Cliffnotes: Beverly Hills, 90210: Television, Gender and Identity

1 08 2009

Under the Products section of my Links page, you’ll see the book Beverly Hills, 90210: Television, Gender and Identity by Dr. E. Graham McKinley.

I read the book back in August 2007, and now I’m going to give you the cliffnotes version so you don’t have to.

And I think I have a unique way to do that.

After I finished the book, I had a brief correspondence with the author.  My initial letter is reprinted below.  From that you’ll get a good idea of not only what the book was about but also my thoughts on it.

Enjoy!

Dr. McKinley,

I just finished reading your book Beverly Hills, 90210: Television, Gender and Identity and I felt compelled to contact you. I am a 20-year-old journalism major and media studies minor at Northwestern University’s The Medill School of Journalism with a 10+ year obsession with 90210.

I first discovered your book when I was around eleven years old as I searched for any and all merchandise related to the show.  I came across your book and quickly ordered it from Borders. My joy was short-lived until my parents looked into the book and realized, like 90210, it was way above my level.  After all, 90210 premiered when I was just three years old and I began watching it at the very adolescent age of nine, during the sixth season.

By what I believe is a lovely twist of fate, I rediscovered the book the Wednesday at my internship, Soap Opera Digest.  Scanning the books lining a shelf in my cubicle, there was yours.  I immediately asked to borrow it and finished it last night.

I realize it’s been about ten years since you wrote the book and I imagine far from your mind. Still, I wanted to share some comments.

I acknowledge that I have a different perspective than your interviewees, especially since I began watching in 1996 and saw the earlier seasons in syndication.  I still watch the show twice daily on SOAPNet and have seen each episode countless times.  Because of that, it’s difficult to remember my initial reactions and impressions.  But I am very surprised by the comments made by the girls you interviewed.  I don’t watch 90210 (or any of the teen soaps I later became fixated, like Dawson’s Creek, The O.C. and One Tree Hill) to make fun of it.  I don’t laugh at the characters but with them.  I watch because I find the storylines and the drama enthralling.  The plotlines suck me in and I get swept away in the tears, romance and adventure.  It didn’t matter if parts of the show were unrealistic.  I wasn’t watching it because I thought it was exactly like real life or even my life.  I needed an escape from what was real, even at age nine.

But like those girls, I definitely learned lessons from the show.  I may have learned about sex way before I should have, but I was also exposed to many controversial issues and ways to handle them.  I expressed this to Marvin Kitman, the television critic, who quoted me in an article published in 2000 in anticipation of the show’s series finale.

Though you interviewed 36 girls, it seems your population sample was quite small and quite possibly not representative of all 90210 fans.  Then again, the early 90s were a much different time from now and I can’t account for teenagers then and their thoughts.  Also, like I mentioned earlier, I can’t recall my exact reactions and I suppose they could’ve been along the same lines of the girls you interviewed.

Like your readers, I, too had watching rituals.  I’d spread out my blanket and only get up twice, once during the halfway-point commercial to get some raspberry sorbet, and then before the upcoming scenes to begin brushing my teeth.  Otherwise, no interruptions allowed.

I wholeheartedly admit television did and does affect me.  While what I saw won’t directly cause an action (i.e. setting a house afire a la the Beavis and Butt-head example), there are still some influences.  My social life is still impacted to this day.  When new episodes of One Tree Hill air (the only show still “active”), I won’t go out.  I’ll sacrifice being with my friends.  While home for the summer, I’ve relished having SOAPNet, where each weekday I can watch six hours of 90210, One Tree Hill and The O.C.—all reruns.  If I have the choice to talk to a friend on the phone or go out or even take one of my beloved naps, I won’t.  The repeats are more important, repeats that I’ve seen thousands of times.  If I have nothing to do at night and I can go to bed, I won’t.  I’ll stay up til 1AM just so I can watch 90210 which airs certain nights at midnight.  And when I can’t watch—say, because of interning or something like that—I Tivo it and take something else out of my day so I can watch it before the next episode airs.  To say I’m not affected, internally or externally, is naïve and reeks of denial and self-knowledge and understanding. I can see it, and so can my friends, none of whom watch any of these shows.  I often have to explain why I won’t go out or why I won’t take their call.  Whereas some people turn to shopping or alcohol or a journal as their escape and release, I rely on the 60-minute shows.  They instantly make me happy.  And most of the time, getting that escape, that instant happiness is more important than anything else. My friends just don’t understand the connection I have to these shows.  When all else fails, I fall back on this defense: There are a lot worse habits I can have.  I don’t do drugs, I’m still in school and I haven’t murdered anyone.  Let being addicted to teen dramas be the worst thing I do.  Puts things in perspective, doesn’t it?

