There are few more unsettling examples of movies as mirrors to society than some of the great teen films of the ’90s. Those who lived through the decade might recall that while more politicians voiced their support for same-sex marriages, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was also in effect and casual homophobia and heteronormativity were as rampant as ever, including throughout high school hallways.
Movies like “Can’t Hardly Wait,” “Cruel Intentions” and “Clueless” captured that period, to a startling degree. They reinforced what had already been in the cultural zeitgeist, including queer teens’ own internalized homophobia.
Reflecting on some of their images today, with over 20 years of hindsight, is a brutal reminder of the roles we were all socialized to play as teens in an oppressively homophobic society.
A plotline from “Cruel Intentions” immediately springs to mind. Prickly playboy Sebastian (Ryan Phillippe) has just been rejected by his latest female conquest Annette (Reese Witherspoon), and his ego is bruised. So, Sebastian turns to his openly gay acquaintance Blaine (Joshua Jackson) to seduce closeted football jock Greg (Eric Mabius), the one who blabbed about Sebastian’s reputation to Annette.
Right on cue as Greg and Blaine are lying in bed together, Sebastian comes in and takes a picture of the pair that he uses to manipulate Greg into walking back what he said about him to Annette. Or else he’ll publicly out Greg using the photo.
Erika Abad, who will serve as an assistant professor of communication at Nevada State College in the fall, remembers this storyline with painful precision.
“I can describe the scene because it was so traumatic,” she told HuffPost. “It’s probably so traumatic because it was the first time I had seen normalized the internalized homophobic shame I had experienced as an adolescent.”
She recalled that Greg also pretends to be drunk, and goes as far to say that Blaine made him have sex, when Sebastian “catches” them. “So the first powerful scene of that movie is, my gay act is an act of violence,” Abad continued. “And [Sebastian] is like, ‘I don’t care what you’re doing. I just need you to do me a favor.’ It was entrapment.”
And with Greg apparently now taken care of, the movie is kicked into high gear and leaves both him and Blaine far in its rearview mirror to be merely remembered as the plot devices for the straight white male character.
While the threat of revenge porn was not as prevalent among teens in the ’90s as it is today, what plotlines like the one in “Cruel Intentions” do is illuminate the era’s persistent need to weaponize queerness or incite enough fear in queer people so that they’re silenced entirely.
The movie bolstered an already understood reality that there was no safe space to be queer at all. Many queer teens like Emily Gallagher and Austin Elston, filmmakers and co-founders of Fishtown Films, didn’t even know a lot of openly queer teens in high school, for that reason.
“I think that speaks specifically to the culture as well,” Elston said. “You didn’t feel comfortable in the ’90s, or at least in my school, to be like, ‘Hey, I’m queer. I’m out. This is who I am.’”
“Cruel Intentions” was also released just one year after 21-year-old Matthew Shepard was killed in a hate crime. Fear among young queer people was already part of their daily lives. “We’re coming out of the Reagan era, Bush one,” Elston recalled. “Even into Clinton to some degree. We have the AIDS epidemic presented as a gay disease and all these [things] signaling to us that there’s a problem with it. Like, if you are this way, you are going to end up dead.”
It meant that there were times when queer teens felt they had to conform to heteronormativity just to fit in. That was true for Elston, who played sports in school, and says he probably even laughed along with his teammates’ homophobic jokes, as well as Abad, who attended Catholic school as a teenager.
“Even though I was questioning [my identity], I would still say homophobic things because homophobic things were a way to demonstrate that you’re subscribing to the social script,” Abad said. “I didn’t beat anybody up. It was just casual homophobia.”
That casual homophobia was often replicated onscreen in films such as “House Party,” which includes Kid’s (Christopher Reid) nearly two-minute song riddled with homophobic messaging that he raps in order to distract his cellmates from trying to rape him when he ends up in jail.
“It’s reinforced in the films,” Elston said. “And you’re like, this is really fucking problematic. On so many levels.”
There’s also not a single Black queer person in “House Party.” “Not at all, because Black people aren’t gay,” Abad said sarcastically.
