With its fifth and final series currently showing on E4 in the UK, the US fictional teen drama 90210 has tackled some familiar issues affecting young people. Robyn Harris goes back to series’ two and three to examine two storylines where female characters experience abuse and is disappointed to find the show ultimately doing very little to help dispel victim blaming
Content note: discussion of sexual abuse and rape.
Ever since reaching my teens, I have often found myself to be powerless against the lure of scandalous US (United States) sitcoms. Much like my unabashed devotion to the various different types of “reality” television that have stormed the small screen in recent years, I am drawn to the unrealistic absurdity of some US dramas – with my absolute favourite being 90210. I always find myself never quite believing the plotlines to be within the realms of possibility but equally unable to detach myself from them. Was it the sensational beauty of the cast members that got me hooked? Or perhaps it was the salacious existence of such rare and profound creatures? But let’s not get too bogged down in detail; each of those things were the bait and I was shamelessly ensnared.
However, since I have long proceeded my teenage era of existence, I have outgrown the luxury of ignorance and am left with a catalogue of unanswered questions in my mind. For example, how realistic is the hyperbolic lifestyle of the residents of the famous zip code? Have the more troubling aspects of the sex lives of these US teenagers led to a dangerous precedent being set out for the real-life High School goers of the US when it comes to the acceptance of abusive behaviour? And, most importantly, does this precedent of acceptance contribute to the rape culture that infests modern day society?
Aside from the intangibility of the lives of these teenagers (let’s not forget that the actors in 90210 are portraying the lives of people much younger than themselves), I would like to ask: is there evidence of this US drama promoting victim-blaming in cases of sexual incursion against young girls? Or does it highlight the issue and then seek to displace it?
The original iconic 1990’s/2000’s show, Beverly Hills, 90210, was aired from October 1990 to May 2000 and produced by Spelling Television. The modern day adaptation, produced by Rob Thomas, Jeff Judah and Gabe Sachs, dropped the prepositioned city name and re-created the show as simply 90210. This ran from September 2008 to May of this year (shortly after it had exhausted all the possible ridiculous avenues for the plot to take).
Typically, the more current 90210 satisfies the entertainment industry’s need for scandal and sensationalism through the use of flawlessly beautiful actors, the promotion of a rich and inconspicuous lifestyle and a succession of high status happenings and glamorous events. The producers have managed to amalgamate a variety of High School stereotypes in aid of creating a falsely entitled “see, we can all get along” friendship group. Throw in a few expensive cars and the odd trust fund and we have ourselves the perfect misrepresentation of High School entity.
Having said all this, I would say there is one thing the show promotes that I think can hold a candle to reality: its suggestion that some of the female characters are falling at the mercy of “victim blaming”, a phenomenon that is encapsulated in rape culture.
For example, in season two of the sitcom, we see a situation in which Annie (Shenae Grimes) – one of the main characters – is inebriated with senior Mark Driscoll (played by Blake Hood, who made supporting appearances in seasons two and three), with whom she has previously engaged in consensual sexual activity. Unknown to Annie, following their “hook-up”, Mark has taken topless pictures of her in this state (with the further suggestion that the pictures may have shown her with more of her clothes removed). Following a series of events and confrontations that lead to the exposure of this picture to the entire school, Annie faces a conflict with her mother, Debbie (Lori Loughlin). During this conversation, Debbie offers a warning to her daughter, and tells her that “the world isn’t always kind to women”, signing off with “You need to be more careful.”
From one angle, we can gauge a prevalent sense of distress being projected here, stemming from a mother’s desire to protect her daughter. From a feminist perspective, we see a parent policing a daughter into behaving a certain way, so as to avoid sexual intrusion of any kind. Lori’s acting leads me to believe that while Debbie understands that what had happened to Annie was not her own fault, she is also suggesting that it is Annie’s responsibility to stop such dissipation from occurring again. The problem here is that the victim blaming attitude dominant in 90210 (and, indeed, in society today) is being potentially embossed into the minds of young women, who may go on to teach their daughters the same. Left uncritiqued, this will continue to make it more difficult to destroy sexist attitudes held towards the female body.
