I learned everything I know from watching Clueless, Scream and Sabrina the Teenage Witch. An essay about feminism by Lizzi Sandell.
I was raised, primarily, by women—by my mother, sister, and grandmother and even by my late dog, Polly, who was both a literal and figurative ‘sassy bitch’. Feminism was not a dirty word. I absorbed its message as I absorbed my other liberal sensibilities via a sort of cultural osmosis, or quiet conditioning. This was not, however, the type of feminism that I have come to know in college classes or in pedantic online forums: my mother is a heroine more suited to the ethos of Sex and the City, where women loved their jobs and loved good sex and defied romantic victimhood wherever possible. Meanwhile, the Spice Girls wore short skirts and did a lot of shouting. This was popular feminism of the 1990s and it felt accessible to me. It felt visceral and it felt fun. Personal rather than strictly political, practical rather than theory-laden. If this ‘girl power’ message was somewhat anecdotal, it was no less compelling for that.
I should preface this by saying that I do not intend to write a reactionary piece, or one that is in any way a judgement of the feminist movement in its more modern manifestations or critical forms. Rather, this is an ode to the women, both fictional and real, who helped me to navigate womanhood. Because before I had a theoretical framework, I had film and television. I used to joke that I learned everything I know from watching Clueless, Scream, and Sabrina the Teenage Witch. It is only now I realize the truth in it. I feel it is no coincidence that the shows and movies I feel most nostalgic about happen to feature some really interesting, complex female characters. Or that, when revisited, they actually function as pretty sound feminist texts.
Clueless is probably my all-time favorite film; it is an exquisite parody of itself. At 13, the satirical elements were not immediately obvious—I simply fell in love with the colors, the humor and the soundtrack. The latter element is a thesis in itself, adding to the irony with songs like No Doubt’s ‘I’m Just a Girl’ (it also, thankfully, edits out a part of Jill Sobule’s ‘Supermodel’, that features the line, “I’m not gonna eat today, and I’m not gonna eat tomorrow…”). Clueless is that rare gem—a major Hollywood hit (it placed second in the box office to Apollo 13), directed by a woman. It also passes the Bechdel test with flying colours, as Cher and Dionne discuss their outfits (i.e not their boyfriends or any other male character) in the very first proper dialogue sequence. It contains two main African-American protagonists (which is more than can be said for say, the much-lauded Mean Girls) and even offers a sneaky analysis of the feminist implications of street slang: “most feminine pronouns do have mocking, but not necessarily misogynistic undertones.” That line alone is testament to quite how extremely self-aware this movie is, as well as being profoundly smarter than others in its genre.
Cher Horowitz is by no means a beacon of diversity… she is a beautiful, blonde, Beverly Hills-ite who loves to shop and party. And yet, her story, I will argue, is refreshingly true to the feminist cause. Structurally, a fairly large portion of the film focuses on her education, which is surprisingly rare for the high school genre. We see her tackle debate class in a sequence in which, although in jest, she haphazardly preaches a tolerant, political message, reminding us that “it does not say RSVP on the statue of Liberty.” Her coming-of-age journey also involves an exploration as to what makes a person good, seeing Cher begin to dedicate herself to charitable causes and to supporting her friends and father. Her pursuit of love interests is always measured, merely a part of her story and never its absolute purpose… This may not sound very revolutionary, but woefully few films have managed to create female characters who do anything other than facilitate their male counterparts. Cher refuses to submit to unwanted male advances—“ugh, as if!”—or to peer-pressure regarding her virginity. She has near perfect narrative agency, and she has been my role model for two whole decades.
Beyond Clueless, Sabrina Spellman really did teach me everything I know. This masterpiece of magical realism features three major female leads: namely, Sabrina and her aunts, Hilda and Zelda. Sabrina even initially has a bona fide feminist best friend in the under-appreciated character of Jenny, who insists on going to the school dance alone in order to make a statement. Rad. Unfortunately, she proves a little too idealistic even for this series and mysteriously disappears after the first season. Nevertheless, apart from hapless Harvey, Sabrina functions in a female-dominated world, where the most prominent male character, Salem, has literally been condemned to the body of a cat for trying to take over the world (may this be a lesson to the patriarchy). Most episodes centre around Sabrina working out the true extent of her powers (metaphor, anyone?) and learning lessons about life and how to be a proper person in the world which, let’s face it, we are all learning all of the time.
Then there’s the Scream trilogy, which I devoured as a child and, like Clueless, also subverts genre standards in favor of the female lead. The men in Sidney Prescott’s life seem hell-bent on punishing her for her mother’s alleged promiscuity but, unfortunately for them, she is pretty much invincible. That fact that people keep trying to kill her doesn’t even stop her from graduating high school, going to college or eventually establishing a career at a women’s crisis hotline. She also defies the oppressive ‘sex=death’ trope, the real ghoul of the horror genre. She even has sex with her evil boyfriend Billy Loomis, who (spoiler) turns out to be the killer and still lives to tell the tale. Scream 2 also alludes to the issue of the gross underrepresentation of POCs in horror films—or, to quote Jada Pinkett-Smith’s character, “the horror genre is historical for excluding the African-American element.” As well as challenging the pervasive female victimhood narrative, Sidney manages to be every bit as badass as Buffy, without ever being sexualized. I can barely think of a female horror character whom we can say the same for. RIP Wes, our ally.
So this is my personal 90s media women nostalgia trip. Of course, the verdict for representation in Hollywood is, as always: we must try harder. Honestly, it shouldn’t even be noteworthy that I was able to grow up with a handful of fictional women who have interests outside of the men in their lives. But, it is noteworthy. And I am aware that the women I’ve mentioned here are all American, all white and all heterosexual.
What I want to highlight here is not that the 90s was some sort of feminist golden era—it wasn’t. But I want to stress the importance of female empowerment in the media to young people, and that we shouldn’t neglect the insane potential power of positive media representations, even in shows and films that are considered populist or ‘trashy’. Because, let’s face it, I met Cher, Sabrina and Sidney before I met Judith, Susan or Simone. And I am grateful that I got to virtually hang out with women who at least resembled the fabulous real-life women who raised me. Long live the 90s, lol.
Lizzi Sandell is a writer and film student in London.