The erasure, or muting of queerness, definitely has some nuance when we talk about it within the lens of race and how that’s portrayed — or largely ignored, as Abad implied — in ’90s films. And for that matter, female queerness, aside from rare exceptions like “But I’m A Cheerleader,” is barely considered then because it was too often recognized as a function for straight male lust.
Like, when Sebastian’s villainous step-sister Kathryn (Sarah Michelle Gellar) kisses Cecile (Selma Blair) in “Cruel Intentions.” “Watching that kiss, it was like, ‘huh?’” Gallagher said. “What was the motivation for this? This isn’t at all sexy. Like, come on.”
But that’s attributed to the way that sexuality, as well as gender, was so performative in the ’90s, to the point where teens policed gender so that it fit their individual standards and desires.
The homophobic F-word, for example, was often used as a way to indicate a type of masculinity that was not socially acceptable.
Conversely, what we see in a film like “Can’t Hardly Wait” with — you guessed it, another jock — Mike (Peter Facinelli) is an image of masculinity that is not only permissible; it’s aspirational.
So, when that character tries to get back with ex-girlfriend Amanda (Jennifer Love Hewitt) by professing his love for her in the middle of their class’ graduation house party, it’s met with homophobic shame. That’s also followed by simultaneous laughter both among their peers and us teens watching the film in theaters in 1998.
The same thing happens with “Clueless” when Murray (Donald Faison) tells his girlfriend (Stacey Dash) and her friend (Alicia Silverstone) that their new pal (Justin Walker) is gay: “He’s a disco-dancing, Oscar Wilde-reading, Streisand ticket-holding friend of Dorothy.” Side-splitting laughter.
Admittedly, it’s an iconic line. There’s also another thing true here. “What’s really happening with these homophobic epithets is trying to reinforce gender normativity through humor and play,” Abad said.
It’s what turns Mike’s otherwise heartfelt moment in “Can’t Hardly Wait” into an opportunity for playful homophobia. Because the mere expression of emotions is considered an attribute of queerness throughout the ’90s.
“He really makes himself vulnerable in front of the entire party,” said Frankie Mastrangelo, a media scholar and sociology professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.
“Then it’s capped with somebody yelling the F-word at him,” she continued. “Any display of vulnerability, trying to express your emotions, is met with the F-word. Homophobia and masculinity are always doing this work of reinforcing one another and operating in tandem.”
They also collaborate to help put the person in question in their place. Like when a lovelorn and drunk Mike is later photographed nude as if in a queer embrace — as part of a revenge porn plot gone awry — with William (Charlie Korsmo), the nerd he used to bully and with whom he reconciles at the party.
We learn in a list of postscripts that that polaroid is deemed “incriminating” when it resurfaces in his adult life and he loses his job at the car wash. Even with mere seconds left until the end of “Can’t Hardly Wait,” the film manages to underscore a dim future for queerness, strengthening teens’ greatest fears at the time.
It’s only when Gallagher revisited the film recently that these images crystallized in her mind.
“It was saying that in 20 years, this was still going to be problematic,” Gallagher said. “I didn’t realize how much overt homophobia was everywhere in everything. You just move through it like, ‘Okay, this is just what it is.’ You just have to be quiet and you’ll find your people eventually.”
Statements like Gallagher’s is why looking back on these films that defined our formative years, for better and worse, begs us to reckon with our nostalgia as well as the unflinching mirror they held up to ourselves and the problematic world around us.
But that’s also why there are still so many of us who enjoy rewatching these films. Because just as much as they trigger “the vibes, the feels” of our past, as Gallagher believes, they challenge us in ways that it needs to in order to truly evolve as humans.
“I have a lot of affinity for films that aren’t perfect because they allow for thought to be had,” Elston said. “Like, okay, this is where we were as a culture. Even if it’s not intentional, this is what it’s talking about.”
And, ultimately, it’s about how to absorb this new context today. “It engages me in a way that I can actually converse with myself about where I stand now and what I like,” Elston said.