Movies thrive on archetypes: typical characters with easily identifiable traits that work as a sort of shorthand for what these characters are and what they’re all about. Whether it’s the villain with a large brow and piercing eyes that dresses all in black and speaks in a threatening monotone or a fun-loving party dude that wears a Hawaiian shirt and has a nickname like “Kegger,” these archetypes exist so audiences can figure out just by how they look and within a few lines know exactly who this character “is” without delving into long back stories or exposition.
Every decade, it seems, codifies new archetypes to fit in with the culture and prevailing styles of the time. Whether or not these characterizations were absolutely true representations was besides the point: they are exaggerated caricatures rather than detailed portraits. Depictions of hippies in the 60’s could be picked out for their long hair, natty threads, and slang-heavy vocabulary; snobby yuppies in the 80’s wore suits, were clean-shaven, were obsessed with material possessions, and maybe had a cell phone; and so on and so forth.
The 90’s were no different in this regard: ushering in a new, “radical” attitude that was easily exploitable and marketable by Hollywood and advertisers, these new archetypes sprung up and were distinctly of the time. Let’s look at 6 radical 90’s characters that began to populate movies, TV shows, and advertisement in that decade, and what they represented in American culture as a whole.
Well, this one’s a no-brainer: The Slacker came from the gigantic cultural tidal shift that occurred in the early 90’s when Gen X came of age and became the dominant youth culture force in America. Grunge was in, being disaffected was a lifestyle choice, and The Slacker attitude reigned supreme. Codified in Richard Linklater’s 1991 film Slacker and with the sartorial and attitude pose that the flood of Seattle-based grunge musicians made popular, The Slacker aesthetic was kind of the default style for the first half of the decade.
The Slacker’s attitude was easy enough to figure out: they just thought everything was bullshit, maan! Kind of like hippies but with nothing to actually protest, they instead protested that they had nothing to protest. Sitting in a coffee shop wearing flannel or t-shirts with long-sleeve shirts on underneath, growing your hair long, and getting a piercing of some sort while flipping through some edgy zine about serial killers or some other young person’s disaffected ramblings of the empty culture they live in were de rigueur for the late teen to 20-something in the early 90’s.
And The Slacker soon was adapted into Hollywood films as shorthand for “a hip young person.” Of course, Reality Bites is a well-known example of this, with the whole movie being populated mostly by slacker types, but Kevin Smith’s Clerks two main characters, Dante and Randall, were also perfect examples of The Slacker. The comedy film PCU is like a time capsule of cultural attitudes from the early 90’s, featuring a number of character archetypes of the era.
The Slacker character infected television, advertisements, and even kids shows. They were often cleaned up to the point where Friends could be considered slackers of a sort. Heck, Disney even got in on producing Slacker versions of their characters, which is insane to think about now. Remember Quack Pack starring Huey, Dewey, and Louie? They were made to be all Slacker characters who were constantly leaning against the wall, every line of dialogue dripping with bored irony, wearing loose-fitting clothes and just not giving a darn, maan!
One of the problems of The Slacker character is that they often weren’t particularly interesting or resilient. A lot of actors, like Pauly Shore, made their careers by playing idiotic, trivial slackers who seemingly didn’t have a brain and lived to be irreverent. Even in film and theater portrayals of The Slacker–like the aforementioned Reality Bites and the Broadway hit Rent–can easily be read as a group of lazy, entitled narcissists who are griping at just how darn easy they have it and how that’s their major problem. This is grating to watch now in the endless dumpster fire that is 21st century America. Of course, by the late 90’s The Slacker character either became smarter–see Daria as an example–or else disappeared completely.
The Internet Hacker
Oh, how Hollywood totally misunderstood what the internet and computers were in the 1990’s. But they were so eager to mine a new, hip trend in American culture that they did everything in their power to make sitting behind a computer seem like an extreme, cool, and edgy activity. Perhaps the best example of this was in 1995’s Hackers. In this movie, a group of totally radical high school hackers get involved in some corporate conspiracy and blah blah who cares?
Really, the film was more focused on attitude and aesthetics than actually detailing what goes into hacking, what hacking is, how it works, or what one can do by hacking. In this film, the relatively boring activity that “hacking” actually is is instead represented by outrageous visuals meant to be metaphorical representations of hacking. But it’s still very stupid. Not that Hollywood or the filmmakers cared: they just wanted to associate an emerging culture with something that’s cool and marketable and stylish. Every frame of Hackers could easily be dropped into a Pepsi commercial and be totally appropriate. And the characters were all “nerds” who roller-bladed and listened to jumpy techno and were, dare I say it, so nerdy they were cool?!?
