When today’s 30-somethings were teenagers, the culture was awash in confusion about sex, purity, and femininity. We were postfeminist: Women had already achieved equality and had become butt-kickers with girl power, and there was nothing left to complain about. We were in the midst of raunch culture, and it was important to be tanned and sexy and taut and down for anything. We were entering the Bush-era purity ring years, when virginity would be held up as a prize to be fetishized and evaluated.
Only one thing was clear: There was no right way to be a girl. There were only different ways to fail. And we learned that from pop culture.
That particular moment in time is the object of peculiar fascination in contemporary popular culture right now. We seem to long to return to it over and over, to comb through all the girls who at the time we believed had gotten it all wrong — and to ask ourselves wasn’t it we, the culture at large, who got it wrong instead?
Most recently, such fascination has taken the form of phenomena like HBO’s docuseries Allen v. Farrow, which revisited the Woody Allen child molestation accusations of the early ’90s; the New York Times and Hulu documentary Framing Britney Spears, which chronicled the popular media framing of Spears’s heyday and downward spiral circa 2007; and the acclaimed podcast You’re Wrong About, which offers deeply researched counternarratives debunking the common understanding of figures like Princess Diana and Monica Lewinsky.
Amy Ziering, who directed Allen v. Farrow with her partner Kirby Dick, says the cultural flood of interest in wronged women is new. Ziering and Dirk’s 2012 documentary Invisible War, about the epidemic of rape in the US military, met a far different reception than the acclaim that greeted Allen v. Farrow, she says.
“At that point, I’d already had done things for HBO and the BBC. I was an established documentarian. We’d been nominated for Emmys,” Ziering recalls. “But all we heard pitching [Invisible War] was, ‘No one wants to hear women’s stories. No one wants to hear stories about women being raped, and no one certainly wants to hear stories about women being raped in the military.’ That’s a direct quote, from a progressive outlet that funds tons of documentaries, in 2010.”
Ziering credits the post-Harvey Weinstein phase of the Me Too movement with the shift in attitude. “There is a much more acute awareness and understanding of gender disparity, gender discrimination, gender violence than there ever has been,” she says. “It’s finally breaking through to become part of the cultural conversation, as opposed to a more marginalized subject that was left for the discussion of a handful of activists.”
Samantha Stark, the director of Framing Britney Spears, thinks social media also has a role to play in our current impulse to look back. “In the early 2000s and in the ’90s, whenever someone on TV asked Britney if she was a virgin, or about her breasts when she was a teenager, it was just on TV and we consumed it. Then it went away,” Stark says. “There was no way to immediately comment on it like there is today. Today if that happened, within five minutes it would be up on social media.”
Sarah Marshall, who co-hosts the You’re Wrong About podcast with Michael Hobbes, also thinks the dawn of social media has something to do with why the stories of the recent past seem so compellingly bizarre and misunderstood to us — especially stories that got significant press coverage in their own time.
“We tend to want to believe that if the media has been on the ground covering a story, there in droves, that we didn’t miss anything, right?” Marshall says. “My assumption is that on the contrary, sometimes the more attention and the more of a press frenzy there is around a story, the more likely it is that we did miss something crucial. Because in the pre-Twitter world, or before we had social media with that kind of scale and legitimacy, with that amount of people who can use it to push back against mainstream pop culture, the truth just gets covered up underneath this layer of mulch.”
It’s not just technology and activism that have changed since the days when mainstream news magazines could cheerfully call Britney Spears fat and get away with it. There’s also been a generational shift within media itself. Millennials now make up a big enough and powerful enough bloc in popular culture to indulge in a fascination with the stories of their childhood, and with how cruelly those stories were told.
“We were just so mean to young women back then!” says Stark. “And a lot of us today were the young women back then.”
The people making influential documentaries and podcasts today are the same people who grew up surrounded by the candy-colored bubblegum misogyny of the 2000s. And there is a certain power that comes with gaining the distance to look back and see just how vicious that misogyny was.
“For me, it was kind of a rite of passage to look at stories that I remembered adults reporting on when I was a child and then seeing just how bad of a job they’ve done some of the time,” says Marshall. “We just abused women for sport in the media, and I feel like that’s generationally something important to look at. What was in the media and the bloodstream when you were a child? How were the adults who were in charge of the culture then maybe not doing as good a job as you would like to try and do now?”
The question of doing a good job now is a tricky one. Criticizing the ugly politics of yesterday is a lot easier than identifying the ugly politics of today. All too often, reexaminations of the pop culture of the past can turn into smug back-patting: a chance for readers in the present to congratulate themselves on their moral superiority to those in the past, to glibly relax into the idea that then, there was sexism and racism and various other unpleasant bigotries — but now, we’ve fixed it all.
Ziering argues that such responses are in bad faith. “The only desire, at least from my perspective, is to tell these stories so that they’re cautionary tales, so that they have a moralistic resonance to them, and that they’re completely relevant,” says Ziering. “I mean, we had a predator-in-chief!”
Ziering adds that good reporting will contextualize the way that last year’s misogyny continues to support this year’s misogyny. To that end, Allen v. Farrow devotes considerable screen time to the false idea of “parental alienation syndrome,” a mythological condition in which one parent manipulates a child’s loyalty away from the other. While there is no scientific evidence for such a syndrome, and the entire idea draws heavily from misogynistic concepts like the myth of frequent false rape claims, it formed a key part of Woody Allen’s defense in his custody battle with Mia Farrow. Subsequently, Allen v. Farrow shows, “parental alienation syndrome” is still a widely used defense in family courts — and when it is used, the court is overwhelmingly more likely to side with the parent accused of abuse.
“Courts are more likely to believe a misogynistic narrative over an evidence-based one that puts the blame on the father,” says Ziering. “I mean, that’s not mind-blowing. We didn’t make that up. That’s not a ’90s statistic. That’s right here and now.”
It is because yesterday’s misogyny is still right here and now — because it shaped our minds and our culture then, and because we are still living with those shapes today — that Vox is launching a new project we’re calling The Purity Chronicles.
The Purity Chronicles is a series that looks back at the sexual and gendered mores and values of the late ’90s and the 2000s, one pop culture phenomenon at a time. We’ll analyze all the weird and confused ideas about sex that today’s adults internalized with their squishy little teenage brains long before they were capable of understanding them, and find the subliminal ways in which those ideas continue to play out today.
We’ll start with the moment that launched a thousand questionable late-night jokes: The Paris Hilton sex tape of 2003, and its accompanying lesson that any woman who is the victim of a sex crime was probably foolish and probably asking for it. Later, we’ll look at other half-remembered stories: what happened to Janet Jackson and Whitney Houston and Christina Aguilera; what we learned from the WB and what we learned from the Disney Channel and what we learned from MTV.
These are not stories about how we used to be bad but are good now. They are stories about how the mistakes of the past shaped our minds and continue to shape them in ways we still don’t fully understand. By returning to those stories, we can bring these murky, half-remembered shapes back into focus.