Next week marks the 25th anniversary of the ’90s romantic drama, Reality Bites and if you’re like one of these Dames (*coughKristencough*) then you probably have fond memories of watching Winona Ryder and her crew navigate the world of Gap and psychic hotlines. In fact, Reality Bites is such a great launchpad we’re devoting two different top 5’s to topics it deals with in February. We’re starting things off by going back to the ’90s movies of our youth to ask, “Are they a tiny bit problematic?” The answer may not shock you.
I came of age in the ’90s and also developed my love of movies around this time. But if you know me then you know most things I love are problematic and they all came out in the ’90s. So while you won’t see Lolita on this list – but it easily could be on here. Full disclosure, all but one of these movies I will watch if they’re on.
The Baby-Sitters Club (1995)
I was a massive Baby-Sitters Club stan growing up. I had all the books. I watched the 1990s television show that Disney Channel aired. I ate it up. So when the movie came out my mom, sight unseen, bought it for me on VHS where I proceeded to watch it to the point of memorization. Once I hit about teen years I started to question some things about it, like why Stacey had to hide the fact she was diabetic. Like, she needs to eat an apple every now and then, it’s not like she’s a leper. By the time I was an adult I realized there were some big problems. Like, screw Stacey hiding her diabetes – she’s a 13-year-old girl dating a 17-year-old dude. And the movie ends with them being like, “Next year I’ll be 14” as if that’s any better! Dude, you’ll be 18 and you’re definitely going to jail! And don’t get me started on Kristy’s whole plotline in that movie where she’s hiding the fact she’s in a relationship….with her dad! I so love this movie for its weirdness.
We tried, for a brief shining moment, to bring back the erotic thriller with all the nudity and smut one could muster. It didn’t work, but it did give us some laughably problematic entertainment. You all know Showgirls is one of my favorite movies, so I know better than anyone its issues. Like the fact that Nomi Malone, despite being a kick-ass lady who takes care of shit, is also the pure embodiment of white feminism. Or that this movie has a disgustingly lurid interest in lesbianism (and homosexuality for that matter…lot of weird gay one-liners). And that’s not even discussing the butchering of dance.
American Beauty (1999)
American Beauty now is problematic for totally different reasons, but even in 1999 there were problems I couldn’t truly ignore. The key problem being how this movie employs the “Lolita principle” to weird effect. I will say this about the movie now, Mena Suvari is flawless in that role and how Hollywood botched her career is sad. But mainly it’s just gross and creepy on a variety of levels that have only transmorgified post-Spacey. There’s also the issues of gay panic in this movie which is weird considering Alan Ball is openly gay. I still think Thora Birch and Annette Bening are great. It’s still got some flawless dialogue but……yeah.
Drop Dead Fred (1991)
Much like The Baby-Sitters Club, Drop Dead Fred was, up until adulthood, a delightful tale about a grown woman and her imaginary friend. Cut to being about 15 and realizing, “What was my mom thinking letting me watch this.” For starters, as much as I love Rik Mayall as Drop Dead Fred, the character is a total pervert and what that says about Elizabeth’s (Phoebe Cates) psyche is frightening. On the other hand, poor Elizabeth’s life is presented so terribly. Nearly everyone seems to hate her, except for her best friend Carrie Fisher (yes, she’s here!), and she’s chronically gaslit. I’m surprised this woman isn’t a bowl of mush by the end. And yet…..I really should own this on Blu-ray.
My Father the Hero (1994)
What can you REALLY expect from a movie whose central premise is a young girl (Katherine Heigl) pretends her father (Gerard Depardieu) is her boyfriend to impress a boy? One that’s creepy AF but that I also thoroughly enjoy. Heigl has great comedic timing and some of her one-liners are funny in how stupid they are. Emma Thompson has a cameo because…..she was around? And the fact that everyone believes this relationship is legit, yet no one thinks to call the police says a lot. And all the while Gerard Depardieu isn’t actually the villain (on-screen at least).
