UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa., (U-Wire) — 90210. Five numbers that are not only the most famous zip code in America, but also conjure up images of one of the most popular television programs among teens in the ’90s. We’ve all seen at least one episode of the coming-of-age melodrama/soap opera Beverly Hills, 90210, and this May the show will finally end after 10 alluring seasons.
The first few years of the show are starkly different from what the show is now. The early episodes take on huge issues such as alcoholism, racism, sexuality, rape, child abuse, adoption, drinking and driving, eating disorders, gambling and many others, all of which are resolved and neatly wrapped up over free mega-burgers at the Peach Pit by the end of the show.
As the series progressed however, it turned more into a overly dramatic soap opera and became more about who was sleeping with who (or who Valerie was sleeping with) rather than tightly packaged morality tales.
A humorous example of the early shows is an episode I was watching the other night on FX (where 90210 is on four times daily for all you fanatics) in which Brandon discovers that a boy he has taken under his wing is being beaten by his drunken mother. As Brandon ponders what to do, he walks into the Walsh residence and his dad says to him, “Hey Brandon, you look beat.” Brandon responds with this bit of classic writing, “Not me dad, but I know someone who is.”
Lines like this make me burst out in laughter because they represent how cliché the early episodes are. You can probably predict what happened the rest of the episode: Brandon, against the advice of his parents, confronts the boys’ mother and gets her to quit drinking and get help. Once again, Brandon has saved the world.
As the series finally concludes, I wonder if the show did represent the problems of American youth in a realistic way. After thinking about this question for just a few short seconds, my conclusion is an emphatic no.
This conclusion is obvious to almost everybody now, but when the first few years of the show came out, American youth (mainly white, upper-class suburban kids) praised the show as being very realistic and something they could relate to.
As noble as the first few years of the show intended to be in tackling hard-hitting issues, it alienated a large majority of people and reinforced the ideology of the white-male power structure.
First of all, there is no black representation among the shows’ main characters. The only regular black characters in the early shows are the high school principal (Mrs. Teasley) and Brandon’s boss at the Beverly Hills Beach Club.
Both of these characters are in positions in which they serve the interests of the rich, white communities by which they are surrounded.
In the college episodes, the only real black character is the stereotypical dumb basketball player D’Shawn, whom Brandon saves by refusing to take an exam for him.
Now D’Shawn is indebted to Brandon for teaching him the right thing to do and picking him up out of the uneducated gutter, where without the help of Brandon he would inevitably remain.
Other episodes of the show that deal with race, particularly the one in which blacks from South Central mix with the Beverly Hills’ gang at a high school dance (organized by none other than Brandon and Brenda) after a canceled football game, dispose of the racial problem with a very unrealistic, feel-good resolution.
Crystal Kile, in a 1993 article about 90210, writes about the situation, saying, “While the `Other’ may get the occasional guest spot on the series, he or she is summarily excised after he/she has taught the 90210ers some lesson about life.”
Besides the obvious racial divide is the gender stereotypes that the series plays into. The girls of 90210 all act in reaction to their male counterparts on the show. Every move Brenda made was in response to Dylan McKay, the rich, independent, James Dean-type who didn’t play by the rules. A season after their breakup, Brenda moved to England and left the show for good. Kelly was the gorgeous blonde, simply on the show for the viewing pleasure of the male audience, and most of her time is spent wondering about which guy to hook up with next.
Donna, the token virgin, is inexorably linked with David and the plot for a few seasons becomes focused on when Donna will give up her virginity to him.
When Donna finally does, she then becomes free to sleep around like all the other female characters. Andrea, the supposed anomaly as the intellectual girl, was still always submissive to the beck and call of Brandon and passed up an opportunity to go Yale in order to stay with her friends at California University.
Also, all the girls have stereotypical female occupations except for Andrea — Donna in the fashion industry, Kelly as a secretary, Brenda as an actress. Andrea was going to become a doctor but she was kicked off the show before that could have happened.
The rich, white males ruled the show from the very beginning. Brandon is the epitome of success; he’s a brilliant student, gets any girl he wants, has a knack for solving everybody’s problems and always manages to have a good time.
The audience is always sympathetic towards Brandon, no matter if he has slept with a married woman or crashed his car while driving drunk — we always know he’ll “do the right thing” in the end. Dylan is the bad boy from the other side of town who again gets any girl he wants and stays rich and lovable, even though all he does is blow money, surf and drink.
In most episodes it is either Brandon or Dylan who plays the role of the hero, coming to save the day when it seems there is nowhere else to turn.
The show might seem innocent enough if not taken seriously, and I doubt a lot of people do. But as a supposed representation of youth in America, 90210 estranges a significant number of minorities and reinforces the dominant white male power structure that exists in America.
The show treats blacks as if they are just a different group of people the Beverly Hills’ gang has to get along with once during a season and women as if they existed solely for men to entertain themselves with.
This ideology is subliminally passed on to the youth of America and suddenly becomes the norm among students everywhere.
So … is it a good show? It really depends on how you watch it.
Tons of people, including myself, get a kick out of watching the old episodes just to see how formulaic they are and how bad the writing is.
But taking the show seriously as a representation of a generation of youth is extremely troubling and misguided.
The numbers “90210” represent more than just a dumb television show. They represent all that is wrong with the stranglehold white males have on the entertainment industry and big business in America today.
Dan Ten Kate’s column originally appeared in Tuesday’s Pennsylvania State University paper, the Daily Collegian.