13 People Reveal How Sexism In The '90s Differed From The Sexism Women Experience Today
As we progress as a society, the hope is that, with each passing year, things turn out a little bit more equal than they were the year before. That often isn’t the case, unfortunately — but it can still be worth looking at how things have changed and how they haven’t. Indeed, as a recent AskReddit thread discussing how everyday sexism in the ‘90s differed from the sorts of everyday sexism we experience in 2018 makes clear, things can change for the better… but sometimes, they don’t change as much as we think they do. And identifying what’s actually gotten better, what’s gotten worse, and what might still be happening, albeit in a different form, is an essential part of figuring out the path forward.
It is, of course, worth remembering that the United States is a big country that definitely isn’t the same all over. Indeed, one Redditor going by the name u/SamuraiWisdom underlined that point, writing, “Let's try to remember: Location and circumstance also matter, whether we're talking ‘90s or today.” As this Redditor put it, they were born in 1983 and “grew up with hippie parents who had an openly gay roommate [and] went to schools where girls already had special programs to encourage them in math and science.” By their experience, “lots of people back then were already talking about the wage gap and sexual discrimination and household chore distribution.” By the same token, pointed out u/SamuraiWisdom, in a lot of places in the country, life is still “closer to 1960 than it is to today’s New York or LA.” Wrote the Redditor, “Society changes slowly, and in parts,” stressing the fact that our own experiences of sexism in the ‘90s versus today often has “more to do with your local circumstances than national politics.”
Indeed, as I read through the thread, I was also frequently struck by the fact that a lot of the sexism many of us experienced in the ‘90s hasn’t gone away; it’s just changed form. Consider that proof that we still have a long way to go when it comes equality for all.
You can head on over to Reddit to check out the full thread — but in the meantime, here’s a look according to 13 different Redditors at how 10 specific things have changed since the ‘90s… and how they haven’t:
1. Blatant Sexism At School
Don’t get me wrong — there’s still a lot of blatant sexism to be found in school settings. But the chances of a teacher pulling this kind of stunt and getting away with it are probably a little lower today; the overt stuff gets called out much more frequently (which, of course, means that a lot of everyday sexism has gotten subtler, enabling it to fly insidiously under the radar instead). If a teacher did do something like this to a student in 2018, the story would probably go viral, which would hopefully result in an apology to the student, a correction from the school, and the reprimanding or firing of the teacher.
However, as another Redditor noted in a response, some things about that experience still haven’t changed:
Same sh*t, different… decade.
2. Street Harassment Then vs. Street Harassment Now
These days, people are catching on to the fact that catcalling isn’t usually considered a nice thing to do… so they’ll often only harass women who are walking alone. I’m not sure if that’s better or worse than catcalling someone who’s walking with their kids; somehow, it makes it seem more... targeted. But it's different, in any event.
The “show us your tits” banners are still around, though. They just come in slightly different forms — like the banners hoisted at a fraternity house at the beginning of the 2015 school year that read, “Freshman Daughter Drop-Off.”
3. “Boys Will Be Boys, And It’s Your Fault, Girls”
Out of all of the points made in this thread, this is the one that I read and went, “WOW, things have NOT CHANGED AT ALL.” Policing girls’ bodies instead of teaching boys that girls aren’t sexual objects is still the preferred method of many schools when it comes to dealing with sexual harassment on school grounds… or even just when it comes to dealing with the existence of girls, period.
It’s just as unacceptable now as it was then.
Speaking of bra strap snapping…
4. Ignoring The Right Lessons And Teaching The Wrong Ones
Nor was this commonly-experienced '90s attitude uncommon. Another Redditor recalled observing something similar: “I remember being told by one of the girls … that the reason our teacher took the girls in early from recess one afternoon was to pull her dress off her shoulder to show the girls how to tie the over-the-shoulder straps in case of breakage,” he wrote. “There was definitely never any gathering together of the boys to tell them to just not f*cking do that.”
The boys weren’t taught not to snap anyone’s bra straps, while the girls were taught how to fix their bras when the boys snapped the straps hard enough to break them. That’s completely the opposite of what should have happened.
The most upsetting thing about this point, though, is that it's actually not a '90s attitude; it's still present today. Remember that tweet that made the rounds recently about a boy not knowing that, if you ask a girl out and she says no, the appropriate thing is to leave her alone, not keep asking her out again and again?
Yeah. That one. It’s the exact same thing: No one had ever taught the kid the right way to respond to the girl’s “no,” just like no one ever taught ‘90s boys to leave other people’s clothing alone.
Also, that tweet was sent in response to all the victim blaming that went on after the Santa Fe school shooting. Teaching the wrong lessons has real, devastating consequences — but we haven’t gotten any better about it over the years. Not OK.
5. The Conversation About Consent
I knew there was a reason American Pie never struck me as that funny of a movie, even if I couldn't quite pinpoint why.
