The Crippling Cultural Ignorance of ’90s Film and TV

The '90s felt like an incredibly safe time—so safe, we sneered at it. But you can see still see the ignorance of the decade in its films and TV shows like 'Pleasantville,' 'Fight Club' and 'Friends.'

1999's Fight Club.
1999’s Fight Club. 20th Century Fox

I finally got a chance to sit down and watch Netflix’s much discussed To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before. I was struck by a number of things about the film, from its goofy charm, to the emotional intimacy, to the fact it made me want to have a big long talk about the cinematography’s problematic use of negative space (you know, the usual things). But the thing that struck me most is that the film showcases a considerate awareness of how we navigate our cultural intersections. It’s not overt, which is to say it’s not the subject of the movie—To All The Boys is much more about the universal nature of young love. But it doesn’t ignore the cultural divisions that play into our everyday lives. Immediately after watching I began reading about the author’s take on representation, just as I began reading criticisms of the nuances of those same representations, and I realized this was a process of cinematic absorption that has become incredibly common in the way we digest modern films.

Recently, we’ve had an incredible stream of hits like Black Panther, Crazy Rich Asians and Sorry To Bother You that display the same kind of awareness. It’s not even really about how these movies are great, nor the fact that they focus on underrepresented figures, it’s the way the dynamics of race, gender and sexuality seem to slip in and out of the narrative with relative ease—as if these films are constantly aware of the thematic implications in these issues, just as they are O.K. with accepting criticism about their handling of them.

To All the Boys I've Loved Before
To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before Netflix

These films are outright invested in the conversations about diversity and representation. And I think about this a lot, precisely because of how much we never used to think about this at all. I’m not just referring to obviously insensitive films from a hundred years ago like Birth of a Nation. No, that would imply that racist overtones are just part of some antiquated, bygone era. I’m talking about more recent ones. Which means I’ve been thinking about the way recent timelines have played into our current shift within millennial culture.

Which means I’ve been thinking about the ’90s.

The Kids Aren’t Alright

When I recently interviewed the directors of 2001 release Josie & The Pussycats, we got into a discussion of the particularly weird attitude that defined “The ’90s.” I’m not sure what you think about when you picture this era, or how familiar it it is to you. Maybe you picture radical neon color schemes. Maybe you picture flannel shirts and grunge. Maybe you picture Bart Simpson, Kurt Cobain or Steve Urkel. These were the height of my teenage years, and because of that I’ve come to spend a lot of time thinking about the way my experience with all these Gen X cultural contributions shaped my (now) adult brain.

In many ways, the ’90s felt like an incredibly safe time. Vietnam was long in the rear view. The Berlin Wall had fallen and the Cold War was over. The economy was booming. The internet felt like a place of limitless growth. The “big scary things” like AIDS were in steady decline by the mid ’90s, especially as celebrities like Magic Johnson and Princess Diana were normalizing cultural fears about it. Even our action heroes were going from the kill-happy, muscle-bound ’80s figures to (somewhat) more sensitive everymen like Keanu Reeves, Nic Cage and Bruce Willis.

It was like the very concept of “safety” and sensitivity was seeping into every facet of life. I remember suddenly seeing every kid younger than me wearing a bike helmet and realizing that back in the ’80s we were basically just fodder for car tragedies. But this new feeling of living in a safe bubble was everywhere. While All In The Family may have endeared the racism of an older Archie Bunker, it at least tried to document the cultural shifts of the ‘70s with sincerity. Meanwhile, the defining ’90s sitcom Friends gave us a New York where everyone lived in an amazing apartment and barely had a real problem in sight. Even popular shows like 90210 that tried to tackle topical issues reverted to melodramatic conflicts along the lines of “Donna almost gets a tattoo.” The media’s subtext of all it, all the time, was that “everything’s great!” And for so many young white Americans, there was an obvious problem with this.

It felt too safe.

Which highlights the glaring dichotomy of feeling like you’re in a safe bubble. Suddenly, we had a generation of (mostly) young white boys who felt soft and coddled, so what they craved became the hardship sold to them by movies. It basically was the most privileged, teenage reaction you could have; one best characterized by the yearning toxicity of Fight Club, which essentially argues, “Hey, don’t you hate your comfortable job, nice apartment and civilized society? Burn it all down and live like a poor person! It will be very manly of you.” Which might be the biggest slap in the face to poverty imaginable. And this wasn’t just the sneering of an outsider culture, this was the culture.

