In 2022, Karina Longworth’s You Must Remember This kicked off Erotic 80s, an overview of sex in the cinema from 1980 to 1989. Broken down year by year, each episode covered major moments of the decade, with a lead-in entry explaining the immediate background of the topics discussed throughout the season. Covering films like Fatal Attraction, Risky Business, and American Gigolo, among others, the focus of the series is on the creatives behind the scenes, the inner workings of the industry that dictates which movies are made, and the critical reaction to these films upon their release.
This season, Longworth’s trip through recent pop culture history continues with Erotic 90s, which promises in its own opening episode to encapsulate a much broader scope of films and run roughly twice the length of its forbearer. As always, the episodes are a mix of social commentary, deep dives, Longworth’s own interpretations, and a gentle urging to look at the films of the era as a sort of historical marker, often unintentionally on the part of the creators and critics revealing hidden truths about their time.
Like Erotic 80s, its continuation kicks off with an introductory episode to explain the subjects this season, titled “Porn, Feminism, and the Folly of NC-17.” Observing last season that the NC-17 rating became inherently associated with box office poison not long after its inception, the sliding scale standards of the rating system created immediate double standards by giving major releases a pass and seeming to punish independent releases for the same things. The changing landscape for pornography after the introduction of VHS rental stores is covered, as is the obscenity trials of groups like 2 Live Crew. Extremes of conservatism, censorship, and sex obsession collide, creating a time of confusion.
The message is clear by the time we’ve made it ten minutes in and Longworth notes that “a more appropriate title for this season might be Backlash 90s.” She explains that much of the season will be about moral panic around sex and the constant presence of right-wing attitudes, often found in surprising places, that continued to echo antiquated ideals in regard to equal rights, female empowerment, queer issues, and more.
One of Longworth’s greatest talents is her ability to elaborate on things from the Hollywood of thirty, forty, or a hundred years ago in a way that shows us these themes are very much still under discussion today, even if the context has changed. She notes that the past doesn’t so much directly repeat itself, but rather is cyclical, regularly looping back in on itself. As such, the story of a media scandal in 1920s Hollywood doesn’t seem so distant from the ones we see today, even if we are viewing it through a different lens.
Walking us through the relatively recent past of 90s Hollywood, we’re taken to a world still very different from the day-to-day of our lives now. How the public watched films and accessed the news is totally different from today, and major cultural conversations have yet to occur. As such, the words of critics writing for big-name publications become sometimes enlightening and other times condemning records of their era.
The series has utilized access to high-circulation magazines of the time like Playboy and Ms. as part of its research, laying a critical foundation for a deeper discussion about conflicting messages around sex during the decade. To that end, many of the subjects set to be discussed still have repercussions today. For instance, Brittany Spears, to be covered in a future episode, has spoken out at length about her family’s exploitation of her wealth and the media’s over-sexualization of her at a young age. Two and a half decades later, this is still a subject for news items. Tales of stage parents continue to plague the entertainment industry, and this is just one aspect indicating that many of the topics covered here require ongoing consideration.
Kicking off in earnest in the second episode, the show zooms in Pretty Woman which is today generally accepted into cinematic canon without deep discussion of its disruptive qualities upon its release. While she’s long since been considered Hollywood royalty, Julia Roberts was once viewed in a much more skeptical light by the press. The entry takes into account the way in which the film’s clear embrace of her character alongside the minor scandals of Roberts’s personal life made her a household name but also invited undue criticism toward her as well as toward what was a surprisingly progressive film, even by today’s standards.
The next episode features the rare collaboration between women to create an erotic thriller, director Sondra Locke’s Impulse starring Theresa Russell. Detailing not only the film but the typecasting of Russell and the long legal battles that Locke underwent after her separation from Clint Eastwood, the episode takes a thoughtful stance breaking down the many obvious ways in which Locke’s career was stalled and eventually halted by Eastwood and the studios that viewed him as their most powerful asset.
The critical response to Thelma & Louise is front and center in the fourth episode, noting that many male critics reacted to the film with often childish reads of the story of two women on the run. Noting the stigma around movies that were perceived to be about lesbians, Longworth goes on to elaborate on how many critics felt that Louise killing the man that attempts to rape Thelma was overreactive, viewing the film as a direct attack on masculinity. As much as it might be tempting to restrict these toxic viewpoints as the folly of resentful male critics alone, Longworth notes that these statements are much in line with similar cultural observations made by women like Camille Paglia, among others.
To discuss female characters in erotic, romantic, or even just prominent roles at length is to unpack a lot of regressive thinking, not only from the usual suspects but occasionally from the era’s feminists. Longworth counterbalances several viewpoints, presenting her own among them as part of a smooth transition from subject to subject.
In prior seasons of You Must Remember This, as well as in her other work, Longworth regularly taps into larger feminist themes explicitly by highlighting the sexism of prior decades. In her book, Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes’s Hollywood, the enigmatic Hughes becomes something of a jumping-off point allowing her to discuss the many actresses with whom he was romantically involved. As such, a book about Hughes becomes part biography, part examination of the way women were treated at the time.
So far, Erotic 90s is following much the same route, digging into antiquated ideals around female empowerment and sexuality by looking at how Hollywood viewed its female stars, as well as how the world viewed Hollywood. Providing unique insight, not only into the day-to-day sexism, racism, and homophobia of many male-centric publications but also into misguided feminists calling for censorship, or worse, victim-blaming survivors of sexual violence, the series makes unsettling correlations in the viewpoints of some apparent political opposites. After all, discussing in what ways history is often a lot messier than we want it to be while granting it a forgiving if not forgetful eye is a major part of what has made this podcast one of the greats.
The season is set to end with director Stanley Kubrick’s stunning and often-misunderstood final film, Eyes Wide Shut, the last collaboration between couple Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise before their split and Kubrick’s final film. With plenty of episodes to go before we get to that perfect choice of a finale, the series is already doing great work in reexamining cultural assertions often taken at face value, questioning critics, and sympathizing with the many unfairly maligned women of 1990s Hollywood.
Sara Century is a writer of short stories, articles about comics and film, and many, many zines. She is an artist, comic creator, filmmaker, and podcaster. Find her work at www.saracentury.com