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In October 1990, while most of America was watching Roseanne, Coach, L.A. Law, America’s Funniest Home Videos, and the buildup to Operation Desert Storm on CNN, the still fledging Fox network debuted a show on Thursday nights opposite Cheers, the top-rated program in the country. In December the new show was ranked eighty-seventh out of eighty-nine. The reviews were not kind either. A “new experiment in comatose television,” was the verdict of Tom Shales at the Washington Post: “You keep checking your pulse to make sure you haven’t died.”1 Matt Roush in USA Today used words like “tired” and “stock characters” and predicted “few will leave Cheers for this.”2 Jay Sharbutt of the Associated Press said the premiere “is so stultifying it would get an F even in film school.”3 Ouch.
None of these guys, however, was a teenage girl. Within six months, Beverly Hills 90210 was the top show among teenagers in the Thursday 9:00 P.M. time slot, and 60 percent of them were girls, that delectable demographic. Instead of running reruns during the summer of 1991, Fox aired new episodes, which built the audience even more. In August, heartthrob Luke Perry—deliberately modeled after James Dean right down to his pompadoured hairdo (which presided over his forehead like Diamond Head)—visited a Florida shopping mall to promote the show. Ten thousand fans, most of them screaming girls, rushed toward him, injuring twenty-one people and prompting the mall to be closed for three hours.4
By the fall 90210 was the top show, period, among American teenagers and especially teenage girls.5 Within a year, a whopping 69 percent of teenage girls reportedly watched it. By 1993, it was airing in thirty countries.6 Calendars, T-shirts, lunch boxes, backpacks, pillows, and 90210 Barbie dolls followed. Most fans were utterly devoted, especially in the beginning, arranging their homework, showering, and social schedules around the show and insisting that friends not call them, at all, while it was on (unless girls called each other and watched together while on the phone).7 The show lasted for ten years.
To understand the ascendency of enlightened sexism in the twenty-first century, its early scrimmages with embedded feminism, and the way it sought to transform girls’ desires for power and change into consumerism and profits, we need to revisit the riptides of the early 1990s. One could be forgiven for forgetting that this was, in fact, a time of considerable feminist ferment among women and girls. For while 90210 addressed teen girls as if their primary concern was where to get the coolest stonewashed jeans (and a blond, tousle-haired hunk to go with), many real-life girls, and their mothers, were expressing a desire for what would eventually come to be known as girl power.
Girls and women may not have been in the streets the way they were in 1970, but there was an intense level of feminist agitation and aspiration, especially in the face of what Susan Faludi’s best-selling 1991 book labeled, simply enough, Backlash. On the one hand, First Lady Barbara Bush famously warned women, “At the end of your life, you will never regret not having passed one more test, not winning one more verdict or not closing one more deal. You will regret time not spent with a husband, a friend, a child, or a parent.” And the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue was selling more copies than ever. On the other hand, in the song “Don’t Need You,” the Riot Grrrl band Bikini Kill advised men, “Don’t need your atti-fuckin-tude boy … Us girls, we don’t need you … Does it scare you that we don’t need you?” coupled with Bratmobile’s full-bore assault on patriarchy in its song “Brat Girl,” “I’m gonna throw this knife right thru yr chest.”
There was plenty for women to be enraged about in the early 1990s. When Thurgood Marshall, the first African American Supreme Court justice and a pioneer against school desegregation, decided to retire in 1991, President George H. W. Bush nominated Clarence Thomas, a deeply conservative, anti–affirmative action African American bureaucrat who had only been a federal judge for two years, to replace him. Many civil rights and women’s groups denounced the nomination, and it barely squeaked out of the Senate Judiciary Committee with a 7-to-7 vote. Then, in October, all hell broke loose when the allegations of Anita Hill, a University of Oklahoma law professor who had told the FBI during the background checks on Thomas that he had sexually harassed her, got leaked to the press. Hill had to provide testimony before a riveted national television audience about how Thomas, at work, would start talking to her about “acts he had seen in pornographic films involving such matters as women having sex with animals, and films showing group sex or rape scenes.” Hill stated that Thomas kept asking her out despite her refusals, kept commenting on her clothes and appearance, and also boasted to Hill “graphically of his own sexual prowess,” which included references to “the size of his own penis being larger than normal.” In a truly weird workplace comment, Thomas allegedly asked Hill, “Who has put a pubic hair on my Coke?”8 This last event struck most women as particularly hard to make up. Yet various of the all-white male Judiciary Committee members—in a Senate that was 98 percent male—treated Hill dismissively, implying that she may have been delusional. The spectacle of a lone woman, and a black one to boot, sitting across from a patronizing tribunal of rich white guys who seemed to think that sexual harassment was a figment of the female imagination got women’s blood boiling.
Their wrath was further fanned by the outrageous Tailhook scandal, which exploded in the spring of 1992. The news emerged that the navy had covered up an incident at the Tailhook Association convention in Las Vegas the previous September, when naval aviators formed a gauntlet on the third floor of the Hilton and trapped women in it, pawing and molesting them, stripping off their clothes. The first reports—whitewashes—identified only two suspects from approximately five thousand Tailhook attendees. Because twenty-six women, fourteen of them officers, claimed to have been assaulted, these findings, you might say, defied credulity. By June the secretary of the navy, H. Lawrence Garrett, faced a full-blown scandal about the cover-up, including the fact that—oops—fifty-five pages of interviews had been omitted from the final report, including one that placed Garrett himself in at least one of the Tailhook party suites. Time for that pink slip. Garrett quickly resigned, shortly after Paula Coughlin, a helicopter pilot and admiral’s aide, appeared on ABC News to describe the ordeal that she and the other women had suffered. That women in the military, no less, could be assaulted in this way only added to the public fury.
Energized by Anita Hill, Tailhook, and Backlash, women emerged as a political force in 1992, which the press dubbed “The Year of the Woman.” In November four women won election to the male-dominated U.S. Senate for the first time in American history: Dianne Feinstein, the former mayor of San Francisco, and Representative Barbara Boxer in California; Patty Murray, a state senator from Washington who described herself as “a mom in tennis shoes,” and Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois, the first black woman to serve in the Senate. Arlen Specter nearly lost his Senate seat to Lynn Yeakel, a first-time candidate who ran specifically because of her fury over how Specter had questioned Anita Hill during the Thomas hearings.9 A record number of women—108—ran for Congress, and twenty-four were elected to the House, the largest number ever in any single election.10 Bill Clinton’s election as president brought change as well. He made a point of supporting equal rights for women, and in addition to his brainy and accomplished wife who, unlike Barbara Bush, actually had a professional career, he named three women to his first cabinet, a woman to head the Environmental Protection Agency, and the first African American woman to become surgeon general.
So the early 1990s indeed seemed a turning point for women starting to achieve political power. Nonetheless, there was also considerable concern about girls not achieving their full potential because of ongoing discrimination in the classroom, and issues like sexual harassment, date rape, and domestic violence were getting more widespread attention. Naomi Wolf’s bestseller The Beauty Myth (1991) attacked the impossible standards of physical perfection imposed on us all, and Mary Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia (1994), on the bestseller list longer than most of my daughter’s hamsters lived, decried the hostile media environment surrounding girls and the decline in self-esteem it produced. So girls and women, after the dormant years of George H. W. Bush, were insisting on new political and social visibility in the early 1990s. At the same time girls, in particular, were emerging as a very important niche market.
The war between enlightened sexism and embedded feminism was on. It was in this swirling, contradictory milieu of a renewed press for women’s rights, a backlash against these efforts, and the increased cultural, political, and commercial attention to girls that Beverly Hills 90210 premiered and flourished along with other media fare that couldn’t have been more different, like Murphy Brown or the music of Bratmobile.