Further on from this conversation with her mother, Annie finds herself grounded over the incident by her father Harry (Rob Estes). Now, I know the act of “grounding” is typically subjective but, having been a child who was grounded at least once in her life, I can say that being “grounded” was usually as a result of me having done something wrong. But what has Annie done that is so wrong? Was it wrong for her to put her trust in the hands of someone and expect him to respect her basic human rights and not take sexually explicit photos of her without her express permission? It also seems to me that the line between protection and control has been blurred in the situation Annie and her father find themselves in. It is important for us not to confuse the two, as this is something that has long been used by patriarchs as an excuse for dominant behaviour towards women and girls, especially in cases like this example seen in 90210.
Should this incident have occurred in reality, then it most certainly should have been a case that implied the necessity of legal involvement. Not only would Mark Driscoll have been expelled from High School, but he also might have faced criminal conviction as a sexual offender. In 90210, not one of these instances occurred. The only ramifications that Mark faced for his appalling actions, was a quick punch from Annie’s brother Dixon (Tristan Wilds), following a brief confrontation. Annie, on the other hand, found her reputation with her peers to be irreparably tarnished by the events and became a victim of gossip.
Here, I would like to be able to say that I have taken the plotline for this episode far too seriously. I would like to say the attitudes displayed are highly isolated and in no way a regular occurrence in reality. Unfortunately, this seems to be far from the case. Indeed a selection of examples can be seen in this recent ThinkProgress article about how “slut shaming” has been scribed into school dress codes:
• Readington Middle School in New Jersey banned girls from wearing strapless dresses to an eighth grade dance, claiming that such attire would be too distracting for the male students. It was only after protest from some students and their parents, that the term was revised and single strap or clear strap garments were allowed to be worn.
• In Minnesota, Minnetonka High School told the parents of their students “Cover up your daughters” and denied permission for them to wear tight or spandex-like pants to school.
• In Georgia, a kindergarten student was forced to change her skirt after it was deemed by staff to be “too short” and “too much of a distraction”.
• Finally, and arguably most horrifyingly, it is even suggested that over 40 girls at Capistrano Valley High School, California, were sent home from a school dance after claims were made that they were “inappropriately dressed”. It is further suggested that some (or even all) of these girls were instructed to lift their arms in order to have their attire inspected by male administrators. (This claim, however, has been dismissed by the school superiors.)
These cases appear to display backwards rape prevention tactics that are being wrongly enforced by the senior administrators of schools in the US. Claiming that some forms of dress are “inappropriate” or “distracting” promotes a “boys will be boys” attitude towards sexual assault; this subsequently pertains that boys should be held less responsible for carrying out acts of sexual incursion than the actual victims of it.
A later storyline where one of the main characters, Naomi (AnnaLynn McCord) is raped by one of her teachers, Mr. Cannon (Hal Ozsan) may illustrate an extension of this theory; previously in the school year, Naomi had falsely accused Mr. Cannon of sexually harassing her. This instance occurred after she was trying to flirt with him, in order to try and achieve a higher grade in his class. He perceived this to be her coming onto him sexually and he promptly (and quite sternly) rejected her advances. As a result of this, Naomi made a claim to her friends that it was in fact him that had propositioned her, without realising the magnitude of what she was saying or the consequences it would have on her and her teacher, should her lies about the situation have been exposed.
Following the course of the season’s episodes and episodes leaking into season three, Naomi confesses that her claims about being sexually harassed were untrue, much to her detriment. Shortly after the incident has passed and the backlash of her confession has dissolved, Naomi is raped by Mr. Cannon after a traditional school event known as the “Pass The Torch Party”, in which sophomore students celebrate becoming senior students.
“I know you want it, Naomi. With your flirting and your whole harassment fantasy. You don’t have to pretend.”
These are the words used by Mr. Cannon before he attacks the High School student, who is meant to be only 17 years old at the time (despite the actual age of McCord, who plays her). These lines for the character are a prime example of how women’s past behaviour can be (and has been) used against them, while excusing the responsibility of their attackers and landing some of the blame for their ordeals onto them instead. As season three progresses, we see Naomi take gradual steps towards testifying against Mr. Cannon. When informed by police officers that the evidence she provides merely places her at the scene of the crime and does not distinguish the nature of her attack with much clarity, she is told that it will be her word against the word of Mr. Cannon. To this, Naomi retorts:
“Oh, right. A slutty teenage girl who wears short skirts and has a history of lying, against an Oxford wearing, Oxford scholar with a fancy accent…”
McCord’s delivery of this line, to me, indicates that her character rightly believes that her mannerisms, state of dress and history of human error do not justify the attack that has been made on her. It’s a strong statement to indicate that she – along with other women and girls put into a similar situation to her – has been coerced into appeasing victim blaming culture, something that 90210 seems to be upholding as a disfigured societal norm (as was displayed by Annie’s mother, Debbie, in her response to the tribulations faced by her daughter).
