Boats Against the Current
Bill Clinton just published a novel that he wrote with James Patterson. It’s not on this great summer reading list. Clinton has been on a press tour for the book and has said some dumb and troubling shit about his 1990s sex scandal and thoughts on whether he owed Monica Lewinsky an apology.
Clinton had by most accounts a successful presidency. The economy performed well, and he didn’t start any stupid wars. He was also an ally to progressives in a lot of ways during and after his presidency, supporting women’s reproductive rights and effectively making the case for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. I knew little about Clinton in the 90s other than that my parents voted for him and that most of our neighbors didn’t. Decades later, when we look at his bad behavior and decisions around criminal justice, marriage equality, and an intern in her early 20s, we see that Bill Clinton is evidence of a larger truth: the 1990s was trash in many ways and millennials should maybe not be another fucking nostalgia generation.
A recent example of why we should look but not touch the 90s is Roseanne Barr/ABC/one night of Ambien/a lifetime of being a racist loon. I hated Roseanne in the 90s because reruns were often played in after-school time slots that should have shown Saved by the Bell or Family Matters. I loved those two shows. That said, I don’t care what Zach Morris or Carl Winslow thinks of Donald Trump or gay rights, and neither should anyone else my age.
And it’s not just tired reboots like Roseanne or Fuller House. Thanks to Netflix, older millennials are revisiting an abomination called Friends and younger ones are experiencing it for the first time. I knew of Friends in the 90s and aughts like a person who’s never seen Star Wars knows of the franchise: some character names, the setting, and the general premise. But when Jen revisited it from her childhood and I watched it for the first time, we were both struck by how retrograde it is.
Ever wonder which Friends character you are?
First question: are you white? If not, you’re an extra because all six of them are the whiter versions of each of the six white actors.
Next, what type of homophobe are you: do you fear members of the LGBTQ community because you married and divorced a lesbian or because your father is trans? If the former, you’re more of a Ross. If the latter, you’re more of a Chandler. Either way, you process change by belittling these two people and by your other five friends constantly suggesting that the LGBTQ person in your life is a hilarious way to make fun of you. If you’re the type to make these jokes, in addition to being chauvinistic, gluttonous, uninformed, and also somehow the moral center of your group, you’re a Joey.
Hate how women are depicted in media because you can never see yourself reflected in the tired and sexist stereotypes society puts on women? You might be a Rachel-style liberated woman and like talking about shopping and boyfriends. Or you could command respect as a woman the Phoebe way where everyone thinks you’re crazy. Which is so funny. Hopefully your friends laugh at you for this. Not as funny as if you’re overweight, though. Check that, formerly overweight. If you’ve lost a lot of weight, you’re a Monica and are hilarious. Not you, though. The fact that you used to be plus size and are shrill and annoying to your friends. That’s the funny part.
Millennials should resist unexamined and protective nostalgia. I was a giant fan of the Chicago Bulls and Chicago Cubs in the 90s. It was a good time for that: six NBA championships and a Sammy Sosa chase of Roger Maris. Things have changed, and I’ve learned a lot in twenty years. But that MJ was mean and vindictive and probably not as great as LeBron and that Sosa was a science project doesn’t rob me of my childhood. When older people glorify the 70s and 80s with parties or radio stations or weird jeans, it’s annoying. Not because they don’t deserve to have fond memories but because you deserve to be derided if you cling to them. We’re all afraid of dying, but that doesn’t excuse proudly liking AC/DC in the 21st Century.
Similarly, progressives and feminists should call out the bad in the past. It was wrong to defend Bill Clinton in the 90s. A closer examination of the situation should have shown that there was space between total defense and Gingrichian sanctimony.
It is refreshing that many are horrified at their second look at Friends and that ABC couldn’t separate the popular revamp from the star’s bigotry. (Update: kind of.) There’s nothing inherently wrong with rewatching a show you liked or in defending an administration’s certain policies you liked twenty years later. But part of the whole value of getting older and learning is that people, ideas, and mores can get better. If I read this in twenty years, I’m sure I’ll want to blast these ramblings into the sun and then wash my eyes out.
In his 2001 review of the 1962 film To Kill a Mockingbird, Roger Ebert gave the film a modest two and a half stars and called it a “time capsule.” He ended his review with this note about the film:
"It expresses the liberal pieties of a more innocent time, the early 1960s, and it goes very easy on the realities of small-town Alabama in the 1930s. One of the most dramatic scenes shows a lynch mob facing Atticus, who is all by himself on the jailhouse steps the night before Tom Robinson's trial. The mob is armed and prepared to break in and hang Robinson, but Scout bursts onto the scene, recognizes a poor farmer who has been befriended by her father, and shames him (and all the other men) into leaving. Her speech is a calculated strategic exercise, masked as the innocent words of a child; one shot of her eyes shows she realizes exactly what she's doing. Could a child turn away a lynch mob at that time, in that place? Isn't it nice to think so."
Seventeen years later, I would go even further. The movie and Harper Lee’s book on which the film was based place a whole lot of goodness in a white father and lawyer at the expense of actually examining why Tom Robinson was charged, found guilty, and killed. You should still read To Kill A Mockingbird in 2018, though, not because everything holds up, but precisely because not all of it does. Read Roger Ebert as well and watch old shows again. Hell, even read Bill Clinton’s dumb book if you feel like it. Just remember that he sucks in many ways like most things you used to like.