So why did a seeming piece of fluff like 90210 matter? And what made the show such a phenomenon with young women? Because 90210 hailed teenagers as important. In addition to giving us great male and female eye candy (even though it was all vanilla), 90210 took teenagers and their dilemmas seriously. The show was one of the essential early building blocks of enlightened sexism because it was at the vanguard of targeting teenage girls with an intensity that made the 1960s efforts, like Gidget and The Patty Duke Show, seem puny. It stood at the beginning of what some would come to see as “the rampant juvenilization” of American popular culture, which would lead to increased teenpics, teen girl magazines, and boy bands.11 Industry observers had doubted whether the novice network Fox could compete against the big three, even though their share of the viewing audience had dropped from 92 percent in 1977 to 62 percent in 1991. Given the competition, Fox chose to go after the kids. It was a strategy that worked and was widely imitated. 90210 was followed by Melrose Place, MTV’s The Real World, Party of Five, Dawson’s Creek, the rise of “chick flicks” and “chick lit,” boy bands, Britney Spears, and all those new teen girl magazines like Cosmo Girl, Teen Vogue, and Teen Elle. The foundational pillars of this marketing juggernaut were sex and merchandising.
So this was the beginning of the media wedge that would divide many mothers and daughters around the issues of sexuality and consumerism. 90210 was at odds with other shows in the early 1990s that were increasingly showcasing strong, sometimes counterstereotypical, often mouthy women: Murphy Brown, Who’s the Boss?, L.A. Law, Northern Exposure, Law & Order, The Simpsons, and, of course, Roseanne. These shows were obviously informed by feminism and spoke to its goals and values. Not 90210. So despite—indeed, because of—its sun-splashed pleasures, and the fact that, for the most part, it threw the sexual double standard out the window, Beverly Hills 90210 was a crucial first step in exploring what enlightened sexism might entail.
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The fish-out-of-water premise of 90210 was that an apple pie, midwestern family with the moral rectitude of The Waltons moves to that den of carnality, dissolution, and merchandising, Beverly Hills, and finds every fiber of their Minneapolis-bred saintliness challenged, week in and week out. We know that the nearly perfect mom, Cindy Walsh (played by Jane Fonda look-alike Carol Potter), will not be corrupted because her blue denim dirndl skirt and truly heinous plaid or paisley shirts—indeed, her entire Plow & Hearth couture—scream, “I’m a square and I’m really, really grounded.” But things will be more challenging for her gorgeous twin kids Brandon (Jason Priestly), with his soft, souffléed hair poised over his left eye like a wave, and especially for Brenda (the dreaded Shannen Doherty) because, well, she’s the girl.
The opening sequence with its shots of Cartier, Armani, and Polo storefronts accompanied by the wailing electric guitars and pulsing drums brings together “teens” and “conspicuous consumption” like a perfect ice-cream sandwich. And this is high school unlike anything the rest of us poor schlumps suffered through. There’s valet parking. Surfboards stick out of the kids’ convertibles and everyone drives a Mercedes, a Porsche, or a Beemer. When the kids’ car alarms go off on remote signalers in class, it’s perfectly okay with the teachers for them to run out and check on their vehicles. It’s also okay with the teachers to have flowers delivered to students during class. The Hacienda mansion of a school looks like a presidential palace in a Mediterranean country, not like the prison-issue boxes most viewers were forced to attend. The sun always shines; everything is brightly colored and brightly lit; no one, except the benighted Walsh twins, has a curfew and everyone, except the benighted Walsh twins, has a wallet exploding with gold and platinum credit cards. There are pool parties with white-jacketed waiters serving the dancing, throbbing teens; there are hot tubs; no one’s parents (except the benighted Walsh twins’) are ever, ever home. Dylan (Luke Perry) actually gets to live, alone, in a five-star hotel suite with room service whenever he wants it. Let’s not forget that the country was in the middle of a recession with a serious spike in unemployment in 1990–91; many kids, and their parents, were happy to pretend they were in 90210 for an hour.
Of course, under this gilded veneer of bottomless wealth and ceaseless indulgence lurks the dark, disappointed other side: the rich, negligent, selfish, carousing parents who don’t care; the kids who have everything except love and self-esteem; the punishing rules for fitting into rigid social hierarchies; and the corrupting temptations that must be resisted. In the first season alone, various of the teens confronted alcoholic parents, date rape, cheating on exams, parents doing lines of coke, drinking, drinking while driving, shoplifting, eating disorders, teenage pregnancy, parents getting indicted, breast cancer, losing their virginity, and, of course, having their parents come home to a trashed house after an unauthorized party. All of this—except losing your virginity—was very, very wrong. (In what was a gutsy move for the show, Brenda lost her virginity to Dylan on prom night and was not wracked with remorse but was, instead, positively glowing as a result. Many of the network’s affiliates, fielding calls from irate parents, were not quite so blissful.)
This formula—offer the fantasy of being able to buy whatever you wanted, yet flatter viewers that such unrestricted consumerism is corrupting and empty—had worked for Dallas and Dynasty. Now it was tailored for teens, and subsequent shows down the road for young women (My Super Sweet Sixteen, Laguna Beach, Gossip Girl) would further inflate the levels and rates of conspicuous consumption. And unlike teens in most sitcoms, those in 90210 had sex and emphatically asked each other if they had condoms: there were actually lines like “Thank God for safe sex.” (As the series spiraled ever downward into a soap opera after the characters’ high school years, pretty soon everyone had slept with everyone else, with the possible exception of their own family members.) In its early years the show offered this delicious suspension between vicariously indulging in the excesses of the leisure class while—when reminded of your own more shabby surroundings during the commercial breaks—feeling superior to, even emotionally better off than, the hollow denizens of Rodeo Drive.
The women’s movement seems to have bypassed this zip code, or at least its female inhabitants. Indeed, Cindy—always there with her potholders and apron to listen, advise, understand, and feed all the other teens whose lacquered, pool boy–chasing mothers are too self-absorbed to cook—is a living primer on the importance of being a stay-at-home mom. (The non-stay-at-home mothers come in for serial, routine bashing, with lines like, “You’d never see my mom with a cleaning utensil—you’d never see my mom at all.”) The message is clear that the nuclear family with a solid, male breadwinner is the only unit that can help teens weather the vicissitudes of growing up. And Brenda (before she becomes the queen bitch of the show) is much more impressionable, more susceptible to the temptations of Beverly Hills than her more rational, anchored brother. He works for the school newspaper and gets a job; she colors her hair and shops. He drives himself and his sister to school because—ha, ha, ha—Brenda the girl can’t pass driver’s ed. Early plot lines for Brandon involve struggling over academic ethics, trying out for the basketball team, exposing the exploitation of immigrant workers in a restaurant, and serving as a coach to younger boys. Early plot lines for Brenda keep her in the ladies’ room: shoplifting clothes, having a sleepover party, finding a lump in her breast. No school newspaper or soccer for her. And the one academically ambitious girl Andrea (Gabrielle Carteris) is, yes, Jewish, wears glasses, and is poor. Oy gevalt.
