I Love ’90s Pop Culture—Does That Make Me Problematic?

by Yasmine Shemesh

Published January 2020 in FLARE

There is an episode of Boy Meets World, when the gang is in college, where they are sitting around campus and figuring out what their soap opera names are. The moniker comes from the combination of your middle name and the street you grew up on. Angela, the only visible person of colour on the show, says hers is Shanaynay Martin Luther King Boulevard.

It is stereotypical and, certainly, not funny. But despite this and other such missteps, Boy Meets World had so much goodness attached to it: Shawn and Angela’s relationship, for one, which was complex and not limited to a diversity gimmick; the importance of mentorship, as shown by the characters’ relationship with Mr. Feeny; Cory’s emotional vulnerability; and intelligent, outspoken, eccentric Topanga.

That dichotomy is one of the reasons CJ “Ceej” James and Tony Curtis, the co-hosts of Bruh Meets World, a fancast that revisits episodes of Boy Meets World, were so fascinated by the program, particularly as men of colour. “That show taught us so much about what we thought were positive lessons about love, friendship, and relationships with your parents and teachers—and a lot of it is very good,” says Curtis. “But as we go back and review it, there have been things that have happened that are, like, ‘Wow, we were taught this as kids and I really don’t like that we were taught that as kids.’”

Streaming services like Netflix and Disney+ have provided an immersive platform that allows us to revisit entertainment staples from our childhood. Spotify gives us instant access to a catalog of music that formed the soundtracks to our youth. Retro-themed Instagram accounts fill our feeds with images and videos of yesteryear. And often, when we reflect on the pop culture we consumed as children or teens and feel sentimental about, we realize that it does not always hold up to our current standards for a variety of reasons, whether it be systemic sexism, offensive language or culturally outdated depictions—and especially in today’s society where everything is finely combed for political correctness.

But just because something is deemed problematic, that does not mean we should discount all the reasons it was so significant to us in the first place—does it? What about media that is linked to something or someone offensive? Can we feel okay about enjoying a Harvey Weinstein movie, for example, when we are aware of the filmmaker’s predatory and abusive behaviour? And if we do, does that mean we condone it? What about representations of the prejudices of a certain time?

How do we move forward with consuming nostalgia and pop culture when a lot of it is inherently problematic?

There are legitimate reasons why we love nostalgia so much

Nostalgia is, quite literally, everywhere. The ’90s, in particular, have been having a moment for a while, from fashion and music to remakes and reboots of favourite television shows and movies. James Holler, co-host along with Andrea Johns and Dee Mortimer of Girly Mags, a podcast that deep-dives into teen magazines of the ’90s and early aughts, credits part of our obsession with nostalgia to it being a reminder of our formative years.

“It’s right there in the name: formative,” Holler says. “Those years have the most impact because it was a time when [you] were developing into the person [you] are.”

Pop culture exists as a special shared language for those who grew up in a certain time. And consuming it in the past was arguably a more tangible experience than it is now. Many of us will remember, for example, having to sit by the radio with a finger on the “Record” button and wait for a song to come on so we could add it to a mixtape. There was something comforting in that, adds Mortimer.

“I think you had more of a moment with the material,” she says. “It wasn’t just entering something into a search engine and having the world at your fingertips. You had to kind of work to get your hands on these things.”

The fact that social media didn’t really exist in the ’90s contributes to fond memory too. “I feel like, today, we’re all just so aware of ourselves and so aware of how we want to present ourselves and be perceived on social media,” says Randi Bergman, founder of the nostalgia website Capsule 98. “[The ’90s were] the last time that you had no self-awareness—in a good way. It sort of let you be who you truly are.”

And there was plenty that was forward-thinking for its time. Johns recalls a 1992 issue of Sassy magazine that featured an article for African American girls on how to style natural hair—an inclusivity, she observes, that was noticeably lacking in other popular glossies. Music festival Lilith Fair made large strides in terms of visibility for female artists in the late ’90s. Pedro Zamora, from MTV’s The Real World, was the first openly HIV-positive person shown on reality television and his commitment ceremony was the first televised union of a same-sex couple.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t look at our faves critically

But, simultaneously, many advances were contradicted in ’90s pop culture. “There was not a lot of wiggle room in the way that women could live their lives,” says Bergman. “There’s a lot of romance prioritized over everything, even in the movies that are very well-regarded.” She points to 1995’s The American President, in which Annette Bening’s character, a powerful environmental lobbyist fighting against climate change, gives up everything for love.

Magazines like YM and Seventeen were filled with conflicting messages. On one page, they would champion the value of staying true to yourself, but on the next there would be weight-loss product advertisements. There was content that might have been progressive, but was problematic because of how it was covered—a 1989 issue of Seventeen, for instance, included an article on voguing that ran a photo of Madonna with guidelines on how to, essentially, appropriate the ballroom culture instead of highlighting its Black, Latino and queer history. There were also endless embarrassing moments that lamented getting periods, reinforcing the idea that menstruation should be something to feel ashamed of. Fashion editorials had tall, thin girls modelling dresses for curvy body types.

