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From mom jeans to a Superbowl ad playing on nostalgia for the film Clueless, the 1990s are back in a big way. But how great was the era of Tamagotchis, brown lipstick, and GeoCities? Not especially, suggests Olga Thierbach-McLean, in a paper that looks at the decade’s preoccupation with divorce—a phenomenon that she calls “a distinct cultural product of the latchkey generation.”

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Thierbach-McLean challenges notions that the ’90s was a calm or idyllic epoch in world history. Though many remember the decade as prosperous, newly freed from the Cold War, and on the precipice of the promise of the Internet, it was actually a decade of hopelessness and disorientation among youth. GenXers were (and, arguably, are) pessimistic, over it, bleak. Citing pop culture juggernauts like Clerks, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and Pulp Fiction, Thierbach-McLean writes that the decade had “a collective affinity for the gloomy, nihilistic, and cynical.”

So why is it remembered as so great? They’re missing the context of the time, Thierbach-McLean argues—one in which Boomers’ quest for personal fulfillment destabilized families, undermined traditional notions of romance, and played into a surge in divorce rates. Indeed, according to the National Center for Family & Marriage Research, women’s divorce rates skyrocketed to their highest-ever in 1980, exceeding 22 percent compared to just 14.9 percent the decade before.

This demographic shift meant that many children grew up spending most of their time home alone while their parents worked. Divorce was scapegoated as “the original cultural sin,” in Thierbach-McLean’s words, and GenXers traded on the mass-market appeal of their childhood trauma. Excoriating neglectful parents, artists like Kurt Cobain, Pearl Jam, and Beck explored the loserdom of growing up with absent or dysfunctional parents—a world free of intervention but also free of role models.

Divorce was everywhere—and it produced plenty of media that skewered and rebelled against the supposedly selfish ideals of parents who had separated or called their marriages quits. Thierbach-McLean cites movies in which harried moms bid hasty farewells to their latchkey kids and deadbeat dads abandon their families—explorations of family dysfunction that didn’t stop to question if divorce was better or worse than growing up in an abusive or tense home.

Demonized as “the root of all social evil,” divorce became shorthand for society’s many failures and imbued the period with a sense of beleaguered rage at social change. Ironically, writes Thierbach-McLean, GenXers turned to a “fundamentally traditionalist” critique of their parents—turning a plea for traditional “family values” into a pop culture cri de coeur.

As a result, suggests Thierbach-McLean, artists missed a chance to enjoy their youth and take advantage of a time of unprecedented—and unrepeatable—cultural freedom. But there’s another way to look at the era’s angry critiques, she suggests: as a “powerful counterreaction” to cultural mores that overlooked children’s needs and ignored the effects of divorce and abuse. By clinging to a one-dimensional view of selfish parents and ignored kids, GenXers missed the chance to empathize with their parents.

They also set the stage, however, for artistic and cultural reactions to today’s trends—models for responding to things like climate change, capitalist dysfunction, and other hardships. To accurately assess the era, Thierbach-McLean asserts, today’s cultural critics must be willing to resist the urge to idealize the 1990s without parroting the flawed, reductive rebellions of its youth.

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IJAS Online, No. 10 (2020–2021), pp. 4–17
Irish Association for American Studies