When ’90s grunge quickly moved from the alternative space to the mainstream of early ’90s, it dominated the media. Kurt Cobain’s deification was for the masses. High schoolers worshipped him. But so did five-year-old kids. MTV literally had a show called Alternative Nation and it wasn’t wrong to call it so. These elements completely dominated the media’s popular lexicon. But when that dominance began to fade in the late ’90s, the pop music phenomenon of Total Request Live came to dominate in turn. As Times Square filled with rabid tweens, the privileged sneer of alternative culture reached a fever pitch of cynicism. Valid political arguments about consumerism ruled contemporary conversation, as our cresting wave of ennui came crashing to the ground. We responded mostly with a fit of ironic snark (a cultural inclination that both drove David Foster Wallace crazy and helped make his career).

So how was all this actually seen by older society? Look no further Hollywood’s late ’90s teen films, which featured an obsession with bad kids and their horrible, murderous ways. Not just with the aptly named Cruel Intentions, but an endless slew of films like Scream, The Craft, I Know What You Did Last Summer, Jawbreaker, The Faculty, Idle Hands, The Virgin Suicides, Disturbing Behavior, Teaching Mrs. Tingle, The Basketball Diaries, American Beauty, Heavenly Creatures, Fear and Wild Things. Even with the various degrees of humanization within them, these films are all about how kids are up to no good. Even as I named this section, I swear I forgot that “The Kids Aren’t Alright” is literally the name of an Offspring song released in 1998. What these cultural products capture is an era where teens were seen as cynical, jaded forces of chaos who were meant to be feared by society. Its apex was probably at the height of Jackass’s television debut in 2000. And because we ate it up, you might come to the conclusion that we weren’t just seen as mean, terrifying, ungrateful assholes…we probably were.

Or at least we were really disaffected. Something that perhaps feels evident in just how little we cared about what was really going on in society and social relevance. I think back to how many parties featured the drama kids singing “Seasons of Love” from Rent with a passionate sense of romantic doom, all while ignoring the devastating reality of this same portrait painted by Angels in America (I love Rent, but you need both). This ignorance was a luxury afforded to us not just because of how we viewed society from our place of safety, but because everyone was so overwhelmingly white within the media landscape.

From Friends, to alternative music, to all the bad teen movies listed above, everything was about white subjects for white audiences. Which means our mainstream conversation about racism from the liberal point of view basically amounted to “don’t be horrifically racist!” We saw black culture as something aspirational and to be usurped (cut to packs of suburban young white kids rapping in school yards). Heck, even as we approached the dawn of the PC culture, we genuinely had the attitude that “this will solve everything.” You can call it all good intentions, but it was all as insanely performative as it was ignorant. And it highlighted the deeper cultural problem of ’90s media: our glaring, crippling myopia.

Friends NBC

This is perhaps best represented by Pleasantville, a film that is a literal metaphor for woke-ness. The characters in this black-and-white world would find their inner liberalism and sexual awakening and then “come into color.” It actually uses the overt language of ‘50s era racism and segregation to talk about a liberal revolution and yet…there is not a single black person in the entire movie. The hypocritical problems of this are more than evident to the modern eye, but back then? There wasn’t a peep. Because we were unaware. We were privileged. We believed everything was so great. And worst of all, we believed the fact that everything was great was something to be sneered at.

Then things changed.


It’s weird to realize you’re now the middle generation.

When I was young, generations were talked about in very strict terms. Our grandparents, who became known as “The Greatest Generation,” were best embodied in people like my grandfather. He was an enormously kind man who survived the horrors of World War II, then helped create the robust economy that made room for the Baby Boomers, the young generation of kids that went on to become radicalized hippies. A.K.A. my parents, who, in the ’90s, were doing their best raising us kids. We were the new generation. I remember reading article after article about why Generation X was made up of a bunch of soft, ungrateful babies, and I can’t tell you how much that idea is still hardwired into my stupid brain. I still think we were the first part of a generational slide. But now I’m well into the age my parents were during the era in question, and the big realizations keep hitting me. Not just the simple lessons that come with change and getting older, but the way you can see how big events shaped these generational shifts. And in looking at how we’ve gotten to the horrific social climate of 2018, I realize there’s something we really don’t talk about enough at all…

The social impact of 9/11.