This is it.
6. ‘90s Sitcoms As A Microcosm For Everyday ‘90s Sexism
This Redditor made a similar point:
In some ways, yes, in 2018, we’ve progressed beyond how ‘90s sitcoms treated women; a lot of these kinds of jokes haven’t aged well and wouldn’t play with many modern audiences. But in other ways, we haven’t progressed beyond it at all. For example, writing about The Big Bang Theory in 2014 for The Daily Beast, Arthur Chu observed:
“When the pilot aired, it was 2007 and ‘nerd culture’ and ‘geek chic’ were on everyone’s lips, and yet still the basic premise of ‘the sitcom for nerds’ was, once again, awkward but lovable nerd has huge unreciprocated crush on hot non-nerdy popular girl (and also has an annoying roommate).
"This annoys me. This is a problem.”
And he’s right: It’s the same story, with the same jokes, and the same sexism — and everybody still loses because of it.
Also, remember how the viral tweet I mentioned in the last bullet point was written and published in the aftermath of the Santa Fe shooting this year? Chu’s piece was written in the aftermath of the Santa Barbara shooting.
That’s the common denominator: A privileged white man shooting and killing a bunch of people because a woman told him no.
7. ‘90s Sitcoms As A Microcosm For ‘90s Homophobia
There’s also lot of interesting discussion about what one Redditor termed “gay panic” in ‘90s-era sitcoms. This comment, though, I think nailed why so many ‘90s sitcoms make us cringe when we go back and re-watch them now: The message that was repeated time and time again was, “There’s nothing wrong with being gay, but I will go through hell and back to prove I’m attracted to women.”
Of course, even though we’re doing a bit better now, we’ve still got a long way to go—and to be honest, even if we’ve cleared the bar set by the ‘90s, it wasn’t exactly a difficult one to clear in the first place. We still need to strive to be better.
8. Coming Out In The ‘90s Vs. Coming Out Now
Remember how Ellen was cancelled not too long after Ellen DeGeneres came out? That probably wouldn’t happen now — or at least, not in the same way it did then. As Trish Bendix at New Now Next recalled in 2017, then-ABC President Robert Iger said that the cancellation wasn’t because of the character coming out, but because Ellen “became a program about a lead character who was gay every single week, and I just think that was too much for people.” Still, though, wrote Bendix: “The network barely promoted final season and placed viewer discretion warnings before each episode, cautioning watchers of 'adult content,' despite Ellen’s tameness compared to hetero sitcoms like Seinfeld and The Drew Carey Show.” That's... not a good look for the network in hindsight.
So, hey, at least networks have gotten better about that in the meantime — and now, instead of cancelling shows after people come out, networks are cancelling shows after people are racist. That's as it should be.
But there's still work to do. While a celebrity coming out as LGB is generally considered less remarkable by the (very vocal cis-het portion of the) public now that in was in the ‘90s — which, as another Redditor pointed out, is in many ways “a good thing. It will be a great time when anyone coming out as gay isn’t newsworthy or anything. It’s just a person’s personal sexuality. It doesn’t and shouldn’t matter” — a celebrity coming out as queer or trans today is still viewed through the kind of “Oooo, it’s so transgressive!” lens that coming out as LGB was in the '90s. Coming out can obviously be as big a deal for the person doing the coming out as they need it to be (or not a big deal at all) — but when it comes to how the public, especially the cis-het public, deals with it, again, we’ve still got a long way to go.
9. How Parents Help Kids Navigate Gender And Sexism
This Redditor was far from the only one to have that kind of experience; here’s another example:
Among which are also many, many more. And although I think it helps to keep in mind u/SamuraiWisdom’s comment about local circumstance in mind here, we do also hear much more frequently these days from parents who are actively trying or seeking out the best ways to support their kids when they’re dealing with everyday sexism, or with homophobia, or with transphobia, and so on and so forth. This parent, for example. And this one. This one, too. Oh, and also this one.
It’s not necessarily that millennials and Gen Xers — who now largely make up the population of parents of young kids, because, y’know, that’s how generations work — are less sexist overall than previous generations; indeed, the issue is complicated. But we’re much more willing to talk about things previous generations were taught to keep quiet about, and that, I think, makes a difference.
10. Masculinity Then Vs. Now
This! This is a good one! As is the case in every single one of these bullet points, there’s still a lot of work left to do, but at least we’re having these conversations! At least we're acknowledging that people can wear what colors they want, drink the drinks they want, cook or bake the things they want, and more! At least we're really starting to dismantle toxic masculinity!
What I like about this one — and, indeed, why I'm ending this piece on it — is that it's hopeful. It's probably one of the clearest indications that deeply-ingrained sexist tendencies can be changed. It's always going to be an ongoing process, but from items like this, we can see that we're on the right track.
You know what they say: Be the change you want to see in the world. So let's get to work.