The new millennium has entered its third decade, but the 1990s have never quite left us. For twenty years, they have been haunting the pop-cultural imagination as a lost golden era. In what is just the latest in a series of ’90s nostalgia bouts, a massive revival is presently underway in music, cinema, television, and fashion. From rapper Redman’s “1990 Now” to country singer Lauren Alaina’s “Ladies in the ’90s” and Charli XCX’s electropop hit “1999,” musicians of various genres and ages are prone to reveling in regressive time-travel fantasies. A revue by the title “I Love the 90s” premiered in Las Vegas in October 2018, Friends is once again the world’s most popular comedy, and the first 2019 blockbuster release Captain Marvel is set in the Clinton era. Nirvana is being discovered by a new generation of music fans through an incessant stream of Kurt Cobain documentaries, biographies, and biopics. Fashion magazines and blogs are filled with instructions on “How to Perfect the Grunge Look,” “How to Rock 90s’ Grunge Fashion,” or where to snatch up a piece of Courtney Love’s old wardrobe. And while the nostalgic recycling of themes and styles is common cultural routine, the “ferocity of our ’90s crush” (Power) is indicative of more than just the usual tendency to revisit the past. There seems to be something so intensely melancholy about this retrospection that it has the aspect of mourning the expulsion from Paradise. To borrow the title of a 2014 National Geographic documentary, there is the wistful sense that the ’90s may well have been “The Last Great Decade.”

This article questions the popular narrative of the 1990s as a particularly optimistic and politically-minded period. Needless to say, an analysis based on such a broad concept as ‘zeitgeist’ is faced with the fundamental difficulty of pinpointing inherently elusive, often only subtly felt, psychocultural fluctuations. As such, the contours of collective dispositions can only be captured in generalized terms without claiming to present a full picture of society. However, an inquiry into salient collective preoccupations as expressed in recurring artistic themes and styles does provide tell-tale markers that help outline basic cultural trajectories. With this in mind and based on the theoretical framework of sociological research on generational shifts, I specifically examine the ’90s upsurge in divorce-themed art as a distinct cultural product of the latchkey generation. As I will go on to argue, its cultivation of a deeply introspective mode of social criticism did not only fail to meaningfully reflect on the connections between privately experienced challenges and larger sociopolitical transformations but also had a strong conservative undercurrent.


The Happy 90s: A False Cultural Memory

Looking back, the period between the end of the Cold War and the beginning of the War on Terror does indeed appear like a happy interlude, a more innocent and carefree time. [1] Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the fear of imminent nuclear Armageddon was lifted off the collective mind, and a new reality seemed to be opening up. Francis Fukuyama declared the end of history in a supposedly post-ideological world in which liberal democratic values had ultimately triumphed. Groundbreaking political developments like the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of Apartheid in South Africa, and the conclusion of the Oslo Accords promised a more peaceful collective future. In the U.S., it was also a time of relative material stability, with strong economic growth and dropping unemployment rates. “By the end of the decade, in fact, there was so much good news—a federal budget surplus, dramatic reductions in violent crime (the murder rate in the United States declined by 41 percent) and in deaths from H.I.V./AIDS—that each astounding new achievement didn’t quite register as miraculous” (Andersen). This is not to say that the 1990s were free of political tension and social unrest—after all they saw events like the Gulf War (1990-1991) and the Los Angeles riots (1992) in the wake of the legal acquittal of the LAPD officers who had beaten and arrested Rodney King. And yet, by comparison to the post-9/11 period, the dramatic quality of these historical incidents seems to have paled. For all their seriousness, they seem like the problems of a less complicated and more auspicious era when neither the threat of jihadist terrorism nor the awareness of collectively heading towards cataclysmic climate change yet weighed heavy on mainstream public consciousness, and a novel technology called the Internet promised to bring previously inconceivable possibilities of global communication and equality worldwide.

This atmosphere of freedom and freshly unleashed potential provided the substrate for a particularly vibrant and innovative phase in U.S. popular culture. The independent film movement came into its own, newspapers and magazines experienced a heyday, and the music scene thrived. Looking back on this boom, many commentators lament what they perceive as the staleness of today’s cultural landscape. “Decades are more popular than ever these days, as a useful shorthand for how culture changes over time,” writes Rob Sheffield of Rolling Stone Magazine. “But more than ever, we’re not living in one.” In a similarly jeremiadic tone, Douglas Coupland recently reflected that “[a]t the very least, in North America and Europe, the 1990s possessed a sense of happiness that seems long vanished.” Given the fact that Coupland’s literary career was launched by his 1991 novel Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, which was celebrated for capturing the Weltschmerz of twentysomethings and popularized the term GenX as short reference for a disconnected and disaffected youth, his new idyllic perspective is rather surprising. It is, however, representative of a broader cultural disconnect.

