A journal of television and new media

Familiar Zipcode, New Bodies: A Critical Analysis of the Feminine Body in 90210
Shayla Thiel-Stern / University of Minnesota


New 90210

The cast of the new 90210

When Beverly Hills, 90210 premiered, I was still in high school, and I still remember my initial reaction to the show as the film rolled on the actors in West Beverly High:

Who in the world are these really old people?

Indeed, being from small-town Midwestern America, I had not seen teens the bleach-blonde likes of Tori Spelling, who was actually a younger than I was despite looking far older, but all of the “teens” on this show just looked at least 25 to me – way too old to be playing high schoolers. (And in fact, it turned out some were. Luke Perry, who played Dylan McKay, and Ian Ziering, who played Steve Sanders, were in their mid-20s when the show first debuted, and Gabrielle Carteris, who played Andrea Zuckerman, was actually 29.)

So it felt like déjà vu when I saw a promo announcing that 90210 – a latter-day spin-off of Beverly Hills, 90201 would debut on September 2. The girls in the advertisement — certainly the one sitting in a Jacuzzi between a pair of male legs — had to be fairly close to 30. (I’d like to hope that hot tub parties aren’t starting in the middle teens now, though I’m sure I’m still a naïve small-town Midwesterner at heart.)

Brenda and Dylan

Brenda and Dylan

If you have never heard of 90210 in either form, I’ll quickly get you up to speed: The Aaron Spelling-produced show (yes, he was Tori’s dad) premiered on Fox in the fall of 1990 as one of the first-ever teen soaps, and initially centered on Brandon and Brenda Walsh, twins whose parents uprooted them from Minneapolis, Minnesota, to flashy Beverly Hills, California, where they befriended surfers and children of Hollywood execs and former stars, and wormed their way into the intricate social scene while dealing with issues like drug abuse, accidental gun violence, racism, teen pregnancy and date rape. The wildly popular show, which was geared toward the teen and 20s demographic, lasted 10 seasons.

Beverly Hills, 90210 was one of the first of a genre of soap operas featuring beautiful teens living in a fantasy environment, and arguably, a cultural touchstone.1

It also seemed to spawn a genre of shows casting beautiful young people, who are supposed to be teens, but actually look 10 years older than your average teen. Think about James Van Der Beek on Dawson’s Creek, Scott Wolf on Party of Five, Kristin Kreuk on Smallville, Charisma Carpenter on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and every single “teen” character on One Tree Hill. Even though they might have been adolescents at the time they started playing their signature roles, they did not look it.

The question then becomes, why do producers repeat this casting tactic, when it could serve to make the shows even less realistic in the eyes of the viewers they hope to attract?

This is a complicated question, but I believe the answers are less complicated. First, in the new 90210 debuting next month, consumerism is a clear motivation. Notice how Dior, Dolce and Gabbana, and Tiffany appear almost subliminally in the trailer:

If you are wearing Dior and Dolce, you are probably not an average 16-year-old girl, even a girl from the 90210 zipcode. These are sophisticated clothes, designed to look good on very thin women in their late 20s and older … apparently like the “girls” on the new 90210. These particular actresses can succeed in selling a lifestyle and a luxury brand name in their 20-something bodies so much better than they could have in their 16-year-old bodies. (As a counterpoint, imagine Lane from the early Gilmore Girls shows in similar fashion.)

Second — and others (Katherine Sweeney in Maiden USA, M. Gigi Durham in The Lolita Effect, and Emily White in Fast Girls, to name a few) have made this point previously in more scholarly terms: It would be downright creepy to see average-looking 14 to 18-year-olds placed in the sexualized world that is a teen soap opera. Imagine girls – such as your 14-year-old niece, or if you need to envision a more famous high school freshman, Dakota Fanning perhaps — cavorting in a Jacuzzi, seducing older men, wearing stilettos and micro-minis. In order for audiences to derive (guilty) pleasure from watching these situations in 90210, producers must represent adolescent girls as women in their mid-20s. While our culture has seen (and in some cases, embraced) the sexualization of increasingly younger starlets over the past 10 years, we still might not be at that extreme point.

