How much has life really changed for women since the Nineties?

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It’s fun to look back a few years, but the view is much better from 2019, writes guest editor Caitlin Moran

Last month, I had an enlightening insight into how different my two daughters’ teenage years are from my own.

My 15-year-old came home from school and recounted how a classmate, previously a big fan of K-pop boyband BTS, had turned up in a Kurt Cobain T-shirt that she’d bought from Topshop (£28).

“All the cool boys immediately got really sneery,” she told me. “They were like, ‘You don’t know anything about grunge. You don’t even know who Kurt Cobain was. Go on, who was he?’” 

“What did she say?” I asked.

“She just looked at them like they were stupid children and said, ‘Yeah, I do know who he was: he was dead fit’,” she replied. “Everyone went quiet, and then the girls were like, ‘Yeah, he was dead fit. He’s got dreamy eyes. We love him’.” 

“What did the boys do?” I asked. “The boys shut up,” she said. This reply made my heart sing.  

For yes, Kurt Cobain was a tortured poet-punk who revolutionised the music industry; ushered in the visceral new wave of grunge; revived interest in previously underground bands (Black Flag, Pixies, The Slits, Mudhoney and Sonic Youth) and pioneered a kinetic, lyrical fury/despair. 

But he was also, undeniably, dead fit with dreamy eyes – and that is just as important as him reviving The Slits’ back catalogue. 

Why? Why not? You may love your heroes as you wish. Fuck anyone who says otherwise, for there are no rules for hero-love. If their songs get you through the day, or a picture of them gets you through the night, what’s the difference? It’s all dreamy adoration.

Your heroes are something that both light up your sky and give you something to aim for. Maybe you want to form a band with them. Maybe you want to kiss them. Maybe you want to do both. Either is perfect, for you just have to be running towards something. It doesn’t matter what, how, or why. 

Besides, as you grow into a woman, being able to pick out a thrilling, life-changing tune becomes way less important than being able to pick out a thrilling, life-changing man.

Your safety may depend on it. If it’s a choice between trusting your ears or trusting your fanny, prioritise what your fanny is saying every. Single. Time. 

GIRL POWER 

So, yes, I absolutely stand by a teenage girl’s right to love Kurt Cobain solely for looking “dead fit” on a T-shirt. Maybe she’ll later get into his music; maybe she won’t. But there’s no right or wrong way to love your heroes.

As Harry Styles, who is also dead fit, and has dreamy eyes, said when quizzed by Rolling Stone in 2017, “Who’s to say that young girls who like pop music have worse musical taste than a 30-year-old hipster guy? That’s not up to you to say. There’s no goal posts. Young girls liked the Beatles. You gonna tell me they’re not serious? How can you say young girls don’t get it? They’re our future. Our future doctors, lawyers, mothers, presidents. They kind of keep the world going.”

How I wish Harry Styles had been around when I was a teenage girl. Back in 1995, working as a rock critic, I was firmly and repeatedly cautioned for loving things in the wrong way.

“This,” one editor said, leafing through my feature on a Britpop band, “just sounds like an overexcited teenage girl.” “But I am an overexcited teenage girl!” I replied cheerfully. He just shook his head. 

The way to love things was like older men did: to carefully list the guitars used, the influences detected, to pin down exactly and specifically what the lyrics meant.

You should not write about how you found someone’s face so inspiring it made you want to leave home. You should not confess that seeing a single picture of a person, unlike any you’d ever seen before, made you realise you could be something else – that it was possible to build yourself differently to how you’d so far been constructed, by your parents.

You should not talk about how listening to something made you want to drag the speakers over to your bedroom window in Wolverhampton and play it to the people queuing at the bus stop opposite, genuinely believing they would cry out, “But this is the sound of God! Who is it? My life has changed!”, or just start dancing, whereupon you would join them, in the rain.

Music and popstars were something to be catalogued, not drunk like electricity until your life changed and you felt like you’d explode.  

I interviewed Henry Rollins, from the previously mentioned, critically-revered punk band Black Flag. He’d recently starred in a film alongside Keanu Reeves.

I asked him what Keanu was like. “You fancy him, huh? You think he’s gorgeous? Well, he’s very fit. You’d have to lose weight,” he said, looking at my squashy, 18-year-old body. I wasn’t allowed to love men for being “dead fit”, I wasn’t allowed to have a sexual response, but Rollins could tell me if I was fuckable or not, and to my face. 

Oh, there was so much sexism around in the 90s! Here’s what that decade was made up of: 20% cocaine, 12% Adidas tops, 13% shouting “PARKLIFE!”, 9% being bisexual when drunk, 3% being excited about the invention of rocket, the “posh” salad leaf; 9% eternal summer, 4% Damon’s hair; 11% experimenting with anal sex; 50% sexism [and 100% being terrible at maths]. 

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I try and explain to my teenage girls just how much sexism there was, how it was everywhere but we hadn’t yet invented the words to describe it.

This was a time before women could tweet and blog and share their experiences, before women had come up with terms like ‘Bechdel Test’ or ‘gaslighting’ or ‘inappropriate behaviour’. There was no #MeToo or #IBelieveHer.

When I was freelancing for the music press and asked for my first front-page feature, an editor patted his lap and said, “Sit here, let’s talk about it.” I had absolutely no guide for how to deal with this. It was presented as half-compliment, half-threat.

In the end, I did what I would have done if one of my many brothershad annoyed me: I thumped myself down on his lap, bounced up and down and shouted, “It’s not as good as a chair, like all the male writers here have, but it’s kind of fun!” until, in agony, he gave me my promotion.