After all, the widespread consensus of remembering the 1990s as “simply the happiest decade of our American lifetimes” (Andersen) is in utter contradiction to the gloomy collective mood of that time. In fact, the image of the demographic cohort that came of age then was that of a “New Lost Generation,” implying a similar degree of trauma, uprootedness, and confusion that characterized the Lost Generation who lived through WWI. Older Americans looked at this new generational crop as a product of a culture in rapid decline, chiding it as a “generation of uppity, flesh-and-blood Bart Simpsons, […] a bunch of apathetic slackers” (Shapiro 50). According to William Strauss and Neil Howe, the authors of the seminal sociohistorical study Generations (1990), “No other generation in living memory has come of age with such a sense of social distance—of adults doing so little for them and expecting so little from them” (323). Before “Generation X” stuck as the go-to term, they labelled this age group “the 13ers,” which referred as much to being “the thirteenth [peer group] to call themselves American citizens” (324) as to having been allotted an “ill-timed lifecycle” (12):

Imagine coming to a beach at the very end of a long summer of big crowds and wild goings-on. The beach is sunburned, the sand shopworn, hot, and full of debris—no place for walking barefoot. You step on a bottle, and some cop cites you for littering. That’s how 13ers feel, following the Boom. (321)

This sense of suffering from a hangover after a party one never even got to attend imbued youth culture with a tint of cynicism, disorientation, and purposelessness. This zeitgeist was memorably captured by cult movies such as Richard Linklater’s Slacker (1990) and Kevin Smith’s Clerks (1994), both showing twentysomethings as they drift through life in a mélange of ennui, conspiracy-theory paranoia, and vapidity posing as profound insight. In music, too, the plight of the underachiever became a prevalent subject. One of the hymns of the decade, Beck’s alternative rock song “Loser” (1993), famously featured the chorus “I’m a loser baby, so why don’t you kill me?” Another hit song, The Offspring’s “Self Esteem” (1994) recounted episodes that illustrated the confession that “I’m just a sucker with no self esteem.” Not to forget, the ultimate ’90s anthem, Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (1991), set the tone by declaring that “I am stupid and contagious.” Especially grunge, the “product of Generation X malaise” (Koskoff 359) that emerged in the 1990s as a sub-genre of punk and became emblematic for the entire era, was the expression of a youth that—contrary to what is suggested by the recent eulogies to the decade—was far from feeling like they won the lottery for the best time to be young. Quite the opposite, it conveyed the sense of being cast out into a deeply corrupted world that offered no perspective, with its lyrics typically revolving around social alienation, self-loathing, violence, death, and suicide.

This pessimistic sensibility also found expression in fashion. In a conspicuous departure from the neon-colored 1980s, the standard grunge look was deliberately scruffy and unkempt, featuring disheveled long hair, torn jeans, worn out T-shirts, and old flannel shirts—a style that could not be further removed from the frilly glamour of 1980s icons like Michael Jackson, Prince, and Madonna. Granted, the 1990s were also the decade of Britpop, the Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, and the Spice Girls, which were all representatives of a much sunnier disposition. But it is grunge that, more than any other cultural phenomenon, captured the mood of youth culture at the time and spilled into mainstream aesthetics. [2] Even the illustrious world of haute couture embraced heroin chic and kinderwhore styles in homage to the Seattle grunge scene, with torn clothes, unhealthily pallid complexions, and smeared makeup making an appearance on the runways of luxury designer labels.

A taste for the bleak also gained currency in literature and cinema as the grim literary visions of Bret Easton Ellis and Chuck Palahniuk reached a mass audience and were made into major Hollywood movies. Other landmark films such as Pulp Fiction (1994), Natural Born Killers (1994), Seven (1995), and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) likewise reflected an increased fascination with the dark side of human psychology. All this spoke to a collective affinity for the gloomy, nihilistic, and cynical. Interestingly enough, this tendency was by no means restricted to a rebellious and disgruntled youth. According to a sociological study conducted at Stanford University in 1998, the 1990s saw a manifest shift towards cynicism and disaffection in all age groups, making this a period rather than just a cohort effect (cf. Morin).


The Cultural Critique of a Deserted Generation

 So how can this glaring discrepancy between the retrospective view of the 1990s as “the good decade” (Coupland) and the angst-ridden contemporary perspective be explained? What psychological turmoil felt so acutely by many of those who lived through that time fails to be captured by all the auspicious outside markers in politics, economy, and art? In a nutshell, the answer is: the legacy of an unprecedented divorce wave. As Susan Gregory Thomas puts it:

It is a hard truism that each generation is shaped by its war. The Greatest Generation (1929-43) was forged by World War II; Baby Boomers (1944-64) were defined by Vietnam and the civil rights and antiwar movements. Generation X’s war […] was the ultimate war at home: divorce. (xvi)

Even as this comparison may strike some as hyperbolic, it is true that the childhoods of GenXers coincided with drastic sociocultural transformations. When Baby Boomers, instilled with the ideals of the “Consciousness Revolution,” entered adulthood, traditional notions of duty to society and family began giving way to the principles of expressive individualism. [3] Based on this new psychological metric, the main goal in one’s private life was no longer to create a stable home environment but to find maximum personal fulfillment. “Once the domain of the obligated self, the family was increasingly viewed as yet another domain for the expression of the unfettered self,” as Barbara Dafoe Whitehead describes this shifting cultural mindset (4-5).

Concomitantly, the concept of marriage as a stabilizing social institution was superseded by the expectation that it provide the main venue for self-realization, and sober notions of marital life as cooperation were replaced with the quasi-esoteric ideal of a union of soulmates “made for each other.” Compared to the more pragmatic traditional approach, such highly romantically charged pretensions to a partnership were more prone to being thwarted when the routine of married life set in. And while the propagation of the soulmate model changed the expectations of wedded life in general, other shifting sociocultural parameters had a particular impact on the situations of women: As a combined effect of the sexual revolution, the rising feminist discourse, and increased female participation in the work force, women were not only aspiring to a conjugal environment that would advance their quest for inner fulfillment but were also becoming more financially independent—and thus more likely to break free from unsatisfying marital situations. [4] Legislative changes such as the gradual abolishment of fault-based divorce since the late 1960s further facilitated the dissolution of soured marital bonds. [5] As a result, the number of divorces in the U.S. soared to a historic high in 1980:

From 1960 to 1980, the divorce rate more than doubled—from 9.2 divorces per 1,000 married women to 22.6 divorces per 1,000 married women. This meant that while less than 20% of couples who married in 1950 ended up divorced, about 50% of couples who married in 1970 did. And approximately half of the children born to married parents in the 1970s saw their parents part, compared to only about 11% of those born in the 1950s. (Wilcox)

And since up until the mid-1980s joint custody was provided by law only in nine U.S. states, a divorce often meant that the children’s relationship with one parent, most often the father, was either restricted or completely severed. Even where both parents were still involved, in many cases they were both working and had only little time to spend at home. With public childcare options also being limited at the time (cf. A. J. Cohen), GenXers became “the first to grow up without a large adult presence” (McCrindle 60). Thus experiencing the psychological revolution from a child’s perspective, they “had to grow up fast to survive in a world of parental self-immersion or even neglect” (Strauss and Howe, Generations 12).

In addition to coping with feelings of abandonment at home, in the public sphere youth was habitually exposed to what has been characterized as “an era of unremitting hostility toward children” (Strauss and Howe, Generations 98). With societal priorities shifting from an emphasis on the needs of the young to that of adults, mainstream America became increasingly prone to perceiving children as “barriers to adult self-discovery” (Strauss and Howe, Fourth Turning 195). In pop culture, this sensibility revealed itself in an unprecedented outpour of movies that portrayed children as demons, killers, or criminals. [6] In politics, it manifested in the funneling of government funding away from programs for children towards the needs of the elderly population. In the period from the mid-’60s throughout the early ’80s,

One of every four rental apartments banned children, a 50 percent increase over the Boomer child era. The homicide rate against children under age four more than doubled. Adults of fertile age doubled their rate of surgical sterilization. The number of legal abortions per year rose tenfold. Birth-control technology became a hot topic—as did the cost and bother of raising a child, seldom an issue when Boomers were small. Net tax rates for childless households remained steady, while rates for families with children rose sharply. The child poverty rate grew, while the poverty rate for those in midlife and elderhood fell. (Strauss and Howe, Generations 98)

The ubiquitous message of being insignificant and unwelcome had a strong impact on the mentality of 1990s youth. [7] And when it began addressing the ensuing emotions of inadequacy and isolation through artistic creation and public expression, it was often the breakdown of parents’ marriages that was identified as the main culprit. Divorce emerged as the original cultural sin, the ultimate evidence of parental egotism. Significantly, Kurt Cobain, the quintessential representative of GenX, brought up his parents’ divorce like a mantra in his public statements. By now, the tales of his unhappy small-town childhood have become thoroughly absorbed into rock ’n’ roll lore, with his hometown of Aberdeen, WA, as the epitome of American tristesse. In a series of interviews posthumously published in the documentary About a Son (2016), Cobain unequivocally points to his parents’ divorce as the incisive event that marked the beginning of his downward spiral. [8] He explains that “up until I was about ten years old I had an extremely happy childhood” [00:5:42–00:5:46]. Only after his parents separated was he sent reeling into an abyss of depression and self-destruction. Following his father’s departure from the family home and subsequent remarriage, Cobain felt “like one of the least things of importance on his list” [00:12:23—00:12:28]. As he goes on to stress, his personal situation was but one instance of what he even then perceived as a societal epidemic:

All these kids my age found themselves asking the question at the same time. Why the fuck are my parents getting divorced? What’s going on? All my other friends’ parents are getting divorces, too. Something’s not right. […] I mean, I remember all my friends asking that same question, like, seven years old. That’s a really unnecessary time to be asking that, you know. It was just a plague, like a total disease. [00:13:17–00:14:08]

Cobain’s story resonated so strongly for the very reason that it was representative of a broader cultural experience and at the same time provided a distinctly 1990s take on the classic image of the tortured artist. As a matter of fact, coming from a broken home became a vital part of entertainers’ appeal in the 1990s, a badge of authenticity when it came to speaking for an abandoned youth. Especially with regards to grunge, it is hard to think of any of its protagonists—whether it be Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, Chris Cornell of Soundgarden, Courtney Love of Hole, Billy Corgan of The Smashing Pumpkins, Scott Weiland of Stone Temple Pilots, or Layne Staley of Alice in Chains—who did not publicly elaborate on their difficult family backgrounds. The theme of childhood trauma was literally everywhere. For instance, Pearl Jam’s hit song “Jeremy,” released as a single in 1992, was inspired by the case of Jeremy Wade Delle, a high school student who shot himself in front of his English class in early 1991. The lyrics assigned this desperate act to the circumstance that “Daddy didn’t give attention, oh, to the fact that mommy didn’t care.” Likewise, Everclear’s 1997 release “Father of Mine” is a direct accusation for the irreversible psychological damage inflicted by an indifferent parent:

Father of mine / Tell me where have you been / I just closed my eyes / And the world disappeared / Father of mine / Tell me how do you sleep / With the children you abandoned / And the wife I saw you beat / I will never be safe / I will never be sane / I will always be weird inside / I will always be lame / Now I’m a grown man / With a child of my own / And I swear I’m not going to let her know / All the pain I have known.

