‘Kid 90’ and the Pull of the Last Great American Decade
The Clinton years aren’t what we really miss — it’s the power of being older and knowing better
Soleil Moon Frye’s documentary Kid 90, which premiered on Hulu this month, is an exercise in resurrected childhood. Frye was a child star in the early ’90s, the eponymous character in the show Punky Brewster, and she knew most of the other child and teen actors in the business. She often carried a camcorder to parties, and she now possesses footage of dozens of nostalgia-gilded faces caught at the height of their fame and completely off-guard. (David Arquette! Brian Austin Greene! Leonardo DiCaprio for about three seconds!)
What Kid 90 wants to say, outside of “look at all these famous people,” isn’t always clear. Frye is a charming narrator of her own life, but she’s also a criminally self-indulgent one. Sentences like “it was like rock and roll, with rap” are uttered; she dreamily recites poems about her time spent among skateboarding New York City “Rastafarians,” every single one of them (the camcorder footage informs us) white as the driven snow; surely, someone must have told her to cut the scene where she refers to her ex-boyfriend, the notorious domestic abuser Charlie Sheen, as “my Mr. Big.”
Still, the project has its appeal. It turns out that famous teenagers aren’t much different than ordinary ones. They have pool parties. They go to the mall. They get pulled over by the cops and have to hide their weed. You, former (or current) teen, have no doubt done all these things, even if you didn’t have Jenny Lewis in your passenger seat at the time. That’s why it’s so sad when Frye turns out to be telling an old, familiar story: If you give teenagers a lot of money and let them buy drugs with it, some of them will die. Kid 90 rests on Frye’s gradual realization that despite her idealized memories of the ’90s, very dark things were happening at the time. Some of them happened to her, and some she can only guess at through the suicides and overdoses of her friends.
Gen X and millennials romanticize the ’90s for the same reason that boomers won’t stop talking about the “Summer of Love”: not because it was better but because it was ours.
Frye’s rapidly corroding nostalgia feels fit for the zeitgeist in 2021. Right now, a lot of people are obsessed with finding a way back into the ’90s. The original Real World cast has reunited. Our teenage-style overlords in Gen Z all dress like Jonathan Taylor Thomas taping an episode of Home Improvement. Everyone loves Britney Spears again. For many people, the Clinton era has come to represent a lost golden age — the last pre-internet decade, when life felt safer and the world’s innocence was still intact. Whether or not we were actually children in the ’90s, it feels like a lost childhood, some protective space we left behind without realizing we’d never be able to find our way back.
It’s a nice concept. It also bears zero relation to reality. It’s not new for aging generations to idealize their formative years — the ’90s “was our ’60s, right?” Stephen Dorff (!) tells Frye in Kid 90, with laughter just bitter enough that you can tell he hates the idea. Gen X and millennials romanticize the ’90s for the same reason that boomers won’t stop talking about the “Summer of Love”: not because it was better but because it was ours. Being able to cling to an idealized past means that you have a past and that you’re moving away from relevance, toward old age.
The ’90s also occupy a unique position in history. I’m a few years younger than Frye, young enough to have been a teenager when 9/11 happened. For me, the ’90s didn’t end on January 1, 2000; they ended when I was 19 years old on the morning I walked into my college library and was stopped by a librarian who told me that “we’ve had some terrorism.” I laughed, assuming he was talking about a student prank, and he pointed me to a TV that was playing the news, and I spent the rest of the day feeling that the safe and predictable world I had grown up in, the world where nothing too bad could ever really happen, had been ripped out from under me. That feeling has never entirely gone away.
The ’90s are the last decade I remember as being “normal,” and things have been getting weirder and scarier ever since. Pandemics and perpetual warfare and economic crashes have defined my entire adulthood. That makes it easy to slip back into thoughts of the “Last Great Decade” and build myself an imagined home among its ruins. Regression is a powerful coping mechanism. When the outside world is frightening and uncertain, we retreat to the things we already know how to deal with and the times we know we can survive.
Yet not everyone did survive nor were things actually “better.” In Kid 90, Frye’s social circle doesn’t include a non-white person until the movie’s third act. One boy confesses that he’s attracted to men with a shame that feels frankly archaic. Frye herself endured an onslaught of violent misogyny — being cast in “tits and ass roles” beginning at age 13, hearing audio recordings of her male friends groping her while she’s passed out, or being raped by her boyfriend during a makeout session — which was completely normalized at the time. Even now, no matter how much she’s grown, Frye can’t see the problem with romanticizing Charlie Sheen.
Nostalgia is seductive, but it’s also reactionary. The fundamental conservative impulse is to cast one’s gaze backward onto a time when things were “better,” and what that usually means is a time when white men had power and marginalized groups knew their place. I might think of the ’90s as a “normal” time because of its relative economic stability or lack of rampaging Twitter mobs, but I also know that many people think it was “normal” because trans people like me were invisible. Frye’s childhood (and mine) took place in the time of Reaganomics and the AIDS crisis, the war on drugs, and the first Gulf War; it only felt “safe” to us because we were children, and privileged children at that, who were unscathed by all that history unfolding.
Nostalgia for the ’90s isn’t really about the ’90s. It’s about youth and how we carry the scars of our childhoods. When I connected with Kid 90, it wasn’t because of the dated hairstyles or the famous names. It’s because being a teenager is the same catastrophe no matter who you are. I was never on a TV show, but I was sexually assaulted. None of my friends were celebrities, but some of them did die. I often find myself in the same position as Frye, looking back on my adolescence and grieving things I didn’t know were tragedies, knowing enough to regret my choices but powerless to go back in time and unchoose them.
When we long for the past, what we long for is that power—to meet our early dilemmas and lost people with the wisdom and empathy we lacked back then, to do what we would have done if we’d known better. That longing, perversely, is something you can only feel like an adult. Only old people know their youth was wasted. There’s no way to fix the past by thinking about it, and I should know; I’ve indulged in enough ’90s nostalgia that I could probably design an entire David-Arquette-based theme park. But regret can still teach us something. If we were ignorant of the injustices around us as children, we know enough to pay attention now. We can be the people we should have been, or the people we needed, back in that lost time.