The 1990s spawned many clichés, but there’s a certain kind of nineties guy that resides deep within my heart despite the clear intent that he be seen by audiences as an irritating, if relatively harmless antagonist. The 1990s spawned a lot of different views of men: men in parachute pants, men that listened to (kind of) hard rock but had feelings, Ethan Hawke. Most of these clichés don’t interest me much. The one that does, though…
Blonde(ish). Physically fit but skinny, nowhere near the enraged buffness of 1980s Arnie and Sly. Resolutely new age but unflinchingly commercial, cornerstone of the market for energy drinks before Gatorade felt the confidence to discard all shame in advertising remarkably calorie-heavy drinks to people that don’t burn four thousand of the damn things before breakfast.[ref]This commercialism was not always out in the open; for this nineties guy, as with any clichés, you find crossovers, shades of grey. Still, although there were those that place their individually centred almost-Buddhist spiritualism to the fore, you had the sense the writers were egging you on: “come on, we know this guy gets a McMuffin every now and again.”[/ref] Sensitive to women and equally adored by them. A man’s man that rejected being a man’s man, thus being a new and superior iteration of the concept. When presented semi-seriously, as this nineties guy was during the actual 1990s and shortly after, it was the audience’s job to find him distasteful, and if at all possible to hate him. More recently we’ve been asked to have a bit of fun with it. I love to. I love the nineties guy, and two examples spring to mind.
The first one comes from 1996’s DAYLIGHT. Ah, DAYLIGHT. There’s a certain type of film that’s been pushed aside by massive robots and blockbusters written by accountants and statisticians. We often bemoan the ubiquity of the sequel in our film culture, but (understandably) we focus on all the interesting original films that fail to emerge on to our screens, particularly in the summer when the industry makes all its money, saving nuts for the long hard winter. What about the bad films? There was a time, a glorious time, when huge stars acted in terrible one-shot film that went nowhere and said nothing. It brought us classics like DAYLIGHT, where Sly Stallone plays the wonderfully named Kit Latura, looking to lead to safety a group of actors that inexplicably included Viggo Mortensen, Amy Brenneman and Dan Hedaya.[ref]Dan Hedaya! Sure, it’s not really all that surprising that Hedaya is in a rote mid-1990s action film in a supporting role, but I love Hedaya.[/ref] Nowadays we have to wait for Will Smith to decide enough time has passed that he can push his son on the English speaking public again to get an original film that completely misfires.[ref]The great thing of course, is that it’s likely to be science fiction. What a glorious age to be alive for those of us with certain nerdy proclivities.[/ref]
Mortensen plays the nineties guy, bewildered by the imposing inconvenience of a tunnel collapsing, simultaneously dashing in a way that only makes sense to people that were adolescents in the 1990s[ref]To be fair, the fact he’s played by Viggo Mortensen probably doesn’t hurt the “dashing” part[/ref] and strong in the belief that he, a man that just approved a Super Bowl commercial, cannot be contained. His character, thrillingly named Nord, takes off on an adventurous plan to save them all despite the sober advice of the world weary Stallone. He dies immediately. This is remarkably entertaining and, in addition to reassuring me subliminally that exercise is overrated and rock climbing is for communists, helps establish that our hero Sly is the man to sort things out. This was 1990s Sly, a man trying to fuse together the improbable potency of his franchise roles with individual pieces many years before he gave up and assumed the persona of a tattooed biker hanging out with Mickey Rourke. DAYLIGHT is rather interesting in that regard really. Was Nord’s swift fate a nuanced rebuttal of the machismo that made Stallone famous or a pointed statement that this machismo was strictly defined by and confined to a narrow range of ideals and characteristics? Well, it was clearly the latter. You can’t be a real man if you have nice hair. That’s what Nord was all about, or what he thought he was all about. A certain type of nineties guy was like that. It’s not enough for men to want to be you, women must want to be with you as well. It’s a tough balance, and nineties guys were trying too hard.
The second example is much more recent and thus benefits both from a little bit of distance from the decade in question and assumptions among an audience old enough to laugh at the decade that defined them. COMMUNITY’s Vaughn mocks improbably sincere moral hubris more broadly, but he’s a wonderful distillation of this type of nineties guy. He’d pass for Nord’s son (or more likely Nord’s much younger brother) adrift in a society where his sincerity is repeatedly bounced back at him. It doesn’t help that his sincerity is under significant question, and for good reason. He takes Britta’s break-up with him rather badly and happily[ref]Sure, he’s upset that he’s been rejected, but this gives him further added depth, no?[/ref] humiliates her publicly. Vaughn is a character beautifully written to trigger a specific response in the audience. Eyes roll and groans are uttered. Yet he seems resolute in his love of Hackey Sack and his disdain for wearing t-shirts in sunlight. He is the nineties guy, and so we dislike him. COMMUNITY was far from perfect but Dan Harmon knew how to write for his generation.
Ah, the nineties guy. There are other nineties guys as well, of course. The sensitive type, for one. These tropes survive, though then again, it’s not like they were born of the 1990s alone. John Cusack’s Lloyd Dobler was about the hazards of dating across social (and socio-economic) borders more than about the nice guy winning, but nice guys (self-appointed or otherwise) could certainly look to SAY ANYTHING for some inspiration. Girls seemed to like it. Then again, that film came out in 1989, the gateway drug to 1990s culture. Cusack later returned to (partly) pastiche his totemic boom box moment in 2000s HIGH FIDELITY. The sensitive guy developed into someone always locked into the “friend zone” and that has morphed into rather unpleasant entitlements among certain young men in regard to the women they find attractive. HIGH FIDELITY’s Rob Gordon drowned in the rejection of women that simply led their lives without him.[ref]This conflict is perhaps better fleshed out in the book, but the book of course lacks that special imagery of John Cusack standing in the rain crying helplessly, furious at a woman’s decision to move on. It’s a nice contrast with the SAY ANYTHING moment[/ref] More recently we have a subculture focused on Men’s Rights, but let’s not blame that on the 1990s. We can blame it on idiots.
The blonde(ish) fitness focused sensitive bro survives today. He jogs in the daytime with no shirt on and he sends women that haven’t dated one yet all weak at the knees. He singlehandedly ensures those same women will find Vaughn hilarious in a way I’ll never quite match. Perhaps he’s out there, too, stalking Stallone as the drugs Sly used to inject into his body don’t bring the aura of machismo he used to take for granted. He’s mortal, he’s getting old. Perhaps that’s why we have Rocky remakes and Rambo remakes and a series of films so focused on celebrating action film careers from the 1980s they don’t have room for plot; perhaps the nineties guy haunts him still.