The determination to break the cycle of parental abandonment and abuse expressed in the last lines became a central preoccupation of 1990s pop culture. For example, Cameron Crowe’s Singles (1992), a romantic comedy portraying a group of neighbors immersed in the Seattle grunge scene, shows twentysomethings trying to find love despite being stunted by commitment and self esteem issues. Living in an apartment block physically composed of single apartments, the main characters are also “alone together” psychologically as they all suffer from their own version of emotional scarring and insecurity. Steve, a young traffic department employee trying to innovate Seattle’s train system against conservative resistance from the Baby Boomer political establishment, traces his emotional baggage back to his childhood: “My dad left home when I was eight. Do you know what he said to me? Have fun, stay single. I was eight” [00:10:03-00:10:13]. And while his and the other singles’ quest for a fulfilling romantic relationship ultimately ends on a hopeful note, it is only after having worked through their respective interpersonal hang-ups and neuroses.

In an almost identical thematic setup, Ben Stiller’s film Reality Bites (1994) depicts the lives of four friends sharing an apartment in Houston, Texas. All of them battle with severe emotional adjustment problems caused by their parents’ dysfunctional relationships. Lelaina, an aspiring filmmaker, struggles to get her footing professionally while at the same time being burdened with mediating between her self-absorbed parents—including their respective new partners. This is how Lelaina remembers her teenage years:

My parents got divorced when I was fourteen. My Dad, he remarried six months after the divorce. […] My Mom threatened to kill herself in front of me. [My brother] Paddy got drunk in a closet every morning before junior high school. […] Somebody had to remember to take out the trash, to sign the report cards, buy the milk. So, um, that kinda ended up being me. [00:40:25–00:41:00]

As we go on to learn, her friends Troy and Vickie are likewise casualties of the detrimental role models provided by their parents. Troy, a prototypically unruly and cynical grunge musician, sums up his childhood by saying that, “My parents got divorced when I was five years old. And I saw my father about three times a year after that” [00:32:24–00:32:32]. To avoid any further emotional pain, he steers clear of any deeper attachments by limiting his love life to meaningless sexual encounters. Vickie, too, engages in self-destructive promiscuity and attributes her irresponsibility to being “conceived on an acid trip” by her hippie parents [00:32:16–00:32:23]. The central question of the movie is already put forward in the opening scene, showing Lelaina as the valedictorian of her class. “How can we repair all the damage we inherited?” she asks from the podium after having boldly rejected the materialistic and self-seeking mentality of the preceding generation—only to sheepishly admit that she has no answer.

There were many other cinematic productions that tackled similar problems as the 1990s saw a constant output of divorce-themed films. Some—like Husbands and Wives (1992), Mr. Wonderful (1993), and Waiting to Exhale (1995)—focused mainly on spousal loss. Others—like Man of the House (1995), Bye Bye Love (1995), One Fine Day (1996), Stepmom (1998), Hope Floats (1998), and The Parent Trap (1998)—put special emphasis on the impact of failed marriages on children. Tellingly, one of the decade’s most successful films, Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), is based on a children’s book about divorce. It tells the story of a father who goes to the lengths of dressing up as an elderly female housekeeper to be able to spend time with his children after the sudden breakdown of his marriage.

What is most striking about the treatment of divorce in these movies is that a large majority of them renders marital collapse as nothing more that a whim of the pathologically self-centered, a brutal and flippant act of abandonment coming seemingly out of nowhere. For instance, in Forest Whitaker’s Waiting to Exhale, we see heroine Bernadine putting the finishing touches to her make-up as she is about to leave for a dinner party with her husband. Just then, he walks into the room and casually announces that he is taking his secretary instead, nonchalantly adding that he is planning to divorce Bernadine. In Hope Floats, also directed by Forest Whitaker, unassuming housewife and mother Birdee learns of her husband’s affair with her best friend on a live talk show in front of the national TV audience. Her unfaithful spouse’s hasty exit from their young daughter’s life is punctuated by the brisk comment “I love you, princess. I gotta go” [01:44:00–01:44:02]. In James Orr’s Man of the House, six-year-old Ben watches his father drive away from the family home—again with secretary in tow—never to be seen or heard from again. “He said he loved me and my Mom, but he needed his own space,” Ben narrates. “He took his secretary along with him. He said he needed someone to answer his phone calls. He promised to come visit me from time to time, but he was never very good at keeping promises” [00:00:46–00:01:08].


Conservative Cravings of a Rebellious Youth

Thus, reckless and self-absorbed parents and suffering children proliferated in 1990s American pop culture. At worst, adults were depicted as raging egomaniacs who were either chronically absent or, arguably even worse, reversed roles by letting their young kids take care of them. At best, they were utterly confused about their priorities and needed the resolute intervention of their offspring to recalibrate unhealthily career-driven agendas in favor of more family-oriented lifestyles. Only seldom was there a more nuanced probing of the reasons why married couples may grow apart and decide to split up, possibly especially with the best interests of their children at heart. Such indiscriminate censuring of divorce as downright wrong all but excluded the angle that it can also be handled in a civil manner and that—despite the emotional stress almost inevitably involved—it may be preferable to exposing children to constant tension, strife, or even violence between incompatible spouses. Maybe somewhat surprisingly, one of the more discerning observations is offered in the closing remarks of the comedy Mrs. Doubtfire, when Daniel alias Mrs. Doubtfire gives advice to children who are having a hard time coping with their parents’ separation:

You know, some parents, when they’re angry, they get along much better when they don’t live together. They don’t fight all the time and they can become better people, and much better mommies and daddies for you. And sometimes they get back together. And sometimes they don’t, dear. And if they don’t, don’t blame yourself. Just because they don’t love each other anymore doesn’t mean that they don’t love you. There are all sorts of different families […]. But if there’s love, dear, those are the ties that bind. [01:59:32–02:00:38]

