Enough Of The '90s Nostalgia Already

Photo: Paul Harris/Getty Images.
Something’s going on out there, right? On campus, students are protesting anti-Black racism while getting scolded for being loud and demanding — and too “politically correct.” Every day, it feels like you hear more about some new social-justice lingo, like intersectionality! Abortion rights, gay and lesbian rights, feminism in general, sexual freedom (sure, for straight people, too)! As much popular support there is for all these movements, bad laws are still on the books and widespread discrimination is still the norm. And someone — whether it's a professor, columnist, presidential candidate, or another activist — is always there to bemoan how the young people driving all this change are asking for too much and in all the wrong ways...

Oh god, I’m sorry about that: that’s not my cynicism acting up, it’s just the sound of my modem. Because I am actually typing this from 1994.

It’s not just me tripping out. The website Politico just ran a story about why 1994 is the year that explains everything about 2016. I guess! I’m already sick of the election. But I think I can get with the vague premise and take it one step further: These days, it feels like 1994 never ended.

1994? Really? I know. First things first: I am not really old and I am not here to scold anyone. I take solace in knowing we have been here before. Maybe I over-identify with this moment, because I was a teenager in those years: the years between the political destruction of Anita Hill and Monica Lewinsky, around the time of the glossy magazine media’s discovery of do-me feminism and lipstick lesbianism, of the explosion of third-wave feminism, and...well, what we’re doing still.

By 1994, there was already a whole sub-genre of news stories, magazine features, and books fretting about the “excesses” of free speech and liberalism on American college campuses. The students’ sin was pushing back on institutional sexism and racism, and demanding that the academic work they were assigned to carry out look more like the world around them. Mostly this (what we didn’t yet call, but totally could call) concern-trolling was the territory of conservatives, but some liberals got in on it, too. Today, the freak-out is still with us, with liberals leading the “P.C. gone too far” stuff and conservatives chiming in with “I told you so” humblebrags.

Why were they freaking out? People were naming what was going on directly. In 1994, intersectionality was here and recognized. By that year, Kimberlé Crenshaw, the legal scholar who coined the term, had already published her second article on it, about how we cannot understand the many forms of oppression faced by Black women by treating racism and sexism as separate and unrelated. In the decades since, it's become a buzzword, almost an internet meme. But it has roots in a pre-Tumblr moment of truth. 1994 would pave the way for “the end of welfare as we know it,” as President Bill Clinton promised, resulting in cutting off 62% of welfare recipients. Those cuts fell hardest on Black women. In 1994, Clinton also signed into law a sweeping new crime bill. In the years since, the numbers of people imprisoned in the United States soared. By 2001, according to the Sentencing Project, one in 19 Black women would be incarcerated in her lifetime; in 2010, Black women were three times more likely to be incarcerated than white women.

Teenage me was not there yet (and was not yet on campus with university journal access). I remember 1994 as the year when a writer at Esquire hailed a new generation of feminists (including then 41-year-old bell hooks and 35-year-old Susie Bright) for “embracing sex.” Even that wasn’t new: Feminist critic Ellen Willis coined the term “pro-sex feminism” years before Esquire showed up. Still, the sudden media interest in sex and feminism made those outside its glare fear this generation would leave them behind.

That worry over a new sexual politics overtaking the sisterhood still lingers, though it’s pretty unfounded: The '90s sex-positivity that lives on most visibly today isn’t within the realm of feminist political debate, it’s in marketing sex toys and porn downloads. Mainstream feminism is still pretty anti-sex work in particular — maybe more aggressively than it was in the '90s — even as other rights movements are coming around.

What’s changed the most since 1994 is I can quickly search through this history, assemble it in a text file, and remind myself that most of what we were fighting over then, we are still fighting over now, only faster. And thanks to the internet, we enter the fight as a much bigger, more-educated, politically engaged public. Look what students at Mizzou accomplished so quickly this month and how fast we found out about it. We have a shot at not accepting the premise that any of these demands are new, uniquely radical, or all that impossible.

Maybe the most obvious evidence of this — though boringly so — is that it is the year 2015 and some people are also behaving as if we still have only one chance at power for women. Meanwhile, hairstyles and poise rank over interest in policy.

I’m nostalgic, but I would like to part with that vision and all of this hand-wringing, even if I have affection for the years in which the kids of the '60s were not so sure the kids of the '90s could ever be alright. I’d rather remember 1994 as “the year Chanel Vamp launched.” Maybe now, we can part with the anxiety (and maybe the flannel) and still keep the nail polish and our politics, too.

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