If you grew up in the ‘90s, it can be tempting to idealize that time, but the truth is, it wasn’t all Oregon Trail and Gushers; a lot of kids faced bullying, and whether you dealt with bullies or not, there were certain types of bullies every ‘90s kid feared. These fears usually arose from the stereotypes of bullies that we saw in movies and on TV. People who were plagued by bullying growing up can tell you that the experience is more complex in real life than it is on screen, and that bullies can’t always be boiled down into a collection of stereotypes. Nevertheless, movies and shows aimed at kids and teens loved to feature bullies, and so those of us watching learned to fear these types.
As I put together this list, remembering my own abject fear of mean girls in middle school, I found myself feeling thankful, again and again, that social media didn’t exist in the ‘90s. With the emergence of the Internet and America Online, ‘90s kids may have gotten a taste of what cyberbullying would eventually become, but most people had (thankfully) not yet realized the full potential for tormenting people that was held in their giant desktop computers. I don’t mean to suggest that bullies were somehow kinder in the ‘90s, or that it was any less awful to be the target of one, but I am eternally grateful that I never had to worry about some of the truly crazy stuff that goes down on Facebook and Twitter these days.
Long before any of us had heard of the term “cyberbullying,” these bullies had ‘90s kids quaking with fear:
1. The mean girl
Regina George is, of course, the most iconic mean girl of all time, but she had plenty of predecessors in the '90s, from Taylor Vaughan in She’s All That to Cordelia Chase in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (before she’s developed into a more well-rounded character, at least). I think that prevalence of the “mean girl” stereotype — in which the most beautiful, popular, wealthy girl in school is also a spoiled bully — is one reason that Clueless works so brilliantly. Cher comes so close to embodying that stereotype, skirting the line between charming and selfish before finally changing for the better.
2. The pretty boy.
This bully is essentially the male version of the “mean girl” stereotype — the guy who is hot, popular, and wealthy, who uses all of that social capital to be a total jerk. Perhaps the ultimate example of this character emerged in the '80s, in the form of James Spader’s character in Pretty in Pink, but the 90s had its own versions, epitomized by Joey Donner in 10 Things I Hate About You — he’s the kind of guy who thinks he can use money to manipulate a girl into sleeping with him, and draws dicks on people’s faces. When Bianca finally punched him in the face, we all cheered.
3. The bully you can never escape.
In Billy Madison, Billy was plagued by one of the bullying O’Doyle brothers in Every. Single. Grade. While most of us haven’t been plagued by a multi-generational bullying dynasty, that feeling of just not being able to get away from someone (because they keep getting assigned to your classes, for instance) will feel familiar for many.
4. The older kid
In school there was always that kid who liked to pick on children who were younger than them. That kid wasn’t necessarily a bully to other children or adults, but put someone littler in front of them, and the claws would come out. Angelica Pickles is a perfect example, with her favorite catchphrase — “You stupid babies!” — telling you all you need to know.
5. The hazing bully
Dazed and Confused may take place in the ‘70s, but the 1993 film was iconic for those of us who were adolescents in the ‘90s. When I started high school, I — and most of my friends — were terrified that we’d be forced to endure tortuous hazing rituals like those inflicted by Parker Posey and Ben Affleck in the movie. (We weren’t, but the fear was real).
6. The jock
Obviously, being a jock does not make someone a bully; nothing about sports automatically transforms people into jerks. But TV and film certainly do love to portray jocks as aggressive tormenters of less athletically inclined kids, so it’s no wonder that non-sporty children feared the jock-bully stereotype. Classic ‘90s examples of this character include Matt Wilson in Encino Man and Mike in Can’t Hardly Wait.
7. That kid with the leather jacket.
Leather biker jackets were popular sartorial choices for bullies in ‘90s media (See: Doug’s Roger Klotz and Jay from Hocus Pocus), but can we blame them? A good leather jacket is a staple of a well-rounded, timeless wardrobe. It looks great and will never go out of style. (And I’m sure that’s what Roger Klotz was thinking when he bought his, too).
8. The animated bully
The ‘90s had a lot of great cartoons about kids, and therefore had a lot of great animated bullies, too. Hall of Famers include the aforementioned Angelica Pickles and Roger Klotz, along with Helga Pataki (who used her bullying to mask her undying ardor for Arnold), Wolfgang, and Ludwig from Hey, Arnold! and Gelman and Clyde Philmore from Recess.
9. The adult bully
Kids aren’t the only cruel ones out there — adults can be terrifying, too, especially those in positions of authority. The ‘90s gave us a bitterly cruel teacher in Teaching Mrs. Tingle and a dangerously competitive coach in Varsity Blues. If they weren’t bad enough, we had a whole faculty possessed by evil aliens in The Faculty.
10. Um… Witches
If The Craft showed us anything, it’s that people who are bullied can become bullies themselves (and that, when you start trying to put your own pain onto others, you risk losing yourself). Also, it taught us that practicing witchcraft is, like, maybe not the greatest idea ever (and that dark lipstick definitely is.)
11. The sociopath.
In the ‘90s, perhaps the most famous sociopathic character of all time appeared on screen in Silence of the Lambs. But if you were too young to watch Hannibal Lecter torment Clarice in that movie, you still met frighteningly amoral, antisocial, and manipulative characters in teen movies — people whose behavior went beyond taunts and ridicule to full-fledged attempts to ruin lives. People we feared included Sarah Michelle Gellar’s character in Cruel Intentions and Mark Wahlberg’s in Fear.
Images: Nickelodeon; Giphy; Buena Vista Pictures