Last weekend, a friend forwarded me a video. I clicked on the link nonchalantly, expecting a joyful puppy or perhaps a triumphant head of lettuce. But as the clip played, I sat up straighter, a coldness creeping over my heart. It started innocently enough, with a woman browsing in a store, but something catches her eye, and the chilling wall is revealed: A wall of ’90s Halloween costumes.
For $5, you can wrap a velvet choker around your neck, adorn your hair with butterfly clips, and clasp a fake Nokia 3310 to your ear. Ten dollars gets you a black slip dress, the kind I remember proudly pairing with purple Doc Martens for a Red Hot Chili Peppers concert back in ’96. The bomber jacket was a particular twist of the knife — at age 13, owning a bomber was my raison d’être, and I harassed my mum into buying me a particularly hideous sky-blue version I wore diligently for the rest of the summer, no matter if it rained or shined. (It really didn’t matter: puffed cloth proved equally ineffective against wet or cold.)
If I’d felt old when my local club changed ’80s Night to ’90s Night — presumably deciding those nostalgic for eighties classics should now be in bed by nine with a cup of cocoa — the Halloween wall made me feel like I’d picked the wrong chalice. Not only had my teenage outfits morphed into vintage costumes, but they’d done so just as I was swaddling myself in a cocoon of nostalgia, blissfully unaware of just how historical it was.
I had come across Buffy the Vampire Slayer on Disney+, and dipped in for a quick reunion. I was now on season four and in deep, reveling in all those knitted jumpers and chunky, chunky shoes. My teenage self would have been agog — whole seasons on tap was surely witchcraft only Willow could pull off. When Buffy first wielded a stake and a pun, back in 1997, I was lucky to even see a complete episode. Buffy aired on a Friday night. Since I was spending that timeslot getting rejected from bars, I would set up a video cassette to record it (you know the sort, you can buy a replica from your local Halloween store). Repeatedly instructing my parents to press record at eight, I was lucky to see half a show, with mum inevitably only remembering her mission by eight-thirty.
Comic-loving, nerdy Xander used to be my favorite character. But clearly, I had overlooked his more misogynistic traits. During the rewatch, I noticed that, despite having minimal powers compared to his badass female friends, he oozes sexual entitlement. Not only does he constantly make suggestive comments to Buffy, but he’s prone to quips like, “Just meet me at Willow’s house in half an hour and wear something trashy…er.” The creator of Buffy, Joss Whedon, has admitted Xander is based on himself, so it is of little wonder that, years later, some of the Buffy actors went public with the toxic work environment Whedon created.
Sadly, no one called Whedon out at the time, and perhaps it’s misleading to say I missed Xander’s misogyny. It would be more accurate to admit that I accepted it. After all, in ’90s England, that sort of behavior would have been labeled as “banter” and ignored — laughed at even. It was an age in which shows such as TFI Friday had a “Freak or Unique” and “Ugly Bloke” spot, and FHM could project an image of Gail Porter’s behind onto the Houses of Parliament (without her permission, as a joke). The ladette was queen, and the king was a Bantersaurus Rex. Taking anything too seriously was deeply uncool. The Xander/Whedon-style snark was the tone of the decade.
So maybe I was too quick to complain that the ’90s — butterfly clips, sexism, and all — had been unfairly relegated to the realm of Halloween costumes. Before mourning my youth too deeply, I needed to spend more time considering this decade beyond the scrunchies and acid-washed jeans. I had rewatched Buffy; now, it was time to reread Rebecca Schuman’s thoughtful 2018 Longreads series, The ’90s Are Old. Schuman is a wise guide, one that could help me unpack the confusing cultural legacy of this decade, and decide if it really was time to let go.
The first installment of Schuman’s series looks at the “mopey, tortured Gen X man-child who embodied … cool.” Her analysis takes the form of an experiment: she shows the film Reality Bites to several people born the year it came out (1994). Her focus group is not impressed with “cool, loser dream boy” Troy Dryer, clearly lacking the perspective to understand that “in the nineties, every sincere emotion had to be conveyed through at least six layers of hair grease and spite.” Reading this, long-dormant teenage angst determinedly bubbled to the surface. It had been a confusing time; the rotation of boys on my pedestal ranged from Troy Dryer types to Prince Eric from The Little Mermaid. (Both of whom thought speaking for a woman was the height of romance.) It’s a tricky enterprise to examine older pop culture under the light of today’s values, but Schuman handles it here with aplomb and humor. But be warned: Your teenage crushes may come crashing down.
The other crucial facet of nineties emotional intelligence, such as it was, was that while caring about things was not cool, caring about people was, so long as you displayed your care for them by being as damaged as possible and then letting them know that your damaged self had, out of all the other damaged selves in the world, chosen them. Hence, how, in Reality Bites, Troy gets to say this:
I’m sorry Lelaina, but you can’t navigate me. I might do mean things and I might hurt you and I might run away without your permission and you might hate me forever, and I know that that scares the shit out of you because I’m the only real thing that you have.
In this essay, Schuman explores the “white-liberal narrative” of ’90s hip hop. As she explains, in 1990, just one hip-hop single made it to the top spot on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100: the squeaky clean (vanilla if you will, with my apologies) “Ice Ice Baby.” By 1999, Schuman states, “what had heretofore been called “hardcore” hip hop was so ubiquitous in ‘mainstream’ (read: white) culture that its ubiquity became a bit in Mike Judge’s 1999 cult classic Office Space.” She renders a fascinating look at this progression — which, as a bonus, led me to quietly sing Snoop Dogg’s “Who Am I?” to myself while reading.