It was a subject that was always on our lips in the immediate fallout of the early 2000s. There was the trauma of the attack itself. The growing sense of fear. The rabid Islamophobia. The way it fueled two grueling, horrendous wars. The feeling of it was more than just in the air; it directly affected social policy for years after. But when I talk to younger Millennials I realize just how many of them were too young to really understand this time period­—­­­­­­­­­­­to see how it was such a sudden and immediate shift that shook the myopic culture of the ’90s. I was now out of my glaringly white hometown, now at a diverse college, learning about the broader world. A lot of my friends were already out in the world, working. I can’t explain how much the new reality of that day shook everyone. For ten years, privileged white males were talking about “too safe” and all of sudden shit got real. Friends went to war. Civil liberties were revoked. And our baby boomer hippy parents? They got scared, man.

Look at the rapid increase of Fox News ratings after 9/11. They stoked the fires of fear while the neocon movement’s growing inclusion of religion helped drag the country to the right. Even my hippy ass dad, who spent the days after 9/11 seeing the racist rhetoric being spouted and told me “I feel I’m in The Twilight Zone,” would, just three short years later, tell me how he believed Colin Powell’s justification for invading Iraq (don’t worry he quickly regained his sanity). I witnessed drug dealing stoners who didn’t give a shit about anything in politics (because it was for squares) suddenly get terrified their dorm would be targeted next for a terrorist strike (for some reason). The point is that the impact of 9/11 on the fearful psyche of our nation was overwhelming, as was the ugly friction that it created.

Everything got really bad, really quickly. And like everything, there was more to the story in how we got there, from our horrible history of meddling in Mideast politics, to the disastrous 2000 election, to the formation of media empires, to the way the Dot Com burst crippled the economy. In just a few short years, we went from a myopic white media culture that thought of ourselves as “too safe” to having a massive clusterfuck to deal with, for which we were completely unprepared. But outside of the news, what was the larger media response?

We often believe that the artistic response to trying times is to make great art. But hardship mostly just fuels escapism. The films of the ’30s helped people escape the Great Depression with sweeping romances and comedies (a subject best explored in Preston Sturges masterpiece Sullivan’s Travels). And post 9/11? We did the same thing. Not just with schlocky reality TV, but in the way that superhero movies exploded. Seriously, have you ever seen the first Spider-Man teaser?

He literally traps the helicopter between the twin towers. When the movie was released, those wouldn’t exist. It’s no accident that we went from blockbusters about destructive disasters to witnessing a real-life disaster to craving that very same impossible figure who could have stopped it. And people needed heroism, simplicity and the self-suppressing escape belief. Which brings us to the haunting reason that superhero movies are largely still important to our notoriously fickle audience.

Because things are still awful. The Obama era marked a lot of meaningful social progress and staved off of economic doom, but it did little to stop the growing damage of capitalism run amok (most of which goes back to the telecommunications act of 1996). Young adults have come into a laughable job market, one where stock market success represents an increasingly vile lie about the well-being of our actual economy. Sure, companies can do well, but not while employees are. Jobs dwindle ever downward with outsourcing and the increasing automation of service industries, while most accept wage stagnation in this unstable “gig economy.” Never mind the idea that college debt has now soared into un-payable, indentured levels. Compare the differences of cost of living, inflation, and prospects and the simple point is that things are objectively a lot harder now than when I was a teen.

But young adults are acutely aware of this. While print media institutions have largely been writing articles that are the equivalent of “LOL u can’t buy a house because you like avocado toast,” young adults have been writing the real story. For as much as we can look at the horrifying effects of social media, they’ve created a public space to share, connect and tell stories about this reality. And as for me? Someone whose age has always made them feel like a daywalker between Gen X and Millennials? It’s been incredible to read those voices. Not in the way it used to work in the ’90s where I’d take a class and then pick up something like The Bluest Eye at the library afterward, but in an immediate way.

