The 90s were an interesting time for boundary-pushing cinema, with maverick, independent directors and filmmakers ditching the wholesome family values of popular 80s blockbusters in favour of more risqué projects that took advantage of a more lenient rating system, with some characters who were sleazy, perverted or downright nasty.
In the 1980s, the MPAA introduced the PG-13 rating, and with the 1990s came the NC-17 banner, which allowed for more mainstream distribution for films that may have been rated higher. Audiences were more accepting of violence, swearing and subjects that an American director previously wouldn’t have touched with a ten foot stick.
From this directors like Quentin Tarantino, Tony Scott and James Cameron began making films that weren’t just violent and provocative, but were successful too. Romantic comedies also began recognizing the growing teenage audience, tackling sensitive subjects with a relaxed attitude that previous generations would have frowned at.
Unfortunately, from this cinematic climate emerged a few select characters who pushed taboos, disregarded morals that would now be considered politically correct and were frequently downright offensive. From misogynist frat boys to other offenders, we’re happy for these characters to stay in the 20th Century where they belong.
Here are the 20 90s Characters Who Wouldn’t Be Allowed in Movies Today
20 Jimmie - Pulp Fiction
Quentin Tarantino has always been at the centre of controversy, his films coming under the fire of feminist and racial criticism whenever a new one is released. Despite working best behind the camera, you can usually guarantee an on-screen appearance from the eccentric movie geek, whether as Mr Brown in Reservoir Dogs or his strangling hands in Inglourious Basterds.
His performance as Jimmie in the acclaimed Pulp Fiction is perhaps his most contentious appearance, however. It’s not often that the director shows up in his own film to call the main characters dorks and refer to a dead black man with the same tone as you would a dead pest. Perhaps hilariously taboo in 1994, now it just feels uncomfortable and indulgent.
19 Cher Horowitz - Clueless
Although it’s tempting to include Alicia Silverstone’s other famous 90s role as Batgirl in the woefully terrible Batman and Robin, she at least kicks as much butt as the Dynamic Duo themselves and her costume isn’t much more sexually suggestive than the Caped Crusader’s. Instead we turn to Clueless, which features Silverstone as a spoiled high schooler who dabbles in match-making.
Once regarded as both a feminist and fashion icon, it’s now considered, like, so last year to portray teenage girls as vapid, style-obsessed Valley Girls who claim not to need a man but, by the end of the film, realize that all they need is some old-fashioned romance to make them happy. Her liberal use of the word “retard” now makes us cringe, and her ex-stepbrother love interest may have worked in the source material, Emma, but here just makes Paul Rudd look creepy.
18 Daniel Hillard - Mrs. Doubtfire
Apologies to the late, great Robin Williams, who delivered a hilarious performance every single time, but his turn as Daniel/Mrs Doubtfire would certainly raise some eyebrows today. Although cross-dressing movies are still alive, albeit frequently dying a painful death at the box office, no one has attempted to disguise themselves as a nurturing nanny to stalk their children after a, let’s admit it, well-deserved divorce.
It can be argued that Williams perpetuates female stereotypes, namely that children require a nurturing maternal figure to be raised properly, but its most questionable politics can be found in a misjudged scene that now reads as vaguely transphobic. Hillard’s son discovers ‘Mrs Doubtfire’ using the restroom as a man would and screams bloody murder, threatening to call the police. Hilarious at the time, it’s definitely a scene that wouldn’t fly in today’s more tolerant society.
17 Stifler's Mom - American Pie
Following in the footsteps of comedies like Animal House and Revenge of the Nerds, the 90s allowed for teen movies that were grosser, raunchier and, arguably, funnier. Though American Pie paved the way for films like Superbad by satirizing the obsessed, casual misogyny of teenage losers and, revolutionary, treating the female characters like people too, the series most outdated artefact is found in Stifler’s Mom.
Bad enough for introducing a term for good looking mothers to teenagers everywhere, Stifler’s Mom is portrayed as close to a "star" as a mother can possibly get, and is more than willing to satisfy the needs of lonely high school seniors. Although the character reappeared in American Reunion, she was paired with the more age appropriate Eugene Levy and we seem to have thankfully dropped the idea that a relationship between a high schooler and an adult woman is cause for celebration.