The show’s producer, the prolific and savvy Aaron Spelling (Charlie’s Angels, The Love Boat, Dynasty), consistently offered up what he called “mind candy”—which his legion of critics called “mindless candy.” But what is “mind candy,” and what made a bonbon like 90210 so delectable? 90210’s look, locale, and teenage characters transported young women to a financially untroubled universe in which they could leave their lives behind and try on identities quite different from their own. Some of these identities, like “the bitch” or “the spoiled rich girl” were in fact forbidden or not possible for most girls in real life. Accounts of girls’ emotionally powerful connection to the show and its characters—especially when viewing in groups, they talked back to them on the screen as if they were actual friends or acquaintances—capture how gripping the fantasy world of 90210 was.12
But the voyeuristic pleasures that made the show as fun as settling into a beach chair in Malibu also drummed in the rewards of acquiescing to patriarchal norms of femininity. So 90210 was an important early building block of enlightened sexism because it insisted that the true, gratifying pleasures for girls, and their real source of power, came from consumerism, girliness, and the approval of guys. How yummy to sit back and watch the ever-changing parade of clothes and accessories, hairstyles, scantily clad nubile bodies, and relationships and to be invited, each week, to comment on them, to feel that you could be the expert on whether Donna’s new hat was a fashion disaster or whether Brenda was really getting bitchier. (Eventually there was a national “I Hate Brenda” fan club and Doherty was kicked off the show.) 90210 encouraged viewers to feel like active, engaged experts, but exclusively about “female” things.13
What was really retrograde about 90210, then—aside from the fact that there were no people of color except for African American athletes who, duh, needed tutoring (and, briefly, Andrea’s Latino husband)—was how it magnified the absolute centrality of thinness, beauty, fashion, sexual objectification, and boyfriends to teen girl happiness. Admirable, truly enviable girls were also “nice.” And it got worse as the show wore on. The girls conformed to a very narrow Cosmo ideal of beauty, and by the seventh season, when they were in college—where, in my experience, women often come to class in jeans and sweatshirts—their wardrobe alternated between miniskirts, halter tops, and bikinis.14 Whatever the plot lines, these young women were, first and foremost, sexual objects on display who maintained their attractiveness by buying things. Their main task—in other words, the status quo for girls—was to construct and maintain a great appearance. They also competed with one another over men, and as the show developed there was much more emphasis on the importance of heterosexual romance. Even college women who were avid viewers became exasperated by the fact that you rarely saw the characters in class or studying, and they complained about the skimpy outfits and unrealistic body images on the show.15
And then, of course, there was 90210’s flirtation with feminism, in which, not surprisingly, feminism was “taken into account” so it could be trashed as hypocritical and a danger to guys. In the fourth season (1993–94), there is a “Take Back the Night” week at the fictional California University they all attend. Meant to raise awareness about sexual violence against women, the event prompts a student to come forward and claim she was date-raped by Steve (Ian Ziering), one of the ongoing characters. Except it turns out that she is making it up, reinforcing the myth that Katie Roiphe would popularize in her 1994 book The Morning After that those claiming date rape are often exaggerating or deluded. (Roiphe’s main argument was that since neither she nor any of her Ivy League friends had been date-raped, well, shit, the statistics must be wrong.)16 Then there was the anthropology professor Lucinda (Dina Meyer), who spouts feminist rhetoric in class, but whose brand of liberation means cheating on her husband, seducing her students (Brandon and Dylan), and trying to steal these boys from their girlfriends.
Having said all this, girls don’t embrace shows that consistently put them down. What made the show especially irresistible was that while feminism may have bypassed the girls, it had very much touched the heartthrob boys, especially Brandon. The usually evil jocks in the show are bullying, date-raping louts. But unlike the other guys who are basically governed by their crotches, Brandon and Luke do not constantly objectify the girls around them. In the pilot, for example, Brandon meets ultra-wealthy Mary Ann and in short order they are in a hot tub, sipping champagne. After one of those steamy, openmouthed, lip-sucking kisses she proposes, “Let’s take off all our clothes,” to which Brandon responds, “Whoa, wait a second.” He assures her that’s not all he wants, there’s no need to rush, they should get to know each other first. (He also doesn’t like what he sees as a “role reversal,” with Mary Ann as the sexual aggressor.) And Brandon isn’t so much handsome as he is pretty, with his great pouf of a hairdo that seemed to have been modeled after Princess Diana’s.
Meanwhile, Dylan, the Luke Perry heartthrob, was a closet fan of Lord Byron (although we do want to know what we are to make of his wearing denim overalls with one strap undone and hanging down). He sleeps with Brenda only after confessing his love for her; indeed, when Brandon warns Dylan not to use his sister Dylan responds, “What kind of a jerk do you think I am?” And these guys are vulnerable. After a nasty encounter with his father, the rebel-hero Dylan breaks down to Brenda, sobbing, “He gets to me, he always gets to me,” and she consoles him. As one viewer said of Dylan, “He needs someone to take care of him.”17 More emotionally available and open than most boys are supposed to be, Dylan and Brandon offer the fantasy of a teen world humanized by girls and feminine values, a world where nurturing and treating girls with sensitivity matters—and is rewarded. Who needs feminism anymore if teen guys are like this?
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Having hit the jackpot with 90210, Aaron Spelling joined forces with writer-producer Darren Star and came up with Melrose Place, which premiered in 1992 and aired on Wednesdays at 9:00, just after 90210, giving viewers two full hours of California dreamin’.18 Now this show really allowed us to imagine being a young woman with power (while being reassured that such power corrupts). Summarizing the hookups, breakups, illnesses, attempted suicides, car crashes, attempted murders, successful murders, kidnappings, bomb explosions, brain tumors, office politics, ruthless plots, and counterplots during the show’s seven-year run requires more space—and an organizational chart from hell—than is available here. But the purpose of the show was to expand the teen audience Fox had captured to a broader swath of Gen-Xers, college students, twentysomethings and beyond.
As someone teaching at the college level in the 1990s—whose students were often media-savvy, feminist, antiestablishment types—I knew better than to schedule a night class that conflicted with this. Melrose Place was another show that people loved watching together, so they could prove to themselves how resistant they were to such campy fare while still succumbing to its powerful appeal. And the show itself, with its over-the-top villainy and surreal plots, came to invite such ironic viewing, where you knew everything about the characters and plots but then made fun of them (and yourself, for clogging your temporal lobes with such cultural lint). By the show’s end it had become so farcical it was like a parody of a soap. But in its heyday it had nights when it beat 90210 in the ratings, and its 1994 two-hour season finale, with a much-hyped gay kiss scene, catapulted Fox to number one that night. By the end of the year, Fox had increased its audience among the eighteen to forty-nine demographic by 10 percent.19
The apartment complex at Melrose Place was another Hacienda-style building with a vine- and flower-draped courtyard—complete with pool—onto which a variety of apartments faced. Only people in their twenties with bodies sculpted like Greek statuary lived there. Every male character had to be seen bare-chested multiple times—when striding across the courtyard, improbably wrapped in a towel from the waist down to complain about the water pressure, when hanging out in the apartment, when answering his door—and they were all ripped or semi-ripped. The women were all beautiful and size two.
When the show first premiered in the summer of 1992, George H. W. Bush was still president, the country was in a recession, and college graduates wondered if they could get a job anywhere except Burger King. So the initial episodes followed, in part, the financial struggles of Allison (the deeply dimpled Courtney Thorne-Smith), Jake (Grant Show), Billy (Andrew Shue, also deeply dimpled), Jane and her husband, Michael (Josie Bissett and Thomas Calabro), Matt, the token gay guy (Doug Savant), and Rhonda, the token African American woman (Vanessa Williams, not the Miss America one), as they sought to find work, pay the rent, and the like. Allison confronted sexual harassment at work. Matt, who worked in a teen shelter/halfway house, got fired for being gay. Jane and Michael struggled with how his demanding work schedule as a medical resident left little time for them to be together.
By the fall, the ratings had slipped. There were scenes like the one in which Jane woke Michael by kissing his big toe and then slithering up his body, and plenty of scantily clad splashing in the pool, but the producers deemed the show “too serious.” Enter fantasies of power in the form of the scheming, platinum blond, power-hungry sex machine Amanda (Heather Locklear); then have the characters hook up with each other with the speed and randomness of pinballs. By 1994 the show was a sensation, “the Dynasty of Generation X.”20 And it was all about sex and female power, in the workplace and the bedroom.
