The 1990s produced a lot of good TV. From the family-friendly sitcom line-up on TGIF to the cheeky Must-See TV slate to teen dramas that would mold a generation of audiences, there were a ton of successful shows that still court nostalgia from fans. But even some of the most-favored series of all had their moments of missing the cultural mark and producing some scenes that are hard to watch in retrospect. In the case of these shows, the misogyny contained in certain exchanges is so intense that it might surprise you.
When everyone got married on Saved by the Bell
Thanks to the era’s most unapologetically feminist small screen heroine, Jessie Spano, there were plenty of moments on Saved by the Bell that took stabs at supposed gender norms. Unfortunately, for as many go-girls zingers she slung, her love interest A.C. Slater was matching her with comments that undercut her enthusiasm.
For example, in the episode titled “Mamas and the Papas,” the Bayside bunch are made to pair off in fake marriages for a school sociology project, and that prompts a ridiculous back-and-forth about traditional spousal roles in the home. This culminates in Slater calling Jessie crazy for not wanting to take her husband’s name and losing his marbles when the subject of stay-at-home dads come into the conversation.
How Slater managed to win Jessie’s heart through all that open machismo remains one of the biggest mysteries of that entire generation of TV. The more he spoke about the gender divide, the more his association with her undermined her own words and pro-girl panache. The idea that his meninist quips should be tolerated, and even coddled, by Jessie was a constant step in the wrong direction.
When Jen got blamed for an attempted sexual assault on Dawson’s Creek
The subject of Jen Lindley’s active love life was always a groanfully taboo one on Dawson’s Creek — how many times did Joey Potter put her down for being sexually active?
The distasteful treatment of Jen was never more unsettling than in the episode titled “Full Moon Rising,” when Jen makes out with a scuzzball named Vincent in her Gram’s kitchen, and the guy almost immediately tries to take things too far above Jen’s objections. Thankfully, Gram comes home just in time to stop him from taking advantage of Jen, but as heroic as her timing is, the words she offers her already upset granddaughter are echoes of some pretty classic instances of victim-shaming by telling her she needs to act like a lady and questions whether she has any respect for herself.
The idea that it was her temptress-like behavior that started all this is shocking and a dangerous example of rape culture. Considering the show was already dangerously demoralizing for many of the girls involved when it came to their budding sex lives, this scene in particular stands out as a completely misguided treatment of such sensitive subject matter as sexual assault.
When no one could handle Donna beating Eric in basketball on That ’70s Show
The long-lasting relationship between Eric Forman and Donna Pinciotti provided plenty of headdesk-worthy moments of misunderstanding between the two, but more often than not, their relationship was informed by mutual respect and humor… and, you know, their smoke circles.
But in the episode titled “Battle of the Sexists,” everyone flipped out about Donna beating Eric at a game of basketball. At first, Eric is surprised by his friends’ incredulity over the loss, but Hyde, Fez, and Kelso proceed to make fun of him and imply that he’s been emasculated by his girlfriend’s skills on the court. The ladies don’t help matters much either, as Donna’s friend Jackie says that Donna’s athleticism is going to be a turn-off and harm their relationship, and her mother champions the idea that it’s a woman’s responsibility to make her man feel superior by pretending to be meek and in need of his strength. When Donna says that the equal rights movement is rapidly trying to undo those misconceptions, her mother shrugs off that forward thinking and basically calls her a crazy cat lady in the making.
Not only was this not the picture of modernity on anyone’s part but Donna’s, but it furthers the troubling societal notion that it is acceptable for men to be intimidated by strong women and that women should pretend to be less competent to stay in a relationship. Yuck.
When Elaine had to bare her bust on Seinfeld
The fact that Elaine Benes was the odd woman out in a lot of her guy friends’ misinformed adventures on Seinfeld meant that sometimes she got put into situations that were less than desirable for a woman — or anyone for that matter.