But Hackers isn’t the only example: The Net, starring Sandra Bullock as a shut-in programmer who’s very lonely (because women that look like Sandra Bullock circa 1995 are sure to be alone forever) and finds her life ripped apart after stumbling across some secrets. By the internet. In 1995. At time when most web pages barely had photos and 56K was a top speed for internet connections, somehow the internet’s portrayed as something that controls the world and hardware itself.
But it seemed the biggest push from Hollywood and depicting hacking is that only the coolest badasses did it, maan! Swordfish is an example of this, as is Johnny Mnemonic. Heck, it became such a codified trope by the end of the decade that 1999’s The Matrix was ostensibly this amped-up representation of hackers and hacking pushed just one step further so that the characters could hack reality itself.
Maybe this kind of depiction was to sell more soda or soundtracks, but the way hackers were portrayed in 90’s films were that they were totally living an extreme, radical life on the edge and every moment was a blur of sexy activity. Speaking of an extreme life, next we have…
The EXTREME Guy (or Girl)
Maybe it had to do with the rising popularity of snowboarding at the time, or maybe The X Games contributed to this, or that skateboarding culture became mainstream in the 90’s. Whatever it was, one of the new character archetypes to start showing up in this decade was The EXTREME Guy (or Girl). They snowboard down the mountain before doing ten flips into the ski lodge where they take out an army of bad guys single-handed with guns a-blazing before strapping themselves into a rocket and shooting off into space to fight a horde of alien invaders.
While the 2000s was the decade the EXTREME Guy (and Girl) took off (See: The Fast & The Furious franchise, xXx, and every ripoff action movie of the same mold), the EXTREME attitude really found its footing in the 90’s, particularly in advertising, where snowboarders, skateboarders, and just wild and crazy people would find their courage and steam from drinking Mountain Dew or chewing Juicy Fruit. Mix this with the Slacker aesthetic and you pretty much have the 90’s in one tidy little package.
In film, the EXTREME Guy is the action hero/villain who surfs and does motocross and has the slacker attitude only he also knows how to fire a gun and totally pumps iron, bro. Pretty much every character in Point Break is an EXTREME Guy, but even in a weird example, the males in Fight Club are mostly EXTREME Guys. Sure, they may not snowboard, but they beat each other senseless in a secret fight club (there I go, breaking the first rule) and are looking to create chaos to get back at the establishment, maan!
The EXTREME Guy’s distaff counterpart is an interesting example of a representation with political, particularly feminist, undertones: the EXTREME Girl wasn’t a damsel in distress and could fight her way out of a bad situation along with the guys. Lori Petty seemed to play this trope a lot: both her character in Point Break and especially in Tank Girl thrived on being the EXTREME Girl. Even such a stalwart macho franchise like James Bond got with the program, giving audiences Wai Lin (Michelle Yeoh), a motorcycle-riding martial arts badass (EXTREME) Bond Girl. Mace in Strange Days and Leeloo in The Fifth Element are also EXTREME Girls.
The problem with the EXTREME archetype is that it comes across as wildly forced: advertisements, particularly to children, loved to play up the “EXTREME” angle until this well-crafted, market-tested idea lost all meaning. Just look at this crap:
That’s right: even advertising the internet to kids was EXTREME!!!!! Again, this sort of character really took off in the 2000s, but in the 90’s was where the EXTREME Guy and Girl first started their totally radical roots.
The Precocious Kid
What the fuck is “Kid Power” and how was it ever a thing? Oh, that’s right: the Viacom overlords at Nickelodeon market-tested the idea and then shoved it down an entire generation’s young, impressionable throats (that phrasing…doesn’t read well. Tight, velvety throats?).
Anyway, if there was anything that signified (ugh) “Kid Power” in the 90’s, it was the precocious kid that always got one over on the adults. Movies like Milk Money, Blank Check, Camp Nowhere, and the Home Alone series ran on these kinds of characters. Hell, Mara Wilson practically made a career playing these in the 90’s.
