(Or how “Little Fires Everywhere” explores the dark side of an oft idealised decade.)
by Isabelle Bousquette
Only ’90s kids remember Rachel Green rocking high waisted jeans, or watching movies on VHS and fast forwarding through the piracy warning, or Britney Spears being iconic for all the right reasons, or wondering what the Spice Girls meant when they said “zigazig ah.” Chokers, frosted tips, and James Van Der Beek’s crying face. Only ’90s kids remember a decade so great, they invented a catchphrase to assert their superiority over non-’90s kids. The music was good, the fashion was bad, the TV was cheesy and for some reason it was all perfect. At least, that’s the way we remember it.
And the more we remember, the more we idealise. Even in 2020, hindsight is anything but. The 90s have taken on an indelible sheen of nostalgia.
So we’ve started wearing high waisted jeans again. We’ve prayed for a reunion between Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston. And we’ve rebooted our favourite 90s TV shows, like Will & Grace and Full House. In a sense, we’ve rebooted a whole moment in time. It’s a moment we remember through boyband songs and syndicated sitcoms. But nostalgia often distills clarity, and it’s taken a show like Little Fires Everywhere to remind us of that.
Little Fires Everywhere is an eight-episode miniseries based on the book by Celeste Ng. It is set in the late ’90s in suburban Ohio. The story centers around two women: Elena Richardson, portrayed by Reese Witherspoon, an upper-middle class housewife who prides herself on progressive ideals and Mia Warren, portrayed by Kerry Washington, a struggling artist and single mother. The tension between these women grows and shifts as friendships burgeon between their children and the disconnect between their lifestyles becomes more evident. The result is a story that explores the racism and classism hiding under the glossy sheen of the ’90s.
Elena Richardson and her family represent a portrait of the ’90s that verges on satirical. Nevertheless, it is a portrait that fully embraces the complicated issues surrounding race and politics during that decade. Elena wears her progressive politics like a badge of honour. She goes out of her way to call out racist policies and ensures that she uses “African-American” instead of “Black.” She wants to help those less fortunate. A limousine liberal of the highest order, she sees herself as someone positioned to help “fix” racism: a prototypical White saviour. Elena’s character is perfectly captured by Reese Witherspoon, who earned acclaim for a similar role in Big Little Lies. She is warm and likeable and careless and rude all at the same time. And her condescending lipstick smile probably deserves its own Emmy nomination.
Elena’s family becomes a snapshot of Clinton-era liberalism in America. It’s a time when people feel like they’ve conquered the problem of racism. In 1997, the President created the “One America Initiative,” an effort to encourage community dialogue about race and ethnicity. He said he wanted the panel to “Educate Americans about the facts surrounding issues of race, to promote a dialogue in every community of the land to confront and work through these issues.” Too often, steps like this were seen as an all-out cure rather than an attempt at treatment. It was all too easy to interpret the President’s initiative to start talking about race more as the very reason why we probably didn’t need to be talking about race at all. In one memorable scene from the book, Elena’s daughter Lexie expounds, “We’re lucky. No one sees race here.” Her boyfriend, Brian, is Black. Often she uses her interracial relationship as a form of liberal currency. She says, “No one gives a crap that I’m White and he’s black.”
Ironically, that optimism becomes the dark side of ’90s liberalism. Believing that racism is over is a powerful enforcer of racism. It allows people to ignore the fact that the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing was carried out by a White supremacist. It allows people to disregard the blatant racial subtext of the 1992 Los Angeles Riots. It allows privileged White teenagers, like Lexie Richardson, to congratulate herself on not seeing race. At the same time it diminishes the experience of Black people, like Mia Warren, who are still facing racism.
The book does an excellent job of subliminally casting 1990s politics into the background of a plot that mostly revolves around nuclear families. In one scene, Elena reads a newspaper headline about the new Clinton budget. Teenagers make sexual jokes about the Monica Lewinsky affair. Bored suburbanites wonder what the President will name his new dog. It’s never overwhelming, but it’s constant subtext.
It’s hard to set a book in the 1990s because without the fashion visuals or musical soundbites, technology, dialect and lifestyle haven’t changed that much. However, Ng is meticulous about the details. So with Clinton headlines and Spice Girls Halloween costumes, she breathes a specific ’90s atmosphere into a plot that isn’t always political.The TV adaptation has an easier job of capturing that atmosphere. It does so with haircuts and outfits and songs. One scene includes Ellen DeGeneres’ famous “Yep, I’m Gay” cover of Time Magazine. However, so far, the TV version has been softer than the book in explicit Clinton references. Elena, in her part-time job as a journalist, talks about having interviewed Attorney General Janet Reno. Yet, the President himself has so far been absent. Perhaps that’s because the TV show doesn’t need to rely on explicit Clinton references in order to visibly situate itself within the 90s. Perhaps it’s because the name “Clinton” carries so much baggage in 2020, and a lot of it isn’t relevant to the 1990s. But Clinton or not, the TV adaptation ultimately succeeds in delving into both family and racial politics. It primarily does so through exploring the contrast between the Richardsons and the Warrens.
The four Richardson children are the spunky, occasionally rebellious, yet good-hearted teenagers we saw on TV all throughout the ’90s. They’re Boy Meets World meets Dawson’s Creek meets 90210 (the original). But they have an extra layer where the viewer is painfully conscious of their privilege and their politics.
That layer comes from the fact that they’re contrasted with Mia Warren’s daughter, Pearl. Mia and Pearl Warren are characters we haven’t seen on our favourite ’90s TV shows: a Black single mom who’s not ashamed to put her career as an artist ahead of family stability and a daughter, idealising a comfortable middle-class life that she’s never been able to achieve. Kerry Washington plays her character with grit and strength. Her delivery of the line, “You didn’t make good choices! You had good choices,” is unforgettably haunting. The sharp divide between the Richardsons and the Warrens fuels the show’s power. It’s a recasting of the glamorised ’90s with characters who were, then, left behind. It’s a version of the ’90s that was lived, but not filmed, set to music and syndicated — and, because of that, a version that was forgotten.
The press team in charge of promoting Little Fires Everywhere undoubtedly banked off the 2020 fondness for ’90s nostalgia. Reese Witherspoon shared pictures of herself reading a magazine from the ’90s (she happened to be on the cover), writing, “Traveling back to the ’90s for Little Fires Everywhere required lots of research.” Kerry Washington posted a “90s #tbt in honor of Little Fires Everywhere,” adding, “I loved going back to the ‘90’s so much, I created a ’90’s House Party playlist.” The show has also gleaned praise for its soundtrack of beloved 90s hits.
While the show embraces that nostalgia from a marketing perspective, the primary purpose of the narrative lies in breaking down nostalgia — in laying bare the dark dated realities of the decade. It’s not the Friends reunion special. It’s not the Full House reboot. It is a clearer look, a 2020 look, at a time we thought was defined by Rachel Green’s haircut. And it turns out that time was as much defined by racial tensions and classism as it was by the song “I Want It That Way.”
So, while there may be a lot that only 90s kids remember, there’s also a lot that they seem to forget.
“Little Fires Everywhere” is streaming now on Hulu.