The ’90s were a simpler time without smartphones, high-speed internet, or Netflix. While the decade seems pretty modern (albeit without all of the technological luxuries people are addicted to these days) that doesn’t mean the ’90s were not without fault. From some truly questionable fashion trends to presidential scandals, the decade definitely had its ups and downs.
Just twenty-odd years later, we live in a rapidly changing world. It’s a lot easier now for us to look back and see some of the flaws in the ’90s, whether it’s the abuse of neon colors or misogynistic moments in some of our favorite movies. A lot of things that were cool back then are totally cringe-worthy from a 21st century perspective.
She’s All That (1999)
The whole premise of She’s All That is pretty problematic. The protagonist, Laney Boggs, is totally nice, pretty, and a darn good artist. Despite all this, she’s a social outcast who magically transforms into a social butterfly by changing her clothes, hair, and taking off her glasses.
Big man on campus Zack Siler accepts a bet to take Laney from high school loser to prom queen, after calling her “scary and unapproachable.” We get to see his misogyny in action in this scene, but by the end of the movie we are supposed to forget his gross behavior and his casual dismissal of women because he’s cute and popular.
While it can be argued that Laney is a feminist, she lets Zack off the hook all too easily. Laney could do so much better than a guy who doesn’t understand the meaning of the word “no.” But then again, as her friend explains, anything can be forgiven if someone is cool enough: “The most popular guy in school is stalking you, and you aren’t the least bit curious?”
Listen up fellas, placing bets on women is not okay. Stalking women is not okay. Reducing women to a set of physical characteristics? Say it with me: not okay.
Aw, Murray, you’re so cute and I want to love you, but you’ve got to treat your lady better. If she doesn’t want to be called “woman,” you don’t call her woman. Valid forms of expression aside, it’s just plain disrespectful to keep disregarding her wishes.
The movie plays this off as an endearing moment between high school sweethearts and has even been defended as a feminist scene, but Murray has got some major issues he needs to sort out. Remember how condescending he was when teaching Dionne how to drive? In just one scene he manages to disrespect women (calling Dionne “woman” again) and the LGBT community with a string of stereotypes.
Big Daddy (1999)
In Big Daddy, Adam Sandler plays his typical role of a wise-cracking underachiever. As in many of his other films, his treatment of women leaves a lot to be desired. Throughout the movie, Sandler’s character, Sonny, constantly harasses his best friend’s fiancee, Corinne, because she formerly worked at Hooters.
First of all, there’s no shame in working at Hooters. Sonny’s harassment is both disrespectful and demeaning. Second of all, Corinne worked her way through med school, which deserves some major props. Sonny, on the other hand, went to law school but never sat for the Bar and is an unemployed slacker for most of the movie. Slut-shaming women is never acceptable under any circumstances, but it’s even less advisable when you are trying to woo the sister of the woman you’ve been harassing for years.
By the end of the movie, Sonny is married to Corinne’s sister and gainfully employed as a lawyer. We’re supposed to be okay with his earlier actions because they were all just a symptom of his prolonged adolescence and now that his life is on track, he’ll be less of a jerk, right? Sadly, no. At a party at Hooters he manages to get in another taunt about Corinne’s employment history.
Nearly a decade after slave Leia appeared in Star Wars: The Return of the Jedi, Princess Jasmine faced similar circumstances in Aladdin.The depiction was no less creepy and no less sexualized, but is made worse by the fact that Aladdin is supposed to be a kid’s movie.
To see Jasmine forced into subservience by the evil Jafar is nauseating. It’s not really surprising that Jafar treats women badly, but this scene goes a little too far for comfort in a children’s film, especially after Jasmine uses her feminine wiles to distract Jafar before Aladdin saves the day. Watching the sham seduction take place is gross, but is even more disturbing when you remember how many kids watched this scene without understanding just how messed up it is.
Researchers have found that the Disney films from this era are dominated by men. According to The Washington Post, Disney princess movies made from 1989 give men more lines. “Men speak 68 percent of the time in The Little Mermaid; 71 percent of the time in Beauty and the Beast; 90 percent of the time in Aladdin; 76 percent of the time in Pocahontas; and 77 percent of the time in Mulan.”
Fortunately, 21st century movies are bucking that trend. “In Tangled, women have 52 percent of the lines, and in Brave, a film about a mother-daughter relationship, they had 74 percent.”
Beauty and the Beast (1991)
No one’s slick as Gaston or as quick as Gaston and no one is quite as awful to women as Gaston. Sure, he’s ridiculously attractive and has all the ladies in the village swooning, but he also dismisses pretty much everything Belle has to say in the entire movie. She is quite obviously disgusted by him and he just doesn’t get the hint.
Is he delusional or just so entitled that he can’t imagine anyone turning him down? Either way, he needs a major lesson in getting consent, because you don’t just plan a wedding to someone, especially someone who has repeatedly rejected you.