I quite enjoy the 90s, and have a lot of favorite films from the decade, and nearly every one of them is problematic. Just like life.
Mrs. Doubtfire (1993)
I’m going to start by saying that loving a problematic movie doesn’t necessarily mean you are part of the problem as long as you can understand its flaws. And such is the case with Mrs. Doubtfire, a movie about a wonderful, loving father who just wants to spend more time with his kids after his divorce. Of course, there are a few minor issues like transphobia, slut-shaming mom, the fact that mom caused all of this because she was mad. This movie isn’t an unwatchable disaster, but it does spark new conversations that wouldn’t have necessarily happened in 1993.
Never Been Kissed (1999)
Another movie that is highly entertaining, but oh, wow, so many problems. There are the overt, clear statutory issues, plus the suggested ones. Drew Barrymore’s Josie has a clear crush on Mr. Coulson, but she also quite enjoys the attention of underage Guy. Likewise, her brother Rob takes 16-year-old Tracy to prom which leads to problems when she drunkenly invites him upstairs. And then at the end, Josie’s assistant tries to kiss one of the teenage girls. There’s just underage tomfoolery all around! But at least, for Mr. Coulson’s sake, Josie IS legal. Even if he didn’t know that at the time.
You’ve Got Mail (1998)
In the grand scheme of things, maybe catfishing isn’t that bad if you really love someone. It could have been worse. He could have destroyed her livelihood and left her penniless. Oh, wait.
Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994)
Transphobia, misogyny, mocking the mentally ill… What other transgressions does Jim Carrey commit via his alter-ego? This movie was pretty hilarious in 1994. Not so much in 2019.
Beauty and the Beast (1991)
Someone had to say it, right? Look, I think this movie gets unfairly criticized and a lot of the “problematic” elements are, in fact, part of the entire point of the fairy tale. Plus, it’s my very favorite of all the Disney animated movies. But, yes, there is a little bit of unaddressed Stockholm Syndrome going on, and there’s that pesky issue of leveling an eternal curse on a child. (If you pay attention at the beginning, the Beast had to have been 11 when he and the palace were cursed by the enchantress.) This is a movie where the problematic elements are worth discussing, and lead to some valuable lessons.
To be honest, the ’90s are not really my favorite decade of films. There were some good films and some very bad ones, but by and large I feel like we could just get rid of the ’90s altogether and not have lost all that much. But there are a few films, even ones that I like, that are just…really…problematic…
American Beauty (1999)
Oh, this film. A film that features Kevin Spacey as a creeper (not a stretch) lusting after someone who is much younger than him (uh…) and somehow manages to put a lot of the blame on the girl herself (double uh…), as well as on his wife for being an emasculating bitch. No one is particularly nice in this film, but it has an undercurrent of creepiness and misogyny not only accounted for by the presence of Spacey (and no, it’s not just that it’s “making a point”). It also inspired a whole generation of emo boys, for which it should really be expunged from the cinematic canon.
Romeo + Juliet (1996)
Problematic? Yes. This film is offensive to anyone who appreciates the beauty of the English language. Who the hell let Leo DiCaprio do Shakespeare? Who cut out Mercutio’s speech? And the balcony scene? Fuck you, Baz Luhrmann. Fuck you.
Fight Club (1999)
Fight Club might get a bad rap because it’s not really meant to reinforce the toxicity that it represents. This might be a case of a film getting away from its director and writer, because it becomes this narrative of male toxicity, anger, and misogyny that prizes the “crisis” of Gen-X masculinity by spending much of its time whining about how terrible the previous generation and women and everyone else are. As with American Beauty, becoming too fascinated with your toxic male protagonists can sometimes wind up glorifying them.
