Jane Bradley: 90s TV proves society’s big changes

Dawson's Creek. Picture: Rex/Shutterstock
Dawson's Creek. Picture: Rex/Shutterstock
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In recent months, I’ve taken to watching nostalgic 90s box sets. I’m not sure if it’s a symptom of trying to cling onto my dying youth, but the likes of Ally McBeal, My So Called Life, The Gilmore Girls - and most recently, Dawson’s Creek (please don’t judge me) - are all examples of classic television which should not be underestimated.

The teenage relationships forged in a simpler world when Joey has to crawl through Dawson’s bedroom window for a heart to heart, rather than Snapchatting him or dropping him a quick message on WhatsApp; the mix ups and coincidences which arise from not having location tracker on a mobile phone. They are all quite a wonderful antidote to modern life.

However, what’s most fascinating is looking at these programmes as a snapshot of society in a time which does not feel that long ago – and realising how much social attitudes have changed for the better over just two decades.

In Dawson’s Creek, series one kicks off with a storyline where 15-year-old schoolboy Pacey embarks on an affair with his 36-year-old English teacher, Tamara Jacobs. While this idea would not be out of place today how it is dealt with would be. Yet, the relationship is portrayed not as a case of a teacher in a position of authority preying on an innocent pupil, but more as a tragic romance, a Romeo and Juliet story where, you get the impression that, if things were different, these two should be together.

In the Gilmore Girls, Lorelei and Rory often refer to people as “retarded” - with one of the worst offending lines coming when Rory tells boyfriend Dean that she needs to expand her CV.

“I need to find a retarded kid and teach him how to play softball,” she calmly proclaims, making me spit out my tea on my recent viewing.

Meanwhile the fast-talking pair also use the phrase “gay” as an insult, which in the 90s, was, bizarrely, entirely acceptable.

Even Dawson’s Creek creator Kevin Williamson admits that he would not write the Pacey-Miss Jacobs tale the same way today, having apparently had some “flak” for the storyline, even back in 1998.

What appears particularly shocking on 21st century viewing of the show is that when the relationship eventually comes to light, Miss Jacobs is hauled up before the authorities - but is let off the hook after Pacey decides to claim that he made up the rumours to boost his own reputation. Rather than feeling, as we surely would today, that victim Pacey has been groomed into telling lies to protect his abuser, we are - through a series of lingering, grateful looks and a touching scene between them before the teacher leaves the town for good - made to feel like he has done the right thing: that love has conquered all.

“I wouldn’t change it because it served its purpose and it was based on a storyline from my own childhood,” Williamson explained in an interview last year to mark 20 years since the show’s creation.

However, he admitted that it would no longer be socially acceptable: “If I was writing the show today I probably would not have it in the story.”

Williamson also spoke about the taboo of creating a storyline featuring gay characters, admitting that he had not come out to his family himself by the time he started writing Dawson’s Creek.

The on-screen embrace between character Jack and Ethan was the first gay kiss on American TV. We were obviously far ahead on this side of the Atlantic, with Eastenders featuring a gay kiss as early as 1987, although the decision did spark a furore, including questions in parliament about whether it was “appropriate” to feature gay men in a family soap opera when an Aids epidemic was sweeping the country.

In the US, more than a decade later, however, it was still a major taboo. “I didn’t share it with everyone [at first] because I was scared as a gay writer in Hollywood that that storyline would be rejected,” admits Williamson.

Kerr Smith, who portrayed Jack, has also since admitted that he was nervous that the scene was “incredibly risky” for him as an actor.

“I picked characters who were very different, just so I could get out of that potential pigeon hole,” he said, citing “meathead” role Carter Horston in film ‘Final Destination,’ who he played while still part of the Dawson’s Creek cast.

What we have to remember is that at the time of Jack’s gay kiss in May 2000, Section 28 was still in full swing in the UK - including in Scotland, which became the first nation to repeal it in June of the same year, followed three years later by the rest of Britain. It is almost unbelievable now to think that such a short time ago, a law existed which banned councils (and therefore schools) from “intentionally promot[ing] homosexuality or publish[ing] material with the intention of promoting homosexuality”.

A report out last year by LGBTQ media advocacy organisation Glaad found that the number of LBTQ characters on primetime TV in the US was at an all-time high, making up 6.4 per cent of all roles. Meanwhile a separate study, published in 2016 by Gay Star News, found that the UK had a higher number of gay TV characters than the US, despite its hundreds of channels and its five-times-larger population.

These TV shows serve to show us just how far we have come in the past 20 years. And while things might not be perfect by any means, they are an awful lot better than they were.