And it is no secret that the majority of popular media suffered from a distinct lack of cultural diversity. “That was very confusing for me as a kid, knowing that the Fresh Prince came from Philadelphia and Cory [from Boy Meets World] lives in Philadelphia, and yet they don’t look like they come from the same [place],” says Curtis.

In a broad sense, pop culture is a reflection of what society was largely like during a specific time, including all the problematic social norms that went along with it. It is a historical portrait, for better or for worse. “What’s been very revealing when we watch an episode of Boy Meets World—or anything else from this time period—and there’s a joke that has not aged well, the reaction of the crowd and the laughter [in the studio audience], lets you know that it’s not just that one show that was the problem,” Curtis adds.

There *is* a responsible way to consume problematic media

How, then, can we consume pop culture once we recognize that much of it is full of potentially harmful stereotypes? Is there such a thing as a responsible way to approach it while still being able to enjoy the things about it that are, in fact, positive?

“I think it’s fine to consume [problematic] things as long as you don’t let it off the hook [entirely],” says James. “You can enjoy something for what it was and still be like, ‘This is bad.’”

“Part of it is learning to forgive yourself and when you are able to forgive yourself, you’re able to forgive others,” he continues. “I remember watching Scary Movie and loving it. And now I see that entire movie is about making fun of several different kinds of minorities. But because it was done in the hands of minorities [the movie was developed and written by Shawn and Marlon Wayans and directed by Keenen Ivory Wayans], we kind of allowed it.”

It is important to acknowledge problematic past societal norms that have become ingrained in pop culture because we are still dealing with many of the same issues—from racism and misogyny to transphobia—today. Without honest reflection and scrubbing away some of the glittery facade of nostalgia, we cannot continue to progress and be better. “To not comment on it, I think, is a disservice and a mistake,” says Mortimer. “How do you unlearn and how do you course-correct that ignorance? Your ignorance isn’t your fault, but it is your fault if you don’t do anything when you realize that you are ignorant.”

It is also worth noting that information was not as exhaustive or as accessible as it is now; the internet has played an integral role in the sharing potential of knowledge. “I had encyclopedias or magazines to look up sex information,” says Johns on growing up in the ’90s. “A lot of perspectives that people had were either systemic or based on knowledge that was sort of funnelled to them.”

And it doesn’t necessarily include cancel culture

It would be remiss to not mention the complicated concept of cancel culture, especially in relation to context. The outraged response to want to withdraw all support for or engagement with something offensive can, in some ways, be a measure of how far we have come. At the same time, it can demonstrate self-righteousness and hinder a valuable and necessary opportunity for education.

The public takedown of Weinstein importantly helped to reveal years of sexual abuse in Hollywood. But, mass boycotting as a general reaction to something that does not align with our current ideals is concerning and dangerous, according to several sources. Not only does it perpetuate a mob mentality, but it leaves no space for tolerance. “If we were to [do] that, then we would have nothing to work on for our podcast,” Johns says. “It would be like, ‘All these magazines are problematic. We’re not going to read them.’” And so, it is vital to try to illuminate and examine where the cracks exist in our culture, so we can have a reference point to how we have evolved as a society—and what we need to keep working on.

Every era has its good, bad and ugly. That does not mean that offensive constituents should be dismissed, but perhaps intent and context should be considered before we collectively shun something for its ignorance. And while we do live in a more globalized time now, we do not want to get to the point where we censor ourselves to make it seem as if nothing bad ever happens. Doing so, James cautions, distorts facts—and is how revisionist history moves forward.

“Cancel culture, as a whole, is problematic in and of itself,” says Bergman. “I think it’s limiting because it presupposes that people can’t make their own choices and value judgments.”

What we consume and, indeed, what we want to engage with is an entirely individual choice. It is up to us to draw the line between what we personally feel is acceptable for ourselves and what is not. It is possible to separate morality from the maker and it is also okay if we cannot. Ultimately, perhaps what responsible pop culture consumption really comes down to is having an open and critical dialogue about what is problematic, trying to understand the surrounding context and hopefully learning something to expand our perspectives. Not impetuously cancelling, not blindly believing all parts of our nostalgia are rosy, but instead taking a thoughtful approach to explore what we are consuming, what it represents, what it meant then and what it means now.

“Discussion is a huge part of it,” considers Curtis. “I’m able to understand people from different generations who have different biases when I watch the art that they consumed as children. I’m like, ‘Oh, that’s why you think it’s okay to make that joke. I don’t agree with you, but I have a better understanding of you and your experience.’”

“That’s one of the main reasons I’m upset that Disney won’t put Song of the South on Disney+, because I feel like there’s a really responsible way they could do it,” he continues. [In an October 2019 tweet thread, Disney revealed that they wouldn’t be releasing Song of the South—a 1946 animated and live-action film—onto Disney+. The film, which depicts the relationships between a white boy and his family’s former slave, has long been considered racist]. “You could have a black artist come up, talk about the historical context of it, talk about what’s wrong with it. Show it unedited and let us see what was deemed appropriate to that audience at that time. I feel that we need to preserve what’s wrong with this art so that we can have the conversation to learn from it.”