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What We Meant When We Said ‘Hey, It’s the ’90s’

Our expectations for the decade (and beyond) were doomed from the very start

Down through generations, our philosophers and political scientists have debated humanity’s “progress” alongside a concept known as “the end of history” — that point at which civilization has ceased to be a competition between possible hierarchies of power and achieved its final structure. With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the scholar Francis Fukuyama took the opportunity to wonder in an essay, and subsequent book, if we had not reached that threshold. Given the defeat of fascism and collapse of communism, it looked to him as if liberal democracy and the market economy were to become the global norm. The world had settled into itself.

For reasons I hope are abundantly clear, this notion did not hold up. (Fukuyama himself has since “postponed” the end of history.) But those who remember the 1990s, sometimes colloquially defined as the stretch between the demise of the U.S.S.R. and September 11, 2001, know that such complacency was common. As a kid, I was taught from history textbooks that wrapped up with the dismantling of South Africa’s apartheid regime and the election of Nelson Mandela as president, plus a rosy implication that everyone’s life would simply get better from then on. That these 1990s were the culmination not just of a century but a millennium also lent an impression of finality: The decade was at once a coda to the past and a step into the future.

Hence the pop-culture catchphrase “It’s the ’90s,” which required no further explanation.

With a long 20 years’ distance, we gain critical perspective on what was communicated every time a character from TV or film reminded us, “It’s the ’90s.” For comparison’s sake, we might imagine a reference to the present: The phrase “It’s 2020,” no matter the inflection, would almost certainly be taken as a grim recognition of tragic failure and ugly surprise. Life in 2020 is precarious, noisy and depressing, a different and extra-literal spin on “the end of history.”

The 1990s had its own horrifying extremes, but there was pressure to get into a utopian mindset, or accept the belief that society’s ills were on the way out. Date-checking often came in response to the inklings of casual bigotry — anything that sounded retrograde and passé. When Robin Williams’ manic dad character wants to signal a permissive attitude toward gay relationships in the cross-dressing comedy Mrs. Doubtfire, he says, “Hey, it’s the ’90s.” When Meadow Soprano tells her mob boss father that it’s the ’90s, or Will Smith begs Uncle Phil to “take a stroll into the ’90s, please,” in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, they are pushing the older generation toward an era in which feminism and racial equality are supposed to be a baseline.

Except, if the 1990s were self-evidently the moment of triumph for liberal and progressive values, then why did people constantly have to remind one another of it?

The sheer repetition of “It’s the ’90s” is a glaring clue to the broken optimism of the period; we instinctively felt that things should be improving, but they weren’t. (An issue neatly replicated in the economic prosperity of Bill Clinton’s tenure, a seemingly positive trend that masked soaring income inequality.) You can regard direct allusion to living in the 1990s the way you would remarks like “Where’s my flying car?” or “We put a man on the moon, but we can’t [insert objective].” It’s the same disunity of expectation and reality that might cause you to moan about racists “defending the Confederate flag in 2020.” Somehow, the calendar is meant to override the offending take.

Amazingly, “This is the ’90s” has persisted, through both an ironic nostalgia and, perhaps, general contempt for the 21st century. You can still say it when you find technology unavoidable yet convoluted, or when you feel someone else has not “caught up” to the ideals of the present. Of course, we will always have those who yearn for a hallucinated past — Make America Great Again — in which women, people of color and the LGBTQ community are fully subordinate to dusty “tradition,” strict gender roles and brutish capitalism. “It’s the ’90s” was, it turns out, a warning: If you don’t keep up the fight, those reactionaries will win. It is never enough to rely, as Fukuyama did, on the calculation that the only way is forward. Others work to drag us back.

To put it another way: The passage of time won’t fix injustice and inadequacy for you. The number “2020,” which in the 1990s could still inspire visions of a gleaming techno-paradise, is now synonymous with catastrophic denial and dysfunction. Even our advancements have worked against us. At a moment of great upheaval, it’s worth considering our responsibility to shape a healthy existence for ourselves and the planet. Because nobody’s gonna hand it to us.

The ’90s sure didn’t.

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