Biatch — its offensiveness, its ascendance in the (white) mainstream — is indeed something of a microcosm of why Doggystyle was as scandalous as it was wildly popular. In the ’90s as now, all humorless old people knew that the best way to impede an album’s popularity was to be very offended by it (ha) — and, as such, ’90s hip hop was also largely defined by the older generations’ aversion. If you were an American over the age of 45 in 1994, there was no question that you loathed “the gangster rap.” The only question was how you hated it, and that defined your place in the cultural milieu.
I have to admit I have never watched The Real World, but I have wasted countless hours on the genre it spawned. In 1992, things were different, and as Schuman writes, “the very thought of someone going on television for no other reason than to live in an apartment with a bunch of randos was extremely novel.” Producers had not yet come to the realization that “trauma equals drama.” It didn’t take long for the penny to drop. Schuman deftly explains how The Real World “went from a sanitized, but largely sincere documentary of young adulthood in the ’90s, into a grotesque spectacle of young-adult pain” — a model followed to this day.
Even with a stilted flirtation between be-girlfriended Neil and fencer Kat Ogden thrown in, the London flatmates simply refused to devolve into dramatic bickering for the cameras, instead often seeming to temper their behavior instead. Their very presence in the dungeonesque Notting Hill flat was so weighed down by decade-appropriate irony that all anyone did was, well, nothing — which, being the Nineties’ most important activity, made the London season the realest of all Real Worlds. Not even doofus St. Louisan race-car driver Mike Johnson and his Quixotic search for ranch dressing could provide enough clash to cramp the London season’s style.
In one of my favorite essays from the series, Schuman takes on ’90s chick-lit and “dick-lit,” looking at two classics of the age: Bridget Jones’ Diary and High Fidelity. I devoured both books at the time, so it was a little disconcerting to look back at them with a more critical eye. However, willing Bridget on as she attempts to navigate “the Rules” and secure a man — while getting skinny to boot — does now seem a little dubious. Schuman does not mince her words: “these books — despite their cool Gen-X setting, cool Gen-X props (cigarettes), and cool Gen-X openness about failure — are some inveterate Baby Boomer bullshit.” However, Schuman also read them back during their original heyday, so some residual fondness for Bridget and High Fidelity’s Rob Fleming creeps in. It’s a fun read.
Yes, it is all bollocks, Rob. It really, really is. Rob’s full of it — and Marie knows it, but, being a mature ‘90s American woman, doesn’t care, and is only looking for a one-night stand herself. High Fidelity ends in a similarly bollocks fashion, with Laura and Rob getting back together even though he still doesn’t begin to deserve her. Here’s where my Sick-Boy-from-Trainspotting unifying theory of life comes in: The success of High Fidelity, just like the success of Bridget Jones, The Rules, and Men Are From Mars, is the eternal return of the same imaginary ‘50s, idealized boy-gets-girl-back wish-fulfillment bullshit that took over Gen-X popular culture, probably because we were too lazy, or unambitious, or angst-ridden, or whatever, to fight it off.
Sometimes I forget that the internet wasn’t always a thing, with my excitement at Dad bringing back a second-hand computer from the university where he worked now only a vague memory. It was the size of a small car. But it was a computer! In our home! In the ’90s, that was a big deal, as Schuman points out: “In 1996 there were only 100,000 websites in the Whole Wide World. (Today there are almost two billion.)” In this homage to early webzines, Schuman takes you right back to the days of listening to “CHHHHHHHHHH BEEboo BEEboo BEEboo.” Discussing the early predecessors to the platform you are on right now, she finds that they were “the absolute perfect venue for talking shit.” Many writers found their voice in the wild west of the early internet, including Schuman herself, and this is a fittingly snarky account of those pioneer days.
There is plenty from the late-’90s webzine era that I am grateful is now extinct, gunmetal cargo skirts and unchecked uses of the word “twat” among them. (Sorry I called you a twat in 1999, Wendy Shalit.) But I agree with Havrilesky in wishing that someone, somewhere would still bankroll “seriously freaky, opinionated, bizarre, illustrated, odd material with no timely angle or link to some fucking movie or book or product. I’m part of the problem,” she says, given that this very interview coincides with the upcoming release of her book. “But I’d love to see the Sucks and Gawkers and Grantlands and Awls of the world find a nice tolerant Sugar Daddy who keeps them alive eternally. It’s not like it’s that expensive to pay a handful of great writers to write great stuff. Popularity should not be the only metric we use to measure value.”
In the final piece of the series, Schuman asks when the decade actually finished. Dabbling with a listicle, she muses on which precise date deserves the title “end of the era.” The winner? June 6, 1998. For Schuman, the “dishonor” lies firmly at the feet of Sarah Jessica Parker. The 1998 premiere of Sex and the City brought with it a new age: “Unlike the cool of the ‘90s, which depended upon the rejection of anything commercial and popular, you could purchase [SATC’s] cool at Barney’s and the Patricia Field store on West Broadway.”
This felt fitting. Sarah Michelle Gellar’s Buffy drew me back into the ’90s, and another Sarah ended it all. But I still don’t think I’m quite ready to don that Halloween costume.
The actual termination point of the ’90s required an attitudinal shift that would decentralize the role of Generation X as the admittedly-petulant target of all culture and advertising — the thawing of the winter of the bong-ripping couch-slacker’s discontent; the disappearance of gin and juice from house-party bars; the centering of the hot tub on The Real World; the sobering realization that both men and women were from Earth and just sucked; the demise, for that matter, of Suck itself.
Editor: Peter Rubin
Copy Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands