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Posted on May 5, 2017
When many of us think of 1990s television we are filled with nostalgia for the past, millennials longing for a childhood that no longer exists. Television shows such as The Powerpuff Girls, Sister, Sister, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer bring back memories of wanting to be witches, have superpowers, or find a long lost twin. But what else did these TV shows teach us as we grew older? In this essay I will be analyzing the popular 90s television shows mentioned above while also including other hits of the 90s such as Sex and the City, Charmed, and Beverly Hills, 90210. During my analysis I will be looking at trends such as girl power, feminism, and how these shows taught lessons through their storylines. By looking at all of this I plan to see how 90s television shaped the generation that watched them while having a specific focus on girls who watched these shows. Some questions I plan to answer are: Did 90s television aim to impact a certain demographic? What was their intended impact? Was this impact successful? What part did feminism play in 1990s television? What kind of issues were commonly discussed in 90s television and why? Can we trace the impact that 1990s television left to current society?
When originally given the constraints of 1990s teenage girl I wondered: “what topic can I do that will be interesting but also have a considerable amount of resources available?” While I am no longer a big fan of classic, cable television due to the creation of streaming services such as Netflix and YouTube that give a more personalized experience I was a big fan of a cable television during my youth. Many of the shows discussed in my research were shows I watched growing up in the late 1990s/early 2000s. Prior to this paper I ran a blog in which I analyzed 13 different 90s television shows by watching episodes/clips available on YouTube or Hulu with one show a week. During this time I discovered many concepts and sources that I had not known about prior to this project so I started formulate ideas during this process of my research. Currently I have 13 blog entries with each one being about a different television show that is approximately 500 words long so I will be building off of that original research in this paper.
As I started to look for different literature about popular 90s television I found many that encompassed the general ideas of the new normal, feminism, and life lessons/morals to be learned. The first show I analyzed that I found an appropriate application to everyday life and realism was Sister, Sister. In TGIF: Thank Goodness It’s Family: Family Messages in ABC’s 1990s Friday Night Lineup by Kourtney Hanna Smith she first introduced me to the idea of Third Wave Feminism Movement and its influence on 90s television and culture by using Sister, Sister as one of her main examples. In this article Third Wave Feminism is described as, “Third wave feminists were urged to take on feminism in a new way in with themes of inclusion, multiplicity [of diversity in the forms of race, class and sexual orientation], contradiction, and everyday feminism,” (Smith, 2015). The author also puts into perspective the necessity for studying television,” Collectively, television family relations are purposive, that is, they achieve outcomes expected of families such as limitation and resolution of conflict, successful socialization of children, and effective management of day-to-day life. However, such portrayals of family life can be misleading, causing unrealistic positive or negative views of how family life functions or how the world works. Inaccurate depictions in fictional television programs can shape cultural views of the world. Because of these inaccurate fictional portrayals, research is necessary to study television’s effects on human thoughts and behaviors,” (Smith, 2015). This inaccuracy of portrayal and the need for accurate portrayal places the need for realism and different points of view to be important parts of television. This is applied to Sister, Sister through the use of realistic problems teenagers might have and the author describes, “Many of the themes and lessons in Sister, Sister’s early episodes deal with adolescence trials and tribulations. Physical appearance and dating woes dominate the girls concerns, from needing dates for the school dance, to being afraid of having a pimple.,” (Smith, 2015)). Real life issues such as these make the show relatable to everyday girls who are watching at home and can then see the process of events after Tia or Tamera respond to the event. This can be used as a learning strategy for young viewers by analyzing what they are watching subconsciously.
Other literature included discussion on Sex and the City in Sex and the City: A Postfeminist Point of View? Or How Popular Culture Functions as a Channel for Feminist Discourse by Fien Adrians and Sofie Van Bauwel. The description of feminism in television is continued in a more adult show. Here the author notes that the original creators never intended for Sex and the City as a feminist but that in both academic and media formats it has evolved to represent contemporary feminist ideals. This reading specifically places Sex and the City in the postfeminism era that is described in different ways with some finding it to be a marketing technique done to suck women in to buying what the seller is selling through empowerment while others claim that it is meant to be a balance between feminism and femininity (Adriaens and Van Bauwel, 2011).). The authors support that Sex and the City falls under the second claim and that it blends together feminism and femininity in an interesting way for audiences. Aspects of postfeminism such as consumer culture are a common trend in Sex and the City with it being described in the show as, “By consuming, the female protagonists develop their identity. Public citizenship is constructed through the notion of woman as shopping citizen. Not only goods and services are consumed; men can also be situated within this process of commodification. Men are presented as consumption goods for women to buy, consider, fit and return (when not considered useful),” (Adriaens and Van Bauwel, 2011).). When looking at trends such consumerism in television shows it brings us to ask ourselves, “to what extent does the viewer pick up on it and does it change their habits or ideals?”
While I have discussed literature on realism and feminism as tools in television I now move on to intentional live lessons. The best example of this is Beverly Hills, 90210. During my early analysis of this show I assumed it to be very vapid and superficial but as I did research and watched it myself I soon found that it offered advice to the audience on how to deal with serious, real life problems such as sexual assault and economic status. As I started doing research on this show I quickly found a quote by the creators of the show a quote from Aaron Spelling that says, “We have a sign up here that says when you do issues, and God knows we did forty-one issues on 90210 alone, ‘Don’t preach, teach.’ Say things in a way that young people understand them,” and another quote from producers of the show was, “We hope that we can have some impact a) to entertain, and b) when its over to get them [teens] to think about what they have seen, for maybe about five seconds. That was always our goal, just five seconds. And the fact is, it seems that our impact is a little longer than that,” (Magee, 2014). These quotes put the whole show into a different perspective for me. Shows such as Sex and the City did not intentionally include feminist dialogue yet had them anywhere but Beverly Hills, 90210 intentionally put specific storylines, dialogue, and events into their show with the hopes of impacting their audience. Because they did this it allows for more inspection of the reasoning and I think also offers a stronger impact to the resulting media since they created it with specific intentions in mind unlike Sex and the City where things can be found but were not always done intentionally.
For the main part of my analysis I will be combining previous literature on the subject of feminism, life lessons through media, and realism through media along with trends found on scholarly sources about these television shows and my own viewing of the television shows. This is very much what I previously did for my blog posts but more concise and with those three specific points in mind. The shows I analyzed for my blog were Full House, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Friends, Sister, Sister, Saved by the Bell, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Beverly Hills, 90210, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Clarissa Explains it All, All That, The Powerpuff Girls, Sex and the City, and Charmed in that order. While all of these shows had an impact on society for this analysis I am interested in those that deal with feminism, life lessons in media, and pieces of realism in media the most since they are the most common trends among them and also have the strongest impact on female viewers. Because of this I will be mainly focusing on Sister, Sister for its realism, The Powerpuff Girls, Sex and the City, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer for their feminist messages, and Beverly Hills, 90210 for life lessons and morals that can be learned from watching show though this part can also be seen in the analysis of the other shows..
To start off my analysis I will be looking at realism and the attempt for television to be as encompassing of reality as possible and I will be looking at the show Sister, Sister and the possible impacts this can have on an audience. In Sister, Sister we see, “traditional family values of love, friendship, togetherness, and instilling the importance of hard work and education in children,” (Smith, 2015). The concept of family and love is pervasive among television aimed toward a younger, family friendly demographic. Sister, Sister uses this preconceived notion to shift away from the norm of a nuclear family to allow room for blended families such as the one featured in the show to also be considered normal among viewers. This is used as an example to show the viewers that even though they may not have a family that is the typical mother, father, and children setup that it can still be a loving, normal family. This concept can also be applied to shows such as Full House that deal with the struggle after losing a spouse and features three grown men trying to raise three little girls after the death of their mother. By television providers producing shows that deviate from the norm it broadens what is considered normal in both television and real life.
Moving onto feminism in 90s television I will be first looking at Sex and the City. As I previously mentioned postfeminism was not intentionally added into the show but is a theme among it nonetheless. The show focuses on the career goals and romantic relationships of four women living in New York City. I previously mentioned consumption as a trend among postfeminism. In Sex and the City the women consume men in a similar fashion that many say men consume women: with little regard to the relationship toward sex. In the show, “Women are thus allowed to use men to fulfill their needs and desires. Although consumption seems to be an important topic, it is often mocked and represented with a little irony. This ambivalence and contradiction is typical for postfeminism (that is, situated within the postmodern tradition),” (Adriaens and Van Bauwel, 2011). ). Another aspect that is notable in Sex and the City while also playing a large part in other television is fashion, “Phenomena such as The Spice Girls and Madonna prove that fashion can be a symbol of power and a source of pleasure: Dressing up equals fun, fun equals empowerment’. The process of getting power by means of the body, the image or fashion, is often called “fashion feminism.” Sex and the City offers a lot of attention to fashion and fashion articles. References are numerous: Valducci, Gucci, Dior, Prada, Boss, etc. Fashion and the act of shopping in general are represented as funny. Characters receive power for their fashion sensitivity, the power ‘‘lesbian’’ for example: ‘”The power lesbians, they have it all, great shoes, killer eyewear and invisible makeup.” Identity is acquired through fashion,” (Adriaens and Van Bauwel, 2011). While some forms of feminism claim that femininity is in direct opposition of feminism, Sex and the City shows that they can coexist especially in the form of fashion. Fashion is used as a form of empowerment to women and postfeminism allows women the choice to be who they want to be. This is expressed in Sex and the City through consumption and fashion but also the strong women it is based upon. This example helps to show women viewers that their value is not intrinsically based upon their sex lives and that they can be as free as the men depicted in the show are and it shows how lesbians are seen as powerful without a man and are something to aspire towards.
