Have the Nineties become the new Bad Old Days?

The era of binge drinking and Bridget Jones is increasingly viewed with shame and embarrassment.

Alec Marsh

Topics Culture UK

Chances are, given Britain’s ageing demographic, that you remember the Seventies, either because you were there or because you grew up in its long cultural shadow.

It was a time when people laughed without irony at Carry On films and casual, bottom-slapping sexism was rife. There were even topless teenagers on Page 3 of the Sun.

There was overt racism, too, with The Black and White Minstrel Show, a prime-time BBC TV crowd-pleaser. There was smoking everywhere, on trains, the Tube and even children’s TV. And then there were the soot-streaked exteriors of our great public buildings, mirroring the tobacco-impregnated interiors of pubs and Morris Marinas – stained like the lungs of a Rothman’s beagle and as yellow as the sepia-tinted adverts in the C&A catalogue.

This was Seventies Britain. How we all sneered at its bigoted, backward ways from the vantage point of the Nineties and early Noughties. That was the era of rebirth, of New Labour, Cool Britannia, of Friends, of Four Weddings and a Funeral, Britpop, David Beckham and the Spice Girls.

But now the era of the Nineties and early Noughties is itself the subject of contemporary criticism. How greasy, gaudy and unkempt its denizens appear to us today. In light of #MeToo and BLM, we see a cultural landscape dominated by the white, male and privileged. And we question how diverse it really was. Gareth in Four Weddings was about the first gay character in a mainstream film – and he spent most of his time in a morning suit, like some sort of capitalist from a 1920s Soviet propaganda sheet.

Then there’s the ‘lad’ culture of the Nineties – the binge-drinking (they even drank at lunch in those days) and the smoking. Indeed, people still smoked in pubs, nightclubs and restaurants, and on airplanes, too. And yes they wore suits and ties to work. Every day.

It seems clear that the Nineties, and even a fair portion of the Noughties, have become the new Seventies. In our collective mind’s eye, we now view this near past with condescension, embarrassment and perhaps even shame. Remember the office parties? Remember what passed for courtship in the days before dating apps? Probably best not to.

Today, Blackadder Goes Forth (which admittedly was aired in the autumn of 1989) is starting to resemble Dads’ Army. Friends, now mocked in some quarters for homophobia, is not far from being viewed in the same bracket as Are You Being Served?.

Think of our changing view of Bridget Jones’s Diary, which came out as a book in 1996 and as a film in 2001. The character of Bridget wouldn’t wash today, certainly not as the butt of fat jokes. And her self-destructive dependence on tobacco, alcohol and the approval of men with borderline personality disorders would also be frowned upon.

Bridget indulged an unhealthy obsession with the ‘male gaze’, which, of course, was the joke. But I suspect that Generation Z and those following simply won’t find it funny. Instead they would probably see her as suffering a psychological disorder requiring the assistance of a therapist. Perhaps that’s what happened to the Carry On films. They really were funny. Until they weren’t.

All this leads to a more terrifying realisation for those of us who experienced the Nineties in all its pomp – that they are in fact now culturally closer to the Seventies than they are to now. After all, this was a world before the smoking ban, introduced in England in 2007; it’s the world before the iPhone, launched in 2007; and it was a world before social media.

These were also the years before the legal recognition, in Britain at least, of gay marriage. Looking back, they were also far more hierarchical times, both at work and socially. Britain wasn’t yet a country on first-name-terms with itself – ‘Call me Tony’, said Tony Blair, don’t forget, in 1997. Today, Britain tends to be a first-names-only place, with the only exceptions seemingly being for doctors and teachers.

We drank, we smoked and we scarcely went to the gym. No one thought to raise an eyebrow at James Bond’s rather assertive ways with women – the sort of thing that would today carry a trigger warning. Even the hit Noughties comedy show, Little Britain, thought nothing of ‘blacking up’ – ‘blackface’ in modern parlance – with offensive sections now redacted from episodes online. And, of course, back then, the word ‘trans’ was more likely to be applied to foods than gender.

Perhaps at the heart of the divide between then and now was that in the Nineties and Noughties, we didn’t revere the ‘feelings’ of the individual. Today, the therapeutic has well and truly triumphed. Feelings and perceptions of emotional health shape public policy like never before. We are obsessed with emotional self-awareness. The question, ‘How do you feel?’, has supplanted ‘How are you?’, which was never a question that anyone answered with any degree of sincerity anyway, because no one was meant to. Now it is.

For all that they laid the foundations of the society we now have, the Nineties have now become as Jurassic to us as the Seventies. Put differently, if the Nineties and early Noughties were a species of early hominid – crouched, forehead sloping, knuckles approaching terra firma – then it would more closely resemble the hunched hominid from the Seventies than the taller, more upright one from today.

It’s not just that the way we live now has changed. It’s also that these new ways of living are changing our view of even the very recent past, forcing us to regard it critically, even ashamedly. At this rate, it won’t be long before the era of Fleabag, social media and ‘taking the knee’ suffers a similar fate.

Alec Marsh is a journalist and author of the Drabble and Harris historical thriller series, published by Headline.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Culture UK


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