However, I would argue that this is just a fairly easy critique of media representation of the adolescent girls. There is a more troubling underlying current here to examine, and that is the realization of how the feminine body, and specifically the adolescent female body, exists within cultural discourse, and how it has changed over a relatively short span of time. We can see this clearly in the two versions of 90210. It is absolutely striking to note how different the young women cast in the roles in the 2008 version of 90210 look than their predecessors in 1990. Granted, fashions and trends change. But put the high-waisted, baggy acid washed jeans aside and focus on bodies and faces. Notice how the bodies of the 1990s females in the cast are proportioned. They have hips, wider thighs, vaguely pronounced muscles and heads that appear to belong on top of their bodies. By the standards of 1990, these actresses were thin and pretty.

Original 90210 Cast

The original 90210 cast

Without the aid of Photoshop (which was released just after the first 90210 episode aired), these young women – old as they looked to audiences at the time – probably would have looked ridiculous decked out in the clothing we see on the stars of the new 90210. They would not have been good for the consumerist, fashion-fetish aspect of the program at all. Furthermore, despite the “racy” episode in which Brenda loses her virginity to Dylan, members of the original cast were hardly sexualized at all; this episode pales in comparison to even the trailer for the new 90210, where the actresses appear to be lounging in a dark bedroom with another (male) character making out with an unseen partner behind them.

And it is not only the adolescent girls from Beverly High who must undergo a cultural aging process to become culturally intelligible to the 2008 teen soap audience. The mothers, teachers and other adults in their lives must as well – though theirs is reverse-aging. Cindy Walsh, the mother from the original series who was played by Carol Potter, appeared to be in her middle to late 40s, and dressed modestly enough for audiences not to even wonder whether she had a yoga-body underneath. Lori Loughlin, who plays Debbie Wilson, the mother of the Kansas-transplanted teens in the new series, is actually 44 in real life, but she looks nearly as beautiful and thin as the high school girls, making most of the women on the show appear to be close to age 30 in the promotional materials.

90210 Moms

Lori Laughlin as 90210’s new mom, Debbie Wilson

In borrowing from the theory of Susan Bordo, the women from both shows demonstrate how in a very short but increasingly mediated point in history, women’s and girls’ bodies are shaped and inscribed by the culture surrounding them.2 Through pilates, cosmetic surgery, low-carb diets, hair straightening, skin lightening, Botox, and so many other means, women have mirrored media representations of “perfect” women and shaped their bodies to fit the representation. While Photoshop almost certainly plays a role in the perfection process of promotional photos, however, it does not stop women and girls in reality from attempting to alter their bodies and faces to conform to this fantasy portrayal.

The old and new versions of 90210 exemplify this idea perfectly. And in the new version, all of the female bodies portrayed must be old/young/perfect enough for this cultural moment to enable a plot that allows audiences to feel enticed without feeling dirty, guilty or simply disgusted.

Glamorous 90210

Upping the glamor in the new 90210

Of course, it is important that we not discount the notion of agency – the notion that audiences can make what they will of this new show. Many of us found the original to be campy and ridiculous, and we reveled in the ridiculousness. Certainly audiences have the power to do the same with the next, and in our brave new media-ted world, we might even enjoy the recaps of this new version on Television Without Pity more than watching the actual program. However, Bordo’s point cannot be lost in the argument for media pleasure or resistant readings of cultural texts like 90210. When dominant cultural discourses that relegate girls and women to the passive, stereotypical roles of consumer and sex object actually lead to both physical and cultural change, we should take notice.

Image Credits:
1. The Cast of the New 90210
2. Brenda and Dylan
3. The original 90210 cast.
4. Lori Laughlin as 90210’s new mom, Debbie Wilson
5. Upping the glamor in the new 90210
6. Front Page image

Please feel free to comment.

NOTES

  1. “Even on Television, Puberty Can’t Last Forever.” New York Times May 3, 2000. Retrieved Aug. 10, 2008. []
  2. Bordo, Susan. 1993. Unbearable weight: Feminism, Western culture, and the body. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. []

Comments

  • Annie said:

    I think the juxtaposition of the “new” and “old” 90210s highlights a familiar practice, especially in the Josh Schwartz-era of teen hits — look at Gossip Girl and The O.C., and you have the selfsame gorgeous moms, sultry teens with designer clothes, exotic hook-ups….

    I suppose I’m suggesting that with 90210, the CW is attempting to emulate the success of Gossip Girl, a show that lures ‘tweens, teens, and 20-30 somethings alike. Gossip Girl does this with its gestures towards pop culture, irony, New York inside-knowledge, and high fashion; I imagine the new 90210 will attempt to cater to that same audience with tongue-in-cheek references to the original show (the planned appearances by the original cast, for example) along with high fashion, etc.