I can cite examples of how 90210 affected my perception of things.  A large portion of the show centered on the romantic escapades of the teenagers.  I certainly believed my high school years would’ve been filled with similar experiences.  Were they?  Of course not.  None of my friends were having sex and dating guy after guy, and saying I love you just didn’t happen.  These teen shows always made a big deal out of boyfriends and school dances.  In contrast, I had one boyfriend in high school and we didn’t have any school dances.  I became obsessed with the romantic notion, depicted endlessly on TV, of going to prom with someone you’re in love with, or at the very least, deeply care for.  I was not willing to give up this fairytale and settle for anything less and, consequently, did not attend my high school prom.

Perhaps my inability to see other ways 90210 has affected me falls under your theory of ‘well, it doesn’t affect me but it does others.’  Then again, I don’t know of any others that watch these shows so I can only account for myself. And while I haven’t copied a hairstyle or an attitude, I’ve definitely stolen a line or two from the dialogue and used it my life.  The dialogue is probably my favorite part.  To this day, when I’m having trouble expressing myself, I can often go to 90210 scripts and say, ‘Yes, that’s how I’m feeling’ and point it out to others.

I always identified with Andrea: the Jewish girl surrounded by Christians, editor of the paper with high education goals and struggling financially.  It’s from her character that I got it in my head at such an early age that I wanted to go to Yale.  It wasn’t until I was much older, and realized Yale didn’t have a journalism program, did I conclude that perhaps it wasn’t the school for me.

Even now at 20-years-old, I still feel 14 at times.  Looking at my high school yearbook, I don’t think any of us look like seniors.  That’s because I always I thought when you got to senior year, the college age, etc. you would look older and adult-like.  Where did that view come from?  Shows like 90210, of course, where high school students were played by people in their 20s and 20 year olds played by those in their 30s.  My idea of how a person my age should look still remains distorted.  I don’t think I look like I’m in college, because I turn on the television and see twenty-something Jennie Garth and Jason Priestley walking around fictional CU.  And that right there is the answer—it’s fictional.  I look around my Northwestern campus and see that no one looks like the “students” at CU.  I’m definitely affected by TV but at some point you have to stop letting it affect your reality.  It’s just not always easy or clear how to do that.

Much of your book focused on female identity and I can’t say I think much of mine was derived from watching 90210.  I don’t think, like you think the show suggested, women are defined by their boyfriends or that problems don’t have consequences.  It’s possible I don’t have the hindsight and knowledge or even memory required to realize some of its effects in making me the woman I am today.  I do know, though, unlike your subjects, I did not style my hair a certain way because of how a character on TV wore it.

I have to admit I was bothered by the subtle interjections of your opinion.  Not only was I insulted to read you didn’t like the show, but it seemed out of place to say that when you were doing a serious analysis. It’s right for you to draw conclusions and make suggestions based on your research.  But I see no need for you “object” to things and be “stubborn”’ about others or call the dialogue “silly.”   You’re not supposed to guide the interviewees in any way or really share your opinion in the results. Granted, the book, I’m sure, wasn’t intended for fans but for those interested in media and its effects.  I realize I must take that into account and not view the book too harshly because I am such a pro-90210 person. And, unfairly, I couldn’t help but read it as a 90210 person rather than media student.

I can understand why the girls didn’t seem to focus on the issues 90210 tackled like you expected.  I was more mesmerized by the romantic entanglements as well.  My favorite episodes revolved more around the relationships than the serious issues. I was bothered by the Princeton girls, though, who believed they were “above” all that.  I have high career aspirations just like them, but that doesn’t mean I can’t also have strong feelings about love.  In the card game of life, each person has a trump card, the thing that is most important to them and outweighs every other factor.  For me, that card is love.  No matter whether I’m wealthy, healthy or editor of a magazine, I will always judge my success based on whether I’ve accomplished my purpose: to fall in love with someone who is also in love with me.  I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that and I don’t think it means that I’m at a lower level than the Princeton girls.