From what I can gather, it seems to me that some schools in the US are trying to enforce a skewed kind of “rape prevention” and seemingly starting with lower year groups, in some attempt to instil a certain attitude into young boys and girls (as evidence from the ThinkProgress article has suggested). Unfortunately, this amounts to trying to force victim blaming culture on these young people and essentially promoting the idea that those who commit acts of rape or sexual violence shouldn’t be held fully responsible for the abuse that they carry out on others.
Blaming the victim is a prime example of ridiculous apologism: to create excuses for the perpetrators of sexual violence by claiming that the victim was “asking for it” shows how women’s bodies have been drastically over-sexualised to the point of excluding bodily autonomy. The proof is surely in the wording. We know that the term “rape”, means to have sexual intercourse with a person without their consent. Therefore, it is impossible for people to ask for, provoke or imply the desire to have something done to them that is expressly defined by the denial of permission. Victims of sexual abuse are certainly not raping themselves so why on earth is even part of the blame being placed on the sufferer? Just the abuse alone is enough for people to have to deal with, let alone suggesting they should somehow be held partly responsible for the ill treatment.
It seems a great shame that, out of all the features of 90210, the one that seems most realistic is the depiction of rape culture. In TV shows like this one, the situations that I have used as examples are usually dissolved by way of the perpetrator being stuck with the sharp end of the karma stick (in these cases, it would be Mark Driscoll receiving a heavy bruising from Dixon or Mr. Cannon being eventually arrested for his crimes). Or this happens by way of the victim(s) dramatically (and, as it is sometimes suggested, spiritually) rising above the ill treatment of them, as they grandly move on to bigger and better things.
Such unrealistic signatures are presented by the main three characters of the drama (Annie, Naomi, and Silver) on several occasions, as they strut down one of the many corridors of their High School (which is socially nick-named “West Bev”), all of them embraced, arm-in-arm and each of them looking over their shoulders at the sucker who tried to stand in their way, with noses upturned and a accomplished smirk on each of their faces. The problem here is that programmes like 90210 seem to rely on immature displays of “sassiness” and weak portrayals of “girl power”. This use of female “sass” is problematic because, while it is fantastic that women who are said to possess it are viewed as strong, outspoken and with a gut full of bravery, it can also be seen as a way of distracting from the real issue. Yes, Mark Driscoll has his nose broken and Annie moves on spiritually to greater heights. But why wasn’t he punished for his actions by law? Yes, Mr. Cannon did get arrested for raping Naomi but it was only after he was exposed as a felon from the UK, who had raped a student before. But why wasn’t Naomi ensured that Mr. Cannon’s maleficent attack on her was at no point her responsibility?
At the beginning of these storylines, I appreciated 90210‘s acknowledgement of rape culture (though it’s hard to miss) and pondered whether the producers were attempting to challenge it through their representation of High School life in the US. I had hoped they would successfully reject claims by rape apologists that women are to blame for the abuse they suffer. However, it seems that the television industry is falling short where many others also fall. By not actively removing the blame from Annie or Naomi for the abuses against them during the series, 90210 seems to promote that there is a big fat “but” to be slapped between the promotion that rape and abuse are wrong and the conviction of rapists and abusers. And, here, this “but” is the sometimes-subtle, sometimes-not-so-subtle burden of blame that is placed on the shoulders of Annie for being drunk and Naomi for her mannerisms or the way she chooses to dress.
This “but” is a misinformed attitude held towards women that suggests almost irrevocably that the female body is purely in existence for the sexual satisfaction of men; following this is the mindset that if you place yourself in a state of vulnerability or expose parts of your body that have been dramatically over-sexualised by the standards of patriarchy, then you are revoking right to consent. We know this is not the case and if such huge media platforms continue to perpetuate this “but”, however slightly, then the battle against patriarchy that is fought by us on a daily basis will be one that is fought in vain.
Front cover of the DVD issue of 90210 The Second Season (where the two main storylines discussed in this article appear). This shows the following characters overlaid onto an obscured beach scene (left to right): Annie (back row), Adrianna (middle row), Liam (front row), Navid (middle, back row), Silver (middle row), Naomi (front row) and Dixon (middle row).