To make a really long, convoluted story short, Allison began the show working in D&D Advertising as a receptionist aspiring to move up the ranks. Her problem was that she was too nice, kind of a whiner, and cared about romantic love. Not Amanda. Amanda wanted Billy, Allison’s (at first) platonic roommate. So she bought the Melrose Place apartment complex to be near him. (How’s that for a dating move power play?) But in short order Amanda was sleeping with the equally ruthless Peter Burns (Jack Wagner), who helped her organize a takeover of D&D that made Amanda president. (Amanda’s former boss killed himself, reminding us of the consequences of such blond ambition.) There were other men along the way—Jake, Reed, Bobby, Kyle, one kinda lost track—but the most important thing was getting the account. After a bout with Hodgkin’s disease, which, as you can imagine, made staying on as president of D&D difficult, Amanda came back to the firm, this time reporting to Allison, and clawed her way back to the top. Under these circumstances, Allison had to toughen up, and she also became an alcoholic. Believe me, this account barely scratches the surface of the intertwined Möbius strips of plots that kept people coming back for more.
Melrose Place premiered just a few months after the April 1992 Los Angeles uprising, in which thousands of African Americans took to the streets to protest the acquittal by a predominantly white jury of four cops who had been caught on videotape beating Rodney King into submission. So at first it appeared socially conscious that Melrose Place—set in Los Angeles, after all—included a black character, Rhonda. Unfortunately, the show’s depiction of a black woman was totally jive. Rhonda was an aerobics instructor (she had rhythm and could dance, don’t ja know) and was reduced to uttering dialogue like “he really has it goin’ on” and “hey girl.” When one of her black male students borrows her towel, he smells it and says, “I’m takin’ this home and I ain’t never gonna wash it.” Her best friend in the complex was the other outsider to white heterosexuality, Matt. And except for some dates and a fiancé, we didn’t see Rhonda as part of any black community when Los Angeles, in fact, as the news had just shown us, had some. So the Rhonda character was simultaneously stereotyped as a yuppie fly girl meant to bring some color to the show, while also cast as insulated from any racism that might affect her life (unlike Matt, who was beat up for being gay). Rhonda was eliminated as a character after the first season. This did finesse the problem of what to do about the possibility of interracial relationships once the show became a musical chairs of sex partners.
In explaining the appeal of the show to women, Heather Locklear told Playboy, “They like it because the women hold all the power—which is as it should be—and the men have no balls.” She had wanted Amanda to be “an intelligent, aggressive businesswoman in her 30s” to which the producers added “the sluttiness.”21 (And being cutthroat, ball-busting, and vindictive.) The show allowed viewers to be transported to a fantasy world in which women could have sex with any Nautilus-crafted hunk they wanted, while also allowing women to vicariously try on the exercise of heartless power at work and in relationships, something still prohibited in real life. In one of many classic scenes, Dr. Kimberly Shaw (Marcia Cross), now married to Michael (who, yes, used to be married to Jane), walks in on him and Amanda making out in a sudsy hot tub. With the speed of a curare dart, she grabs a plugged-in lamp and threatens to throw it into the tub. (Talk about quick thinking!) When Michael says it’s not what it looks like (right), Amanda storms out of the tub, denouncing him as a “spineless fraud.” Kimberly smashes the lamp on the floor and laughs derisively at Michael. “Look at you,” she sneers, “you’re a selfish, philandering, dripping wet bastard. That I’d want you at all is amazing.” A cheating doctor dissed by two tough-talking vixens within seconds! What young female wouldn’t want to see that? And there was always more where that came from.
With the various female characters on the show, there was a range of traits and personas to sample, even though what was on offer was about as varied as the display cases at Sephora. Many viewers identified with Allison because she was both “nice” and ambitious and struggled with her weakness, alcohol. But how much fun to slip into Amanda, a real transgressor of the feminine behavioral playbook, a woman unencumbered by the pressure to be “nice.” Amanda looked at “nice” and just said no. The show got you both ways—it let you imagine how much fun it would be to break the rules (except for being blond and having buns of steel, of course) while also reaffirming that people (including, or especially, you and your friends in the audience) really liked and admired women who were the antithesis of Amanda—a woman, like, say, you in real life.
And when female power is this exaggerated, there will inevitably be small craft advisories about its costs. The lying, cheating, backstabbing, promiscuous Amanda was a caricature of feminism run amok, a fantasy and a warning about what would happen if women became more like Ivan Boesky or Michael Milken. She was the career-at-all-costs woman you were supposed to love to hate. What made her rapacity even acceptable to watch was that she was slim, blond, and beautiful, so at least she was an exemplar of the physical, if not the behavioral, ideals of femininity. Even though she was successful and ruthless, men still lusted after her. Place another woman with a few wrinkles or an extra thirty pounds in the same role, and she would have been vehemently loathed for not making one gesture toward the demands of proper gender roles.
So while Melrose Place’s great seduction was its weekly offering of fantasies of power, it also made perfectly clear that power turned women into, well, something akin to the Marquis de Sade. Women could not “have it all.” The role of Amanda made it clear, week in and week out, that successful, driven career women could not have real love. The fact that she herself preferred power sex to romance hardly undercut this message. It was no accident that she and Kimberly, the two major bitches of the show, also had considerable wealth. It was almost as if “success” and “bitch” just went together.22 If you had the former, you would automatically become the latter. Don’t think this warning was missed by young women.
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So there was enlightened sexism in one corner, developing its jabs. In the other corner was embedded feminism, delivering more than one right cross to male privilege, especially in prime time. Shows for the older set, admired then and now for a feminist sensibility (and great writing) utterly absent from 90210 and Melrose Place, contained a very explicit recognition of feminism. And these shows, especially those in the 10 P.M. strip, had little truck with conspicuous consumption and only occasionally with steamy sex (NYPD Blue and its bare-butted cops in the shower comes to mind). These were indeed different media universes, and show just how contested feminism was on television in the early 1990s. A look at two of the most popular and critically acclaimed shows from this era, Murphy Brown and Northern Exposure, reminds us of what existed before—and may have evoked—the emergence of enlightened sexism.
Murphy Brown premiered on CBS in 1988 and ran for ten years, primarily opposite Monday Night Football. By 1990 it was the network’s highest-rated entertainment series. Aggressive, outspoken, acid-tongued, feared by her colleagues—especially the men—and totally driven by her hugely successful career, Murphy Brown the character (Candice Bergen) has been described as “a male persona in a female body.”23 The humor in the show, driven by excellent scripts, lay in the contrast between how women, even successful career women, were supposed to act and Murphy’s utter violation of and often outright hostility to those norms. She is antimaternal, and reportedly advocated that all children on planes be required to sit in the cargo hold. She has no idea how to cook. Whatever the antonym to “nurturing” is, she’s it. When firing one of her many hapless secretaries, she says simply, “Take everything of yours out of this desk, put it in your car and drive away.”
After the former beauty queen ditz Corky (Faith Ford) reports a story on-air that Murphy was meant to deliver, she warns Corky, “Do anything like this again and you’re dead.” In case Corky took this metaphorically, Murphy adds, “It’s not just an idle threat or a colorful exaggeration, I know people, it would happen. It could be fast, or painful and lingering, water, cement, without a trace, or well-placed bits and pieces. All my choice.” Even the most ruthless male CEO is not supposed to issue mob-style death threats to his coworkers. Her toughness is further magnified in juxtaposition to weak sniveling men, like her producer Miles (Grant Shaud), who cowers when he has to go into her office. At the same time, this is Candice Bergen, after all, beautiful, perfectly coiffed (by early ’90s standards), and a great clotheshorse.
The show simultaneously offered women depictions of the consequences and joys of female liberation, and it was this ambivalence that we snuggled into. Single-minded attention to getting to the top of her field meant, for Murphy, no personal life, no network of female friends, and regrets, expressed as early as the first season, about not having children.24 Because the jokes, and often the resolution of each episode, rested on making fun of the excesses of feminism, Murphy was often disciplined in some way, and she even expressed fleeting remorse for taking competitiveness and selfishness to extremes many men would not have. So being really independent and really competitive was so ridiculous for a woman that it had to be laughed at.
But if a subtext of the show was that feminists were brittle, unlovable, and would pay for success with their personal lives, another was that being a mouthy, independent broad who didn’t care what others thought of her was wonderfully freeing. For women over thirty in particular, Murphy validated their own experiences and concerns rarely seen elsewhere at the time. Viewer letters sent to the show affirmed that many women embraced Murphy as a role model; they were sick of stereotypical depictions and loved seeing a successful working woman whose conundrums were about her job and only rarely about a relationship with a man. How great that she couldn’t cook, supported herself quite comfortably, and got to expose political and corporate corruption on TV.
What women especially loved about Murphy was that she wasn’t afraid to use her voice. She was not embarrassed to sing Motown hits really loud and off-key, and she had no compunctions about calling things as she saw them, personally and politically. In a culture where women were, twenty years after the women’s movement, still urged to be soft-spoken and to censor themselves, Murphy embodied the sheer joy of talking back, of committing verbal transgression, of revolting against such self-silencing. Viewers wrote in with comments like “I enjoy Murphy ranting on and on. She says what many of us have always wanted to say to someone or about someone”; or “I am 39 and I need a couple of Murphy-like lines to say back to people.” The 1992 “Send in the Clowns” episode, a satire of how Congress had handled the Clarence Thomas–Anita Hill hearings, drew tons of appreciative mail. “Thank you for hearing all women and letting our message out,” wrote one. “Ridicule like that in your … show is the best weapon against these miserable little midgets,” wrote another. They loved that Murphy—a woman—was “the perfect adversary” for white men in power.25
The series’ greatest impact on the wider culture came during the 1991–92 season, in which Murphy became pregnant after a fling with her ex-husband and decided to have the baby and raise him on her own. In May 1992, the day after the episode in which Murphy gave birth, Vice President Dan Quayle delivered a speech denouncing the show for “mocking the importance of fathers,” “glamorizing illegitimacy,” and turning the decision to bear a child alone into “another lifestyle choice.” While Quayle was instantly and widely ridiculed for attacking a fictional character for her actions, having Murphy become a mother was controversial, and not just for social conservatives. Many women, including some mothers, wanted the show to resist having Murphy succumb, stereotypically, to her “biological clock.” They wrote letters to the show’s creator Diane English imploring, “I would be disappointed if Murphy had to prove her ‘total womanhood’ by being pregnant and caring for an infant.… Let Murphy represent the childless professional woman who doesn’t need a baby to round out her identity.”26 But the show betrayed these hopes, and after Murphy gave birth—in an episode watched by 38 million people—she sang to her newborn, “You make me feel like a natural woman,” implying that she had been “unnatural” before. The feminist media scholar Bonnie Dow saw this capitulation as “the ultimate postfeminist moment” in the series, “giving credence to the claims about … the emptiness of childless career women, and women’s ‘natural’ destiny to mother.”27
The show’s depiction of single motherhood offered the same fantasies and alarm bells as its depiction of feminism. Given that Quayle’s comments—which turned him into an even bigger laughingstock than he already was—had made the 1992 season premiere “must-see TV,” Murphy got what was billed as her “revenge” by responding to the vice president. The episode showed Murphy and her colleague Frank (Joe Regalbuto) watching Quayle’s comments on TV. She turns to Frank in shock, as she has been unable to even take a shower. “Glamorized single motherhood? What planet is he on? Look at me Frank, am I glamorous?” To which he responds, “Of course not—you look disgusting.” She then launched into one of the famous soliloquies of the episode. “What was that crack about ‘just another lifestyle choice’? I agonized over that decision. I didn’t know if I could raise a child by myself.… I didn’t just wake up one morning and say, ‘Oh gee, I can’t get in for a facial; I might as well have a baby.’ ” This episode provided both a ringing defense of single-motherhood and a depiction of how hard it was. And despite the “natural woman” moment at the birth, Murphy did not morph into June Cleaver. Frank had to show her how to hold the baby. There were many jokes about her total absence of maternal capabilities and she was not fazed by the prevailing (and escalating) demands of the times to indulge in intensive, perfect mothering. This, too, was a gift to the women of America—a recognition that you could keep working, not know what you were doing when it came to child rearing, and still be a good mother. Of course it helped if you had Murphy’s salary.
Yet, as any sitcom writer knows, baby jokes are only good for so long, and portraying the relentlessness of mothering an infant and toddler can be more depressing than funny. So in short order, Murphy’s son Avery made little difference in her life and we didn’t see all that much of him. Because Murphy was rich, there were no structural issues—no national day care system, no national health care system, crappy maternity leaves, minimal flex time—that she, unlike real mothers, had to confront. So, on the other side of the coin the show did make working motherhood seem much easier than it was and thus legitimated leaving motherhood the unfinished business of the women’s movement.
Another mainstay of CBS’s Monday lineup in the early 1990s was Northern Exposure where we were clearly not in sunny southern California with its bimbettes, himbos, and bitches. We were in the fictional town of Cicely, Alaska, where moose walk down the street—already signifying that little is normal here—and people of various ethnicities and worldviews mingle easily. This was the opposite of 90210 territory; here consumerism was impossible and irrelevant. Most important, in Cicely the women were utterly unintimidated by male privilege, and indeed had much of the power. One woman is the local bush pilot who fixes her own plane and knows how to hunt, while another—in her seventies no less—runs the local general store and is not played for laughs. It was also a place where a heavyset and impossibly taciturn Native American woman could be a love object.
Here was another fish-out-of-water premise, this one featuring the semineurotic Jewish New York doctor Joel Fleischman (Rob Morrow) stuck in the Alaskan interior and pining for Zabar’s, the Second Avenue Deli, and someone who’s read Kafka. Throughout its four-year run the show featured eccentric, even surreal, plotlines, like the one in which Mike Monroe (Anthony Edwards), allergic to everything, moved to Cicely to live in a large plastic bubble. But it was the battle of the sexes that was often front and center.
In an award-winning episode about Cicely’s early history, we learn that two women, Rosalind and Cicely, lesbian lovers, were the real founders of the town. When the beautiful Rosalind confronts a bar bully who tells her to sit down before she gets hurt, she hauls off and decks him, saying she despises those who abuse power. A female missionary played by Maggie (Janine Turner) confesses to Rosalind that she can’t seem to attract men and doesn’t know what they want. Rosalind tells her that men are confused because they want a woman who is their intellectual equal but they’re also afraid of women like that, that they want a woman they can dominate but then hate her for being weak. Rosalind asks Maggie, “Do you really want a man?” and then assures her that “fortunately there are alternatives.” In another episode Maurice (Barry Corbin)—the gung ho flag-wearing hypermacho, elk-hunting ex-astronaut—falls in love with equally macho Barbara (Diane Delano), a state trooper, because she shoots a gun even better than he does. “I can’t tell you what seeing you handle that sidearm means to me, Barbara,” he pants and then kisses her passionately. Only in the alternate universe of Cicely could conventional gender roles for women be abandoned, and lesbianism seem utterly natural.