An amusing piece of context: I was, at the time, a published author, columnist for The Times and presenter on a Channel 4 TV show. If we’re being c*nty, professionally, I absolutely outranked him. And yet, he patted his knee. Because I was a girl, and he was a man. Oh, there were tinpot Weinsteins everywhere. It was impossible to get anywhere without running into them. They formed a circle of wagons around the power. It was their outlook that defined everything.  

To them, teenage girl-fans were somehow damaging. As Britpop gathered pace and underground British indie bands gathered girl-fans, this new influx was seen as shaming for the bands. “What’s 40ft-long, screams and has no pubes?” the music industry joke of the time went. “The front row of a Blur gig.”

The implication was that bands were better off with their previous audience: indie boys in their mid-20s who did, admittedly, have an impressive and useful array of pubes. Twenty cool boys was the right audience. A million screaming girls was wrong.

My god. How much do you have to hate women to reject their joyful – and lucrative – love? To argue against the very thing that defined an era? 

For it was this sudden influx of girls, bringing all the energy and joy of murmurating starlings, that made Britpop SO BIG. Of course it was. Without them buying the records, Blur versus Oasis would never have been on the news. Noel Gallagher would never have gone to Downing Street. Britpop would have been just another indie movement of the 90s that we barely remember now, like shoegazing, the new wave of new wave, or romo. 

NAME AND SHAME 

That is why, when Stylist gave me the honour of being guest editor and it coincided with the paperback publication of my book How To Be Famous – all about being a teenage girl during the Britpop era – I decided it would be both pleasing and amusing to go back and rediscover my Britpop years as they would have been covered today. 

Caitlin’s latest book is set in the nineties

Oh, it was hard to be a girl then! We had not yet really invented the idea of women being, well, humans.

A measure of cheerful, sweet girl-dollness was fundamental to your likeability. If you had any actual human urges – if you liked telling jokes, or having sexual intercourse, or you’d once smoked a fag whilst saying, “Fuck off” – you were not a woman any more, but a ‘ladette’ instead.

Oh, the word ladette was enraging. As if men had invented fucking, and telling jokes, and The Wife of Bath, Elizabeth Taylor, Janis Joplin, Grace Jones, Dorothy Parker, Virginia Woolf, Bananarama, Nancy Mitford and every friend, sister, aunt and grandmother you’d ever known hadn’t existed. 

If Amy Schumer, the Broad City girls, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Rebel Wilson, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Jennifer Lawrence, Adele, Rihanna, Katy Perry, Awkwafina, Lizzo or Katherine Ryan existed then, they would have been accused of being “blokey”. It would have been presumed they were saying and doing the things they do just to “show off to men”. 

The idea of women talking about things that only other women would understand was absent from our notion of art, or conversation.

I remember queuing to get served at a party when Emma Anderson from the band Lush said, as a conversational opener to those around her, “Oh my god, you know what it’s like when your tits hurt so much you just want to rest them on the bar?” It blew my mind. It was the first time in years I’d heard a woman mention anything specific to being a woman. 

That I remember it so clearly 23 years later shows you how unusual it was. The men all looked incredibly awkward, so the women peeled off and continued in the women’s toilets, where they also swapped notes on who was a pervert, who not to be left alone with, who had three girlfriends on the go and who’d professionally fuck you over as soon as look at you. That was the internet back then: the ladies’. Where all the key information was exchanged.

I was lucky, I suffered recurrent cystitis so I was there for everything. It’s why I’m so wise now. 

LIVING IN THE NOW 

So when my brilliant teenage girls exclaim how jealous they are that I lived through the 90s– “It looked so much fun, so optimistic, and I can’t even handle how beautiful Blur were” – I think: it was fun, it was optimistic, and, yes, Blur were heartbreakingly beautiful. But you know the best place to view it all from? 2019, babe. From a place where you can love how you wish, and your heroes will defend you. Where women can invent words to describe the bad things that happen to them and share them with others. 

Where you don’t have to go to a ladies’ toilet to find out who the bad men are, but simply look online and watch as they get fired. Where you can enjoy all the good things men invented then and women are inventing now. From here, you have the very best of it all. 

Also, important aside: the 90s smelled bad – 24-hour deodorants were still in their infancy and everyone smoked like chimneys indoors. I’ve got a coat I still can’t wear because it never lost the reek of Marlboros from a Boo Radleys gig at the Town & Country Clubin 1995. You’d have hated the pong. 

CLASS OF ‘95

Meet the women who were making waves exactly 24 years ago

Hillary Clinton 

1995 was the year that Clinton started to establish her own political identity, aside from being American President Bill Clinton’s wife and the first lady. “Women’s rights are human rights!” she told the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. The speech is still quoted today. 

Tracey Emin 

Now a grande dame of the art world, in 1995 Emin was one of the Young British Artists and starting to attract attention. It was the year she first exhibited Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995, a tent embroidered with names, now one of her most famous pieces. 

Alek Wek 

Wek started modelling in 1995 at the age of 18, having been discovered at an outdoor market in Crystal Palace, London. The South Sudanese-British model was described as being one of the first fashion faces “who didn’t conform to a Caucasian aesthetic”. 

Claire Danes 

The actor’s breakout role was as 15-year-old Angela Chase in My So-Called Life, one of the year’s most critically acclaimed TV series and a cult favourite. The drama was radical, covering child abuse, homophobia and more. Danes was, unusually, the same age as her character. 

Alanis Morissette 

Morissette had released two dance-pop albums in her native Canada, but in 1995 she broke free, putting out the alt-rock Jagged Little Pill. The album articulated everyday female anger in a way that still resonates today. It sold and sold, going platinum several times over. 

See Caitlin on her How To Be Famous book tour in July; caitlinmoran.co.uk 

Illustrations: Justin Metz

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