Internet, we need to talk about the ’90s. And sex. But one of these is an addiction that is spiraling out of control, and the other one is sex.
We have a serious problem. I say this with love.
“The To Do List,” a new movie by Maggie Carey and starring Aubrey Plaza, brought this home. It’s a mature comic romp, both in the sense of mature that implies “we will have a very serious discussion later with our copies of Steinem open to the correct page, and we will not giggle at the mention of boobies because those could well be endangered birds,” and also the giggling, titillating sense that “for mature audiences” usually implies. It doesn’t have a problem with sex. What it has a problem with is the 90s.
The same thing is true of the Internet. “The Internet is for porn,” sang Avenue Q, and, yes, it is, but it is also for Lists of Things We Loved About the ’90s and for Answering Your Mortifying Questions. Before the Internet, as “The To Do List” makes it its business to point out, you had to go to embarrassing extremes to find out what that innocent-sounding term referred to. You had to actually sit down with your parents and listen to them talk about sex. Now, thank the Maker, or Al Gore, or whoever it is, there’s Google for that. You want to know what a lemon festival is, you Google, you scar yourself for life maybe, but at least you don’t have to see the look on Uncle Elmer’s face when you inquire.
“The To Do List” is all about the awkward moment of inquiry. Its protagonist, Brandy Clark, that uptight, list-making, AP-taking go-getter everyone went to high school with, decides to apply herself to sex with the same single-minded dedication she’s used for AP Chemistry. She makes a to-do list of sex acts — in a time before Google, when you actually had to ask a live human or read a physical magazine if you wanted to know what THAT was. It’s the kind of coming-of-age story — exploration without judgment — usually reserved for guys. It deals maturely with its themes, boldly straddles the stud-slut double standard and for the most part succeeds, often hilariously.
The sex part is interesting, of course, and more on that in a moment. But more pressingly, it’s about the ’90s. The protagonist doesn’t just idolize Hillary Clinton. She idolizes ’90s Hillary. It’s a running gag.
As someone who only remembers half of the nineties — I was, on average, seven, for crying out loud — and not the “good half” (to me, ’93 was most noteworthy because my kindergarten friend Doug accidentally knocked a block tower onto my head and I had to carry a note from the school nurse explaining that I was not being abused in case people at the grocery store became concerned*), I am playing a game of constant catch-up in order to feel like a Full Internet Citizen. I didn’t realize that lacking cable during my formative years would mean that I would feel like a stranger in my own generational land. And yet, wherever I click, there’s a List Of Things About The ’90s that all my friends are sharing around.
*I am not making this up
In fact, the whole movie is a list about the nineties. It’s a list about sex and the ’90s. This should be the Internet’s dream. If you can make a movie this funny out of a list about the ’90s, then Buzzfeed should open a studio.
It’s good, but it’s also makes you ponder the Internet creed that the ’90s was the last time we all had unironic fun together and wore plaid and listened to Nirvana — Remember How Much Fun We Had?
The ’90s were the last inconvenience we are allowed to be nostalgic for. Street Fighter was the best video game! Aww! We had land-line phones and sometimes our siblings listened to our calls! Awww! We had physical notebooks and metallic pens! Awwww. We had to rewind things! If we wanted to watch movies, we had to carry a physical tape from one location to another and place it into a specific device! Awwww. From 2002 (I have arbitrarily selected this date) or so, onward, nostalgia dried up pretty rapidly. Your old phone? Spurn it. Forget it. Purge it from your memory. Your RAZR? Ugh, you couldn’t do anything on it. Your dial-up? There are the faintest, dimmest stirrings of nostalgia for dial-up, but if you really remember it, it is hard to feel anything but a shiver of loathing for the TCHARRR-ONK TCHAARR ONK SCREE KSSS-KSSSSHHH-SSHHHHHHH.
We visit the ’90s the way people who take summer trips to make a difference visit the real world. “Awww,” you say, from the safety of the van, “I love it here.”
The whole credits of “To Do List” are a sequence designed to evoke Maximum Nineties Nostalgia. There’s a cassette tape! There’s a scrunchie! There’s an old computer! There’s WhiteOut! There’s that weird perforated computer paper! There’s a TI-83!
The audience at the screening I attended made noises of nostalgic recognition. “Oh!!” Oh yeah!” “Oh, I had one of those.” There’s Nirvana! It’s not the “Yeeergh” of more recent technology. It’s “Hey, a pager! Maaaaaan, I remember those.”
It’s like high school. Your mind has a way of enhancing all the colors in retrospect. It was much sexier and funnier and cooler than you remember. It’s like turning on the TV and seeing a film in color that you swore was black and white. “I don’t think it was even that colorful then,” you say. No, it wasn’t, but memory’s better than 3D.
We don’t want the ’90s back, but we love them anyway. They were when we didn’t know what else was out there. We didn’t know what we were in for. It’s like your first love.
Which brings me to the other subject of this film: sex.
For once, the quest of a main character to Do Some Stunt Sex Thing feels authentic. We all knew a Brandy – the go-getter nobody liked, who knew the point value of everything and the value of nothing. Too self-aware to be full-bore nerd, in spite of her rapid-fire command of facts, too pretty and self-possessed to bounce obliviously through high school without a whiff of the dating scene, you can actually see her making a spreadsheet list of sex acts and setting to work. Her friends are supportive in the way friends always are supportive of your most ill-advised decisions because they know they have dibs on the story.
Watch the film one way and it’s about what I like to call chess failures. You know the ones I mean: You want to take your opponent’s knight because the knight is there and your queen is there, and you aren’t thinking more than one move ahead, or it would occur to you that taking the knight will jeopardize your friendship with the knight’s ex-girlfriend and complicate things in your life you would rather not complicate and might lose you the king in the long run.
But how bad are these decisions? The film toys with a number of answers to this question, although it pushes you towards one at the end. It’s like “Superbad” but with Steinem quotations.
At one point its characters discuss the virgin-whore dichotomy. “I know which one of those sounds more fun,” says the protagonist’s friend Fiona, played by Alia Shawkat. “The whore,” clarifies Wendy, played by Sarah Steele.
But later in the same movie, Fiona turns around and calls Brandy a slut — for behavior she’s been encouraging up until the point it crosses into messing-with-friendship territory.
Where are the lines you don’t cross? (See the movie for a humorous “house rule” on this topic.) Does a woman need a man like a fish needs a bicycle? When does the double standard kick in, if ever?
How much does sex matter? A lesser film would have stalled Brandy prudishly somewhere in the middle of the list, or denied her the conclusion. It would have insisted that true love is all that counts and shoved her towards the Nice Guy. But it rejects this. As Cynthia Heimel wrote, “Sex is not some reverent, pristine ritual. You want reverent and pristine, go to church.” This film is not reverent or pristine.
If my grandparents saw this movie, they would call it “everything that’s wrong with movies today.” By making a big deal about sex, it makes the case that it’s not a big deal — and that maybe it’s a bigger deal than you thought.
“Teenagers don’t regret anything,” Brandy says at one point. “Save that for your 30s.” Now if only we could get over the ’90s, too.