16 Drexl Spivey - True Romance
Gary Oldman has given masterful performances since he began his career in the 80s, and through the 1990s he became known as some of the most dastardly and vile villains ever to taint our screens, from Leon: The Professional to Dracula. One of his most memorable yet briefest roles was as part of True Romance’s ensemble cast as Drexl Spivey, a white, dreadlocked pimp who “wishes he were black.”
Though white people’s fascination with and fetishizing of African American culture has been well explored in films since, most notably in last year’s masterpiece Get Out, True Romance attempts this with all the nuance of a truck driver crashing through a wall screaming “racism is bad.” After threatening Christian Slater in a club and talking like a stereotypical gangster, Spivey is then shot in the head. Real subtle.
15 William Foster - Falling Down
Before he became infamous for ruining Batman for almost a decade, Joel Schumacher was known for cult fantasy thrillers The Lost Boys and Flatliners, as well as contributing to the rise of Michael Douglas as a hot commodity for edgy thrillers in Falling Down. A film that ferociously rebels against systems of power, the movie is celebrated by short-tempered anarchists and free-thinkers alike, yet unfortunately features some dubious politics.
The inciting incident that sparks the chase across Los Angeles involves Foster, after being denied change for a phone call by a Korean store clerk, ridiculing his accent, criticizing his migration to American with baseless statistics, then proceeding to destroy his store and produce, all over a simple can of Coke. Yes, the frustrations of white-collar America deserve to be explored, but the racism on display here just feels inappropriate, especially after he hurts a white-supremacist later in the film.
14 Catherine Trammell - Basic Instinct
The late 80s and 90s gave birth to the rarely resurrected genre of steamy thrillers, which borrowed elements from classic noir films that conflated the thrills of love and crime and heightened them. Basic Instinct is perhaps the most famous, a detective story that features a pulp fiction writer who kills her rockstar boyfriend after publishing a crime novel that mirrors the murder.
Rightly criticized for its depiction of a bisexual woman as a man-hating, narcissistic psychopath, a portrayal that LGBT activists felt continued a pattern of misrepresentation in the 90s, Sharon Stone’s Catherine Trammell attempted to update the femme fatale for modern audiences, though many felt the film stumbled into somewhat of a parody. Stone also claims that the infamous leg-crossing scene was shot without her permission, a breach of consent that is thankfully becoming a rarity on modern film sets.
13 Zack Siler - She's All That
Before Freddie Prinze Jr. and Matthew Lillard became early-2000s superstars by portraying Fred and Shaggy in the live-action Scooby Doo movies, they both starred in 90s teen romp She’s All That, which updated the concept of My Fair Lady with a 90s frat boy twist. After his popular high school girlfriend ditches him for a TV star, Prinze Jr’s Zack Siler claims that any girl in school can be turned into Prom Queen material.
After “shopping” around the schoolyard for potential subjects, openly mocking and objectifying any girl with a slight flaw, Siler agrees to a bet to turn unpopular art student Laney Boggs into a beauty queen in six weeks. Laney suffers through a classic teen movie makeover that encourages girls to value being conventionally attractive above school work and hobbies, and ends the film romantically involved with the guy who originally considered her “scary and inaccessible.”
12 Bobby Peru - Wild At Heart
David Lynch is infamous for his inclusion of slimy characters in both his films and television series, Twin Peaks and, while Dennis Hopper’s Frank Booth in the stunningly bizarre Blue Velvet remains Lynch’s triumph in this respect, none of his 90s characters come closer to Booth’s strange hybrid of perversion and psychotics than Willem Dafoe as Bobby Peru.
Sporting vile fake teeth and a pencil thin moustache, Peru is an unpredictable, violent gangster who accosts Laura Dern’s Lulu Fortune with an invasive embrace and forces her to request he make love to her before jokingly discarding her, in a scene that, with Lynch behind the camera, is predictably surreal and uncomfortable. Nowadays Laura Dern is known for destroying starships and sacrificing herself for the space rebellion, so it just feels wrong to see her so helpless.