Next up is The Powerpuff Girls, while vastly different from Sex and the City in regards to the demographic they are appealing to and the storylines, they are both remarked as feminist works. Girl power is a common theme in the show, “The Powerpuff Girls occupy a space more closely related to the “contested terrain” of Riot Grrl third-wave feminism because they reclaim and reinvent girlhood by insisting on the simultaneity of femininity and power. They are indeed cute little girls and do all the things that little girls are “supposed” to do, but they also repeatedly demonstrate more physical and mental strength than all of the men and almost all of the women on the show. They must negotiate between their opposing identities as little girls and superheroes, and they do so fairly well—most of the time at least. But it is in these difficult moments that they most clearly gesture toward the contested and transformative space of feminist agency,” (Hager, 2008). It is through this approach of non-sexualized, strong girls that the show is creating the idea of girl power to their audience. Since this show was most popular among a younger demographic it gave children the chance to see females be seen as strong and relevant members of society while still having girlish, cute tendencies showing that they do not need to be like males to have those characteristics.
The final show to look at for feminist trends is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy is often considered the iconic woman warrior of 90s television, paving the way for future generations of strong females. This show was created specifically for womens empowerment, “Whedon’s Buffy character first appeared in the 1992 high-camp film, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, reflecting both the screenwriter’s attraction to gothic horror stories and film and his anger at the omnipresent reality of male violence against women: “This movie was my response to all the horror movies I had ever seen where some girl walks into a dark room and gets killed. So I decided to make a movie where a blonde girl walks into a dark room and kicks butt instead.” While Whedon and executive producer of the TV series, Gail Berman, see their program as supplying role models for young women, Whedon is also attempting to reach young men: “If I can make teenage boys comfortable with a girl who takes charge of a situation without their knowing that’s what’s happening,” Whedon insists, “it’s better than sitting down and selling them on feminism,” (Early, 2001). While he is not directly saying Buffy is a feminist show it is implied through is comparison between watching a TV show about a strong woman or being schooled on feminism. Buffy is a great example of feminist ideas being displayed in television for consumption by both girls and boys. The girls become more comfortable with the idea of being strong, independent women and the boys become more comfortable with women and do not feel threatened. I think Buffy is one of the prime example of 90s television that aimed to raise of women and making it a norm in our society.
The final show I will be analyzing is Beverly Hills, 90210 for its aim to help viewers intentionally. This is also a trait that can be seen in Buffy the Vampire Slayer since both creators made decisions during the creation and run of the show to give the show substance and application into everyday life through empowerment and advice. While I have previously mentioned the way in which Beverly Hills, 90201 wanted to speak to its audience instead of preach at them with the content it showed, during the creation of it writer Darren Star, “remembered the network asking him to write “a high school show that had never been done before. It had to be honest and thoughtful and treat its characters with respect. There have been shows in that vein on TV about cops, about doctors, about lawyers—about everybody but teenagers,” (Magee, 2014). It is through this show that an attempt can be made to breach the gap between teenagers and adults and speak with them about issues such as sexual assault and teen pregnancy in a way that is nonjudgmental and allows the teens to learn from characters on a TV show. Television such as this was created with the intention to fill these gaps and probably helped many young teenagers out, especially teenage girls, who were dealing with these issues at the time and did not know how to deal with them. Shows such as this give an example of a path that can be taken by viewers while also working as a moral compass for the viewer when looking at the show but also real life.
In conclusion, I did not find quantitative data that showed the impact that 90s television had on society but that was not really what I aimed to do. Through analyzing these shows I was able to discover how feminism played a part in their development and viewing while also looking at other aspects such as making television more relatable to the viewer by showing real life situations and by addressing controversial issues to help guide the viewer if they ever come across them themselves. My viewing and analysis of these shows makes me believe that they were successful in trying to educate the public and empower women. Many girls during the 90s had strong, free females to look up to ranging from the cast of Sex and the City to The Powerpuff Girls thus creating a passage for females of all ages to view content that empowered them. Postfeminism is a common theme in many of these shows and can be seen still developing in society today possibly due the media consumed by girls of yesterday.
1. Smith, Kourtney Hanna. TGIF: Thank goodness it’s family: Family messages in ABC’s 1990s Friday night lineup. Thesis. Middle Tennessee State University, 2015.
2. Hager, Lisa. “”Saving the World Before Bedtime”: The Powerpuff Girls, Citizenship, and the Little Girl Superhero.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 33.1 (2008): 62-78. Project Muse Web. 26 Apr. 2017.
3. Adriaens, Fien, and Sofie Van Bauwel. “Sex and the City: A Postfeminist Point of View? Or How Popular Culture Functions as a Channel for Feminist Discourse.” The Journal of Popular Culture 47.1 (2011): 174-95. Wiley Online Library. Web. 26 Apr. 2017.
4. Early, Francis H. “Staking Her Claim: Buffy the Vampire Slayer as Transgressive Woman Warrior.” The Journal of Popular Culture 35.3 (2001): 11-27. Wiley Online Library. Web. 19 Mar. 2017.
5. Magee, Sara. “High School is Hell: The TV Legacy of Beverly Hills, 90210, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” The Journal of Popular Culture 47.4 (2014): 877-94. Wiley Online Library. Web. 19 Mar. 2017.