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The '90s weren’t all that long ago, and while it doesn’t seem like societal norms are all that different today, rewatching a few movies from the era will dispel that belief faster than Neo can dodge a bullet.
We’re not even talking about movies that haven’t aged well because the technology is outdated. Yeah, The Net, starring Sandra Bullock is very dated, but it’s also very of its time. You can’t say Goldfinger is a bad movie because James Bond drives an Aston-Martin DB5 instead of a DB9, just like you can’t blame The Dude for carrying around a giant portable phone the size of a suitcase in The Big Lebowski.
Where things get very dicey, very quickly, is when a lot of the humor and even the themes that directors and writers (and audiences) were perfectly comfortable with then, makes us cringe today and some of it makes us downright sick to our stomachs. The movies may still be fine examples of good filmmaking, but the subject matter isn’t super close to appropriate today – even from a time as recent as the '90s.
Yes, there are nineties movies that may still remain fondly in our hearts but probably would not get greenlighted today, at least not with the same script or in the same amalgamation. Here is a look at some classic movies fans know and love that may be ever so problematic.
Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994)
The movie that launched Jim Carrey into superstardom is still riotously funny, but Ace Ventura: Pet Detective has one, major flaw. One of the biggest gags in the movie is so completely transphobic it is indefensible. If you don’t remember the story, Carrey plays Ace Ventura, a pet detective who is investigating the kidnapping of the Miami Dolphins' dolphin mascot.
Spoiler alert: Ace solves the case. It was the kicker that missed the important field goal years ago, who also, it turns out, is a Lieutenant in the Miami Police Department and transgender, a fact that is reveled dramatically, and disturbingly, by Ace Ventura by spinning her around while in her underwear to reveal her male parts, to great shock and disgust by the other people in the scene. Today, a plotline and a gag like that would never even be considered, and for good reason.
American Beauty (1999)
Where do we even start with this one? Even when it was released, there was controversy surrounding a lot of its content. American Beauty is partly a classic Lolita story, mixed up with a menagerie of troubled characters. Characters struggling with their family life, their sexuality, infidelity, depression, and every other ill you can think of.
While it is cringe-worthy that a middle-aged Kevin Spacey becomes erotically obsessed with a teenage Mena Suvari, that is a theme that has been seen in movies and literature for hundreds of years. Where it goes from cringy to gross is knowing Kevin Spacey’s full history in the wake of the #metoo movement. Watching Spacey in American Beauty is impossible without placing the context of his alleged disturbing behavior on the character he plays in the movie and immediately makes you want to turn it off. Good movie, hasn't aged well.
Mrs. Doubtfire (1994)
This is a case where the obvious bit that could be offensive isn’t actually all that offensive. Robin Williams dressed as a woman in Mrs. Doubtfire isn’t really offensive, but the fact that he, as a father, defies his wife’s wishes – and a court order – to try to secretly raise his kids after he’s been told explicitly he’s not allowed to do so raises some eyebrows today.
Audiences laugh at Robin Williams’ blatant disregard of his wife’s request, his defiance of the legal system, and his exploitation of the patriarchy. He was a bad husband and an irresponsible father and he gets rewarded for it. If you look at it only from Robin Williams' character's point of view, maybe his actions are justified, but from the perspective of anyone else in the movie or in the real world, It’s just not right.
She’s All That (1999)
She’s All That might seem like a harmless coming-of-age story about a boy who falls in love with a girl in high school and everyone lives happily ever after, but at what cost? The boy doesn’t fall for the girl for who she is, but who she becomes AFTER she goes through a transformation physically and emotionally. It teaches every little girl out there that they can’t just be themselves if they want to land the boy.
Sure, it tries to end with the message that Rachael Leigh Cook’s character is who she has always been, but it doesn't hold up all that well, and that's not even getting into the scene where she is encouraged to kill herself because she is an artist by girls at the school. There are just too many problems with this movie to even list here.
Jerry Maguire (1996)
Right now you are scrolling through that mental rolodex trying to remember where Tom Cruise treats Renee Zellweger poorly in Jerry Maguire. Does he use his position of authority at some point to coerce her into a compromising decision? Nope, nothing like that. What makes Jerry Maguire uncomfortable today is the final scene in the movie, when Cuba Gooding, Jr’s character Rod Tidwell catches the game-winning pass in the end zone as he gets knocked unconscious by a vicious hit, only to jump up and celebrate like nothing went wrong.
Since 1996 when Jerry Maguire came out, sports in general and football in particular have been heavily re-examined by doctors, scientists, and society. Concussions are serious business. Watching a football player get knocked out with a brutal tackle is no longer something that a huge group of people – including some football fans – want to celebrate anymore. CTE, which is thought to be caused by concussions, is a serious illness that has caused tremendous problems for former players and their families. As a society we haven’t evolved past football as a sport, but we have evolved past celebrating serious brain injuries caused by the most brutal tackles.
American Pie (1999)
Let’s face it, raunchy teen comedies can be and always have been problematic. Movies like Animal House, Revenge of The Nerds, and Sixteen Candles have all had their moments recently, so to speak and 1999’s America Pie is not innocent in all of this either. Yeah, it’s a classic and it’s hilarious and it launched a slew of careers, like Jason Biggs, Shannon Elizabeth, Alyson Hannigan, Natasha Lyonne, Tara Reid and others, but it has one moment, treated as a light-hearted prank that could land someone in jail today.
We don’t think of webcams quite the same way as we did 20 years ago. Revenge porn and spy cams have become ubiquitous and neither are laughing matters anymore. While it was meant to be funny in 1999, today, that kind of trauma to a student is something we should and do try to avoid at all costs. It’s not something easily brushed off like it is in American Pie.
Chasing Amy (1997)
Kevin Smith’s Chasing Amy has one fundamental, incredibly insulting flaw. The entire premise of the movie is that a lesbian would "go" straight if she just met the right man. But that isn’t the end of it, there is also an explicit scene when Alyssa has her sexual past used against her when she is slut-shamed for a threesome she had in high school.
It’s all treated as though everything Alyssa has done in the past is wrong and Holden, played by Ben Affleck, is there to be her knight in shining armor, to save her from herself. Kevin Smith, who wrote and directed Chasing Amy, did not do any of this maliciously and he tried in some ways to use this story as a way explore and accept sex and sexuality, but some moments come across as the writer mansplaining how lesbianism works… to lesbians. It’s all very frustrating especially coming from someone who should be more enlightened.
While the '90s were clearly a more enlightened than the eighties, a decade that produced Porky’s for goodness sake, or the '70s, where the list would be hundreds of pages long, it doesn’t mean the problematic movies from the '90s get a pass either. The world changes, society changes, views change and evolve, and standards are different.
Movies can still be great movies, we can still enjoy them on some levels, but they need to be watched through the lens of history and we can’t ignore the issue, we must face them head-on and admit them before we can accept the past and its complications, so that we may make better choices in the future. We've come a long way to such nightmare-ish moments like Mickey Rooney's horribly racist turn as an Asian in Breakfast At Tiffany's, or the celebration of racism that was Birth Of A Nation, but we can continue to do even better and we should.