It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. I mean the 90s, of course. Stumbling across Liam Gallagher’s face on the new GQ cover, with the fawning headline claiming 72 “extraordinary” hours with the Oasis singer, got me thinking about the deluded praise heaped on lad culture’s pin-ups 20 years on. A few days later, seeing a 25th-anniversary edition of KD Lang’s album Ingénue and it hit me: actually, the 90s – the decade when I left university and started work as a BBC journalist – were a bloody brilliant decade to be a young woman.
Released in 1992, Ingénue was a flawless song cycle – all about lust and unrequited love. In the golden age of the CD, we had it on constant repeat. And while, at first glance, it couldn’t be more different to the brash pop of Madonna’s stadium-filling Blonde Ambition tour, both, together with Annie Lennox’s Diva, had a key thing in common: they put female desire (lesbian desire, in the case of Ingénue) at the heart of mass popular entertainment.
On TV’s The X-Files, Gillian Anderson’s Agent Scully was the calm, rational sceptic and the bloke was the superstitious, emotional one. In her brightly coloured pantsuits, flashing her FBI pass, Scully was my generation’s role model, entering the bastions of government and civic power.
Our manual was Susan Faludi’s Backlash – a book that changed the way we read and watched the news. It exposed the dodgy stories getting coverage in mainstream outlets, designed to induce panic just as women were really making inroads in the workplace; most notoriously, a spurious “study” that claimed single female graduates over 30 were more likely to be killed in a terrorist attack than marry. It equipped my generation of women journalists to consciously challenge sexist editorial attitudes.
Backlash, Susan Faludi
That same year, millions watched via TV as Anita Hill – an African-American lawyer and academic – testified before a Congressional committee about the sexual harassment she’d endured from Clarence Thomas – the first black man to be appointed to the US Supreme Court. The wretched details and the double discrimination she endured – accused of being a race traitor – shocked us and actually helped change the gender balance of governments. Many women who are now in Congress and the Senate say they were inspired to run for elected office BECAUSE of her. We felt it here, too. Some papers may have patronisingly labelled them “Blair’s Babes”, but the huge influx of women into parliament in the 1997 election changed the way it operates now.
In 1992, one of the first events I covered as a new BBC network news reporter was the General Synod vote to allow women priests. I remember the female deacons cheering and hugging around Church House in Westminster. Hell, even in the Church sexism felt like it was for squares.
In the cinema, our star was Geena Davis – Thelma & Louise, The Long Kiss Goodnight, the groundbreaking Cutthroat Island and A League Of Their Own. Now, her Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media campaigns to change the way Hollywood makes films to better represent women and girls.
In Britain, female-led groups such as Lush, Elastica and Skunk Anansie were liberating pop from the zombie grip of Stock Aitken Waterman. Anyone could join in. One of my mates – a BBC secretary to the reporter pool where I worked – was in her big sister’s riot grrrl group, The Voodoo Queens. Her sister had taught her the essential keyboard chords. “I’m going to be on The Word tomorrow!” she announced one day. And she was, performing their new single, Supermodel Superficial. Those heady days didn’t last, but they were glorious.
Those of us who were there in the 90s can tell you we did make progress
And then the lad thing happened. I can actually remember sitting watching TV one day and thinking, “Hang on, they only just stopped showing Benny Hill and all those stupid sexist shows.” Backlash o’clock! Suddenly, there were these invisible ironic quotation marks around all the same stuff. Blokey bands strutted around on shows like TFI Friday. Even supposedly more cerebral Blur made a Benny Hill-style video for Country House with Page 3 girls, directed by Damien Hirst. Mags such as Loaded created a corrosive sexual culture that exploited a lot of young women.
We should reflect on the contradictory currents under the progressive surface of the 90s that haunt the present: President Clinton’s predatory treatment of the White House intern Monica Lewinsky; Clarence Thomas becoming the judge who officiated the oath at President Trump’s inauguration; the enduring pay gap in institutions like the BBC; why it’s taken more than 20 years for women bishops to be appointed; the awful stuff Joss Whedon’s ex-wife has revealed about the unfeminist stuff going on during the making of Buffy The Vampire Slayer.
But those of us who were there in the 90s can tell you we did make progress. Most importantly, we learnt to be on our guard for the nostalgic backlash. So don’t fall for the attempt to glorify and revive lad culture. It’s just for squares.