    Finally, we’ve got a kindred soul in one of my favorite gossip bloggers, Lainey Gossip — follow the think for her critique of the new 90210 bodies. http://www.laineygossip.com/Sh.....?IsMicro=0

  • Drew said:

    First of all, excellent analysis of the aging process in drama/soaps. I saw the trailer for the “new 90210″ recently and was confounded by how old everyone appeared, and I do remember how old the original 90210 group appeared (especially the dreaded Steve Sanders and Andrea Zuckerman). The comparison between the women’s bodies in the early 90s and now is worth noting: I’ve been watching “Melrose Place” on DVD and the womens’ bodies on that show change drastically between 1992 and 1999 (and “90210″ also expressed the reducing effect at work over the course of that decade). I especially liked your point about how the parents are de-aged: a similar principle seems to be at work in daytime soaps, where people quickly age to be 25-35… and then stay that way forever, until you have a 29 year old heroine with a college-aged son played by a 25 year old actor.

  • Meredith Jones said:

    Thanks for this fine analysis. I also love the observation that while the “teens” must be played by older actors in order for their sexualised activities to be acceptable, their parents are made to look about the same age as them! We see this a lot in cosmetic surgery culture, where mothers and daughters each move towards a static look that ignores traditional generational differences. Lisa Marie Presley and Priscilla Presley are a classic example of a mother and daughter pair who look like twins…

  • easyalpha said:

    Kristin was in her teens when she started Smallville. And even in her 20s she still can pass for 16.

    She still played a teen in her movie Partition a couple of years ago. Some folks are blessed with great genetics.

    The woman is just gorgeous.

  • easyalpha said:

    Kristin Kreuk was in her teens when she started Smallville. And even in her 20s she still can pass for 16.

    She still played a teen in her movie Partition a couple of years ago. Some folks are blessed with great genetics.

    The woman is just gorgeous.

  • Sarah said:

    For the record, the luxury-brand flashes in the trailer for the new 90210 are a tip of the hat to the original credits of the original show, which also featured flashes of the luxury brands of the day, not to mention the establishing shots of the old show, which often featured shots of the fancy stores on Rodeo Drive. (I happen to know this because an old episode, from before the opening credits everyone remembers, was on SoapNet yesterday!) So that’s not new to this 90210.

  • ladyjaye said:

    One of the girls in the new version was part of the Degrassi The Next Generation cast. Shenae Grimes was her character’s age in Degrassi. Now, I don’t know how old the characters are supposed to be in 90210, but she’s now 18, so it’s actually relatively close. Of course, it goes back again to the whole Degrassi vs. 90210 comparison (real-looking teens vs. 20-something-looking actors, even though there were a few actors older than their characters in Degrassi).

    And you’re right: by today’s standards, the girls of the original 90210 cast look slightly chubby (even though they aren’t actually). Funny how in 15 years, what was once the realm of “beautiful people” now is considered imperfect (oh noes, the girls have thighs!).

  • Alyssa said:

    I absolutely agree that teens are played by 20-somethings in order to make their on-screen exploits more palatable. But there is also a practical reason: there are laws set down by the Screen Actors Guild saying that actors under the age of 18 can only work a certain number of hours a day (far less than adults), and they must also receive either on-set tutoring or be able to go to school a certain number of hours a week.So they can get more work done with 20-somethings who look younger.
    That being said, the I had the EXACT same reaction when the original “90210″ premiered, lol!
    And the defferences in the actresses bodies is seriously disturbing. Casting the parents? It’s a joke. What, they gave birth when they were 10?!?!??!

  • Tasha said:

    Interesting analysis Shayla. I too grew up watching the original series and I can recall feeling insecure and self-conscious about my body compared to the glamorous stylings of Brenda and the gang but after watching the new show, I long for the days of healthy curvy bodies a la Andrea Zuckerman and Valerie Malone (I can’t get enough of her pin-up figure on the reruns – where are those women on TV today?!). The women on the new show appear much bonier and not at all what I consider healthy-looking but in the era of Nicole Richies this has become the new feminine ideal. Thankfully, I’m at a point in my life where I no longer have the energy or desire to strive for that kind of ‘thinnification’ but unfortunately, there are new and younger generations of women watching these shows probably feeling the same way I did when I was a teen watching BH 90210. Not to mention, the heavily constructed bodies of the some of the women on The Hills…

  • MissNadine said:

    We should also take note of the food shown in the new 90210– in the lunchroom scenes, girls are eating tiny, tiny bowls of salad, a beverage….and nothing else! There is no pretense about how they stay so thin. They do not ingest solid foods with calories.

