heathers: The Musical” at Stanford. In this article, we wanted to delve into how the show portrays love, have a conversation on what love looks like at Stanford and explore how our school’s culture regarding romance, sex and desire have impacted the production.
In “Heathers,” relationships are complicated. The protagonist Veronica’s turbulent relationship with JD is the crux of this story. The reimagining of their relationship as queer adds even more meaning and struggle to their love — the 1980s setting subjects them to homophobia, and consequently the violence and ostracization that comes with it . The two not only embody sexual exploration and understanding for one another but also become each other’s first line of defense in the face of virulent homophobia.
And then JD kills someone. And then another person. And another.
JD promises to be better in “Seventeen,” but nonetheless their relationship comes to an end in “I Say No.” In “Meant to Be Yours,” Veronica finds herself on the receiving end of JD’s cruelty. Despite the heartbreaking final moments of the show where JD sacrifices herself in pursuit of redemption, the fact of the matter is this: JD chooses to be an abuser. She intimately confides in the audience her past traumas (her abusive father, the visceral early death of her mother), and after being violently assaulted by Kurt and Ram, her decision to kill them challenges our sympathy — and who we choose to feel it for. With musicals, the characters are often grand and larger-than-life. Even the most nefarious villains, with the right amount of song, dance and technicolor design, are given the rosy-eyed musical theater treatment.
As directors, we were faced with the realization that, even amidst JD’s callous manipulation and moments like “I Say No” where Veronica takes back her agency, JD and Veronica’s relationship could be too romanticized. We knew going into this production that we didn’t want JD to be a martyr who redeems herself by the end of the show but rather for this to be a story that depicts an abusive queer relationship with the nuance it deserves. Yet, we still wondered whether that was enough. After the show, we asked ourselves a myriad of questions about what we could’ve done better; whether we should’ve had Veronica’s last words to JD be delivered with more disgust instead of sadness, or if we could’ve emphasized “Meant to Be Yours” as a pivotal moment where Veronica is left with only horror and none of the softness she offered JD before. Nonetheless, we hope that it was resonant that what Veronica and JD share isn’t love. Love shouldn’t look like this.
What then, does love look like?
In our conversations on love and desire throughout the show, we often thought back to Stanford and what love looks like in the context of this institution, both in the ways it serves us and hurts us.
From the time we enter as first years, love is in the air. Students come into a new world, ready to try things that they didn’t have the chance to experience in high school when either they didn’t have the same freedom or were too bogged down by exams and college admissions to truly explore.
Our traditions are deeply romantic. Full Moon on the Quad encourages us to take the first step towards love through first kisses shared with strangers. The Marriage Pact aims to find your perfect campus match (algorithmically, of course). And the infamous Stanford Missed Connections Instagram posts anonymous messages from students in the vein of old school secret admirer notes.
Yet, love is easier said than found. Hook-up culture is common on our in-person campus, and finding genuine relationships, from personal experience, is hard at a school with such a work-focused atmosphere — especially over Zoom. The ephemerality of love is encoded into our institution, especially in the middle of Silicon Valley where tech bros and app developers continuously develop new dating apps for our next fleeting moments of connection.
For gender-marginalized students of color, finding intimacy is even more difficult on a campus that grapples so deeply with racism and colorism. Bad experiences range from awkward encounters to jarring moments of fetishization and dating violence. There is also the struggle with appearance; body dysmorphia and fatphobia play a large role in pressuring students to fit a certain beauty standard, leading to a lack of confidence in themselves.
A conversation on what love and desire should look like at Stanford also can’t be absent of discussions on the university’s almost eternal reckoning with sexual assault and abuse. Student organizers worked tirelessly to honor Chanel Miller with a commemorative plaque at the site of her rape only to face constant pushback from the institution. After the Association of American Universities released a harrowing report on sexual assault at Stanford in 2019, organizers dropped a large banner at Big Game reading “40% of Stanford Women Experence Unwanted Sexual Content.” A pervasive culture of sexual violence and racism culminated in the creation of Abolish Stanford IFC/ISC, which documents countless experiences of dating violence, sexual assault and racism. Most recently, in the wake of three sexual assaults in March, Sexual Violence Free Stanford criticized the university and its police for not sending out safety alerts.
All this is to say, this is a campus that is as much in love with love as one that struggles to find it — and find it with the safety, care and intentionality that we all deserve to have. “Heathers” is not a love story depicting the way we should be loved, and glorifying JD obscures the very real dating violence that exists in the show amidst other conversations on rape culture.
As we all wait for a return to campus, it’s our hope that conversations around what healthy love and desire look like carry on and that these reckonings turn into tangible change. We all should be loved in the way we deserve.