And for the record, I am a Kelly-Dylan fan.  I could talk for hours why I believe the way they got together was true and pure and innocent, as opposed to sinful and back-stabbing to Brenda.  Of course, though, I won’t get into that because that’s not really the topic at hand.

I thought it was really interesting when you identified “guessing” as a key aspect in viewers’ interest in the show.  While I am a big fan of previews (at movies, they’re my favorite part and I love seeing what’s coming up next on One Tree Hill), I’m proof that for true fans, even when you can no longer guess, the attraction is still there.  I’ve seen every episode and always know what’s coming next.  Yet, despite that, I still watch. Obviously, then, it’s not the suspense that has me hooked.

I took a class on media contexts during my freshman year of college, where we learned about hegemony.  Despite this, I found myself often lost and confused while reading the book.  It seems it’s still above my head and of course I was most fascinated by the script excerpts and other specifics related to the show.  And, like I said, I was reading more for the 90210 stuff than your actual theories and findings.

I imagine you haven’t conducted further study since the book was published.  I think it would be quite interesting to see how a new generation, raised with 90210 in reruns, has been impacted by the show or even people like myself who started watching mid-series. I wonder what response you would’ve gotten had you conducted your research in, say, the ninth season.  I’m also curious whether analyses of similar shows and their viewers would yield similar results.  I know the odds are slim, but can you point me to any literature that explore these questions?

And I have to ask, following the publication of the book, did you keep up with the show at all?  Did you find your opinions change?

I write not to criticize—just to share my thoughts.  Your book is a testament to what journalism and literature should do: provoke thought and elicit responses so I hope you don’t mind that I sought out your e-mail address to share my thoughts.  Since I’ve given so much of my opinions already, I figured I’d answer the questions you asked the interviewees.  My answers are below.

Sincerely,

Shari Weiss

**

1. I was attracted to the show because it dealt with things that are tantalizing to a young girl.  I liked watching what wasn’t for me and I started to have a vested interest in the stories.  I don’t recall exactly how I got started.  I think the first episode I ever saw was when Kelly was burned in the fire in the fifth season.  But my memories of consistently watching new episodes began with the sixth season.

2. I’ve watched it since 1996—eleven years.

3. It was imperative that I didn’t miss an episode when new shows aired.  Nothing would make me stop watching or forget.  Now, I’ll check in advance which reruns will be on and either clear my schedule for the ones I want to see or Tivo them.

4. I don’t talk about the show with others.  I’ve never had a relationship with anyone else that watched it.  My mom did watch with me for a short time but her interest wasn’t genuine.

5. Kelly was my favorite character because I liked her personality, her looks and actions.

6. I’d like to be friends with someone like Kelly but I don’t think I would because I was never in the popular crowd.  But then again, it can’t be said for sure that the gang were popular.  They were just one clique that we saw.  There might’ve been many others.

7. I don’t flat-out dislike any of the characters but I’ve gotten annoyed by some.  Some you love to hate, like Valerie.  Some you get mad at on behalf of the characters, like what I viewed as Brenda’s interference in Kelly and Dylan’s relationship.

8. I saw similarities between me and Andrea during high school, as mentioned above.

9. The characters are different me mostly in the economic sense.  I am in the lower middle class and their wealth puts them out of my league.  I could not afford to live the way they did.

10. I wish I had the money and lifestyle they did.  And of course, I wish I had their looks.

11. As I said before, I don’t really talk about the show with anyone.

12. I often think about the show.  Sometimes random lines will pop into my head or I’ll intentionally replay a scene with all its dialogue in my mind.  I like to recall my favorite parts and plan out when I’m going to watch.  I compare situations I’m in to things on the show.  I still look for news on the cast members and anything related to the show. It may be repeats but it’s still very much on my mind.

13. I always look forward to watching it, even the repeats.  I outlined the reasons why above.

14. My parents and friends often put the show down but they’re insults are not based on facts or experience.  The shows are bad, stupid and cheesy to them for really no reason at all.  They see it as a waste of time, money, etc.  It does bother me that they don’t understand and can’t accept my interest.

