We were on a break

It was the decade of Friends, Bill Clinton and a fresh new pan-European passport. Underneath the teen-pop smile of the nineties there were blemishes.
Cast members of NBC's hit comedy series Friends. Credit: Warner Bros. Television
Cast members of NBC's hit comedy series Friends. Credit: Warner Bros. Television
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If you’re one of the tens of millions of people watching Friends on Netflix, chances are you were too young to remember it the first time around. The company is notoriously secretive about viewing data, but the US sitcom, first broadcast between 1994 and 2004, was the UK’s most streamed TV show in 2018 and 2019. Even its loss from Netflix US in 2020 hasn’t dented its worldwide appeal much – it’s still in the top ten, largely due to its popularity among younger generations: millennials and generation Z   – although they’re not entirely happy about some of its tropes. 

Friends is only one example of nineties nostalgia. There is a seemingly unending tidal wave of culture flowing from the decade, from fashion – were combat trousers ever flattering? –  to music, films, and TV shows.

It’s not difficult to understand this affection for times (not very) past. We live in an age of ceaseless worry – even disregarding the current pandemic, if only we could. The last twenty years has seen the unstoppable rise of the internet, and with it, the growth of a work culture that requires us to be always on – if you’re lucky enough to have a full-time job, that is. The repercussions of the 2008 financial crash were far-reaching. Debt, precarious employment, and wildly unaffordable housing, are the reality for many, particularly for the young.

In this new age of anxiety, many of us are tethered to social media, doom scrolling, arguing with strangers or seeking validation from them  – and could there be any more WhatsApp groups? The radiant, progressive politics of the 1990s – Labour’s sweeping 1997 election victory; Bill Clinton, departing the White House in 2001 with the highest end-of-office approval rating since Second World War  (although probably no one asked Monica Lewinsky) – is long gone, Obama aside, leaving Brexit, Capitol rioters, and echo chambers. Uncertainty is the only certainty. Add Covid into the mix, and it’s no wonder that there is a collective yearning for a simpler time, what media scholar Neil Ewan terms the ‘peaceful fin de siècle… an interregnum’ between the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and 9/11 in 2001.

The nineties represent a softer, kinder decade than the sharp-edged Eighties, when the dynamic duo of Thatcher and Reagan, fingers hovering above the nuclear button, dominated. In the nineties, the Cold War thawed, the European Union sprang to life, and steady economic growth was the norm for much of the West. Relationships and social interactions took place in person, blessedly free of technology. The 24 hour news cycle was hovering just out of reach, waiting for a white Ford Bronco driven by O.J. Simpson to race down a Los Angeles freeway. Worried? Try 1990s wonder drug Prozac, or better yet, MDMA, ubiquitous since late eighties rave culture.

And then there is the televisual Prozac of FriendsIts enduring appeal lies in its version of young adult life lived in expansive, rent controlled West Village apartments, largely free of responsibilities. Much nineties culture offers a similar idyll – lots of things are rose coloured if you squint hard enough. It was a decade where female empowerment seemed a real possibility, kick started by Susan Faudi’s seminal Backlash in 1991; a decade that birthed third-wave feminism. Women were marrying later, matching male colleagues beer for beer, and throwing off the shackles of domesticity. ‘I don’t do the dishes/ I throw them in the crib,’ sang Courtney Love on Hole’s Plump in 1994, a rallying cry if ever there was one. 

A world apart from Hole et al, 16 year-old Britney Spears shot to global stardom following a 1998 tour of America’s ubiquitous shopping malls, her iconic Baby One More Time video seared into our consciousness. She was a shining star in a golden age of teen pop music, which jostled for attention alongside grunge and rap in the nineties charts. And if Britney, not to mention Rachel, Monica and Phoebe, were too saccharine, there was always Buffy The Vampire Slayer. To call it a cult hit is to underplay its cultural significance – it has remained beloved by viewers and academics since it began in 1997, thanks, in no small part, to its smart, arse-kicking heroine.

There comes a time, however, when the warm glow of nostalgia is buffeted by reality’s spiky edges. It didn’t take long for new generations to question representations in Friends – from its mono-racial casting to body shaming and jokes at the expense of gay and minority characters, not to mention Rachel’s workplace sexual harassment of her assistant Tag.

Other thorny issues with nineties culture have surfaced recently. The New York Times documentary Framing Britney Spearspresents a sobering picture of a smart, talented young woman thrown to the paparazzi, destroyed by the patriarchy, and denied agency over her own life, even now, at the age of 39. It’s uncomfortable viewing, making us complicit in her wretched treatment.

Serious allegations of misogyny and misconduct have also been levelled against Buffy’s creator, Joss Whedon. These are not new, but a detailed statement on 10 February by the actor Charisma Carpenter, a cast member of both Buffy and its spin-off Angel, makes them impossible to ignore. Heavy-hearted fans must begin the task of separating the art from the artist.

Even Backlash has been mired in controversy, with Faludi criticised by young radicals for her lack of intersectionality, and use of allegedly flawed and partial statistics. But really, anyone with two X chromosomes knows the feminism sold to us in the 1990s was just a myth, never translating into economic parity or equal representation. 

Nostalgia is a peculiar beast. Even though some of the wheels have come off, the cultural juggernaut of the nineties shows no sign of slowing down. Inconvenient truths can be sidelined, allowing us to imagine we are sitting on the sofa at Central Perk with the cast of Friends or hanging out with Giles from Buffy in Sunnydale High’s strangely unpopulated library – at least while our anxiety age rages on apace.

Fay Schopen

Fay Schopen is a journalist and editor.

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