This emphasis on the actual quality of relationships as opposed to the fixation on the intactness of the institution of marriage itself, as cursory as it may be here, is more than most pop-cultural reflections on the topic managed to achieve in the 1990s. The vast majority of the commentary categorically demonized divorce as the root of all societal evil. This applies not only to artistic renderings but also to real-life discursive modes. A short interview segment from Nick Broomfield’s documentary Kurt and Courtney (1998) may serve as a symptomatic example here: when confronted about her history of physical violence and death threats towards journalists, Courtney Love pointed back to her divorced parents by way of rationalization. She explained that “when I was really young, you know, I didn’t know that, like… I was weird, I grew up with hippies, so I never knew that, like, you know, I was bugging anybody” [01:28:59-01:29:09]. Evidently, she takes for granted that what she refers to as her “very liberal” upbringing qualifies as a blanket excuse for any and all personal failings. Based on this oft-promoted notion, the relaxed approach of the Baby Boomer generation to familial relationships became something that had to be resisted, quite literally at all costs. This sentiment is explicitly expressed by Susan Gregory Thomas in her autobiographical reflection on Generation X, when she relates that her own painful experience as a child of divorce led her to vow that “[n]o marital scenario would ever become so bleak or hopeless as to compel me, even for a moment, to embed my children in the torture of my own split family” (xiv).

Such statements reveal a curiously myopic view of divorce. By singling it out as the actual act of transgression and sweepingly equating the termination of bankrupt marriages with parental neglect and irrevocably ruined family ties, the allegedly progressive period of the 1990s was dominated by a distinctly conservative and even reactionary narrative. As “staying together for the sake of the children” was once more affirmed to be the holy grail of parenthood, American discourses on marriage and family began harkening back to an era when keeping up outer appearances was ultimately all that mattered—no matter the actual quality of home life. To quote a line from Sam Weisman’s film Bye Bye Love, the simplistic maxim was “You got married, you got kids. Stay together, dammit!” [00:27:51–00:27:55].

Strikingly, it was especially youth counterculture that developed a curious love-hate relationship toward conservative middle-class tenets as epitomized by the white-picket-fence scenario. On the one hand, it professed to despise the phoniness and rigidity it represented. But at the same time, it kept spawning artistic works that spoke to an intense desire for the return to the very same traditional family values that the Baby Boomer generation had set out to dismantle. A revealing instance of this ambiguity can be encountered in Alex Proyas’ The Crow (1994), one of the cult movies of the decade. It tells the story of rock musician Eric Draven who returns from the dead equipped with supernatural powers and a mission to avenge his and his fiancé’s murder. Prior to his death, Eric had befriended a teenage girl named Sarah, who is presented as the ultimate latchkey kid. Neglected by her heroin-addicted single mother Darla and now also bereft of her father substitute Eric, she spends her days alone, riding her skateboard through the dark streets of the crime-ridden, drug-infested city. As it turns out, her mother’s current boyfriend Funboy is one of the assassins Eric is hunting. Using his superpowers, Eric kills Funboy, extracts the drugs from Darla’s body, and impresses on her the need to be a better mother by driving home to her that “mother is the name for God on the lips and hearts of all children, do you understand? […] Your daughter is out there on the streets waiting for you” [00:40:09-00:40:31]. The next morning, Sarah is surprised to find a visibly reformed and conspicuously upbeat Darla preparing breakfast. “So what did you take to become the mother of the year?” Sarah comments snarkily, repeatedly brushing off Darla’s inquiries of how she would prefer her morning eggs. Darla, obviously still feeling awkward in her new role, is quickly discouraged by her daughter’s sarcasm. “Oh forget it,” she gives in. “I never was too good at this mother shit.” Just when she is about to dump the fried eggs into the garbage, Sarah relents. “Over easy,” she interjects, then adding in a soft tone, “I like them over easy… Mom” [00:57:42–00:58:16]. What is telling here is that the end of a child’s life-long neglect is signaled not by a candid conversation, immediate withdrawal from a toxic environment, or even a heartfelt hug, but by Mom frying up eggs in the kitchen.

Thus, beneath the ample display of cynicism and antinomianism, the social critique put forward by 1990s youth culture was effectively traditionalist. True, the decade famously saw the spread of rebellious and independent images of femininity as represented by the Riot Grrrl and Girl Power movements. But, more often than not, behind the female bravado there was the pining for the good old days when women were still housewives and mothers. Incidentally, there is no shortage of misogynist undertones in the ostensibly feminist 1990s. In Fight Club, for instance, when the nameless protagonist and his new friend Tyler Durden—who later turns out to be his alter ego—share anecdotes about their adverse childhoods, they discover that both their fathers abandoned them when they were very young. In the light of this experience, Tyler dismisses the notion of any deeper emotional relationship with the other sex. “We are a generation of men raised by women,” he states. “I’m wondering if another woman is really the answer we need” [00:38:42–00:38:48]. To reclaim their masculinity, which is declared to be on the brink of extinction by the combined effects of female over-presence and soulless capitalism, the two men embark on an atavistic self-recovery project based on physical violence and terrorist attacks on corporate America. And while they attract an army of male followers from all across the country, women have no place in this emancipatory concept. The sole female protagonist Marla, a mixture of punk-rock femme fatale and fragile waif, mostly figures as a mere sexual distraction. However, what makes Fight Club stand out among the decade’s commentary on the struggles of GenX is that it offers a broader political critique of the oppressive mechanisms of a consumer-driven mass culture.