Maggie, the assertive, even confrontational bush pilot whose hair, in many episodes, was shorter than Brandon’s on 90210, has a love-hate relationship with Fleischman, whom she constantly makes look like a wimp by fixing his roof and defending him from bears. But even in Cicely, a woman like this is unlucky in love: the standing joke is that all five of her previous boyfriends died in accidents, as if divine retribution was required for loving a woman like that. Like Murphy Brown, Maggie is a caricature of feminism who also gives expression to feelings real women actually have. Maggie complains to the childlike and asexual Ed (Darren E. Burrows) that men never listen, they pretend to but they don’t, because they’re only thinking of one thing, “the joy stick, is it big enough and where can they put it.” She continues, “You know what I feel when I look at a man, Ed? Pity. Loathing. Genuine revulsion.” Ed points out that he is, in fact, a man, but of course he’s not the kind she’s talking about. “Men have been running things for thousands of years. What do we have to show for it? War. Pollution. The S&L thing. And do they ever put a toilet seat down? No. So what do we need them for?” She acknowledges that they’re good for sex, but that’s about it. In another episode Maggie asks Ruth Ann, the seventysomething store owner, “Why are all men such swine?” “They’re not all swine, dear. Most of them, perhaps,” responds Ruth Ann. “The problem is they don’t know us and we don’t know them,” echoing a theme that would make John Gray’s Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus a runaway bestseller in 1993.
This was the contradictory terrain of television in the early 1990s, in which shows with strong female leads—Roseanne; Designing Women; Murphy Brown; Murder, She Wrote; Grace Under Fire—varyingly informed by feminism, were often among the top five most highly rated shows. And the leads were not all necessarily young, gorgeous, or skinny. But as Fox went after the younger demographic, a reversion began to archetypes of bitches, nice girls, and bimbos, with an underlining of the importance of physical appearance. How were young women making sense of all this?
* * *
Despite its popularity, the young women of the early 1990s weren’t all watching 90210, and if they were, many had a more rebellious take. Millions of them were reading Sassy, others were starting zines, and a smaller but highly influential group started a radical female counterculture and a type of music known as Riot Grrrl. This was as different from Aaron Spelling as you could get: an indie culture dedicated to defying the “Where to Spy on Guys” and “A Better Butt in 10 Days” catechism of Seventeen magazine. Riot Grrrl sprang from two foundational desires. As Allison Wolfe, one of the movement’s early pioneers, put it, “One thing is to put a fresh punk face on feminism; but the other thing is to put the feminism back into punk … how can we make this kind of stodgy … feminism have a fresh face that speaks to us, to a younger generation? And, at the same time, how can we make the punk that we’re involved in less macho, less violent?”28 (We would hear this notion of “putting a fresh face on feminism” co-opted by the Spice Girls just a few years later.) Most important, Riot Grrrl sought to bring forth and legitimize a less compliant and much more defiant emotional identity for girls.29
Now for a Vintage Female such as myself, Riot Grrrl music wasn’t what I felt like putting on when driving to the supermarket back in 1994. I was too old for its raw, pounding sound and screaming vocals. But Riot Grrrl was not meant for me; it was for girls and young women who were in their teens, twenties, and early thirties, who saw plenty to be pissed about in a culture that fed them Mötley Crüe and Whitesnake videos and Teen magazine, and silenced their experiences about sexual abuse, harassment, and assault. And the lyrics, the performance styles, and the feminist sensibilities of the movement—these a fortysomething feminist could applaud.
Riot Grrrl emerged in Washington, D.C., in the summer of 1991, when members of two bands based in Olympia, Washington, Bikini Kill and Bratmobile, began circulating with media producers in the D.C. punk community. The story is that in the wake of a race riot, Erin Smith of Bratmobile said the male-dominated punk community could use a “girl riot.”30 Two other members of the band started a zine—for the over-forty set, a zine is a do-it-yourself handmade, homemade magazine produced by an individual or small group—and called it Riot Grrrl. They especially liked the evocation of growling produced by the three r’s as they wanted a “vehicle where your anger is validated.”31
They also wanted to reclaim the term “girl” as positive and politicized.32 Their message was “Revolution Girl Style Now,” and before long similar-minded young women were getting together for ’90s-style consciousness-raising meetings. When the mainstream media learned about the Bratmobile zine, they labeled the movement Riot Grrrl and it stuck. In August 1991 various Riot Grrrl bands joined up with Bikini Kill and Bratmobile in Olympia for a “Grrrl Night” collective performance. These young women’s lyrics—bold, unruly—took on sexual violence, domestic abuse, homophobia, misogyny, HIV/AIDS, the narrow body image forced on girls, patriarchal control of the music industry, and the overall containment of young women. They urged girls to stand up for themselves and to become more politically and culturally active. By 1992 there was a national Riot Grrrl convention in Washington, D.C., with an estimated two hundred attendees.33
Deeply anticommercial and especially hostile to how the mainstream media addressed and portrayed young women, Riot Grrrl urged girls to produce their own media—zines, music, videos, Web sites. And they had fabulous titles: Satan Wears a Bra, Quit Whining, Not Your Bitch, Wrecking Ball, and Girl Germs. Take that, Cosmo. Riot Grrrl celebrated the necessarily and often deliberately amateur look of all these, as that encouraged more girls to feel that they, too, could be makers and not just consumers of media fare.
As a subculture of iconoclastic and teed-off girls, Riot Grrrl faced that paradox so many youth movements confront: it was at once deeply threatening to the mainstream media and attractive to them as the source of “the next new thing.” The media responded much as it had when radical feminism emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s: attack, ignore, trivialize the political substance of the movement, decapitate the look or style of the movement from its substance, and use this new style to marginalize the movement and to create new stuff to sell. While the immediate press response to Riot Grrrl was hostile, the movement’s energy and its members’ insistence on a new empowerment for girls was not ignored: within a few years we had “girl power” lipstick and an entire federal initiative, headed by Health and Human Services secretary Donna Shalala, labeled “girl power.”
In the summer of 1992, just a few weeks before the Riot Grrrl convention, the mainstream news media discovered Riot Grrrl and did not like what it saw. L.A. Weekly profiled the movement in an article that was reprinted in newspapers around the country. So reporters showed up at the convention and, as one participant recalled, “It did surprise us how quickly and how negative the reaction was.… And the ways the media, especially the male journalists, tried to discredit the ideas was also very shocking.”34 Riot Grrrl faced the nearly identical fate of the women’s movement twenty years earlier. The mainstream press helped spread the word about the movement. But it also framed Riot Grrrl as frivolous, self-indulgent, and not relevant to the broader female experience—yet, at the same time, as man-hating and threatening.
One reporter for USA Today, without identifying herself as a journalist, snuck into a workshop on rape and then published the stories told there about the girls’ and women’s experiences in a way that utterly misrepresented and trivialized them. The dismissive headline read “Feminist Riot Grrrls Don’t Just Wanna Have Fun” and its opening line warned, “Better watch out, boys,” as if this was about them and not the girls. Riot Grrrls, the reporter wrote, are “strident,” “self-absorbed,” and mostly “anti-male.”35 In an adjacent story titled “Anti-Fashion Statements” we read that “the Riot Grrrls’ punk feminist look is pure in-your-face fashion: unshaven armpits and legs, heavy, black Doc Marten boots, fishnet stockings and garter belts under baggy army shorts. Among their tribal tokens: painstakingly pierced lips, cheeks and noses; ears ringed with a dozen hoops; big, bold tattoos decorating ankles, backs and arms.” But their politics? Forget it. This article ridiculed the fact that Riot Grrrls thought that the body image promoted by Barbie was harmful, even though they were trying to combat girls’ self-hatred and the high rates of bulimia and anorexia.36
A Newsweek profile kept emphasizing the group’s “anger” (girls are not supposed to be so unladylike, you know), accentuating that they “apply a kind of linguistic jujitsu against their enemies” and that they are “dressed to kill but ready to fight.” They were also dismissed as “sanctimonious,” yet as having “a mushy warm spot for cute skater boys.” The singer Courtney Love was invoked as “the patron saint of Riot Grrrls,” and the magazine mocked her by saying she “wears vintage little-girl dresses that barely make it past her hips—all the better to sing songs about rape and exploitation.” Thus the Riot Grrrls were hypocrites and weren’t real feminists. “Riot Grrrl is feminism with a loud happy face dotting the ‘i,’ ” Newsweek concluded. “For people accustomed to more august models of feminism, the Riot Grrrls might seem a bit of a stretch.”37
After this kind of press coverage, many in Riot Grrrl refused to talk to the media at all. But Riot Grrrl continued to evolve and helped set the stage for the massive success of Jagged Little Pill, Alanis Morissette’s 1995 breakout album filled with songs about female rage and coming-of-age. “You Oughta Know,” a wailing chant of betrayal by an ex-boyfriend, became a national anthem of fury for young women. Jagged Little Pill was the second best-selling album of the entire decade and the best-selling debut album of all time by a female artist.38 Morissette especially captured the contradictions young women felt—“I’m hard, but I’m friendly … I’m brave but I’m chicken shit”—their fierce desires for strength and agency in the world, and their fear of the possible consequences of achieving these very desires.
