Some things will never not be locked into a time period. Like dusters in the early 2000s and lifestyle sweats in the 1980s, it’s hard to extract certain relics from their time period. Yes, boot cut jeans and “Mom” jeans might pop in and out, defying the times we know them for, but we still tie them back to the retro time they came from.
Take the nineties, which we have been seeing regurgitated endlessly for the past ten years. We’re obsessed with it! But certain things from the period are too “retro” to be considered cool, too stitched onto the walls of a generation that they could never truly live independently in future homes. They leave your mouth with a metallic feeling, like some sort of time traveling experiment went awry and—Somehow.—this thing is still here.
These three things really jog back extreme ninetiesness to me: adoption, nannies, and Rosie O’Donnell. All of these things still exist and existed before the nineties but, yeesh, they feel so decidedly retro, so “Something in the zeitgeist then. Remember?” that you barely think to talk about anymore. Explanations: adoption was the explanative trope for why kids had a mysterious past or lost twins or could do whatever the hell they wanted in the nineties, as we learned in It Takes Two, North, Big Daddy, Matilda, Sister Sister, and more; nannies—or their fancy pants parallels, au pairs, or their common class parallels, babysitters—were all the rage in the nineties for parents whose children had too much time on their hands, as seen in lots of the aforementioned movies and The Parent Trap, Mrs. Doubtfire, The Nanny, Addams Family Family, Don’t Tell Mom The Babysitter’s Dead, The Babysitter’s Club, Corina, Corina, and more (but most gratingly in real life, in the 2002 documentary Spellbound, about the 1999 Spelling Bee where a painfully nineties family refer to their “au pair” like she’s the family dog); and Rosie O’Donnell was just a mega, super, not-lesbian-yet superstar that was in movie after movie after movie after movie after daytime talk show. Now? Adoption seems to only happen with dogs, not humans, thanks to surrogacy, nannies have evolved into an extreme mark of class and are a secret way to cheat on your wife, and Rosie O’Donnell is still wonderful but buried under years of being abused by both The View and Donald Trump.
These three themes of the nineties seem to have coalesced in the most nineties movie ever too: Harriet The Spy, a Nickelodeon movie where a preteen spy learns about life through various friendly adventures and pre-Mean Girls school theatrics. The movie features two of these themes very prominently—a nanny played by Rosie O’Donnell—and touches on adoption by way of absentee parents making way for adoptive parents (Rosie O’Donnell). For so many millennials, this movie helped to form our view of the world. It taught us to think bigger and to investigate and to explore and that life is fucked up. We remember it fondly. But we—millennials—don’t really want to see a Harriet The Spy: All Grown Up sequel, do we? Some things should stay in the nineties as they’re too locked into the mind as something “from then,” for better or worse.
This, sadly, is what I keep seeing with Hillary Clinton, the then First Lady of President Bill Clinton. She was the iron fist, the anti-woman woman, the strong lady next to him that we kids saw and wondered how she could have created such a bozo looking kid like Chelsea. She wasn’t cuddly or warm or friendly: she was a serious adult person—and that person, that non saxophone playing person, wasn’t really someone who fit into our lives. She was the bitter, angry woman who beat up Monica Lewinsky.
That history, among other things, has dogged her campaign. She’s too serious. She’s not friendly enough. She’s not “woman” enough.
The nineties and Hillary Clinton are not a new conversation but it’s all I could think about while reading Hana Schank‘s (great) Salon essay “My Gen X Hillary problem: I know why we don’t “like” Clinton.” The story revolves around the new-old debate of old feminist and young feminists feuding over different things in conjunction with Schank’s personal reflections on Hillary’s being a woman in power and how women in power are constantly required to qualify themselves.
Yet, the entire story was stained with the nineties and kept bringing up the image of First Lady Clinton to mind. For example, this passage.
“I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas,” Hillary had said on the campaign trail. “But what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession which I entered before my husband was in public life.”
This remark, spoken off the cuff and taken somewhat out of context, caused hellfire to rain down from the sky. Stay-at-home mothers pointed out that raising children was hard work too. People speculated on national news that Hillary might be Bill’s co-president. At Clinton’s next press conference the vast majority of questions he took were about his wife. Perhaps, my college self thought, the battle wasn’t entirely over. Here was a woman who had a demanding, powerful job, who was raising a daughter, and people still expected her to have a cookie recipe. Who has a cookie recipe, anyway? Don’t most people just use the recipe on the chocolate chip package? Doesn’t having one’s own recipe imply that one has spent hours in the kitchen tinkering with existing recipes to produce a variety that, when people bite into it, will cause them to ask if your secret ingredient is nutmeg? Hillary Clinton was not a woman who had time for that shit, people.
And then, a few months later, Hillary published her recipe for oatmeal chocolate chip cookies in Family Circle magazine. Was it really hers? Did she just rip it off the back of the Quaker Oats container, scrawl “add chocolate chips” at the bottom and fling it at her press assistant? And also: Did this mean that whatever I did in life I, too would need my own cookie recipe?
That realization is a big one for Schank and brought me back to the Hillary-then, facing the Hillary-now, to see that they are the same person (because they are the same person). She, unfortunate for us children at the time, had to play the role of wife and mommy and “female in the White House” and that was intimidating. She is the original American alpha female and that—like adoption and nannies and Rosie O’Donnell—is something (young and old) people seem to want left in the nineties.
This, paired with old remarks and old beliefs, are dragging her behind thanks to our wanting to leave certain things of the past in the past. It’s the same mentality of old dogs being unable to learn new tricks and, for a generation obsessed with the new, new, new, now, now, now, next, next, next, Bernie appeals because he’s so out of the box and frustrated in a way they haven’t seen before. Hillary? Thats the same pants suit from when we were kids.
But does that make her any less? No. If anything, this makes her more, it marks her as someone so visibly in it, with a very public history of being in it. She’s clearly more than capable. And, yes, unfortunately, it is that same history that is chasing her, sitting in the back of our minds, lingering around trying to fit in with contemporary things like Dabbing and animated gifs: we’re watching a person be relegated to an old trend from the nineties that is trying to keep up with the now.
Here’s the thing though: these things still go on, running in the same timeline. Like adoption and nannies and poor, misunderstood Rosie O’Donnell, Hillary Clinton is still here and still happening and still the same person. The only difference is our baby kid glasses that were Lisa Frank pink cheetah print have been removed and we’re now wearing Warby Parkers, exchanging one trend for another, and those lenses only seem to fit in Bernie Sanders. Why can’t they include both? Perhaps it’s just a matter of removing the dream, the past from the nineties, and realizing that some things aren’t locked into a time period. Some things age well. Some things always have been—and always will be—great.