In times of crisis, we tend to revert back to familiar ways, whether it is connecting with old friends, revisiting previously abandoned places, or exercising our guilty pleasures to maximum effect. We look for moments where we had once upon a time felt included and welcomed, comfortable and confident.
It’s not unusual to want to take control when everything else feels, and seems, so incredibly hectic and surreal. Thinking back to past loves and habits in younger years, with some rituals still persisting into adulthood, the comfort of ’90s sitcoms, Saturday morning cartoons, and after school specials, still has the same smell of teen spirit, which is so unmistakeable — awkward nostalgia.
I grew up watching “Saved by the Bell” on Saturday mornings, and although I always admired Jessie Spano, like a lot of other girls, I wanted to be Kelly Kapowski — she got Zack Morris in the end, after all.
Now youthful daydreams aside, observing my viewing habits transition over the years, it’s curious to wonder and to consider how pop culture has shaped millennial identity, and how the rest of the world views our sentimental fragility.
The female role models in “Saved by the Bell” are iconic, not for their story, but for their complexity — at least, “The Jessie Spano Effect” coined to have ruined feminism in some circles, as an admirer of the most developed character on the show, Jessie was a nod to true teenage experience and the transformation of growth and learning that comes with strong opinions.
Seeing Jessie’s character has taught me that having a variety of interests whether in environmentalism, feminism, or artistic expression, is not a sign of being uncommitted, but is an anthem to the importance of embarking on a journey to discover and to learn about your own personal interests.
We look to Jessie Spano, not because she is a straight-A student with aspirations to get into a big name university, but as often the first person to speak up for when something is unjust, we look to Jessie to be the guiding light on humanitarian concerns.
Now whether “The Jessie Spano Effect” has ruined feminism, it would be wholly unrealistic to blame a television character on ruining feminism, when feminist issues are everyone’s issues.
Jessie was the type of person I think a lot of young minds aspired to be: smart, self assured, outspoken, and just slightly insecure. We are imperfect, and to see our television role models as flawed – yes, Jessie’s self-consciousness – is humbling.
The real anomaly of course, and the fuel behind the uproar of “The Jessie Spano Effect”, all comes down to her romantic interest in “chauvinist pig”, boyfriend, A.C. Slater. To think that a person who claims to be a feminist would date someone who was entirely opposite to their beliefs: calling her “big Mama” and telling her that her place was in the kitchen, doesn’t really make a lot of sense to an observer. And yet, the piece that remains incredibly clear, is that Jessie and A.C. really love and care about each other – and who we love does not define who we are.
We forget that one of the main points of feminism isn’t just the quest for equality across all genders and sexualities, but that feminism is also a matter of having the ability to make active and informed choices.
If you really look at the episodes of “Saved by the Bell”, particularly as the series progresses, Jessie really keeps A.C. on a short leash. She is forthright in telling A.C. exactly what she will and will not accept, and although it may seem like she is an anomaly for stating that girls are not “chicks” but she will accept being called “Mama”, we forget that no one other than A.C. can call her by this name.
When we view their relationship as one of love and acceptance of differences, instead of commentary on what is or isn’t acceptable in the scope of feminist ideals, we find that Jessie is an important symbol of the core of feminism.
We label our experiences, so much so, that we may limit our potential to grow because of our desires to stay within the confines of necessity.
When it comes to gender bias, we are all victims of our own unconscious bias. So it comes at no surprise when some individuals are so hesitant about labeling themselves as feminists because of ingrained stereotypes that have persisted, particularly those where competition and negative emotions hurt the perception of female success.
To say that millennials don’t care about current issues because of popular culture influences like “Saved by the Bell” would overlook that activism may not look the same as previous generations. Millennials see opportunities to engage in social causes instead of pledging allegiance to organizations. Our agency in many ways tied to our purchasing power, choosing causes and offering monetary participation when we can imagine our support as playing a significant role in the solution.
Looking back on how popular culture has shaped my own thoughts and feelings, and my own choices to support local businesses, buy certain sustainable products or engage in specific conversations, I wouldn’t call my activism very “active”, but certainly active in the choices being made every day. I am thankful for characters like Jessie Spano who showed us that we all have the potential to be successful based on your own definition of success and we all have the agency to love and accept each other for our differences, because loving is truly a love that is unconditional.