Who could forget high school? The most glorious four years of any teen’s life, right? Full of perfectly tailored clothes, raging parties with choreographed dance numbers and the happiest endings to any and all love stories … Wait, is that not what your high school experience was like? Because all the high school romantic comedies of the ’90s sure set up those expectations for their teen viewers.
In case you didn’t realize, high school isn’t exactly what these films say it’s like. There aren’t really jerks that turn over a new leaf once they fall head over heels in love with the first girl who rebuffs them. There aren’t perfect proms where Usher (yes, Usher) is the DJ. There aren’t bets to see if someone can make someone else fall in love with them. And there certainly isn’t valet everywhere you go.
But, for some reason, all of the high school movie staples like “10 Things I Hate About You,” “She’s All That” and “Clueless” have all of these unrealistic archetypes. Each character fits into one of these tropes; each movie has the mean Prom Queen, like Taylor Vaughan (Jodi Lyn O’Keefe, “She’s All That”), or the Lovable Brat, like Cher Horowitz (Alicia Silverstone, “Clueless”) and Bianca Stratford (Larisa Oleynik, “10 Things I Hate About You”), or the Innocent Virgin, like Annette Hargrove (Reese Witherspoon, “Cruel Intentions”) and of course the Benevolent Jock, like Zack Siler (Freddie Prinze Jr., “She’s All That”). Maybe you knew people like the Rich Asshole, like Joey Donner (Andrew Keegan, “10 Things I Hate About You”), or the Outcast, like Laney Boggs (Rachael Leigh Cook, “She’s All That”) or Kat Stratford (Julia Stiles, “10 Things I Hate About You”), but most of these tropes aren’t reflective of people you see in real life. And don’t forget the Token Black Friend, with countless examples throughout ’90s teen movies, like Preston (Dulé Hill, “She’s All That”) or Chastity (Gabrielle Union, “10 Things I Hate About You”). People are placed into simple categories that make them one-dimensional. Many of these characters are reduced to one or two main character traits that define their entire personality like their wealth, their race or even their sexuality in the case of Christian Stovitz (Justin Walker, “Clueless”), who quickly becomes Cher’s Gay Best Friend … after she stops trying to seduce him.
Along with these archetypes, there are token themes and moments in all of these movies, ranging from ‘The Iconic Makeover’ to ‘The Heartbreaking Bet Reveal Scene’ to ‘The More Than A Little Disturbing Step Sibling Relationship’ (we’re looking at you, “Cruel Intentions”). While they might be entertaining to watch, they’re not exactly realistic. We don’t know about you, but things were much tamer in our high schools.
And while these scenes and characters are so lovable onscreen, to say they haven’t aged well is an understatement. We’re primarily talking about the ‘Bet’ trope. While we will always love Patrick Verona (Heath Ledger, “The Dark Knight”) and his rendition of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” we can’t quite condone his behavior in 2020. He and Kat may be a perfect couple to us, but the fact that he accepted a deal to try to get her to date him doesn’t reflect very well on his character. It may have been seen differently in the ’90s, especially considering the fact that “10 Things I Hate About You” was not the only film to feature a bet (see: “She’s All That” and “Cruel Intentions”), but 30 years later, it’s not okay anymore.
Still, you can’t deny the talent that graced screens in the ’90s. Some stars in ’90s movies made their way because of their status as ’90s staples. Sarah Michelle Geller (“Cruel Intentions”) was a big pull for creepy ’90s teen movies because of her role as Buffy in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” and Melissa Joan Hart (“Sabrina the Teenage Witch”) landed teen movies like “Drive Me Crazy” because of her TV fame. Prinze Jr. had a string of teen movies before “She’s All That,” which he is probably best known for. Silverstone went on to play Batgirl in “Batman & Robin” after “Clueless,” and Union followed up her stint on “She’s All That” with similar roles in “10 Things” and “Bring It On” in 2000 and beyond.
Some of these actors’ legacies extended far beyond the ’90s. Paul Rudd (who, miraculously, looks the same as he did in 1995) has won over hearts for 25 years, whether by fighting in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as “Ant-Man,” playing the recurring character Bobby Newport in “Parks and Rec” or being nominated for a Golden Globe for “Living With Yourself.” Joseph Gordon-Levitt has taken his adorable charm to films like “(500) Days of Summer” and even starred in “Snowden,” playing a version of Edward Snowden that was far too likable to be truly realistic. Heath Ledger went on to act in more sophisticated films like “Brokeback Mountain” and even won an Oscar for his portrayal of the Joker in “The Dark Knight,” which was received posthumously after his tragic overdose. And let’s take a moment to acknowledge Reese Witherspoon, who quickly rose to fame after her role as innocent Annette in “Cruel Intentions” and is now one of the highest paid actresses in the world, with an Oscar and countless major films. It’s incredible to look back at these films and realize the talent that was lurking beneath layers of baggy clothes and heavy eyeliner.
Teen movies in the ’90s were essential to the era, setting the tone through vibrant colors, playful plots and iconic characters. Most importantly, their reach has extended beyond the ’90s into our own generation as cult films and slumber party staples. We aren’t here to judge your love of these movies; in fact, we love them all just as much as anyone. There’s something about the cheesy plots and goofy lines, something charming and timeless, that has appealed to audiences for 30 years. Just remember as you’re watching these films that you’ve entered a new kind of high school experience, a fantasy land where teachers don’t assign homework if you couple them up and red solo cup parties in mansions never end with any real consequences. It’s a place where you can find your one true love in high school, as long as you take your glasses off first. But still, if you ever invite us to watch one of these films with you … well, let’s just say we’ll bring the popcorn.