Fortunately, Belle isn’t wasting her time on Gaston’s antics. Screenwriter Linda Woolverton told the Los Angeles Times in 1992 that she had a very specific image in mind for Belle. “I wasn’t on a soapbox,” she said. “But Belle is a feminist. I’m not critical of Snow White, Cinderella… they reflected the values of their time. But it just wasn’t in me to write a throwback. I wanted a woman of the ’90s, someone who wanted to do something other than wait for her prince to come.”
Pretty Woman (1990)
How did this movie become so popular? It’s pretty clear right from the opening that Richard Gere’s character, Edward, looks down on Vivian (played by Julia Roberts). He expresses shock that she could know anything about cars, clearly expecting someone in her profession to be empty headed. Fast forward a few scenes. Edward sees Vivian in a cocktail dress and suddenly starts to view her as an actual human being because apparently women in his world only deserve respect if they’re dressed nicely.
Marian Hatcher, a sex trafficking survivor, told Time that the film’s portrayal of the sex industry is glamorized. “There is nothing pretty about prostitution,” she said. “Nothing pretty about it at all.” According to Hatcher, most women working in the industry aren’t thinking about meeting Mr. Right. “They’re thinking of how to stay alive, they’re thinking of how to please the next man in order so the man that she has to report back to doesn’t beat her… not riding into the sunset with anyone.”
Betty Devoe, who co-founded the Chicago chapter of the Sex Workers Outreach Project, told The Daily Dot that the film’s “narrative is incredibly misrepresentative in regards to sex work.” She added that Pretty Woman “contributes to the dangerous sexist illusion that all sex workers are cisgender white women waiting to be rescued by rich patriarchal white cis-men.”
Mulan takes place in in China during the Han dynasty, which can excuse some of the misogyny in the film, but not all of it. The film does a good job depicting the problems with arranged marriage, and the expectation to get married young. Things are better in the 21st century, but many Chinese women are still viewed as inferior. Like in Mulan’s time, they are still expected to make good marriages; single women over the age of 27 are viewed as “leftover” women.
The song “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” is undeniably catchy, but it’s also problematic because it implies that only men are strong. All in all, though, the film does carry an empowering message — one that drew criticism from current vice president Mike Pence. In 1999, he penned an op-ed denouncing the film for its positive portrayal of women in the military.
“Despite her delicate features and voice,” he wrote, “Disney expects us to believe that Mulan’s ingenuity and courage were enough to carry her to military success on an equal basis with her cloddish cohorts. Obviously, this is Walt Disney’s attempt to add childhood expectation to the cultural debate over the role of women in the military.”
Pence was worried that the film’s message would encourage future generations to think that women should be allowed into combat, something he thought was a “bad idea.” Despite his protestations, the United States military began allowing women into combat roles in 2015.
Forrest Gump (1994)
Forrest Gump is supposed to be a comedic film, but it has a lot of dark moments. In order to get Forrest admitted to the local public school despite his below-average IQ, his mother has to sleep with the principal. It’s sad that this is what his mother has to do to keep him into school and just plain wrong that a man in a position of power would abuse his authority like this.
Philosophy Now pointed out the hypocrisy of the school principal who “is the head official in an institution that exists for the purpose of improving people’s minds, yet his own mind is too small to conquer his libido” calling the scene “a damning indictment of 1950s American social institutions.”
American Pie (1999)
This movie has more than its fair share of misogynistic moments, but this example of Oz’s wooing techniques really takes the cake… or should I say pie? To be fair, if you are looking for a movie with strong feminist themes, a raunchy film like American Pie is probably not going to be it, but does every male character really have to be this sleazy? It’s easy to laugh at their hijinks in the movies, but when men behave like this in real life, it’s not just creepy but often scary.
The film franchise has been criticized for its perpetuation of rape culture, and it’s easy to see why when demands for sexual favors are portrayed as awkward teen behavior instead of as predatory and harassing incidents. As Mic puts it, “there is no societal push back that says it’s unacceptable to get girls drunk to manipulate them into sex… And that’s the root of the problem.”
The tragic ending of Titanic makes it easy to forget just how horrifying Cal’s treatment of Rose is. He treats Rose like property, because she pretty much is. Women in 1912 still did not have the right to vote and were subservient to men. While they could own property, that was a fairly recent development. Until 1882, married British women relinquished all rights to property and money to their husbands. Women’s rights have come a long, long way since then.
10 Things I Hate About You (1999)
This movie is a modern retelling of Shakespeare’s play The Taming of the Shrew which is also filled with a lot of sexist rhetoric, not the least of which is referring to the protagonist as a “shrew.” The film adaptation is slightly better but still has some pretty awful moments. While being a single father is no doubt challenging, it seems that Kat and Bianca have a dad who got all of his parenting advice from a manual of female stereotypes. When Kat loses her temper, her father doesn’t ask what happened to upset her, he immediately chalks it up to PMS.
