It was the era of the giant cell phone, TGIF nights with Family Matters and Sabrina, The Teenage Witch, and the return of the sexually empowered pop star. But even with all the cool new things the ‘90s wrought, the emergence of the 24-hour news cycle would become our fascination—and our downfall.
With the release of documentaries The New York Times Presents: Framing Britney Spears and Kid 90, millennials at the forefront of today’s cultural reckoning have had to confront their formative years as the ‘90s and early aughts face a comeuppance. Framing Britney chronicles the misogynistic media coverage of a young pop star eagerly devoured by the public—including by those who call themselves fans. In Kid 90, Soleil Moon Frye looks back on a time when she was carefree in the face of the deeply repressed trauma. Both films pose three vital questions: How do we reckon with the era, who we were then, and how we’ve grown since?
The answer requires taking a closer look at how our past has shaped us today.
As Allison Yarrow explains in 90s Bitch: Media, Culture and the Failed Promise of Gender Equality, stories like Lorena Bobbitt severing her husband John’s penis and Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes torching her boyfriend’s house became fixtures in a churning media machine first established to provide updates on the Persian Gulf War. But when women began to dominate the Billboard charts and front pages and cultivate valiant female fanbases, the mostly white editors and producers upholding the patriarchal status quo saw it as an opportunity to turn them into soap opera-like characters to be ogled, pitied, or ridiculed.
“It really drew this insatiable audience,” Yarrow says. “You can see how, throughout the decades, these stories became like this episodic infotainment. That’s why folks who came of age at that time have such a strong relationship to these characters, because they really became characters in our lives.”
It’s true: We were invested as well as impressionable. Far too many of the stories lacked context. But as Framing Britney reminds us, when CBS used words such as “meltdown” to describe Spears shaving her head in 2007, we didn’t think to question it. We reacted the same years prior when Bobbitt mutilated her husband because she, presumably, lost her mind. Or Lopes burned Andre Rison’s home because, supposedly, all women go a little mad sometimes. Few bothered to mention that Rison and John Bobbitt were allegedly abusive. (Both men denied the allegations.) And we blindly accepted—and fed into—the skewed reporting.
Ron Galella, Ltd.Getty Images
“I grew up believing the media narratives that these women were angry,” Yarrow continues. “They were messy. They were sluts. They were bitches. The obvious denigration of them in the media and the subtle denigration of them in the media—I didn’t challenge that narrative at all.”
We were too hooked on the drama to look any deeper. It reached its peak in 2007 when Spears, relentlessly targeted in the tabloids since her major debut in the 1998 music video for “…Baby One More Time,” retaliated against a paparazzo. It’s only in recent years that we’ve begun examining how we discuss women in the public eye. Seemingly, we’ve evolved to understand issues such as mental health, intimate partner violence, and female objectification in the media.
Except this analysis has largely only been applied to a certain type of celebrity. There’s a reason why women like Lopes or Janet Jackson or Whitney Houston haven’t received a Framing-like treatment with mass mea culpa and vindication, like Spears. Or Saved by the Bell’s Lark Voorhies, whose troubles have been widely reported throughout the years. Our reckonings have been prioritized for whiteness.
“This is not a battle of the trauma by any means,” says journalist and self-proclaimed “nostalgia queen” Bianca Gracie. “But there should be a balance [when] discussing the types of trauma women go through. Lark Voorhies is a perfect example. She went through so many hardships and trauma and mental strife and that hasn’t been discussed in the media as much. And I feel like it’s because she’s Black.”
“There can be a performative flair that comes with confronting our past ills without examining what needs to happen in order to do better today.”
It makes you think about the myriad ways pop culture has tried, and sometimes failed, to properly assess the ‘90s and early 2000s: without considering how we could be repeating the same issues today. For example, Voorhies, the only main actress of color on the original Saved by the Bell series, initially wasn’t even invited to be a part of its 2020 revival, which reunited much of its OG cast in a more culturally and socially aware narrative. There can be a performative flair that comes with confronting our past ills without truly sitting with them or examining what needs to happen in order to do better today. Remorse tends to be our prominent reaction.
“Part of why we’re covering Framing Britney and #FreeBritney so much stems from guilt, not because we glorify this era,” Gracie says. “Some people may have participated in the jokes of when she [shaved her head]. I was on Perez Hilton half the time, looking at these photos, and I may have laughed. I fully accept that I may have been participating in these actions, despite being a big Britney fan.”
That same sense of humility is why Frye’s Kid 90, comprised of countless home videos she’s made throughout the years, feels like an honest image of where we are today. It’s in part a nostalgic ‘90s trip into the social life of the former Punky Brewster star as she hangs out with her celebrity friends—the who’s who of young, white stars of the ‘90s like Mark-Paul Gosselaar and Brian Austin Green. They drink, party, ride skateboards and rock lots of flannel.
Courtesy Soleil Moon Frye
But more interestingly, Kid 90 is an adept reflection of a woman coming to terms with where she’s been and the mistakes she’s made. Frye, who directed the film, watches the footage and remembers the laughs and the crushes. But she also confronts the things she failed to see then: how some of her friends hid their depression with drugs and alcohol, and that she suppressed her rape at a young age. As difficult as revisiting her story is at times, she acknowledges it, criticizes it when she feels necessary, and admits that she’s learned from her experiences—and is still learning from them—while pushing forward. She asks what many of us have pondered lately: How did I not see that at the time?
Perhaps the better question is: What are we going to do with our new self-awareness? For Kelley Kitley, a women’s mental health expert, that comes down to how we respond from here on out. “It can provide insight for those who are willing to look at it,” she says. “It’s a fine line between owning that era for what it was, and looking back like, ‘How much have I grown since then? Because I see it differently now.’” Otherwise, we’re not actually evolving.
Candice Frederick is a freelance TV/film critic living in New York City.
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Original posted at www.elle.com