One such situation happened in an episode titled “The Shoes” in which George Costanza is caught looking at a prospective boss’ daughter’s cleavage and has to scramble to cover for his rude eyes. They then depend on Elaine to bare her bosoms in front of the boss, hoping to use her as a guinea pig to prove the fact that men can’t help but lose their minds when boobs are in view — the “field of vision” — and he ultimately agrees. The breast impact joke then branches off to suggest that police are more likely to help a woman with exposed cleavage and that a car accident can easily be blamed on an attractive woman revealing her bra in public.
Not only is the scene problematic for its overt objectification of Elaine, but what follows is a troubling reminder of the normalization of the notion that men simply cannot control their own actions and behaviors when a woman is dressed a certain way, so women must conceal their bodies in order to avoid being mistreated by men.
When Will played Chivalry John on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air
There was a lot to like about The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, but Will’s treatment of women was not one of those things. Between his terrible pickup lines like, “I think I’ve seen your picture somewhere before. Oh, right. It was in the dictionary next to ‘kablam!'” and his constant prowling behavior around campus, he developed quite a reputation as a womanizer. He had a brief change of attitude after meeting Tyra Banks’ no-nonsense character Jackie, but it didn’t last long.
One of the most ridiculous examples of his aggressive treatment of women happened in the episode titled “Ain’t No Business like Show Business,” when Will asks a comedian friend to approach a woman and act like a classless chauvinist so that he can step in with his “Chivalry John” schtick and save her from the advances.
Not only was it degrading to the woman involved to be unwittingly targeted by this heinous situational scheme, but the scene failed to even give the female character an honest reaction to the aggressive nature of the person that approached her in the first place. The idea that she would so happily accept unwanted attention from not one but two men and walk away smiling about it with zero complaints plays right into the cat-calling culture that has become such a problem for women.
When Stephanie called Kimmy a “whore” on Full House
Yes, even on-screen children can engage in troubling “slut-shaming” behavior.
In a surprising moment from the otherwise wholesome Full House, from the episode called “A Pinch for a Pinch,” pre-teen Stephanie Tanner and her sister’s annoying best friend Kimmy Gibbler trade barbs over Steph’s disinterest in reading their high school newspaper. When the subject of Kimmy’s horoscope column comes up, Stephanie smarts, “Horoscope? What’s that Kimmy? A telescope that can only see your face?”
In case the crude humor of that joke doesn’t come through right away, she’s basically calling Kimmy a “whore.” For anyone with modern sensibility who watches the scene, it’s kind of a sad example of how young girls start to shame each other like this and how mainstream such words can be. Words like “whore” and “slut” are all too often used to denigrate, demean, and even threaten women in real-life scenarios, and if a “whore” joke could make into a family show like this one, it’s unacceptably accepted language.
When Frasier openly demeaned his wife on Cheers
Frasier Crane might’ve seemed like the epitome of thoughtful and considerate treatment of his patients and friends at the bar, but he was definitely no saint when it came to how he acted towards the women in his life.
In the Cheers episode titled “Veggie-Boyd,” he and wife Lilith disagree about the continued relevance of Sigmund Freud’s teachings to modern psychology because she believes his teachings were sexist in retrospect and don’t apply to modern practice. When he doesn’t like what Lilith has to say about it, Frasier proceeds to insist she’s drunk — “completely smashed, blato” — before trying to mansplain the discipline to her. And when that doesn’t win him the argument, he resorts right back to calling her drunk and embarrassing her with some disrobing hypnosis tricks. Making matters worse, these two aren’t just married but they supposedly share in professional esteem as well.
Misogyny in the work place is a well-documented and all too common phenomenon, so the idea that Frasier could unapologetically undercut Lilith’s perspective by attacking her character and mental capacity like this rings a little too true and is thus no laughing matter at all.