It’s all now in the organic, daily act of life itself. This is a place where I hear criticism when I fuck up. And I can’t tell you how much that has changed my mind, gotten me to evolve and radically shifted my day-to-day myopia. This has been the positive side of the technological shift: It has illuminated truth. Like how camera phones now document the streams of racist police abuse that black people have been telling stories about for decades. And it makes you realize the way our cultural myopia has really shaped things. When it comes to the ’90s, there’s a lot that white America was remembering wrong. Because there were always real problems.

They just weren’t our problems.

But We Were Cheerleaders

It’s probably sentimentality, but I always feel like Spike Lee was the one who busted open the door of the ’90s. From the groundbreaking, incendiary work of 1989’s Do The Right Thing, he went on to make a host of the decade’s most complex, uncompromised films. Not just with historical masterpieces like Malcolm X, but smaller films like Get On the Bus which painted a portrait of the many variant kinds of “black male” experiences that existed far beyond society’s stereotypes. It’s no surprise he went on to make the emotionally relevant film about New York and the aftermath of 9/11 in The 25th Hour. Spike’s work, while certainly open to criticism just like any filmmaker (specifically with regard to gender and sexuality) still feels urgent and vital to our national conversation. But what was the larger, immediate effect back in the ’90s?

Bill Nunn in Do the Right Thing. 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks

The truth is that Spike was largely regarded as an outlier. And the same can be said for a lot of the LGBTQ voices of the era. In the past, films like Dog Day Afternoon had given some kind of credence to queer personhood, but they can’t help but feel more like they came from a place of eerie fascination (this was true all the way up through The Crying Game). But in the ’90s, most of the Hollywood entries framed gay issues from the view of straight white protagonists who were looking from a place of intense homophobia. Philadelphia used this for tension. The Birdcage used that same tension for laughs. They were subject matter we were looking at, but not representative of the way the queer community looked back at us. And sadly the ’90s boom of independent films didn’t really mean too much for characters and people who wanted to tell their own stories. For every blip like The Incredibly True Story of Two Girls In Love or Wong Kar Wai’s Happy Together, there were also two dozen “outsider” films that were just more content from the white male majority.

The film I think about most in terms of being ahead of its time is Jamie Babbit’s But I’m A Cheerleader (1999), which wasn’t just about representation, but actually criticized the stereotypes of who we think gay people even “are.” The film chronicles the journey of a young blonde cheerleader (the great Natasha Lyonne) who doesn’t understand how she can be gay, and is thus sent to conversion therapy. This strikes me as prescient, not just because the film constantly uses so much social language that is popular now, but because there are two films out this year about the very same subject, Boy Erased and The Miseducation of Cameron Post. The fact that Hollywood is just coming around to conversion therapy narratives 20 years later raises a key point about the media landscape. Not just that the same dire issues are still going on, but that systematic change is fucking hard.

Because the pioneering outliers of the ’90s were telling us about the same exact things we’re dealing with now. They were artists trying to punch through a diamond wall of myopia. To make some dent. And hopefully inspire young people to do better in turn. You could find most of the best critical responses to their efforts in academia, especially as it started to change and foster the language of understanding that so many use now. But back in ’90s mainstream criticism? Forget about it. Most social issue movies were dealt with the same dismissive hand wave.

Take the early work of John Singleton, where the intersectional aims of Higher Learning were regarded as “heavy handed.” And I specifically remember a teacher saying how he didn’t like how Boyz n the Hood stopped to talk about gentrification because it was “didactic.” Ironically, that moment was the first time someone actually taught me the meaning gentrification. The importance of these messages were getting lost on people. Just like countless films like Julie Dash’s haunting, beautiful masterpiece Daughters of the Dust was lost to people, too. Nothing that truly mattered was being supported.

Director John Singelton reflected in a poster for his movie Boyz n the Hood as he visits an exhibition of African American film posters at the California African American Museum in 2003. Carlo Allegri/Getty Images

Mostly because everyone was too busy getting caught up in the myopic sneer of white bro superiority. The first popular mainstream way PC culture was portrayed was 1994’s PCU, where everything about it was “lampooned,” which is to say it was treated with disgust. Our frat brother heroes were out to take down all these unfunny minorities who cared about stupid things like representation and their civil rights. Looking back, it obviously feels insipid, but at the time it was absolutely the white status quo that paved the way for shows like South Park.