This is not too far off the mark from the play in which Kat is misogynistically described by her husband: “She is my good, my chattels; she is my house, / My household stuff, my field, my barn, / My horse, my ox, my ass, my anything.”
Whether it’s Shakespeare’s version of the character being reduced to property or the ’90s version being unable to control herself when she has PMS, this story is full of outdated stereotypes.
Dazed and Confused (1993)
“I get older, they stay the same age.” The now-iconic line spoken by Matthew McConaughey as David Wooderson helped launch Dazed and Confused to cult status. While we are supposed to see his character as a comedic portrayal of an older man in search of younger girls, he’s not nearly as unlikable as he should be — and that’s a problem.
No one calls him out on his behavior or tells him that sleeping with a high school girl would constitute statutory rape. In fact, his friends laugh at his words and seem to admire his skills with the ladies instead of viewing his attitude as sleazy and inappropriate.
American Beauty (1999)
There are so many creepy moments in this film that it’s hard to pick just one. Kevin Spacey’s portrayal of a suburban husband and father lusting after his teenage daughter’s friend is particularly frightening because of its startling realism. It’s hard to sit through the film because of this blatant objectification, but it still won an Oscar for Best Picture.
Despite its accolades, not everyone was impressed with the film. Mariana McConnell at CinemaBlend said that American Beauty did not live up to expectations and is “not the withering analysis of curdled society in suburban wasteland that the film was lauded as being” but is rather “full of old stereotypes and outrageous misogyny, presented with the puffed up pretensions of an art student.” Totally agreed.
Cruel Intentions (1999)
A modern take on the 18th century French novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses, this film marketed itself as a teen movie despite its dark content. Technically a romance film, the characters engage in so many mind games that Cruel Intentions is more of a portrayal of what not to do in relationships than anything else.
Sebastian is presented as a typical red-blooded American boy (albeit one with a lot of money) and that somehow makes his behavior not quite excusable but at least attributable to teenage hormones. By the end of the film we’re supposed to see that he’s not so bad after all and conveniently forget this scene where he takes advantage of a drunk Cecile. Consent given while drunk doesn’t count and Sebastian’s actions constitute sexual assault.
You’ve Got Mail (1998)
You’ve Got Mail has been around in various forms since it first debuted in 1937 as the play Parfumerie. You’d think that a film adaptation set more than six decades later would reject the sexist views of the early 20th century, right? Wrong.
Joe is supposed to be Prince Charming in this film but he’s a jerk pretty much from the beginning to the end. In this scene, he’s just discovered that Kathleen is the woman he’s been chatting with online (after having his friend scope out the scene to make sure his mystery date is pretty). If she didn’t live up to his standards he presumably would have stood her up, which he basically does anyway.
Instead of letting Kathleen know that she hasn’t been corresponding with a stranger after all, he proceeds to harass and insult her — all while letting her think her date is on the way. To Joe, women are just toys to play with and manipulate and Kathleen, for some inexplicable reason, falls for it.
The concept of primae noctis, the right of a noble to claim a bride living on his estate on her wedding night, is a big theme in Braveheart, but one that is historically inaccurate. While primae noctis might be a myth, the fact that this scene is completely believable is a testament to the misogyny of medieval European society. Women in this time had few rights, particularly those who weren’t from the privileged class. They might not have been subjected to the horrors of primae noctis, but they also had very little control over their lives.
Mrs. Doubtfire (1993)
On the surface, Mrs. Doubtfire is a feel-good comedy about a father’s love for his children. When you look at it more closely, however, it’s a film about a man who violates both a court ruling and his ex-wife’s wishes. Not only does he don an elaborate disguise and trick his ex into hiring him as her housekeeper, but he also meddles in her new relationship and causes physical harm to her boyfriend.
Robin Williams’ performance downplays just how sinister the character of Daniel Hillard is, but if this happened in real life it would be considered stalking. The film is based on a 1987 book called Madame Doubtfire which is even more messed up. In it, Hillard “is quite violent, and often pretends to be killing the mother when he is with the children.”
Fortunately, Hillard’s ex, Miranda, doesn’t fall for his antics. She forgives him enough to allow him to spend time with their children, but she recognizes that their relationship was toxic and they don’t end up together.
There’s still room for improvement
It’s hard to look back at these films and realize that many of them are now considered to be classics, misogyny and all. Of course, enjoying these movies does not imply any sort of acceptance of the problematic themes portrayed in them, but a change is clearly overdue.
While Hollywood is still very much a male-dominated industry, things are improving, with The Hollywood Reporter noting that in 2016 there were more female protagonists than ever (like Amy Adams in Arrival). In recent years, Hollywood has becoming increasingly more opposed to sexism, both on and off the set. Hopefully, this means that there will be fewer cringe-worthy misogynistic scenes in the future.