When Tim couldn’t stop drooling over his sister-in-law on Home Improvement
Tim “The Toolman” Taylor was the father of three boys and the host of a home improvement show where he was presented as a good old-fashioned guy who liked to grunt and crank up his power saw for sport. But apart from his assistant-slash-eye candy Lisa on “Tool Time” and his oft-degraded wife Jill, Tim was woefully surrounded by testosterone, and that resulted in some seriously sexist moments.
One such moment was in the episode “The Naked Truth” when Tim’s brother Marty and his wife Nancy come for a visit and Tim can’t stop staring at his sister-in-law’s sports bra — or making thirsty comments about it. The tension comes to a head when he walks in on Nancy showering. It’s an honest mistake, so Nancy says they have nothing to be ashamed of, but Tim makes it awkward almost immediately by replying, “Yeah, especially you!” Beyond that unsolicited commentary on her figure, the worst part comes later, when Tim seeks counsel with his fence neighbor Wilson and insists that the only reason he’s losing his cool about everything is that he’s not used to family members being so enticing.
So, basically, Tim’s insinuating that it’s all Nancy’s fault that Tim can’t contain himself because she’s just too darn pretty. This is yet another “she asked for it” sort of story line that brings a shudder to anyone who’s witnessed such an excuse come into use after an assault.
When everyone freaked out about periods on Married with Children
It’s no secret that Al Bundy was not the wokest man alive on television in the ’90s. In fact, Married with Children was almost entirely devoted to the boneheaded things its subversive sitcom star would say. Even so, there were some episodes that really dug in deep on Al’s anti-feminism aspects. Sometimes it made for hilarious exposition of gender biases, like when Marcy D’Arcy methodically destroyed Al’s “National Organization of Men Against Amazonian Masterhood” (or NO MA’AM) society with logic.
Other times, it could be pretty extreme, like on “The Camping Show” episode when Al’s forced to bring his family on his fishing trip and can’t stand it that the women have their times of the month. This situation spurs several terrible conversations about why women menstruate at the same time and how to approach the PMSing woman gently. When animals start coming nearer to their camp site, Al and his pals even decide the creatures are all being summoned to the site by their ability to sense the “cycling” of the ladies in the house.
The episode may have been meant to parody male misgivings about female reproduction, but it was so over-the-top with stereotyping that it’s hard to laugh at nowadays. The villainization of women who are menstruating is trite and furthers a common misunderstanding about the reproductive process and its effect on women.
When Ross tried to “grab a spoon” on Friends
Friends might’ve been there for all of us with rapid-fire jokes, situational humor, and gobs of delicious drama, but there were still a lot of moments that wouldn’t land quite so well on the modern cultural landscape. The show has been accused of homophobia, latent racism, poor parenting, and misogyny, and the examples of the latter are plentiful. Almost every word that Joey Tribbiani uttered about women outside of his friend group (and sometimes within it) was tinged with chauvinism, and remember when Ross wouldn’t let his son play with a doll?
Perhaps the most egregious example was when the pilot, titled “The One Where Monica Gets a Roommate,” involved an exchange that equated women with food items that were just ready to be dined on. In the fallout from Ross’ divorce, he’s bummed out that he may have just lost his one shot at true love. Joey begins spinning out an elaborate metaphor about how women are like ice cream and Ross just needs to “grab a spoon.”
Not only is this a clear cut case of the objectification of women, but the reference to ice cream was kind of the cherry on top of this tasteless pie because one could easily interpret the reference to mean that women are sweet and soft and only meant to reward men after they’ve sampled the buffet of life (and that they need lots of pretty toppings to be even tastier). Gross.
Time to do better
As much as we might love to watch ’90s TV reruns of these shows and others, it’s still hard to overlook those moments of misogyny that played out on the small screen because they echoed some troubling trends that have since been exposed and explored in the decades that followed. However, the entertainment industry, like society at large, is constantly evolving to embrace new norms. So by pointing out these problematic pieces of otherwise beloved shows, it might help to ensure that the modern landscape of shows don’t leave future generations of nostalgic binge-watchers cringing as well.