While not strictly a '90s trend (you'll see the crutches start to emerge close to '86), the sprained ankle really hit its stride right around the time that early millennials started watching Saturday morning cartoons. That's when everyone from Skeeter on Muppet Babies to Starlight on My Little Pony Tales started falling prey to these weak joints. Don't ask me how a pony sprains an ankle while serving milk shakes at a malt shop, but it happened. And, it made an impression.
By the time Lisa Turtle got her S.A. badge in a dance contest at The Max, I was already eying the crutches. I'd had my share of broken arms and lip stitches, but none of those injuries had the glamour or the romance of the sprained ankle. Sprained-ankle girls got to read during softball practice. Sprained-ankle girls got their backpacks carried (by boys!). They had seats given up for them (sometimes by boys!) so they could elevate their swollen lady-feet. I'll just say it: They got attention.
I know — I hate me, too. But let's just be real. There's nothing a kid wants more than attention, and while our generation of women was raised in a post-princess society where Supreme Courts and space shuttles could be run by women, there was still plenty of fairy tale floating in the ether. We didn't grow up watching maidens succumb to fainting spells or young women flushed with Scarlet Fever. But we watched a tearful Kerri Strug stick that landing, then limp her way to the podium as America's wounded sweetheart. I can't be the only one who spent 1996 attempting to slip on ice patches.
And, maybe I was a bit of a drama queen, and maybe I wanted to skip gym more than you did, but the sprained-ankle trend persisted in pop culture. For every TV show with a love interest, there was an ankle to be injured. The Nanny featured Fran's dream come true when she twists hers, and the dashing (?) Mr. Sheffield spends the rest of the episode carrying her around the apartment instead of plunking her down on the couch with a bag of chips and an ice pack.
Then Friends had Rachel get tangled in some Christmas lights and fall off the balcony, sustaining — you guessed it — the ol' ankle sprain. Let's just examine that nonsense for a minute. Rachel (and of course it was f*cking Rachel) falls OFF THE BALCONY OF A MANHATTAN APARTMENT BUILDING AND ONTO THE PAVEMENT. Does she suffer any massive head wounds? Paralysis? Facial disfigurement? No. Her hair isn't even deflated. All she needs is a quick trip to the ER, where George Clooney cradles her foot for five minutes and then asks her out. I'm not even going to touch all the Juliet/Cinderella elements, because you're too smart for that, and anyway, I just did — but the absurdity of this scenario is enough to addle my 29-year-old mind. My 12-year-old-mind didn't stand a chance. It just wanted to make out with George Clooney.
The sprained ankle is just enough of an injury to render a person lame but still date-able. It also requires a fair amount of care and delicate handling. People have to open doors for you. The implications of this phenomenon, and my own participation in it, are — to say the least — icky. Weren't we the girls raised by working, post-feminist moms? Yes. Did we also watch Ariel stumble and fall into Prince Eric's arms on her wobbly legs? Yeah. We watched that about 300 times.
I was 13 when the bubble burst. Bat mitzvah, new shoes, and a freshly rained-upon slate step. Without even trying, I went down hard and tore my Achilles tendon, along with spraining every possible ligament. Oh, yeah, I don't do things halfway. Too old and too dignified to sit there crying in my Delia's, I turned and began crawling up the wet stone steps, dragging my bum foot behind me. The whole effect was a lot more Gollum than Cinderella, and it became even less romantic when the birthday girl's dad came out of the house and had to peel my damp, weepy self off the ground and hoist me into the house like a sack of whiny potatoes. Needless to say, we never dated.
I spent two months on crutches, riding solo in the handicap elevator of my middle school and hobbling three feet behind my friends. I got a fair amount of doors opened for me, but no one was so enamored by my foot brace that they swung by my locker to woo me tenderly. The sprained-ankle myth may have been the last bastion of childhood fantasy hanging on for dear life, fueled by a constant stream of Full House reruns. And, when fairy tales end, they often ends in tears. Sometimes it's the wicked stepmother, sometimes it's the realities of adulthood, and sometimes it's just the high-heeled shoes you haven't yet learned how to wear.