  • Lily said:

    It’s interesting, as someone who is 21 and has just graduated college I looked at the girls on the new 90210 and felt that they looked like high school students. This is certainly a very interesting essay but what it fails to address is that teenage girls in general have begun to dress, act and behave (in some sense) significantly older than their ages, particularly in the upper echelons of society. Access to money means access to high fashion, which in and of itself creates the illusion of sophistication. This doesn’t just apply to TV, having grown up in New York City and attended Manhattan private schools, I’ve seen firsthand the effects of money on the teen aging process. Girls go from 13 to 25 over night thanks to tanning, highlights, extensions, designer outfits, sky high heels, and personal trainers. To someone outside of my generation these girls look too old to be high schoolers, but I was shocked by how much they resembled the privileged high schoolers I see walking around on a day-to-day basis in Manhattan.

    Also, the fact that these girls are so incredibly skinny also makes them appear somewhat older (all of the female leads are between 18-21, so they’re generally younger than the original leads) – the lack of body fat means a lack of age appropriate baby fat/dewiness in their faces.

  • Noumenon said:

    The boys still look great to me, though. Have their looks aged at all in anyone else’s mind?

  • amy storck said:

    Shayla Thiel-Stern doesn’t write anything truly profound in her article on “90210″. She describes the difference between the old “Beverly hills 90210″ and the new one, and relates them to real teens. The importance of her article is all the points she draws, although obvious, cliche, and redundant, are good reminders of how unrealistic “90210″ can be and what a young audience member might be reading into it.

    Thiel-Stern compares the “90210″ female characters to females of real life. She draws on the examples of the overtly hyper sexuality of the teens and moms. She mentions the looks of age among the female characters on the show, exemplifying the teens looking like they’re in the mid 20’s and moms looking like they’re in their 30s. Thiel-Stern also mention the clothing/brand name choices of the characters clothing. Teens wearing Dolce and Gabana and Coco Chanel -far too sophisticated brands for 14-18 years.

    Everything in the “90210″ world is hyper… the teens are hyper sophisticated, the adults are hyper young, hyper drama, hyper sex, and so on. What sometimes is worrying is how young females are perceiving all of this. Female adolescents are seemingly growing up far to quickly for their ages. Are shows like “90210″ to blame?

    Teens are becoming adults far too early. In The book Born to Buy, the author writes about the adult decisions kids are making and living, in comparison with the adult technologies available to them. “90210″ could be further perpetuating their hyper maturity.

    Thiel-Stern’s article a good reminder of the absurdities of the show and points out several factors that do make being a teenage girl, sometimes, a slippery slope.

  • Natalie said:

    Great article, I would just like to notice that actresses in Gossip Girl are much younger than in other teen series; Taylor Momsen was, for example, 14 when they started to film the show, but she looks older because of the clothes and make up. It’s like someone in the above comments said, teeenagers also start to look like 20-year-olds because of fashion and everything.

  • Megan said:

    This was an interesting article. A common issue was mentioned about how they get mid-20s actors and actresses to portray teen roles. I think this is a common casting direction because it would look wrong to put actual young teens in these kinds of situations, such as sexual and violent scenes or any kind of raunchy material. Maybe casting directors feel that real teens are not mature enough to play these roles, when really this day in age teens are going through these types of “mature” settings. Unfortunately they start out younger. Also with these kinds of shows, producers want to target multiple audiences, so they get older actors to play younger. If it was all teens, I don’t think we would get the many audiences of teens, mid-20s, mid-30s, and so on to watch.

    Years ago the image of Marilyn Monroe was extremely attractive and sexy, but things have changed. There is now an image those girls feel like they have to live up too. To be beautiful means to be fashionable and skinny. Is it wrong, maybe? Producers are only doing what they think will bring in good ratings. Also since the show is called 90210, there is another image that has to be portrayed when being set in high-end California. Sadly it is about being a rich, spoiled teen who owns big named designer clothing and accessories such as Dior and Dolce. Times have definitely changed from the ‘90s to 2008 – which is when the new 90210 premiered – to now.



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