Riot Grrrl was a threat to the conventional notions of girls as compliant and passive, and as primarily obsessed with boys and shopping. It was also too radical and defiant for many young women. And the press coverage showed how swiftly and vehemently deviations against the norm of teen girl femininity would be demonized. However unconscious or unacknowledged, enlightened sexism began to coalesce as a direct response to the danger that Riot Grrrl, and comparable feminist initiatives in the early 1990s, embodied. And the task was obvious—how to domesticate girls’ rebellion and longing for power into something a bit safer, and much more profitable.
* * *
From time to time a magazine captures the spirit of its era, burning brightly for a brief interval and then disappearing for good. For teenage girls and young women in the early 1990s, this magazine was Sassy, described by its fans, correctly, as “the greatest teen magazine of all time.”39 Nothing less than “an insurrection” (in the words of the cultural critic Alex Ross)40 against all of the media telling girls they had to be makeup-obsessed, boy-centered, marriage-aspiring airheads, Sassy premiered in February 1988 under the editorship of Jane Pratt, with a core writing staff who quickly (and deservedly) came to be idolized: Karen Catchpole, Christina Kelly, and Catherine Gysin, known to their readers primarily by their first names. These women were united in their hatred of Seventeen, with its incessant dating and dieting advice and its “parade of Nordic-looking models,” whose purpose was “to tear you down, but then tell you how they can help you fix yourself.” 41 They and the magazine’s first publisher, Sandra Yates, wanted to speak to the millions of girls who also “felt like they were outsiders, but who could still pass for normal in the high-school cafeteria. Girls who didn’t want to completely reject mainstream culture, but didn’t want to completely embrace it either.” 42 And they wanted to speak to them not in the phony-hip, condescending tones of Seventeen, but in an intimate and mouthy tone that was how real teenagers talked. Within six months of its launch, Sassy’s circulation soared from 250,000 to 500,000. A few years later, Sassy guaranteed its advertisers a circulation of 800,000, and Newsweek reported it had 3 million readers.43 The magazine instantly started getting sacks of mail from grateful girls all over the country.
Like other teen girl magazines, Sassy had fashion spreads and articles about makeup, but it also covered topics that would have given Seventeen hives: gay teens, teen suicide, incest, eating disorders, racism, and (a recurring specialty) exposés on how impossible standards of beauty and thinness were sold to girls by the mainstream media. And it was obvious from the sheer rebellion of these articles that the writers were having a blast, a gratification they passed on to their readers. An early piece by Catherine Gysin, “Backstage at Miss America,” revealed the codes that judges used to rank the contestants’ bodies: WC for weak chin, H for heavy, and “my personal favorite … BB, which stands for big butt. Ah the wisdom of the judges.” 44 A cover story, “Why We Don’t Like Our Bodies,” ranted against the thinness ideal for girls, tracked how the ideal had gotten thinner and thinner over the years, called this “brainwashing,” and also noted that it was racist.45 Karen Catchpole sent away for various products claiming to help you lose weight, get bigger breasts, thicker hair, and the like, and trashed their claims with joyful derision. She reported that one breast enhancer product, which she sent off to a lab for testing, was made of ground-up cow’s brains and should never be consumed by anyone.46 Now this was fun!
The magazine’s beauty advice column was the utterly straightforward “Zits and Stuff.” In an article titled “Why You Liked Yourself Better When You Were 11,” Christina Kelly cited the research by Carol Gilligan and Lyn Mikel Brown about girls losing their self-esteem as they moved from girlhood to adolescence.47 In “What Now,” she cast celebrity exercise videos as “Another Way to Keep the People Down”: “It is in these videos that the twin demons of celebrity worship and body obsessiveness intersect and become ever more powerful. The American people need to stop emulating these dorks to the point where they wish to follow their fitness routines. The idea that some of our readers might spend their money on this crap and waste their time imitating Cindy’s lunges truly makes me sad. I’m serious.” 48
In a 1989 article, “The Dirty, Scummy Truth About Spring Break (Or, Where the Jerks Are),” Christina lacerated this supposedly fun initiation rite for girls, and chronicled the parade of drunken, vomiting guys who said they were at Daytona “ ‘to check out the tasty morsels’ (a direct quote).” She added, “Bikini contests I will never understand. Even if I did have an amazing bod, I could not stand in front of hundreds of drunk, sweaty, hairy dudes and simply, by my very presence on the stage, drive them into a frenzy. Yet some girls delight in this.” She concluded that the trip to Daytona was “hellish.” 49 “How to Make Him Want You … Bad,” from 1993, lampooned advice offered by Cosmo and YM, some of it astoundingly creepy, like “Brush up against someone in the elevator, in a restaurant, on the street” (Cosmo) or “Kick off your shoes so he can see your lovely feet—lots of men have foot fetishes!” (Eeewww.) The two authors Margie and Mary Ann (again, with just their chummy first names in the byline) then went out and tried the advice and recounted, hilariously, how guys either ran away from them or thought they were cruising for sex.50
Rather than promoting conformity and popularity, Sassy ran articles like “Ways to Fit in Without Even Trying,” “Five Types of Guys to Avoid at All Costs,” “How, When and Where and Why to Dump That Dude; Get Your Worthy Butt Out of That Nowhere Relationship,” and “9 Things About America That Make Us Want to Scream and Throw Stuff,” which included, “It rots to be female.” In “6 Reasons You Don’t Want to Be Popular,” Sassy insisted that being popular is overrated because, secretly, popular people are “As Insecure As You,” they’re “Forced to Conform,” “Play Dumb,” and “Buy Useless Status Symbols.” Most gratifying of all? “Your Chance of Being Cool Later Is Inversely Related to Your Popularity Level in High School.”51 In its holiday party issue, the magazine instructed, “Tell your boyfriend what you think of those dumb blond jokes he’s been throwing around. Then dump him and go party with your best friend.”52 Even the starring systems for reviews were sassy: five stars for a film meant, “See this or die,” while one star meant, “A kick in the head is a better way to see stars”; a five-star record review meant, “I’ve seen God and this is the soundtrack,” versus one star, which meant, “I’d rather work for Clarence Thomas.”53
In Sassy there was a near-perfect blend of a love for and validation of girl culture, with a deep commitment to feminism. Baby boom feminists, having seen fifty-year-old women referred to dismissively as “girls,” and the trappings of femininity used to justify discrimination against women, had long rejected most things “girly” as trivializing. But by the early 1990s, many girls wanted to reclaim girl culture as just as legitimate as boy culture: why was getting a pedicure any dumber than lifting weights? Sassy insisted—despite the fact that being female still “rots”—that being a girl was great and that girls should love themselves. Once a year there was an issue produced by readers, and the magazine ran an annual “Sassiest Girl in America” contest, whose winners and runners-up were accomplished students or musicians, social activists, white and girls of color, and the opposite of “the skinny girl from L.A.”54