15. I don’t have other 90210-related materials aside from countless VHS tapes of shows and marathons I recorded and Seasons 1 and 2 on DVD, which were recently released.  At one point I had a mini-book on Luke Perry.  I bought the 90210 CD-Rom off E-bay but it never worked and I never got my money back.  My friend’s mom collects dolls and has the Luke Perry/Dylan version; I always joke that I want to steal it.  I never bought anything else because I was too young when 90210 marketing was huge.  For a long time I would go into every poster store and look for 90210 things but by this point the craze was over and 90210 was just viewed as a show that went on for too long.  Now to get anything, you have to use E-bay which I obviously didn’t have a good experience with.

16. I can’t possibly choose a favorite episode.  They often come in series.  For example, I love the summer episodes where Dylan and Kelly first get together while Brenda is in France.  I love the second half of season 3 when they are finally a couple.  I love a lot of the Brandon-Kelly episodes (yes, I’m actually a B & K fan, too!).  Other random favorites include when Dr. Martin died in the tenth season and the episode where Dylan married Toni before she was murdered.  There are episodes that annoy me, in part because I’ve seen them so many times.  A lot of the season one episodes I’ll skip watching.  A good example in season 3 (which coincidentally re-aired on Friday) is when some of the gang goes to Magic Mountain for their senior trip while some of the guys deal with a mysterious girl at The Peach Pit.  To use your word, I do think that episode was “stupid.”

17. I actually love thinking about how the show and the characters changed over the years.  I think the shift in the show itself is that it went from being about two kids from Minnesota to a group of people in Beverly Hills.  It really became an ensemble show.  Every time I make up my mind about which character I think changed the most, I think of someone else and become undecided again.  Is it Kelly, who started out as a slutty, spoiled bimbo and turned into one of the most genuine, down-to-earth successful girls?  Or Donna who was the virgin airhead and became the owner of her own retail store and slept with three guys before marriage?  Or Steve who went from spoiled rich kid, always looking for the easy-way out, to the publisher of a paper, happily married with a daughter?  All of the characters ended up a far cry from where they started.  Part of me thinks that’s growing up, something I’m still experiencing, and therefore realistic, and part of me chalks it up to the producers, a rare moment when I admit the show is completely in control of those who created it.  Otherwise, I never consciously thought of the show and storylines as something deliberately done by the writers and producers.

18. I’ve definitely changed since I started watching the show.  I went from nine-years-old to 20—elementary school to college.  How could I not have changed?  When it’s put that way, it’s again understandable that the characters underwent drastic changes as well.

19. Well, because the show lasted so long I was able to see what the characters did at age 25.  Then, after the show ended, I ran a role-playing-game (RPG site) where we wrote episodes continuing the show, thus deciding what happened to the characters.  That can be accessed at http://www.angelfire.com/tv2/melrose90210rpg/,  and though it was last updated in 2002, there are about 25 episodes (written like short stories) that detail the characters’ escapades.   Now that that’s ended, I really don’t have any idea where the characters would end up.  But what was written I believe were legitimate plots, ones I always fantasized would be turned into actual episodes or movies.

20. At age 25, I think I will be working at a magazine as an editorial assistant, slowly working my way up the chain of command.  I hope to have accomplished my purpose in life—love—and quite possibly be married.

21. There’s no doubt in my mind that television affects me and everyone knows it, too.  After all I’ve written, it’s not necessary to repeat the reasons.

Again, thank you for your time.

Interestingly enough, Dr. McKinley did do another study–on Dawson’s Creek.  Unfortunately for us, it was never published.

But come back next week for cliffnotes on a book that does focus on DC…


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2 responses

2 08 2009
Alyssa

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. Comparing the ways that we both began watching teen soaps I feel like you were rehashing my childhood. Some of the things you said were so shockingly similar. I have never met or talked to anyone that felt/feels that same way. Thank-you very much for sharing your response to the book. P.S. I think I know what DC book you are talking about. It has a long title and I only read half of it before I had to return it to the library.

2 08 2009
teendramawhore

I’m so glad you liked it, Alyssa. I was bit nervous for this post since I’ve never done anything like it in the past. But what you said–never having met someone that feels the same way about this stuff–is exactly why I started this site. I’ve never had anyone to discuss these things with before, never anyone to relate to, and I’m so glad that we’ve both changed that with TDW.

And I think you may be right about the DC book! We’ll see…

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