By contrast, youth-cultural musical expression in the 1990s, notwithstanding its continuously voiced anxieties over the moral deficiencies of society, adopted an essentially apolitical code as it retreated into the deeply personal. Its strong introspective ethos made it temperamentally loath to expand the reflections on private anguish into a more cohesive societal analysis. Even artists who tackled unmistakably political issues—Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name” (1992) comes to mind—did not attempt to connect their message to a mass-oriented activist agenda in the way that Bob Dylan, John Lennon, or Bob Geldof had done in previous decades. This shift of the counter-cultural focus from the public to the personal realm may be assigned to the circumstance that, in an atmosphere of relative political stability and optimism, personal distress did not readily translate into targeted criticism of institutions. To put it bluntly, 1990s youth had the luxury of fixating on their parents’ divorces because they were otherwise living “their entire lives in a time of relative peace and economic prosperity” (McCrindle 60). As a matter of fact, Kurt Cobain himself has suggested as much:

I’m a product of a fucking spoiled America, you know. When you think about how much worse my family life could be if I grew up in another country, you know, in a depression, or … or … so many worse things happen besides a divorce, you know. I’ve just been brooding and bellyaching about something that I couldn’t have, which is a family, a solid family unit, for too long, you know. [About a Son, 01:25:45—01:26:12]

Of course, psychological suffering is not only “valid” or “real” when experienced as a result of concrete external precarity. But in periods of economic and political prosperity people are generally more likely to move beyond raw material concerns and direct their attention to the subtler aspects of the inner life. While this has the potential to refine the cultural fabric of society, it simultaneously entails the danger that the intense focus on the personal eclipses less immediately perceived collective framework conditions. And that is exactly what happened in the 1990s, when a generation engrossed in the private agony over the emotional wounds of divorce all but failed to appreciate that politically their youth coincided with a time that would be the envy of succeeding age cohorts. This idiosyncratic blend of genuinely felt mental torment on the one hand and hubristic entitlement on the other is aptly captured in a key scene of Fight Club, when Tyler Durden formulates the basic predicament of his generation:

We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War, no Great Depression. Our great war is a spiritual war, our great depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires and movie gods and rock stars. But we won’t. We’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off. [01:07:48-01:08:21]

In other words, there is apparently not enough outer drama to give any deeper meaning to this generation’s existence.


The Cultural Resonance of Depoliticized Discourses on Divorce

From today’s perspective, as an upsurge in eco-anxiety and climate despair makes it hard for many young people to see any future at all, [9] such complaints seem markedly oversensitive, squarely falling under the category of what has come to be mockingly referred to as ‘first-world problems’. And yet, before one outright dismisses the social critique of the latchkey generation as nothing more than the squeamishness of a hedonistic, overindulged youth, it is important to stress that it represented a momentous cultural corrective. It was a powerful counterreaction to the societal trend initiated in the 1960s to deny the negative effects of familial disruption on children. By acknowledging children’s need for increased support in the aftermath of parental breakup and addressing problematic consequences of demographic transformations for the American family, 1990s popular culture brought the interests of the young back into the collective spotlight. Lately, it has even been suggested that the “permissively raised, universally deplored Generation X […] is the true ‘great generation’, for it has braved a hostile social climate to reverse the abysmal trends of their baby-boomer predecessors” (Males), which includes significant drops in violent crime, welfare dependency, and divorces. [10] In view of such positive developments, there is a triumphant sense that “GenX is proof, once and for all, that happy endings can come from sad beginnings” (Reddy).

And yet, when it comes to public negotiations of marriage, divorce, and parenthood, 1990s pop-cultural voices left a lot to be desired as they established a surprisingly one-dimensional discourse. Typically settling for finger-pointing at the personal defects of parents, they stopped short of a more comprehensive structural critique of social mechanisms. For example, there was surprisingly little consideration of how the mass exodus of fathers from children’s lives may not have been just a symptom of the character flaws of a horde of eternally self-searching males but at least partially also a product of a legal framework that failed to give men recourse to successfully claim custody and visitation rights. It was also rarely taken into account that working parents may not be constantly absent due to a fundamental lack of interest in their offspring but rather that they had no choice but to bow to the pressures of a sociopolitical format that made it extremely difficult to balance their families’ financial and emotional needs. It had especially little sympathy for the challenges faced by women as they were fighting to break free from the confines of their passive traditional roles. Having finally secured the legal right to leave unhappy or abusive marriages, they received little societal support when faced with the double responsibility of being mothers and sole providers at the same time. Not least, the stigmatizing of the aspiration to self-realization as a mark of the unabashedly egotistic implicitly dismissed core liberal values in general and women’s hard-earned new freedoms in particular. This reflex to simply snap back to an allegedly better past did little to collectively negotiate and devise workable solutions for a future in which parents, and particularly mothers, could aspire to affectionate marriages and personally rewarding lives instead of just functioning as diligent producers of social capital.

In sum, the shortcomings of 1990s pop-cultural criticism of divorce can be ascribed to the fact that, in championing the interests of children, it typically also took an infantile perspective. As a representative example, Michael Hoffman’s One Fine Day shows the endlessly stressed, recently divorced career woman Melanie having an epiphany during an important business meeting. She spontaneously erupts into an emotional speech to her clients:

I have a child and he has a soccer game in twenty minutes. If he’s late he doesn’t get the trophy, and because I’m in here with you he’s probably going to be late. […] Gentlemen, […] I’m going to ditch you right now and I’m going to run like hell across town so that my kid knows that what matters to me most is him. [01:22:45-01:23:17]

In the Hollywood fantasy, this impromptu cancellation earns her increased sympathy from her business partners, and she is kept on the job despite having just endangered the entire project. However, in the reality of professional life such a positive response would not be very likely. Meanwhile, it also remains entirely unclear how Melanie was planning to materially provide for her son had she been fired as expected. Such naïve storylines did little to generate practical insights into the correlations between personal and societal challenges and revealed alarmingly simplistic assumptions about what it takes to heal parent-child relationships in real-life America.

Today, we are looking back to the 1990s from the vantage point of a very different pop-cultural universe. In a mindset that would have felt entirely alien in the 1990s, the concept of a “blended family” has become a positively connoted term, signaling a new acceptance of the fluidity of familial circumstances. At the same time, cultural criticism has shifted back from the private to a collective scope. Characteristically, one of the most prominent countercultural voices at this point is Greta Thunberg, a teenage political activist mobilizing global youth to fight against rampant capitalism and looming environmental catastrophe. Much has changed indeed since the main spokesman of GenX, Kurt Cobain, broodingly sang about his desolate state of mind in a lonely refuge underneath a bridge.

And yet, throughout all these new developments, the legacy of the 1990s divorce discourse still lingers. Interestingly, it continues to resonate in two diametrically opposed ways. On the one hand, it is oddly discounted in the escapist reveries of the current retro craze; from today’s sentimental celebration of the last millennium’s final decade one would certainly not guess how gloomy its mood really was. Perhaps, for a new generation coming of age in a period of hyper-capitalism, rising nationalism, increasing military conflict, and severe ecological crisis, the idea of divorce as the main source of collective hardship seems counterintuitive or even decadent—and is therefore tacitly ignored as the past is mined for usable cultural material. However, on the other hand, the formulas inherited from two decades ago are unmitigatedly reiterated. Revealingly, this occurs almost exclusively with reference to 1990s celebrities, even though childhood drama and parental abandonment are certainly not exclusive to this time. As a case in point, Casey Chalk recently wrote:

Scott Weiland, the lead singer of the nineties grunge rock band Stone Temple Pilots, died in early December [of 2015]. His off-and-on crack addiction—something that had plagued him for decades—appears to have been the immediate cause. Yet a more hidden factor also bears some responsibility and is also indirectly responsible for grunge rock’s mainstream popularity. […] I am speaking of divorce.

Such mechanical echoings of unsophisticated attitudes towards divorce are conceptually inhibiting because they tend to reduce complex societal and psychological issues—in this case drug addiction and mental health—to a single token parameter without any further scrutiny or qualification. Therefore, the identification and critical evaluation of this distinctly 1990s cultural narrative is not only crucial when it comes to restoring a more accurate historical perspective on the decade in the midst of a nostalgically blurred cultural revival but also with a view to resisting the uncritical perpetuation of limited and superficial collective models of selfhood, parenthood, and social responsibility.



[1] The convention of referring to decades as measuring units for cultural shifts is obviously not calendrically exact. As for the 1990s, they are usually considered to be the period between the pivotal moments of the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, and the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. The same principle of definitional fuzziness also applies to the sociological discourse on generations. Herein, I refer to generational cohorts based on the guidelines recently redefined by the Pew Research Center, with Baby Boomers as the age group born between 1946-1964, Generation X between 1965-1980, and Millennials between 1981-1996 (cf. Dimock).

[2] Hip-hop is the other cultural formation that had its commercial breakthrough in the early 1990s. But while it strongly shaped the decade, its “Golden Age” is more frequently associated with the late 1980s.

[3] In the survey The Inner American, published in 1981, Veroff et al. compared American attitudes towards happiness in 1957 and 1976. What they discovered was a “a generational shift […] from uncertainties about physical well-being to uncertainty about more psychological aspects of our lives,” with women especially being “more negative than men in assessments of their well-being” (101).

[4] Interestingly, this did not necessarily translate into diminished investment into the institution of marriage itself. As a 1992 study by the U.S. Bureau of the Census found, “[r]emarriage in the United States has become a relatively common life course event,” with “more than 4 out of 10 marriages in the United States involv[ing] a second or higher-order marriage for the bride, the groom, or both” (5). As the study also made a point of stressing, this gave rise to concomitant “challenges brought on by the complexities associated with living in blended and/or stepfamily situations” (6).

[5] California was the first U.S. state to introduce no-fault divorce in 1970 under Governor Ronald Reagan, by then himself divorced from his first wife Jane Wyman and the first divorcé to ever become U.S. President. Many other federal states followed suit within a decade. As of 2010, all states allow for no-fault divorce.

[6] Strauss and Howe have observed in Generations that “[n]ever in the age of cinema have producers and audiences obsessed over such a thoroughly distressing image of childhood” (97), with juvenile demons and murderers populating the American screen in such movies as The Exorcist (1973), Exorcist II (1977), Damien (1976), Omen (1976), Omen II (1978), Omen III (1981), It’s Alive! (1974), It Lives Again (1978), or Carrie (1976).

[7] Thomas even suggests that the strong appeal of Star Wars to GenX was based on the fact that “Luke Skywalker […] was one of us: the ultimate latchkey kid. He was on his own a lot; he had to handle a bunch of adult responsibilities so the household could function. Then: kaboom! His family was destroyed, charred beyond recognition. The mother and father figures were recast instantly, violently. The Oedipal mother figure was now a smart career woman on a serious mission, with no time for crybabies […]. Han Solo was Mom’s cool boyfriend, with his fast, junky-looking bachelor ride; Darth Vader, the terrifying half-human, half-robot Dad, hell-bent on either getting you on his side or destroying you. Star Wars might be the epic custody battle of all time” (28).

