I just finished reading a BuzzFeed article about the problematic themes in teen dramas that “need to be retired,” and despite not knowing or caring very much at all about the genre, I found myself agreeing that problematic tropes like abusive partners, queer-baiting, and flippant suicide-related plot lines should be be considered old hat.
On one hand, trying to make sense of an egregious and hard-to-fathom soap opera storyline is like arguing with a wall. This is what the genre is at its core – and trying to change it… well, it could be a futile effort.
On the other hand, as the BuzzFeed writer, Hannah Marder, outlines, many of these themes are problematic and narrow representations of life that might affect how audiences operate in the world. Her article states that even something as simple as having characters always end up with their childhood sweethearts ignores the reality that finding lasting romantic love can often be a struggle. So obviously, you can see why having something more intense like abusive teen relationships constantly represented on screen might be normalizing what can lead to real-life trauma.
It’s easy to criticize something you have no stake in, though. It’s when something a little more close-to-the-heart is criticized that you learn how far you’re willing to go for healthy change. To find out how I really felt about leaving problematic tropes in film behind, I thought I’d scrutinize a genre of film that I truly revere: 90s Movies.
Let me backup a minute to tell you why I love 90s movies. I think it’s partly sentimental. There’s something calming about seeing a world that’s no longer there, but you knew once existed.
TFW you remember the 90s...
Even seeing a product on screen that makes you go, “Oh yeah, I remember those things,'' feels nice. Sometimes, especially in wild times such as these, I think that’s a simple way to remember where you’ve been and what you’ve been through. But objectively, I think there are a bulk of movies made throughout the 1990s that are just better films. My hypothesis is that this is partly due to the way films were made, in conjunction with how society has changed overall since the 90s. Let’s break it down:
Film vs. Digital
Films in the 90s were made on film – expensive film – so productions generally required more planning. For your run-of-the-mill box office hit, the studios/directors were striking a balance of a properly executed film for the sake of it being good and marketable, and for the sake of budget. So while a project may have been quickly made, it was still well planned and executed. Of course there are exceptions to that in the 90s – take Stanley Kubrick– who redid shots over and over until he got the exact moment he wanted. That’s a little different than what I set out to describe because he fits in the auteur category of directors which means he did a lot of what he wanted no matter of studio input or budget. He, in particular, was a unique guy, and one who was popular enough to have the budgets during the times he was making these films. Then again, his late 90s film “Eyes Wide Shut” (1999) had all the same, great elements of a 90s film and was one that made 16.1 million in the box office.
Nicole Kidman in Stanley Kubrick’s psychological drama thriller (1999)
Speaking of Box Offices…
The idea of a box office was a dwindling concept even before Covid, and now, as a happy theater-goer I’m worried about their fate. This wasn’t the case in the 90s when theaters were still alive and well, so there was a little bit more drive from movie-makers to make the movie good when ticket sales meant something. I guess in that way, I also miss the 90s movie-going-experience, which also included a lot of A-list celebrities because of their increase in popularity in general.
The State of Society
I don’t mean to sound like a Boomer here, but the state of society has a big affect on how movies are made and how characters come across on screen. Generally speaking, I feel like characters listened and had more deliberate conversations before social media than any of us do in regular life now, or that you see on screen. I think the ability to have instant gratification, streamable content, phones, pings, Slack, Google Chat, text, calls, Zoom, Instagram, etc. makes us more quick to jump in with our comments, and just have a desire to be “quick” in general. That doesn’t mean someone can’t sit through a long film — in fact there’s some research that shows that movies are getting longer than the standard 90-some minute run that most 90s movies had. I simply notice that characters are always interjecting more quickly, glancing at their phones, running to their next errand, etc. etc. – not unlike what we see in our daily lives.
90s movies are free from plots being solved with a quick text, or gimmicks like on-screen text that allows the audience to read texts that are being exchanged between characters.
Tony Zhou’s series “Every Frame a Painting” is amazing for film buffs.
Here’s his take on on-screen texting.
Despite all this, there’s tons and tons of things that are glaring issues in film, and in that way the 30 years since 1990 have not been kind. We all should know by now that the sassy Black sidekick character is a narrow and overplayed type. More importantly, I think you can turn on any film or show and see issues for yourself, which is especially true with aging content. If you’ve been paying attention to media, social media, or the things going on in your own community or household, I’m sure you can spot some problematic themes in film just by having been paying attention lately.
But my biggest question is: How do you have a movie without problems?
The very definition of a story arc includes the word “conflict” and isn’t conflict at someone’s expense at some point? There are plenty of resources written on this subject, and so solving it as I write this tonight is not an option, but I will say a few things about upward progress that I think is being made, without totally ruining film as an art form, or making it so that race, gender, gender identity, sexuality, mental health, and a myriad of other topics are taboo.