In articles like “How to Fight Sexism” and “Do You Need Armpit Hair to Be a Feminist?” Sassy insisted on the importance of feminism to girls, laid out how it had changed since the 1970s and challenged the stereotypes about feminists: “These days you might as well say you eat dirt as admit to being a feminist. Well phooey. We’re not embarrassed to admit in print that we all be feminists because, hot news flash, in terms of fairness, being female in America still stinks big time and needs all the muscles we can give it. It stinks economically: In 1955, women made 64 cents for every dollar a man earned. In 1987 … they made—are you ready?—65 big cents. Whoopee. And the average woman college grad earns less than the average white male high school grad.”55 “Okay, okay—so probably no one has ever told you to your face that you’re inferior because you’re a woman,” wrote Jodie Hargus in 1991. “But it gets implied constantly in subtle ways, which makes it even more powerful. So what do you do? Get bummed and rag on guys? Or start taking action to change things? I pick choice B.”56 In “I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar,” Christina reported, “It’s summer, that lovely time of year when women everywhere can’t even walk down the street without hearing some idiot make gross comments about their body parts. Street harassers used to intimidate me because I was afraid they’d hurt me. But then I took this amazing self-defense course, and now they’d better be scared of me.” The article got tons of fan mail for bearing witness to all of the daily, obnoxious come-ons millions of young woman were subjected to every day, twenty years after the women’s movement.57 What Sassy did was make feminism relevant and cool to an entirely new generation of young women, no mean feat in an era of “I’m not a feminist, but…”
Sassy addressed its readers by assuming that they were smart. “How’s That Drug War Going, Guys? Why the Government’s Drug-Fighting Strategy Is a Colossal and Misguided Waste of Our Money” in September 1992 could have appeared in the Village Voice or Mother Jones (and probably did), just with a slightly different tone. “The Iraq Thing,” in February 1991 opened with this disarming line: “I hate current events; they bore and depress me.” But then the author added, “However, when American troops were sent over to Iraq last summer, all of a sudden the US was dangerously close to war and I didn’t have a clue what the fight would be about. So I found out and I thought you’d like to know too.… Reading quotes from George’s advisers is kind of like listening to a football coach talking about how his team will destroy the opponent. Has everyone forgotten the lessons of Vietnam?” She asserted her opposition to the probable war, and the justifications for it. “I almost puked when I saw George Bush having Thanksgiving dinner with the troops, telling them they were fighting for freedom.” Taking on this conceit of the war being a fight for freedom, she pointed out that the leaders of Kuwait were autocrats and that women there did not have the right to vote.58 This article received more reader mail than any story in the magazine’s history.59
Just like most women and girls, Sassy had a love-hate relationship with American popular culture, and especially with Beverly Hills 90210. The writers loved to ridicule the show and also apparently never missed an episode. In “What a Bunch of Thespians,” they asked an acting coach to watch several episodes and then offer his assessment of the stars’ acting abilities, which was less than kind, especially to Shannen Doherty. Christina Kelly authored a “Beverly Hills 90210 Indecently Exposed” paper doll layout. “They’re such typical teenagers, aren’t they? Brenda and Kelly always in those fashion-correct little bodysuits and minis, not a hair out of place.… Your high school is chock full of people exactly like the characters in ‘Bev Hills,’ right?” Next to each paper doll was a profile with categories like “Hobbies,” “Friends,” and the like. For the Kelly doll the response under “Job” was “You must be kidding” and under “Hobbies” it was “Likes to shop and apply make-up.” Dylan’s “Distinguishing qualities: Is supposed to be sincere and sexy but comes off as phony and slimy”; “Morals: Ha”; “Job: Not”; and “Hobbies: Surfing, reading, driving his upscale convertible, doing it.” Brenda’s hobbies were “Hangs out with Kelly and Donna. Makes out with Dylan.” 60 This was more fun than watching the show itself!
“Shannen Doherty, Pathetic Loser” was how Sassy headlined its January 1993 cover story on its annual entertainment poll among its readers. Inside we learned that 90210 was voted “the show that most often depicts women in a demeaning way,” second only to Married with Children.61 Though teen girls were not the target audience, Northern Exposure was nonetheless the second favorite show for Sassy readers, who also regarded Murphy Brown as the TV show that “most often shows women as fully developed people.”
Sassy had an especial affinity for indie and underground culture, and showcased bands and actors outside the mainstream. It also started a “Zine of the Month” feature that brought these do-it-yourself publications—and their defiant sensibilities—to a much wider audience. Erin Smith of Bratmobile became a Sassy intern in 1991, and shortly the magazine began covering Riot Grrrl bands and zines.
So what happened to derail a magazine this fabulous, one still pined for by its fans fifteen years later, one we wish we still had? (And for more age groups—where’s the mouthy magazine like this for the over-forty set instead of all that empowerment stuff we get?) You will not be surprised to hear that the first villain—the villain of so many infuriating stories about thwarting women’s aspirations—was the religious right. In its view, Sassy did two really bad things: it spoke honestly to teens about sex and featured sympathetic stories about gay teens. All of this made Jan Dawes, a woman from Wabash, Indiana, clearly with a lot of spare time on her hands, and member of a right-wing group called Women Aglow, crazed. She started a petition campaign in 1988 against the magazine through its advertisers and convinced her local Kmart and Hook’s Drug Store to stop carrying the magazine. In short order James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, Donald Wildmon’s American Family Association, and Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority joined in, bombarding advertisers like Revlon, Cover Girl, Maybelline, and Tampax with threats of a boycott if they didn’t yank their ads. The publisher and editor had to embark on a major counteroffensive, and gradually the advertisers came back, in no small part because of Sassy’s robust circulation. But the magazine had to scale back on its features and advice about sex. And some advertisers decided it was best to avoid the publication.
In 1989 Sassy was acquired by Lang Communications, a relatively small and mismanaged firm that did not have the deep pockets or the inclination to push circulation higher through tactics like preferential newsstand placement, direct-mail campaigns, or promotional tours.62 Five years later, in October 1994, Lang sold Sassy to the Los Angeles–based Petersen Publishing—the belly of the beast itself that published Teen. The New York staff was fired, and instantly a new, obviously fake teen jargon entered the magazine with references to one’s “fave actor.” By 1996, Sassy trafficked in dating dos and don’ts and bad celebrity hair days. Readers were beside themselves and wrote in to say they had burned the new issue or torn it into tiny pieces. That same year, the magazine folded.
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Adolescents in America are expected to be restless, rebellious, defiant of adult society and strictures. But girls are supposed to conform to preexisting (mostly male) standards of beauty and behavior, to comply, to obey. Thus, if they behave like true adolescents, they can’t be feminine, and if they adopt the mantle of femininity, they aren’t really adolescents.63 How is that for an impossible place to stand? The fluorescence of feminism in the early 1990s created an environment encouraging girls to claim their sassy selves. At the same time, with the media trashing of Riot Grrrl, the demise of Sassy, and the success of 90210 and Melrose Place, girls saw which kinds of women got rewarded and which kinds didn’t. Meanwhile, TV and film producers understood that girls and women liked seeing women with power in entertainment programming, and that advertisers would be satisfied as long as such fare sold mascara, Oil of Olay, Ultra Slim-Fast, and push-up bras. But it wasn’t only entertainment media that discovered the frisson generated by teen girl sexuality, or the need to discipline women’s desires for power. So did that august institution, the news media.
Copyright © 2010 by Susan J. Douglas