Impossibly fabulous: Beverly Hills, 90210 and the myth of teen glamour
As the teen drama turns 30 (!), Anne T. Donahue looks back at the fantasy it served
Anne-iversaries is a bi-weekly column by writer Anne T. Donahue that explores and celebrates the pop culture that defined the '90s and 2000s and the way it affects us now (with, of course, a few personal anecdotes along the way).
Perhaps one of the greatest disappointments of young adulthood is the realization that our fellow high school students do not look like famous people. Nobody looks like Seth Cohen, no one resembles Kelly Kapowski, and not a soul takes after Jordan Catalano. Across all eras, teen TV shows peddle the idea that the teen experience is glamorous, beautiful, and even dramatic to the point of being dangerous. But no one peddled it harder than Beverly Hills, 90210.
Upon its debut in the fall of 1990, the Aaron Spelling-bred juggernaut was clear in its mission: to make the lives of west coast teens seem just as compelling as even the most over-the-top prime time serials. (Here's looking at you, Dallas.) Based around the trials and tribulations of two Californian transplants, twins Brandon and Brenda Walsh (played by Jason Priestly and Shannon Doherty) offer a front row seat to a sensationalized take on life in one of America's most elite zip codes. And of course, for most of us viewers, this was our only way in. After all, most public high schools were nowhere near as fancy. Most of our campuses weren't a stone's throw from the beach. And while we all tried our best to look cool or seem interesting, none of us achieved the glamour of Tori Spelling, Luke Perry, or Jenni Garth. (Hell, even Gabrielle Cateris — who plays Andrea Zuckerman, billed as "the nerdy one" — is movie-star beautiful, yet suffered the She's All That curse of being largely invisible because she wore glasses.)
Beverly Hills, 90210 made high school look impossibly fabulous. And even though this was a cruel and blatant lie, it was one we desperately needed as we made our own journeys through those decidedly inelegant four years. We needed to believe that we could also strut down the hallway with the confidence of a multi-million dollar-earning actor. To know that doing so was impossible while wearing flip-flops and battling temperamental skin would've broken us.
Back when the show premiered, some of us (hello!) were literal infants and told by our parents that under no circumstances could we indulge in a series about a bunch of teens living life so breathtakingly. And in the early 90s, that was fine: I played with my friend's 90210 Barbies as if I understood the series (which was ruined when I tried to pair Brenda and Brandon as a couple, to my pal's horrified screams) and mastered the art of 90210 Twister (where I could put my hand on Dylan's face). For most of elementary and middle school, I didn't care what I was missing because I'd fallen under the spell of PG shows like Home Improvement and Boy Meets World — series that starred actors who looked a little bit more like me and my friends, or at least our hipper, wiser, older siblings who'd graduated into the world of classmates who could legally drive.
But then high school began looming closer, and with it came the abandonment of childhood ideologies and the appeal of meeting a guy who looked like Dylan (Luke Perry) or acquiring the wardrobe of Donna (Tori Spelling). Even though 90210 was winding down as I entered the ninth grade, I knew it had offered a promise that as boring as my hometown felt, high school would keep it interesting. And having to sneak episodes of the show at friends' houses made this brave new world seem like a tantalizing secret, about to finally be within reach.
It didn't matter that in real life, high school is awkward, painful, and truly lacking in gorgeous people who are visibly well into their 20s. Nor did it matter that the majority of actual high school drama revolves around school dances, who said what to whom on MSN Messenger, or the stupidest possible acts of revenge (like throwing ATM envelopes all over an enemy's lawn). TV taught us that high school is the backdrop to soaring romance, illicit parties, and finding oneself in a sea of brooding uncertainty. It made high school seem appealing in spite of all the warnings we got from anyone who'd been through it: "Ugh, I'm so glad it's over."
As obviously unrealistic as 90210 may have been, its allure made taking the necessary step into the tumultuous teens seem exciting. By watching characters like Brandon, Brenda, Dylan, and Andrea engage in grown-up behaviours while still taking math or history, we were given hope that young adulthood really can be interesting and dramatic and full of the sorrow and heartbreak that's made teen dramas thrive for generations. These shows offer a lifeline for surviving adolescence — the basis of the belief that school and life is more compelling than it actually is. It made existence feel less like a slog and more like our own version of an Aaron Spelling special. Who cares if we couldn't afford the same clothes or would never be pursued by the teen loves of our lives? 90210 whispered that the potential to exist fabulously was there — that maybe just by going to school, we'd find our own Walsh contemporaries.
Did it matter that the actual high school experience is largely a tedious, gruelling exercise in humiliation? Hell no: realism isn't what this subgenre of TV is built on.- Anne T. Donahue
And ultimately, this is the myth that's at the heart of every teen drama. Because while shows like 90210 and successors like The O.C. and One Tree Hill were over-the-top, melodramatic, and unrealistic, they gave us the dialled-up-to-11 version of teen life that we craved. Did it matter that the actual high school experience is largely a tedious, gruelling exercise in humiliation? Hell no: realism isn't what this subgenre of TV is built on. It's an escape from reality, not a life map.
The thing is, this fantasy version of what's often the worst, most unglamorous life experience most of us will ever go through can actually offer the push some of us need to make high school seem a little less terrifying. After all, teen dramas aren't meant to be a mirror. We're not supposed to see ourselves in these adult actors who have enough disposable income to never repeat outfits. But we're supposed to believe that magically morphing into them is possible — or at least that our bargain-discount brand of melodrama elevates us to levels typically reserved for beautiful grown-ups pretending to be kids. And when the rest of your life involves being trapped in class all day with other teens, feeling irritated and stuck and awkward and misunderstood, maybe that's enough.