Pulp Fiction (1994)
Again, this hurts because I actually enjoy Pulp Fiction, just as long as I don’t think too much about it. It’s flashy and fun and deliciously violent, and has some excellent performances from some of the biggest names of 90s films. It’s also an opportunity for Quentin Tarantino to indulge his nastiest tendencies, from letting his character shout the N-word constantly, to objectifying and abusing Uma Thurman for no good reason. Tarantino was criticized for his use of violence when this film came out, and while it might seem a bit tamer now than it did in 1994, it’s still got a disturbing tendency to depict violence and rape as sort of…fun.
You’ve Got Mail (1998)
I love me some Nora Ephron, but dear God. This is a warm and fuzzy movie about your friendly capitalist totally destroying a small business owner, and then she pretty much thanks him for it. Yes, there’s Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks being really cute, but probe into this one just a little bit and it becomes very uncomfortable, very quickly. The Shop Around the Corner deserved a better remake, or at least one that didn’t treat vicious capitalist business practices as romantic.
As a baby of the mid-1980s, I came of age in the 1990s, so this is the foundational era of Kim. While much of my viewing activity was classic cinema, I did partake in the films of the period. There were high-points and there were…low points. Here are some of my favorite problematic films of the 1990s.
She’s All That (1999)
Freddie Prinze Jr…mmmm-hmmmm. Suddenly my pubescent eyes were opened up to teen movies and the fact I could have a crush on someone younger than 50 (like I said, I watched a lot of old movies as a child). I was absolutely smitten. Unfortunately, the My Fair Lady rip-off is decidedly problematic when viewed through a contemporary lens. Can popular boy Zach (Prinze) turn nerdy artist Laney (Rachel Leigh Cook) into a popular girl? She’s working class. He’s white collar. Shouldn’t he like her as she is?? Nope. As Hollywood cinema tells us, beautiful girls can’t wear glasses.
Pretty Woman (1990)
Pretty Woman is the gold standard here for problematic 1990s fare. Julia Roberts at her gorgeous likable peak. Richard Gere looking as good as I’ve ever seen him. I won’t lie, even at the young age I watched this I wanted to get with suit wearing Richard Gere. Do we go into the problems with the “Hooker with the heart of gold” archetype? How about the glamorization of sex work? This film has a lot of problems, but when you’re looking for an escapist romantic comedy this is one of the best of the decade.
There’s Something About Mary (1998)
I grew up on a lot of Farrelly brothers (sigh) movies during my impressionable childhood. This is one of the first comedies I watched which felt “adult.” I mean, it was rated R!! I felt like I was expanding my horizons! They talk about sex! However, watching this movie later, you suddenly notice just how creepy Ted is. Poor Mary is a woman with her shit together, who can’t pull herself out of a swamp of terrible, horrible man-children. None of those men deserve Mary. She should run off on her own and make a good life for herself. There’s Something About Mary is a problematic romantic comedy to say the least, bringing no idea what a woman truly wants in a man.
Can’t Hardly Wait (1998)
This one was a bit of a struggle to add. However, it’s a 1990s teen comedy so of course it brings some problematic content. Can’t Hardly Wait is a goddamn delight. Yes, this movie started my longtime crush on Ethan Embry and I don’t care who hears it!! I’m still looking for my Preston. While this movie brings some of the realist female characters of the period (Lauren Ambrose and Jennifer Love Hewitt are both stellar), the men (outside of Embry) struggle to break out of stereotype category. The “nerds” set us back 20 years. There’s just so much face-palming to be done when watching Seth Green’s take on “Kenny.” Finally, why were we all so anxious to lose our virginity in the 1990s?
Encino Man (1992)
I watched this movie during a phase I’m a little embarrassed to talk about. I had a Sean Astin phase. *Hangs Head* Was it Rudy that started it?? Probably. I can’t really explain the crush but it happened. Encino Man is very much a time capsule from the first part of the decade. The clothes, the language (Weeze the juice!), and the performances (Pauly Shore) are only at home during this era. The movie brings a continuation of the bro-tastic nature of the 1980s with some of the most boring female characters to cross movie screens. And to make matters worse, they serve only as sex objects for our (often unlikable) male leads.