Sometimes I remember the clunky gadgets of my youth – the boxy Polaroid cameras, the brick-like car phones, the high-pitched answering machines, the pagers that could be tricked into spelling angular all-caps “BOOBS”. This was personal technology from the early to mid 1990s, the years before AOL Instant Messenger provided an internet ramp, meaning it was pretty much the last time an American teenager could behave with any expectation of privacy .
Back then there were camcorders, and Punky Brewster child star Soleil Moon Frye rarely turned hers off. Her endless home videos, as well as related ephemera: diaries, voicemail messages, and are revisited in “Kid 90,” a documentary about Hulu, an adult, well-groomed Moon Frye shot in an all-white room usually associated with near-death experiences Photos. If you’re a young Gen Xer or an old millennial, Kid 90 may offer the eerie and unwelcome experience of your childhood coming back to you – the syntax, the celebrities, the fashions that haven’t returned (the back baseball cap who have favourited the vest as a bustier). Revisiting your youth culture when your own youth has largely fled is an exercise of alienation and mild humiliation, like meeting your therapist at Victoria’s Secret.
Before I hit play, I asked an editor how many drinks I might need to go through the documentary. “A 40 of Mickey’s malt liqueur,” she wrote.
The early 1990s also reappear in “The Real World Homecoming: New York,” a Paramount + show that reunites the cast from the first season of MTV’s scriptless flagship series. Seven people, no longer strangers, return to the New York loft (one is masked by a positive Covid-19 test), where their teenage and 20-year-old lives were recorded for a few months in 1992. It wasn’t the first reality show, but its wild popularity and subsequent franchise profoundly influenced what came after. “We didn’t know what it was going to be,” says journalist and activist Kevin Powell, one of the original roommates, in the first episode of “Homecoming”. “We were just ourselves.”
Seeing the series and the documentary is helplessly expanding on what has (or has not) changed in the last 30 years. It can be seen that Moon Frye, by gleefully monitoring their own lives, and these first real worlders, by agreeing to the constant presence of producers and cameras, were the harbingers of today’s culture in which the self-image is formed in anticipation of one will lens and personality combine with the brand identity.
Moon Frye seems to have known every other child star in Los Angeles and its suburbs: Sara Gilbert, Emmanuel Lewis, Brian Austin Green, Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Joey Lawrence, Jenny Lewis (hilarious), and at least a dozen others. These were kids who were valued less for who they were and more for the fandom and ads they could generate, the tickets they could sell. Today it might be anyone with an Instagram account.
“Kid 90” also reminds us that until recently, the stupid things teenagers wore and the stupid things they did and said had no afterlife because there were few ways to take them in and still do fewer opportunities to distribute these recordings. A critical aspect of adolescence is performance – trying on different outfits and identities – and checking to see if they feel okay. (The comedy of adolescence is that it is practiced for adulthood. The tragedy is that adolescents practice one another.)
I was a teenager in the ’90s, and I’m inexpressibly grateful to my own shaming – lines like, “I’m not a feminist, I’m really more of a humanist” and a grunge-adjoining look that my high school beast still calls the Lumberjack sex pot – just stay on the bluff roll in my head. Why should you involve the internet until young adults have reasonable self-esteem (and style)?
The children in “Kid 90” are filmed in their free time: by the pool, at house parties, high on mushrooms in a field somewhere. They sometimes appear in front of the camera – winking, papal, blinking a pack of cigarettes they are not allowed to say – but they are confident almost no one will ever see them. “We never thought, ‘Oh, well, she’s going to use this in a way that will come back and haunt us,'” Gosselaar says in the documentary.
As early as 1992, these participants knew from the “real world” that MTV would eventually broadcast the footage, but not how the footage would be organized. Little did they know that the producers would invent a plot for Julie Gentry and Eric Nies, or that Kevin Powell would be edited to look like a “politically angry black,” he said in a recent interview. “We all thought it was a documentary about seven artists,” says Rebecca Blasband in “Homecoming”. Unless she and her loft mates acted naturally, it seems they may not have spent the series building a marketable brand.
The producers and editors made the building for them and gave everyone a type (naive, himbo, rockgott, firebrand) that the actors then tried to live – or to live – for years. “I had this notoriety, but I had no idea how to use it,” says Gentry in “Homecoming”.
Moon Frye also seems to be struggling with her image and the way the industry treated her as her body started deviating from punkys. In one excruciating part of the documentary, she talks about going through puberty, developing breasts, and being seen only for bimbo-esque roles at age 13 and 14. Her peers called her punky boobsters.
“It’s hard when you have breasts and you can’t work in this business,” says a teenager Moon Frye. “I just want people to see me for who I am.” Here’s a thought: what if business is the problem, and not children’s bodies?
She wanted serious roles so she had to undergo a breast reduction when she was 15. But the serious roles never came. After years in the entertainment wilderness, she is now starring in a reboot of “Punky Brewster,” which is now streamed on Peacock. “Kid 90” presents this comeback as a chirpy capstone, but it feels darker. The documentary pays tribute to a number of friends who didn’t make it into their 1940s (including Jonathan Brandis and Justin Pierce, a star in “Kids”) and mentions the addictions of those who suffered from it. Part of that pain must have originated in the space between what the industry (and fans) told these actors to be and who they feel like. Maybe Moon Frye is punky again because “the business” wouldn’t turn her into someone else.
I wasn’t convincing so many people as a teenager – a rebel, a cultivated, a drama nerd, a doer, a witch. I could try on a persona for size and then tag it back. Back then there was no social media and no one wanted me on a reality series, so I never had to curate a self before I had one. But I did stupid things out of love. What kind of likes would I have done? What would that have done to me?
Like Moon Frye and many other emotionally and poetic girls, I kept diaries as a teenager. I never went back and read them. Why? I am afraid that I will be ashamed of my younger self or that she will be embarrassed to make me bored. But I hope we understand each other. And then we could take a kiss-faced selfie together, filter it, facet it, post it with a cute caption and watch the little hearts roll.