A typical story arc (Study.com, 2020). Notice that in the “Resolution” phase, the protagonist ended up at a higher level than in “Exposition/Stasis” - That’s meant to reflect that the protagonist learned something along the way.
Purpose & Intent
There’s a difference between having a character represented a certain way, let’s say a problematic way, and having a character represented in a problematic way while directly relating that character to the purpose of the message of the film. There’s a bit of self awareness in the filmmaking itself that is appreciated in that way and I think audiences have more of a stomach for problematic characters, when the intent is obvious. For instance, if you have a character that is abusive to his partner, but the film or show is representing that as love, I’m a little more keen to notice that and distrust the entire film. Sometimes this decision is up to you as a viewer – It’s up to you to decide what’s problematic and what you will stand.
There’s this really silly naming device I learned in grad school to help with my film editing called “EFNARs” or “Effects for No Apparent Reason.” Basically, this means don’t add visual effects to an edit if it doesn’t do anything to move the story along. Personally, that’s how I feel about partner-beating characters, and the like.
For example, I was having dinner with a friend and she mentioned she didn’t think Mad Men was a good show because of all the mistreatment of women. I argued that is exactly what the show was trying to illustrate, and while the show might have been exaggerated in parts, many of the issues that are problematic were not. Perhaps you can see how that’s an interesting debate with a fine line. (Also, this conversation happened before the series ending that included retribution for many of the ills of the times.)
Another way of thinking about this is if the character or the problem in itself is malicious. One example of this is the show Brooklyn 99, which has become known for breaking some of the tropes of procedural dramas by working hard to make sure the joke isn’t at anyone’s expense. Of course, everyone makes fun of Boyle on that show, but it’s for his naivety, or his insistence on gourmet cooking, etc. Gay jokes aren’t about the person being gay, they’re usually actually making fun of a person’s bigotry or something similar. There are several instances where Captain Holt – whose character is openly gay– goes undercover as a straight man and makes over-the-top womanizing jokes. The joke makes fun of perceived CIS hetero norms not his sexuality. (I will note that I did watch some early episodes and could debate on some early “wokeness” of some jokes, even though I personally find myself lax on some political correctness, for good or bad.) Then, I started listening to the Brooklyn99 Podcast on Luminary to learn more about their quest for goodness on the show and realized a lot of the show creators have debates about how far the joke goes. Times will change, and I suspect more of these issues will come up. For now, I credit the work that they have done to change the system.
Luckily, many of the actors on shows and movies are speaking up to make changes, too, including Stephanie Beatriz who plays Rosa on Brooklyn99 who wanted to play her character as bi-sexual, just as she is in life. I learned that Heath Ledger would not make gay jokes at the Oscars following Brokeback Mountain, that Lamorne Morris chimed in to right some of the wrongs in the way his character, Winston Bishop, was written on New Girl, and insisted on having a police brutality episode to address the issue head on.
Stephanie Beatriz as Rosa Diaz, Brooklyn99
Serialized TV & Character Development
The first Golden Age of TV began in the late 1940s through the late 1950s, and now we’re experiencing what critics and the like call our second wave, which started in the 2000s most notably with shows like The Wire and The Sopranos. Who knows when the new Golden Age will end — with a constant stream of high quality shows at your disposal, this might just be the new age, and it has some benefits in the character development department.
Now, while I’ll argue that a character shouldn’t need repeated and extensive screen time to be represented well, I have to admit it doesn’t hurt. The ability for a character to have time to reveal themselves gradually and expose the nuances and experiences that they’ve had to make them the way they are is a reminder that we need to do this in life as well. As a Netflix viewer, for instance, we get to relate to a character over time. Often it doesn’t happen until later in the season — which is usually purposeful. A problematic character gets the time to explain themselves and we empathize with their flaws. The same goes for a character that might be traditionally stereotyped, the audience gets to see that there’s layers to that person. Art imitates life and we often forget personal evolution because it happens gradually over time.
While films and TV have traditionally played a role in keeping marginalized communities on the margin, we’re luckily seeing different types of characters represented on screen— in ways that films or shows in the 90s or otherwise couldn’t, or didn’t, do.
As with most things in life, improvement is needed and the right answer may never be found, but I’m hopeful at the progress that has been made, even generally from the time of my beloved (but, not always just) 90s movies. Would we have movies if life were a perfect utopia? Perhaps not, but I’d like to think we’d all be out unabashedly enjoying our utopian lives. Until then, we can strive for positive change.
P.S. If you’re looking for GREAT 90s movies, start here: