Why 'Beetlejuice' Is a Feminist Classic

The women of Beetlejuice, Lydia Deetz, Delia Deetz, and Barbara Maitland, are the real stars of the show. (Photo: Via YouTube videos)

A PG-13 movie about a fractured family brought together by a deranged bio-exorcist isn’t a predictable American classic. But 30 years after its opening weekend, Tim Burton’s "Beetlejuice" is just that, having made $8 million its opening weekend and almost $75 million overall (and costing just $15 million to make.)

The surrealist dark comedy’s success wasn’t just financial — it spawned a kids’ cartoon, launched Michael Keaton’s career (he was relatively unknown prior to the double-whammy of "Beetlejuice" and 1989’s "Batman") and it was also a breakout role for Winona Ryder, whose goth-girl style spawned a million teenage imitators, not to mention Halloween costumes.

"Beetlejuice" is now beloved by multiple generations, but not because of how many careers it boosted. Under all that Hollywood ego-promo stuff, it’s success is less confusing when you realize that in the late-'80s, when most movies featured boys and men (think "Stand By Me," "The Lost Boys," "Spaceballs," "Goonies," etc.) it’s the only one that focuses on three unusually well-developed female characters’ growth and empowerment. "Beetlejuice" only seems to be about its titular character — but Keaton’s zany, zoot-suited persona famously appears in just 22 out of 95 minutes of the movie. It’s really about Lydia and Delia Deetz, and Barbara Maitland.

A little background

For those who haven’t seen the movie in awhile, the story goes like this: Country denizens Barbara Maitland (Geena Davis) and her husband (Alec Baldwin) accidentally die in the first few minutes of the film, and the Yuppie Deetz family from Manhattan — with Catherine O'Hara as Delia Deetz, Winona Ryder as Lydia Deetz and Jeremy Jones as Dad Deetz — moves into the Maitland’s old house. The Maitlands can’t stand the Deetzes, and attempt to scare them out of their home via hauntings-gone-wrong. When they fail to push out the Deetzes, the Maitlands involve Underworld social services, and eventually, a marauding monkey-wrencher, aka Beetlejuice. All of this culminates in a bizarre wedding scene where together, they try to save Lydia from some version of hell — eternal death with the woman-hating Beetlejuice as her husband.

Catherine O'Hara’s Delia is a an unapologetically terrible stepmom and mean wife with a style all her own. She’s an uproariously weird character even 30 years after she was first inhabited by O’Hara’s particular comic genius. Delia’s art comes first, and everything else is secondary. Delia’s sculptures are objectively bad art, but that doesn't stop her — just as it hasn’t stopped plenty of male artists. She says of her work, as she moves into the Maitland’s house and begins renovating it, "This is my art, and it is dangerous!!!"

She’s horrified by the country aesthetic of the Maitland’s house and walks through with her decorator, Otho, spray-painting '80s color-palette names right over the wallpaper on her first visit to her new home. When her husband challenges her, suggesting she leave the house as-is, she replies, "I will not stop living and breathing art just because you need to relax." She adds: "I must express myself ... or I will go insane and I will take you with me!" in totally over-the-top fashion.

Delia’s art is not just a backdrop — it informs the visual direction of the second half of the film. (Bo Welch, Catherine O’Hara’s husband, created the insane interiors along with Catherine Mann, the set designer.) When the Maitlands return to their former Victorian country home from the Underworld, they find it transformed into an '80s modernist nightmare that’s second only to Darien (Daryl Hannah)’s so-bad-they’re-hilarious interior designs in "Wall Street." The whole house is a reflection of Delia’s art. It might be hideous, but it’s most certainly hers.

Delia is so unwavering in her passion for her creations that when she learns of the Maitland’s ghosts in her New England home, she skips over fear and jumps right to opportunity, inviting a group of NYC art-biz snobs to dinner with ghosts in a bid to impress them. They're there for a haunting, not her art, but the lure serves its purpose.

In the iconic absurdist "possession" scene (below), in which the boundaries between Delia’s art and the dinner-table food blur, the tastemakers are shocked by what they think is a performance-art piece so powerful, they rave. Delia’s gamble pays off. In one of the final scenes of the film, we see that she has made the cover of "Art in America" magazine. She has achieved art-world success despite her demented sculptures.

Lydia Deetz, Delia’s cynical, saturnine step-daughter, is just as complex and strange as her stepmother, and may be the most fully realized teenage girl in any 1980s movie — with the arguable exception of another Ryder character, Veronica, in 1988's "Heathers." Lydia famously declares herself "strange and unusual" — but really she’s just whip-smart and lonely, not to mention so creatively attired that it’s impossible not to appreciate her elaborate mourning clothes, seemingly lifted from a dour Edwardian woman’s casket. (Aggie Guerard Rodgers, known for her work on "Return of the Jedi," "Witches of Eastwick" and "Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure," was the costume designer.)

By the time Lydia finally meets the ghost-Maitlands, who are trying to scare her family from their home, she has already read "The Handbook for the Recently Deceased" and knows her parents won’t leave the house because her real-estate-investor father "never walks away from equity." She also asks the Maitlands thoughtful, empathetic questions about what it’s like to be dead — a welcome respite after their callous treatment by the impatient workers in the Afterlife.

Lydia also seems to know she’s not getting what she needs from her parents: A clear bond forms between Lydia and the Maitlands as she befriends them. Barbara, played with much more subtlety and verve than the part on the page by the incomparable Geena Davis, is probably the most underrated character in the movie. Dressed in a Little House on the Prairie/Laura Ashley drop-waist calico dress, her costume belies her power. Barbara quietly moves the action forward again and again: She's the one who initially figures out that she and her husband are actually dead; she's the one who reads the "Handbook; she’s the one who punches the first Underworld sandworm in the face and saves herself and her husband from being eaten. Barbara also leads most of the action in the strangely beautiful Afterlife scenes.

Saving the day

At the climax of the film, Beetlejuice cons Lydia into marrying him to save her new friends’ afterlives. Barbara saves Lydia — and the rest of the two families — by riding a giant sandworm from the "Dune"-like Underworld into the ceremony. It devours Beetlejuice, who is sent back to the Afterlife. Barbara literally saves the day.

The final scenes of the movie couldn’t be happier — for the Maitlands and the Deetzes, if not Beetlejuice. The Maitlands are lovingly co-parenting Lydia, who gets rewarded for good grades via a light possession (to the tune of "Jump in the Line (Shake Senora)"). The house is now shared between the two families, and Delia is still making her art. Each woman’s story is uniquely satisfied.

A discussion of the women of "Beetlejuice" wouldn’t be complete without mention of the character of Juno, played by Hollywood icon Sylvia Sydney. Juno is the epitome of the harried, annoyed, disapproving case worker in social services — she just happens to work in the Afterlife. Sidney’s dry wit keeps the Afterlife scenes grounded, even as she blows her cigarette smoke out through a tracheotomy slit in her throat.

There have been ongoing plans for a sequel. Keaton and Ryder were signed on to do a "Beetlejuice Goes Hawaiian" right after the film’s initial success, but Burton lost interest after working on "Batman" and "Batman Returns." A bunch of writers have tried their hand at a part 2, with no success, but Ryder is still talking the project up — and Burton and Keaton have mentioned it over the last couple years.

If a "Beetlejuice" sequel does get made, let’s hope the female characters are still as weird — and important — as ever.