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’s why Vox has launched a new series called the Purity Chronicles. We’ll take a look back at the sexual and gendered mores and values of the late ’90s and 2000s, one pop culture phenomenon at a time: 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.
We’ll analyze all the weird and confused ideas about sex that today’s adults internalized with their squishy little teenaged brains long before they were capable of understanding them, and find the subliminal ways those ideas continue to play out today.
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. And by returning to those stories, we can bring these murky, half-remembered shapes back into focus.