You know the character: the 10-year-old who’s misunderstood and taking a bunch of shit in their own life from their parents or a bully and they scheme some plan to take over the, I don’t know, world? There are so many examples of this kind of crap in the 90’s: Getting Even With Dad, House Arrest, The Little Rascals, Man of the House, Monkey Trouble, 3 Ninjas, and plenty of other ones that fortunately that part of my memory has gone gray and can no longer recall. If this is the legacy of The Goonies and Stand By Me, then you can keep it.
The Sympathetic Villain
Aren’t bad guys supposed to be, you know, bad? Apparently the 90’s didn’t think so and tried to give their villains at least good excuses as to why they’ve gone to the dark side. Heck, even James Bond gave us two sympathetic villains in the 90’s: in Goldeneye, Alec Trevelyan/Janus is a former agent who’s taking revenge for what the British government did to his parents, while in The World Is Not Enough, Elektra King aligns with the bad guys after she saw that when she was kidnapped, the government refused to negotiate with the terrorists that took her.
In The Rock, the badass Army General that takes over Alcatraz with biological weapons holds San Francisco hostage for reparations to be paid to the families of his soldiers who he lead into a disastrous covert operation and were left to die. I mean cripes, even I would hold a city hostage if that happened to me! And the whole thing is: he wasn’t even going to go through with it–it was a bluff!
Even stupid Captain Hook in stupid Hook was more of an ineffectual goofball that sadly found he had little purpose without Peter Pan around. Mr. Freeze in Batman & Robin has a sad sack backstory that makes his crimes at least understandable. This type of inherent sadness and ineffectual inability of some villains became a running joke in the Austin Powers franchise, where Dr. Evil was far too goofy and weird to ever be considered a serious threat.
The point being that the 90’s seemed to open-minded to provide its audience with just a mustache-twirling villain: instead, villains became far more likable, understandable, and were provided with more depth than they were before. They became sympathetic–a trend that’s continued with villains to this day, to the point that it’s even become a stock character trait for villains to have sympathetic backstories and be even somewhat likable in modern films.
Wacky Old Person!
Ah, old people are a delight, aren’t they? Filled with wisdom, patience, and a lifetime’s worth of experience, the elderly have a lot to teach and share with younger generations. [Needle scratch] BUT THIS AIN’T YO MAMMA’S OLD PERSON!!
Yes, the “wacky old person” became a very popular trope in 90’s film. Why is a mystery: maybe it was trying to appeal to the ageing Greatest Generation and include them with the totally rude ‘tudes that the 90’s pushed in media, or perhaps some writers somewhere in Hollywoodland found it just the funniest thing ever that someone over 50 would rap, ride a motorcycle, or do something that flies in the face of assumed behaviors.
Mama Joe from Soul Food, that old rapping grandma from The Wedding Singer, and even the surfboarding elder from Chairman of the Board are all just symptoms of a larger pandemic: of old people now depicted as being hip to the cool, fresh, and new trends. Advertisements loved this trope so much that it was even parodied in a Simpsons episode.
Of course, older people in our culture continue to be relevant and vital parts of society, especially now that the Baby Boomers are kicking and screaming against the classification of being “old” people. But the 90’s really took the ball of trying to brand elders in the US as just as hip and cool and EXTREME as any young person. Is this a symptom of our ultimately hollow marketing systems? Is this inclusion? Or is this just any attempt to wring out the last buck of anyone who desperately wishes they were young again?
As with most things 90’s-related, it’s all three. Savvy marketers found a demographic they could reach and try to appeal to; screenwriters and directors knew that if they included an elderly character in their movie they could appeal to such a demographic; and ultimately, it came down to the canard of the 90’s being a super-liberal decade that sought to include all ages, races, and lifestyles into the melee of pop culture. And it succeeded wildly.
But that’s maybe not the point. When was the last time you met a rapping granny, after all? The chances are never because this character doesn’t exist in real life, nor do the caricatures that most of the archetypes discussed in this article. But they contributed something else: newly codified and easily identifiable character types that just from a glance and a few lines of dialogue the audience could understand. And isn’t that really what the 90’s was about: making sure that every sort of type was easily identifiable?
It’s a trend that’s only multiplied in the decades since: EXTREME Guys and Girls populate every type of action movie created today; precocious kids have taken over the airwaves and children’s television; and likable villain antagonists are now somewhat standard for any new action movie. These characters may seem even hack at this point, but a mere 20+ years ago they were cutting-edge archetypes that sprung from a culture that inspired their creation.