Though we may be forever indebted to 1990s pop culture for creating most of the references that we drop into conversation conversational references, our nostalgic trips down the sink hole to "goodTV shows," and our post-lunch GIFs, we can't exactly look upon the era of entertainment with unchecked admiration. There were some progressive '90s sitcoms out there, but that was not the norm. Speaking earnestly, sometimes ’90s television had its head screwed on backwards when it came to issues of race, gender, sexual orientation, and — perhaps most famously — the effects of caffeine pill addiction. Chiefly monochromatic sitcoms with black supporting players and guest stars pushed into positions of glorified set dressing, characters like Topanga Lawrence were run through the mill for playing the devoted feminist, and so on and so forth.
But, once in a while, a ’90s sitcom would take a page from the book of Norman Lear and opt to show off its chops in the game of pot stirring. Television programs that usually stuck to comedic one-liners like, “Did I do that?” broke free from the mold to make the occasional statement, surprising and delighting progressive viewers in the process.
Here’s a look back at our most memed small screen decade’s instances of breaking from catchphrase-heavy routine to brave the waters of statement makery.
1. Family Matters
Episode of note: The fifth season episode “Car Wars,” in which Laura dresses up like a man in order to get better service at a car dealership.
Family Matters holds distinction as the only sitcom brave enough to feature, in the very same year, one episode that tackled the gravity of gun violence (in which a regular character actually gets shot) and another episode in which the two stars accidentally shrink to a height of six inches and run around the kitchen counter trying to get away from rolling pins and sharp knives. High art.
Before either of these history-making turns, Family Matters jumped into a conversation about American sexism. Laura's attempts to buy a car from the gregarious "Honest Bob" (corny car salesman is one of those '90s staples I miss the most) result in condescension and overt attempts at price-hiking. When she returns in disguise as a man, a scheme suggested by the always forward-thinking Steve Urkel, Laura meets with more respect from Honest Bob, not to mention a better deal on her desired automobile.
Episode of note:
The seventh season episode “Thanksgiving 1994,” in which a pregnant Roseanne
considers having an abortion.
Maude singlehandedly pioneered the discussion of abortion on TV, and outdid many of its successors with its title character’s decision to undertake the procedure. But Roseanne deserves credit for throwing its hat into the lastingly controversial ring, and for approaching the issue from a multitude of perspectives.
Enlightened to new complications with her pregnancy, a hospitalized Roseanne appreciates the gravity of the decision to abort, but carries no uncertainty that the decision is hers and hers alone. Meanwhile, Nana Mary approaches the issue independent of stigma, reflecting on her own past abortions free of regret. Beside Roseanne is husband Dan, whose point of view is a bit more muddled; Dan has a horse in the race, but comes ultimately to the realization that his wife’s input trumps his throughout the gestation period. Finally, we have son D.J., totally and completely supportive of whatever his mother opts to do.
You’d be hard pressed to find an episode of comedy television in the 20 years since the Roseanne episode’s initial broadcast that has adopted such a vividly pro-choice attitude on the issue of abortion.
3. The Fresh Prince of Bel Air
Episode of note:
The first season episode “Mistaken Identity,” in which Will and Carlton get
pulled over while driving a family friend’s fancy car.
There are few social issues today spoken about with as much volume and urgency as those concerning black Americans’ relationship with the justice system. The matter has aroused protest and controversy for decades, and today rests at what can feel like a maddening distance from actual progress.
In the sixth episode ever of the predominantly silly Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Will and Carlton endured an arrest and jailing whose justification incited debate. Will understood the measure to be resultant of the arresting officer’s assumption that a fancy car driven by two young black men must have been stolen. On the other hand, Carlton (who had experienced limited persecution in his lifetime) defended the cop’s decision, admitting that he and Will had been driving at a speed that would naturally incur suspicion. The episode closed out with Carlton beginning to question his own side of the argument, coming gradually to terms with the world not being as just a place as he had always believed.
5. Murphy Brown
Episode of note: The fourth season episode "Birth 101," in which single Murphy (aptly) gives birth.
That a woman's right or ability to bear and raise a child on her own could ever be a matter of "controversy" is chilling. But, then again, what great chaos would our world be in today if not for public saviors like Dan Quayle, protecting us all from the thought of any nook and cranny of society escaping alpha male influence?
The entire premise and execution of Murphy Brown was a testament to third wave feminism, but "Birth 101" especially shone a light on the show and character's proverbial middle finger to the "conservation of tradition" that motivated female subjugation.
Episodes of note: The seventh season episodes “The Sponge,” in which Elaine weights the merits of prospective sexual partners in light of a shortage on her preferred birth control device, and “The Rye,” in which she laments her new boyfriend’s aversion to performing oral sex.
Female sexuality was practically nonexistent in ’80s and ’90s television. Women played the pursued — sometimes even the prey — to the "charming" sex-hungry males, alternatively rebuffing and succumbing weakly to the latter's advances. But Elaine was built on no such lack of agency, presenting as just as interested in sex as her male counterparts on Seinfeld are. In "The Rye," especially, is Elaine separated from the chastity that enveloped small screen women of her time. Upon learning that her new boyfriend (cool saxophonist John Jermaine) refuses to perform oral sex, Elaine is given the opportunity to speak on behalf of the oft overshadowed importance of female sexual pleasure.
7. The Golden Girls
Episode of note: The sixth season episode "Sisters of the Bride," in which Blanche comes to terms with her brother marrying another man.
It has long been a M.O. of the sort of internal homophobic parties referenced above to claim no issue with homosexual relationships... just so long as they don't go so far as to actually get married. This was the case in a 1991 episode of The Golden Girls, in which Blanche's brother (outed previously in a 1988 episode) gets engaged to his boyfriend.
Blanche, despite wanting to be supportive of her brother, finds it difficult to overcome her discomfort with the idea of gay marriage. Friend Sophia spells out the fact that marriage is simply a means to celebrate and share your love, and should be a right extended to everyone lucky enough to find that kind of love. The latter's compassion reaches Blanche, who begins to understand that her brother's love and desire to marry are no different from her own.
Episode of note: The fourth season episode "The Puppy Episode," in which heroine Ellen Morgan, and star Ellen DeGeneres, come out as gay.
Though DeGeneres' sitcom Ellen didn't last very long after the outing of its central character, the actress-turned-TV personality's career would take off something fierce. Her utilization of the show to speak honestly about her own sexual orientation made DeGeneres something of a hero to many Americans (and, naturally, a figure of conflict to others).
While it might seem like Ellen was a few steps behind The Golden Girls, which embraced homosexuality a full decade prior with the coming out of Blanche's brother, Ellen harbors the important distinction of planting its main character at the center of such a story. Instead of relegating the important issues of homophobia to a character who warranted limited audience investment, Ellen brought the notion front and center — a substantially different, and extremely important, kind of embrace.
Eighteen years later, and we've come quite a ways from the kind of society in which DeGeneres and Morgan felt they needed to safeguard this element of themselves from the viewing public. The bevy of programs like Ellen, those endeavoring to emancipate LGBTQIA characters from the negative connotation implemented by the social stigmas of prejudice and xenophobia, to come out in and beyond the '90s are owed no small gratitude for helping to foster this change. Thus, despite the fact that the '90s weren't quite the golden age of television we might remember them fondly as, there were still a lot of powerful lessons being taught during that era.
Images: NBC (2); ABC (3); CBS