Three '90s Film Tropes That Shaped Our Childhood—and Harmed Our Values
When I think of coming-of-age movies from the '90s and early 2000s, I can't help but think about how unrealistic they seem now. The characters that we once saw on screen left us something to be desired. A desire evidenced through commonly used (but outdated) dating, friendship, and high school tropes (you know the ones I'm talking about).
The one where the nerdy, main character finds redemptive glory in the uniquely masochistic form of winning the love of the popular person or maybe the one where a man dresses up as a woman (or vice versa) for the sake of comedy, while subconsciously emphasizing underlying gender biases.
Consider She's All That, Clueless, or any of the quintessential movies from the '90s that portrayed a group of teenagers in high school. There was usually a singular focus on white, able-bodied, privileged individuals that were popular, and therefore, aspirational. Aspirational because they had power—and with power came with the permission to be yourself. But without that power, well, you were considered a "nobody." This subconsciously purports the message that to be popular and to have power, you had to mimic societally idealized white, normative standards of beauty, status and values to be deemed acceptable—and anything else is considered to be less than.
These tropes put an exclamation point on the diversity and inclusion issues that Hollywood has had for a long time and how they affected the impressionable, adolescent youth who watched. These '90s and early 2000s movies illustrated that it was cool to be mean to people who you don't understand, who you don't like, and who don't like you back. Seeing these tropes over and over led to subconscious barriers toward self-acceptance, empathy, and compassion not only for ourselves, but also for others who seem "different" than what was portrayed as "perfect" on screen.
To dive deeper into the complications of these movie tropes and why they were perpetuating harmful narratives, below are the top three that occurred over and over again in '90s and early 2000s cinema. Plus, how modern cinema and TV are changing these narratives today.
Trope: The nerdy main character finds redemptive glory.
In 1999's Never Been Kissed, a struggling female journalist fighting for the acceptance she never got from her peers finally finds it by being a completely different version of herself years later.
In 2004's A Cinderella Story, the popular boy only loved our female lead when she was either wearing a mask or speaking with him behind a computer screen. Beyond that, she was bullied at school because she had to work at a diner her late father left to her.
Even 2006's John Tucker Must Die told us that the only reason female leads could come together was to get revenge on a man. This revenge could only come after the nerdy female character undergoes a makeover (which taps into another trope I'll be getting into later).
So what does all this mean? We're told by our parents growing up that it's good to be different. Unfortunately, mainstream media during this time never reaffirmed this messaging. And by giving us the same, almost prescriptive story on how to find love, understanding and acceptance, we were led to believe that we had to fit into society's standard of what we should be to get what we want.
If we failed at it, our differences would be met with hardship. Hardship would be met with judgment. And judgment meant unpopularity, which left us unaffiliated and unprotected.
Trope: The unpopular person undergoes a "makeover" to win the acceptance of their peers.
In 1999's She's All That, a popular high school senior who has just been dumped makes a bet that he can turn the school's most unattractive girl into the prom queen. He removes her glasses and makes her change out of her overalls and voila! She's gorgeous. Not only is that a problem in and of itself, but this movie reaffirms the message that women are interchangeable. One girl broke up with him? Fine, he'll just get another one.
In 1995's Clueless, the popular main character, Cher, decides to help out the quirky and clumsy new student by giving her a makeover, as if her physical appearance is the only part of her that her fellow classmates would care about. Only until this awkward character becomes more popular than she is, Cher realizes how messed up her priorities are and that it's not all about looks but who you are as a person.
Again, this trope illustrates the idea that you can't be different and happy at the same time. That if you are different from the norm, you'll be ostracized and unaccepted. That the only way to find that acceptance and love is to first start with your physical appearance. This is innately misogynistic and plays into linear storytelling and archaic tropes. These movie examples were also mostly directed by men, and ultimately represented what a man thought about a woman, what a man wanted to see on screen, and how a man wanted to play into his own ego.
Trope: A man dresses up as a woman (or vice versa) for comedic effect.
In 2004, instant hit White Chicks has two black FBI officers cross-dress as females in white face to solve a kidnapping plot. As the story goes on, their antics get more and more heightened by playing into singular moments, like genital-related jokes that oftentimes didn't really pay off to the viewer. Although this movie did ultimately bring forward a positive message around empathy and compassion for others, that message got lost in the superficial roots within it that could lean a bit transphobic.
In 2006's She's the Man, a movie that came a little later but still relevant to this trope, takes a female that dresses up as a male to prove that she can make it on the men's soccer team. While doing so, our main character has to balance being a girl and a boy at the same time, leading to comedic antics, like how naked people are considered funny, periods are considered uncomfortable, and wholesome crossdressing is socially acceptable.
The comedic effect is great, don't get me wrong. But when it marginalizes a community of people, objectifies physical appearances, and dehumanizes gender roles, we as the viewers see a world where we can't get what we want unless we try to be somebody else.
Nowadays, there is so much more nuance to love and acceptance that those movies didn't understand. Now we get complex female stories that have more to them than vying for a man. We see women, not as props, but as fully flawed and developed characters with needs, wants, and desires that we've seen in our male protagonists for years. We see ourselves in those stories. We see depth in female characters. We see reality. A big reason for this? More and more female directors, writers, and showrunners are stepping into the picture.
Even on the smaller screen with TV shows like PEN15 or Never Have I Ever, there is much more authenticity and attainability. Maybe that's because actual teens (aside from the leads/creators) are playing teenagers so we don't skip out on seeing the "awkward stage" we all go through. Maybe it's because BIPOC is portrayed in a way that feels more true and relatable. Or maybe it's the fact that these stories actually deviate from the usual tropes we've seen played out time and time again.
Oftentimes in the real world, everyone is usually nice to everyone. Popularity isn't contingent on how many people you know, but instead, how true you feel within yourself. It's still about loving the super cute person in your school, but it's knowing that they may not be as far out of reach as old high school hierarchies led you to believe. The super cute person, most of the time, also isn't a total prick to our hero/heroine. These stories now show the value of having a really good group of friends and not wanting to have relationships with people just because of their social clout.
If we can see our own stories on screen, as teenagers and young adults, we can feel less alone and further our own understanding of our experiences. We can have compassion and empathy for others. We can have a future that isn't divided. We can have hope.