11 Vivian Ward - Pretty Woman
Hollywood has never quite perfected the representation of 'ladies of the night' on the big screen, and, while the ‘girl with a heart of gold’ cliché is well-intentioned, it doesn’t quite portray them as the well-rounded, three dimensional characters they deserve to be depicted as.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the romantic comedy classic that features Julia Roberts as cinema history’s least convincing 'lady of the night', who begins a relationship with wealthy businessman and socialite, Edward Lewis. Initially repelled by the high-class lifestyle, Vivian eventually succumbs to Richard Gere’s charms and promises of a life flushed with cash, theatre and material goods. Her work may not be the ideal career, but we don’t need a morality tale in which she is ‘saved’ by money, fashion and conventional romance to tell us that.
10 Pocahontas - Pocahontas
Disney is well-documented for twisting the details of fairy tales and history to fit within the confines of a romantic, storybook narrative, but none of their animated classics stretches the truth quite as far as Pocahontas, which somehow manages to force a classical romance story into their retelling of European colonialism and oppression of Native Americans.
Conveniently ignoring the later stages of her life, in which she’s forced into a Christian marriage, Disney ages up the Native American ‘princess’, who was in fact around 13-14 when she met John Smith, into an adult who falls in love with the English pioneer. Though the story of Pocahontas saving the life of Smith could be true, there wasn’t a hint of romance. Later films such as Terence Malick’s The New World have since attempted to correct this myth, yet Disney’s fabrication remains the most popular Pocahontas story we have.
9 David Wooderson - Dazed and Confused
Richard Linklater’s super chill romp through the last day of school in a 1970s Texas school is accurate down to the freshman hazing, substance experimentation and outdoor keg parties. Though its dated politics can be forgiven as a period piece, there are some characters that are celebrated as the pinnacle of cool with some decidedly uncool morals.
Dazed and Confused introduced the world to the most relaxed actor in the world, Matthew McConaughey, whose David Wooderson proved the perfect role for him as the ultimate slacker with the chilliest catchphrase around, “alright, alright, alright.” However, his declaration of love for high school girls – “I get older, they stay the same age” – wouldn't really work these days. Slackers have remained a staple in high school comedies ever since, but none since have been as predatory as David Wooderson.
8 Kat Stratford - 10 Things I Hate About You
It turns out that updating Shakespeare to a modern setting doesn’t always yield the same success, as the high school adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew simply reveals some sexist values that should have been long abandoned in the 17th Century. Under enforcement of her father’s rules that her sister, Bianca, can’t date until she does, Kat becomes the key to Cameron James’ plan to date Bianca by first finding her sister the right guy.
At first an opinionated and politically-inclined feminist, Kat is known for an abrasive attitude towards the boys at her school and heated arguments with her teachers. Luckily, ‘bad boy’ Heath Ledger is here to save her cynical heart by wooing her with public announcements of adoration. Kat is initially reluctant, but not even the most stone cold feminist could resist Ledger’s charms. Nowadays, characters like Kat are more likely to stick to their guns.
7 Harry Tasker - True Lies
Much in line with erotic thrillers like Basic Instinct, James Cameron’s follow-up to T2, True Lies merges classic noir suspicions of women with high octane thrills and espionage that now seem just a little too 1940s. Though he feels like the closest thing we’ll get to an American (or Austrian) James Bond, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Harry Tasker is somehow more misogynist than Sean Connery’s take on the double 0 agent.
With suspicions that his wife, Jamie Lee Curtis, may be having an affair, Tasker kidnaps and interrogates her, before forcing her to take part in a fake spy mission that, of course, becomes real after she reveals her life is missing adventure. The now infamous scene in which Curtis is made to strip and dance for a presumed stranger, actually her husband, only adds ammunition to accusations of dated sexism.
6 Ace Ventura - Ace Ventura: Pet Detective
Jim Carrey has a lot of interesting roles in the 90s, but perhaps his most controversial role came in the form of Ace Ventura, an eccentric, obnoxious pet detective who showcased the best of Carrey’s talents, but none of his restraint.
This alone warrants an inclusion, but Ace Ventura: Pet Detective boasts a scene that raises the level of shocking above the charming immaturity of films like Dumb and Dumber and Liar Liar. The villain is revealed to be a man who has almost completely transitioned genders and, after stripping Sean Young to a room full of police officers, Ace turns her around to reveal the tell-tale bulge in her underwear, and everyone starts gagging. Good riddance, 1994.
5 Derek Vinyard - American History X
One of the most controversial films of the 90s sees Edward Norton portray Derek Vinyard, a white supremacist with touchy tattoos emblazoned across his chest who reforms from his intolerant ways after going to prison for murder and befriending a black inmate. Though this is ultimately the story of redemption, it is how Vinyard is originally portrayed that has cause the trouble.
Flashbacks of Vinyard are filmed in romantic black and white, depicting the white supremacist as the embodiment of white, American masculinity that became enticing for alt-right groups (ignoring all that stuff later about changing his values and improving his way of life). Though the film by no means condones neo-Nazism, it’s unlikely we’ll ever see a white-supremacist as eloquent and appealing than Norton in American History X.
4 Mathilda Lando - Leon: The Professional
Here we have another stirring appearance by Gary Oldman, this time we’re focusing on Luc Besson’s most critically lauded film Leon: The Professional which features Jean Reno as an assassin who takes the young Mathilda, Natalie Portman’s breakthrough role, under his wing. After teaching her the tools of the hitman’s trade, Mathilda becomes infatuated by Leon and they form a close bond before he becomes the victim of corrupt DEA agents, led by Oldman’s Stansfield.
Importantly, Leon never reciprocates Mathilda’s declarations of love, but their age difference and close friendship draws close to uncomfortable levels when Portman tries to get physical, and models different outfits for him. The model of an older mentor to a young student has proven to be a winning formula, most recently replicated in films like Logan, but luckily the romantic aspect tends to be removed.
3 Lester Burnham - American Beauty
Recent controversies surrounding Kevin Spacey have now made it impossible to watch American Beauty without feeling repulsed by the subject matter, if it wasn’t already disturbing.
Featuring Spacey as a disillusioned office worker who despises his job and average American life, Lester Burnham decides to live life to the fullest, which includes succumbing to an infatuation of his daughter’s cheerleader friend Angela, with whom he begins to flirt. He realizes the error of his ways, but not before the two share a kiss and she consents to sleeping with him. Though its carpe diem themes and critique of middle-class America remain poignant, the fact that the film comes dangerously close to replicating real life offensives means this is one film in the catalogue of 90s classics that we’re happy to forget.
2 'The Idiots' - The Idiots
Lars von Trier is perhaps a stranger director than David Lynch, if that’s even possible, and his experimentations and explorations of the human condition have produced projects that consistently provoke his audience and tear apart taboos from his beginnings in the 1970s as an art house provocateur, up to his more recent films proving some of the most popular experimental films of the 21st Century.
The second entry in his Golden Heart Trilogy, The Idiots follows a group of anarchist youths who hate society, and rebel by releasing their ‘inner idiot’. Heavily criticized for its ridicule of disability, the film depicts its characters referring to an activity they refer to as ‘spazzing’, in which they behave as if they’re mentally challenged. Of all von Trier’s catalogue, this is perhaps his most misjudged and we can only hope modern activists don’t take a page out of The Idiots’ book.
1 Bill Maplewood - Happiness
Another popular indie darling, Todd Solondz frequently delves into dark subject matter and controversial topics, and in the 90s produced the first film on this list to tackle the subject of serious child issues. Hinted at by American Beauty and Leon: The Professional, his film Happiness introduces Bill Maplewood, a terrible person with whom the audience is asked to sympathize.
Referring back to older films such as Fritz Lang’s M, which features a child murderer who tests the empathy of a jury with one of the most famous speeches in film history, Happiness tackles the uncomfortable topic of people who simply can’t help but commit depraved acts. Though it won over many critics, it was refused entry into the Sundance Film Festival and it’s difficult to find another film that portrays this subject quite as explicitly.
Are there any characters you think we've missed? Let us know in the comments below!
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