We can say we didn’t know better, but it’s all right there, up on screen. The non-white male population was trying to talk to us and we weren’t listening. Some of it was the knee-jerk myopia, but perhaps some of it was that inner willful desire to keep the status quo. I always think about the moment in 1995’s Goldeneye, where Moneypenny chastises Bond for being a socially-irrelevant dinosaur, but in the end it’s only lip service. The movie, and the society watching it, still wanted Bond to be Bond. We were making a choice about the present and what was being told to us.

And it’s still happening.

This Must Be the Place

You might be wondering how in the fuck I ended up talking about all this from watching a popular romantic comedy that lightly deals with the intersections of the Asian-American experience. But that’s the whole point. The best cinematic work in today’s society—from romantic comedies, to superhero movies, to nuanced dramas—comes at us from this more inclusive place. And when you’re coming into this growing culture of intersectionalism, particularly if you are a white male trying to understand it, you’re required to digest many aspects of our culture at all once. This is the only real way to understand the here and now.

Because we are irrevocably connected to the history of what’s come before and how it has fostered a divide. At the hearing for Brett Kavanaugha dark look into the country’s soul that has left an ugly stainI see the story of that same myopia. Only this one can be credited to the decade earlier, to a white man who is as much a product of the ’80s as I’ve ever seen. And that was something that a random reference from his friend Tom Kane made clear when he said their exploits were harmless jokes in the vein of Revenge of the Nerds. I watched this film as a kid; it’s positioned as an anthem of nerd empowerment, but it was largely empowering them to commit sexual assault against women. The fact that Kane makes this comparison is so damn telling. It’s the hypocrisy of ’80s ignorance in a nutshell.

You could argue this moment will be a flashpoint in time precisely because the truthand what was always the truthis coming out. And thus, those in power are rallying against it with ardent passion because they want to stay in power. This would be true if you were looking at it all from some grand timeline. But the grand timeline has to account for the fact that all these problems have existed in perpetuity. Because we were having these exact arguments twenty years ago with Clarence Thomas and Bill Clinton. We’ve been talking in endless cultural cycles. Just as all the arguments about millennials being lazy were thrown at Gen X for being slackers, just as they were thrown at the baby boomers before us. Just as we conveniently don’t mention the abject racism of the “greatest” generation while we talk about Charlotesville. Just, just, just…

Sure, I look back at the ’90s and marvel at how far we’ve come, but maybe I’m remembering it all wrong. Maybe what I remember of the ’90s is just part of being young and seeing the world with new, untainted eyes. Maybe our movies haven’t changed. Maybe I’ve simply changed. Maybe I haven’t. Maybe all the language we have to talk about intersectionalism won’t make the difference we hope. Maybe it will save people’s lives in the way it helps them come to understand their sexuality and struggles. Maybe things will get better. Maybe they will get worse. I don’t say all this to disappear into some hole of postmodern relativism. I say all this to make a simple point.

There is no such thing as curing myopia.

It’s just a constant choice that takes constant fighting and constant presence of mind. People still look at what’s happening in the news, astonished at our division, while I can’t help but wonder what country they thought they lived in. Just as I look at so many responses to the news and see bold declarations of support coming from men in the form of performative tweets. It’s not that this isn’t helpful. It’s just I think about how much ultimate growth I’ve gone through not because I was constantly trying to align with the “correct” opinion, but by having an honest look at my entire life, my failings, and my complicity with toxic masculinity. And it’s not a eureka moment, it’s still going. It’s an endless process involving willingness to be accountable.

That’s why I think about the fucking ’90s so much. Because it’s where my understanding of all this was born. And it created shadows that still haunt us. As much as we marvel at what has changed, the power structures still need radical change in turn. Because Jenny Han still has to fight against producers who wanted her to change her character’s race because it “doesn’t matter” to the story. But it is what matters the most. The narratives and subjects we put on display are what shape our grander cultural reflection. Not just because they are part of the innate journey of taking a character and bringing them from person to personhood. But because it is part of crafting a world that doesn’t look like our most myopic assumptions.

And shows us how the world really looks in turn.

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The Crippling Cultural Ignorance of ’90s Film and TV