The '90s was so long ago, and the women's movement has come on in leaps and bounds since then, right? Well, sure. But that doesn't mean that the decade didn't contain a whole lot of feminist wisdom. Just look to the most feminist characters from '90s pop culture if you want to see my point. And this isn't entirely unexpected. This, after all, was the decade of the riot grrrl movement, of a surge of female representation in the male-dominated genre that was hip hop, and, lest we forget, the beginning of third wave feminism — i.e. a beginning of a mainstream focus on non-white and LGBTQ women as being essential to the movement.
In light of all that, it's really no wonder that so much of that filtered down into pop culture. The creators of one of the ultimate bro-shows of the decade, Beavis and Butthead, decided to create a spin-off focused on two politicized females, a show also known as Daria, Nickelodeon created its first show with a female lead, Clarissa Explains It All. And it was Lisa, not Homer Simpson, who provided the pulsing heart and thoughtful, liberal consciousness of the longest-running scripted show in the history of the USA. Let's reflect on some of these amazing characters.
She was everything: older than the average woman portrayed on television, and showing that non-size zero women could be protagonists, too — laying the foundation for the body positivity movement. The choice to focus an entire show on an ordinary American mother suggested that domestic life was of interest to viewers.
2Buffy Summers ('Buffy The Vampire Slayer')
Sure, she did pave the way for that most problematic of female characters, the Strong Woman. But in Season 7, Buffy has to fight a monster who is literally an enemy of all women. Sure, the series wasn't exactly subtle in positioning Buffy as a feminist, but it made sense. Women's rights had always been at the heart of this show.
3Kat Stratford ('10 Things I Hate About You')
Kat is based on one of the most classic feminist characters of literary history, Katherina Minola from Shakespeare's The Taming Of The Shrew. So, it's not exactly surprising that her modern day equivalent is self-aware, good at boundary-setting, and doesn't just do what everyone else does to try and fit in.
4Daria Morgendorffer ('Daria')
Originally created for Beavis and Butthead, Daria went on to get her own show. Paired with a best friend who was just as smart and analytical about the world, Jane Lane, Daria provided a brave new vision of how to be a woman; you didn't have to be a perky, chirpy, "you go girl" to be a good feminist. You could be melancholic and critical about the state of the world, too. She made being completely yourself look like the coolest thing in the world.
5Lisa Simpson ('The Simpsons')
Lisa was amazing because, as the above shows, she wasn't just the mouthpiece for feminism in the series, but she also illustrated how not to be a feminist: knee jerk outrage without knowing all the facts, using feminism to pick a fight because you're in a scratchy mood rather than because you genuinely feel passionately about that issue. If you think it's important for a movement to check itself, then you should watch some '90s episodes of The Simpsons.
6Clarissa Darling ('Clarissa Explains It All')
She was Nickelodeon's first female protagonist, she was so tech-savvy that she could program her own computer games, she was a teen girl on TV who didn't spend all her time structuring her entire life over a boy, and she was smart and eloquent.
7Rachel Green ('Friends')
You might not have had Rachel pegged as a feminist icon, but think about it. The once spoiled princess actively chose to be a single mother, declining marriage proposals from both Ross and Joey, and her entire character arc saw her go from sheltered daddy's girl to career woman.
8Patty Chase ('My So-Called Life')
Mother and wife Patty was also the main breadwinner in the Chase family — heck, at the beginning of the series, she even employs her own husband. #Goals
9Moesha Mitchell ('Moesha')
God, she was cool. She gave zero f*cks about vocalising what was terrible about the patriarchy with far more confidence than any teen girl I knew had. Remember when she confronted Q about that heinous list ranking the women at her school? Or when she quit her job at the clothing store because her boss was pushing her boundaries?
10Lelaina Pierce ('Reality Bites')
Aspiring filmmaker Lelaina prioritises her art over her love life. When her dirtbag TV executive boyfriend lets the TV network he works for re-edit her documentary so it no longer resembles her original work, she calls it quits on their relationship. She doesn't allow him to make her second guess her own work, which, given that he has more experience in television, feels important.
11Rebecca Buck ('Tank Girl')
Long before Mad Max's remake popularised rebellious females in dystopias, there was Rebecca Buck, aka Tank Girl. A commune member who is kidnapped, enslaved, and tortured, and whose boyfriend is murdered, she never stops fighting for her freedom while constantly dropping killer patriarchy-baiting one-liners.
She was happily sexual and unashamed of it, despite having a staunchly virginal best friend. She was a black teen in a white majority high school who still ruled the popular crowd. She was careful and attentive about language, telling her boyfriend “Murray, I have asked you repeatedly not to call me ‘woman!’” She was Dionne, and a role model in so many ways.
13Buttercup ('The Powerpuff Girls')
In a world that expects women to be like Bubbles — cute, friendly, smiley — Buttercup was a breath of fresh air. She didn't try to be likable. She could be that thing that women aren't supposed to be: a little bit aggressive. She could be moody. She didn't care; she was always herself.
14Khadijah James ('Living Single')
Whatever you think of Lean In feminism, you've got to concede that female entrepreneurs are badass. Especially if you're a black female entrepreneur in the '90s in a white-dominated field like independent publishing. So let's all bow down to Khadijah, the founder, publisher, and editor of her own magazine, Flava.
15Thelma And Louise ('Thelma & Louise')
One of the most important feminist movies of all time, it focuses on a pair of women — one of whom has an abusive husband — and shows how they break free and reclaim power from the men around them.
16Angela Moore ('Boy Meets World')
Angela Moore was so much more than Shawn's long term girlfriend. She had confidence, a whole bucket of self-belief, and was analytical and levelheaded when approaching problems. In a period of your life when you're drowning in hormones and falling head over heels for anyone half-way attractive, Angela's measured approach to her sometimes-difficult relationship with Shawn, choosing to take breaks and stay friends at times, felt refreshing.
17Dana Scully ('The X Files')
Long before the push to get more women working in STEM, there was Dana Scully. She was both a doctor and a FBI agent, who had no problem in calling out the judgement of her male colleague. She was educated and objective, and she did great under stress. Basically, she was everything any clued-in teen wanted to be when they grew up.
So no, loving the '90s doesn't have to be about nostalgia. Because, when it came to gender politics in pop culture, the '90s wasn't always retro. Sometimes it went so far as to predict your present.