Oh, how we loved poking fun at the ‘80s! But when the things we hated most about them were brought back by American Apparel and possibly Marc Jacobs, old was new again. So I’m convinced that we’ll come to a similar conclusion about the ‘90s because they really weren’t so bad, and, if we want to get all sentimental about it, they helped us build the new millennium. Plus, good or bad, we actually held on to some ‘90s stuff. Here’s proof.
1. The a-ha! ending
What do The Usual Suspects, Fight Club and The Sixth Sense have in common? An unexpected, what the?, second-viewing-required ending. If anything, these movies improved the suspense genre. Alfred Hitchcock was a strong enough storyteller to tell you who the killer was right away and make you itch in discomfort until they got caught. But replicating that experience has been a challenge. And then writers realized they just had to be more clever to build a better mystery. The best example is probably Memento, but the tradition carries on with pictures like The Machinist and Shutter Island.
2. Here, queer & (getting) used to it
There’s nothing pretty about it: right up until the ’90s, gay and lesbian characters in movies or novels were often crazy, obsessed with the object of their affection, and/or just plain evil. AIDS gave people one more thing to blame on homosexuality, but when hetero women started contracting the disease, we couldn’t generalize these things any longer. That’s when we had to acknowledge the LGBT community, its budding voice and its rights. Then, on the heels of pop artist Keith Haring’s death, Madonna went into public service. She commented on religiously-backed bigotry and sexism in “Like a Prayer,” encouraged women to demand an orgasm in “Express Yourself,” celebrated/stole a gay club dance trend with “Vogue,” and hired mostly queer dancers for her Blond Ambition tour, as documented in Truth or Dare. That’s how the ‘90s started, and those sensibilities about the LGBT community remained in our consciousness. Though homophobia is still present and marring equality to the tune of Proposition 8, it didn’t quell Ellen’s eventual coming-out or the popularity of Will & Grace and The L Word. Today, we’ve replaced the term “lifestyle choice” with “orientation” (but we could still do better), and more people accept that sexuality, in all its forms, is biologically assigned. Maybe it’s because we dealt with so many LGBT issues in the ‘90s and part of the 2Ks that Lady Gaga’s butch-on-girl kiss in “Telephone” is a relative non-issue now. Certainly compared to how people reacted to “Justify my Love” in 1991. There’s still a whole lot of progress to be made. But we’re lightyears away from 1989, thank goodness.
3. Political correctness
Having hoorayed for gays, it must be said that the ‘90s also introduced a whole slew of new terms to replace old words that were borne of racism, chauvinism and general power structures that no longer reflected our new equal & empowered reality. I’m not saying it was a bad thing, and I couldn’t because I’m a woman. I personally benefitted from these changes. Still, the double-edged sword of political correctness is that it essentially masks old views instead of replacing them. A word can alter your language about an issue, and that’s certainly important. But it takes conviction – not just vocabulary – to create a revolution. That’s why words like “tolerance” have always irked me. It means putting up with something you don’t like, when, especially in the case of discrimination, it’s the dislike that needs to change.
4. “I’ve never been to me”
This is probably one of my least favourite ‘90s hangers-on, but it’s so popular that I have to address it. From John Gray to Alanis Morissette, if there’s one thing the ‘90s taught us, it’s that people in the westernized world have the luxury of spending a lot of time on their own problems. Enter Self-Help, which has its own bookstore section, right in between “Psychology” and “Cooking.” It taught us phrases like “scarred for life” and “you can’t love others until you love yourself.” Since the ‘90s, this trend has gotten bigger and, I would argue, more dangerous. Case in point: The Secret is still riding high on Oprah’s endorsement, and it teaches little more than you will get rich just by sitting on your ass and thinking positive thoughts. Why? Because the universe owes you. Which is exactly like saying that children toiling in sweat shops could change their fate if only they thought of bunnies and flowers instead of, you know, eating.
5. The Internet
Okay, so the Internet, as a technology, has actually been around since the ‘60s, but it wasn’t used by the public until 1991, and it only became commercialized and widespread in the mid-‘90s. If Twitter’s taught us anything, it’s that the way people interact with your invention is often more important than the invention itself. Although the Internet has all but replaced the library, abbreviated your TV and usurped the Associated Press, its most considerable achievement, I believe, was to make Playboy kind of soft core.
Coming up: things the ‘90s can bloody well keep to themselves!