[8] The choice of the title in itself is telling. While alluding to the Nirvana song “About a Girl,” it at the same time establishes the relationship to his parents, or lack thereof, as a pivotal aspect of Cobain’s identity as an artist.

[9] A growing number of sociological studies is registering the rise of a defeatist and even nihilist collective attitude. Two notable publications addressing the psychological impact of climate change are Renee Lertzman’s Environmental Melancholia (2015) and David Wallace-Wells’ The Uninhabitable Earth (2019).

[10] However, while divorce rates are decreasing as “the most divorce-prone cohort, those born in the Baby Boom, [age] out of their peak divorce years” (P. N. Cohen 1), this drop is also due to the fact that younger cohorts are less likely to get married in the first place. Accordingly, the dissolution of their cohabiting unions is simply less visible statistically (see Kennedy and Ruggles). Overall, U.S. society seems to be “progressing toward a system in which marriage is rarer and more stable than it was in the past” (P. N. Cohen 1).


Works Cited

Andersen, Kurt. “The Best Decade Ever? The 1990s, Obviously.” The New York Times, 8 Feb. 2015,

Chalk, Casey. “How Divorce Killed Scott Weiland (And Made Grunge Rock).” Ethika Politika, 21 Jan. 2016,

Cohen, Abby J. “A Brief History of Federal Financing for Child Care in the United States.” The Future of Children, Summer/Fall 1996, pp. 26-40.

Cohen, Philip N. “The Coming Divorce Decline.” Socius, vol. 5, 2019, pp. 1-6, doi:10.1177/2378023119873497.

Coupland, Douglas. “1990s: The Good Decade.” History, 23 Apr. 2019,

Dimock, Michael. “Defining generations: Where Millennials end and Generation Z begins.” Pew Research Center, 17 Jan. 2019,

Kennedy, Sheela, and Steven Ruggles. “Breaking up Is Hard to Count: The Rise of Divorce in the United States, 1980–2010.” Demography, vol. 51, no. 2, 2014, pp. 587–98.

Koskoff, Ellen, editor. Music Cultures in the United States. Routledge, 2005.

Males, Mike. “The True ‘Great Generation’.” Los Angeles Times, 26 Aug. 2001,

McCrindle, Mark. The ABC of XYZ: Understanding the Global Generations. U of New South Wales P, 2009.

Morin, Richard. “Nobody’s Happy.” The Washington Post, 31 Aug. 1998,

Power, Ed. “Back to the Future: Why the 90s is seeing such a revival.” Irish Examiner, 2 Mar. 2019,

Reddy, Patrick. “Generation X Reconsidered: ‘Slackers’ No More, Today’s Young Adults Have Fought Wars Fiercely, Reversed Unfortunate Social Trends and Are Proving Themselves to Be Another ‘Great Generation’.” The Buffalo News, 10 Feb. 2002,

Shapiro, Joseph P. “Just fix it!” U.S. News & World Report, 22 Feb. 1993, pp. 50-56.

Sheffield, Rob. “Why 2018 Was a Year of Nineties Obsessions: What’s behind our obsessive love affair with the last decade of the 20th Century?” Rolling Stone Magazine, 14 Dec. 2018,

Strauss, William, and Neil Howe. Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069. Quill, 1991.

Strauss, William, and Neil Howe. The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy. Broadway Books, 1997.

Thomas, Susan Gregory. In Spite of Everything. A Memoir. Random House, 2011.

U.S. Bureau of the Census. Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage in the 1990’s. U.S. Government Printing Office, 1992,

Veroff, Joseph, et al., The Inner American: A Self-Portrait from 1957 to 1976. Basic Books, 1981.

Whitehead, Barbara Dafoe. The Divorce Culture: Rethinking Our Commitments to Marriage and Family. Vintage, 1998.

Wilcox, W. Bradford “The Evolution of Divorce.” National Affairs, Fall 2009,


Film Sources

About a Son. Directed by A.J. Schnack, Balcony Releasing, USA, 2016.

Bye Bye Love. Directed by Sam Weisman, 20th Century Fox, USA, 1995.

The Crow. Directed by Alex Proyas, Miramax Films, USA, 1994.

Fight Club. Directed by David Fincher, 20th Century Fox, USA, 1999.

Hope Floats. Directed by Forest Whitaker, 20th Century Fox, USA, 1998.

Kurt and Courtney. Directed by Nick Broomfield, Capitol Films, UK, 1998.

Man of the House. Directed by James Orr, Buena Vista Pictures, USA, 1995.

Mrs. Doubtfire. Directed by Chris Columbus, 20th Century Fox, USA, 1993.

One Fine Day. Directed by Michael Hoffman, 20th Century Fox, USA, 1996.

Reality Bites. Directed by Ben Stiller, Universal Pictures, USA, 1994.

Singles. Directed by Cameron Crowe, Warner Bros, USA, 1992.


Music Sources

Beck. “Loser.” Mellow Gold, DGC, 1994.

Everclear. “Father of Mine.” So Much for the Afterglow, Capitol, 1997.

Nirvana. “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Nevermind, DGC, 1991.

The Offspring. “Self Esteem.” Smash, Epitaph, 1994.

Pearl Jam. “Jeremy.” Ten, Epic, 1991.


Image credit: “Divorce bargain” from banjo d, via flickr, is licensed under CC BY 2.0.