nostalgia

Why 1999 Was a Great Year for Women

1999 was 20 years ago.

It’s a fact that boggles my mind, yet here we are: nearly two decades out from the turn of the century. So much has changed, yet others stay the same, like my shortlist of favorite films.

20 years ago, on March 31, 1999, two of the best movies of all time were released on the same day and my world changed forever. I was 17 when The Matrix and 10 Things I Hate About You came out: a high school junior, smack-dab in the middle of the Xennial generation and the target audience for both films.

Although The Matrix and 10 Things represent two different genres (the former a brooding, cerebral action flick; the latter a teenage romantic comedy), what they have in common is what makes them the genre-defining movies they are: a highly stylized look and feel, and feminist characters that changed the way women are portrayed in film.

For the uninitiated, 10 Things I Hate About You is a modern-day adaptation of Shakespeare’s ‘The Taming of the Shrew’, centering around a group of high schoolers in Seattle. The protagonist, Kat Stratford (Julia Stiles), is sharp and unforgiving; an indomitable force of fierce, feminist energy that I had never seen before this movie. Her character sits in sharp contrast to her sister, Bianca (Larisa Oleynik), a teenage princess whose primary interests involve looking cute, attracting boys, and being popular.

When 10 Things was released, I was the same age as these characters, but their reality felt elevated to me. Because 10 Things is adapted Shakespeare, extra care was paid to the words the characters use with one another and how they interact. My 17-year-old self desperately wanted to live in their world, combining Kat’s chutzpah with Bianca’s late ‘90s wardrobe. Kat Stratford, a high school senior, has her sights set on attending Sarah Lawrence and immerses herself in feminist literature and listens to the woman-fronted riot-grrrl bands of the day. As a teen in Boise, Idaho, I had never seen a character quite like her, in real life or on film.

The Matrix’s Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) was a physical force: bursting through the film’s opening scene, blowing audiences’ minds and cementing her reputation as a female action hero. I very clearly remember being influenced by her futuristic look: the slicked-back short haircut (early inspo for my current ‘do!) and head-to-toe black pleather (the ‘90s were a strange time for fashion).

I love both of these films to this day, but they’re not without their issues. In the end, 10 Things is a guy-gets-girl story that centers around these dynamics and not Kat’s abject feminism, and there’s also a scene when Bianca uses the R word that would absolutely not fly today. The Matrix has Neo saving the world as The One, and no one thought to ask at the time, why not Trinity? The film also drags out the tired stereotype of the all-knowing black woman, The Oracle (Gloria Foster), a racist trope that we thought nothing of at the time.

1999 was a great year for movies (cult favorites Office Space, American Beauty and Fight Club were released the same year) but also marked a cultural awakening: the Columbine shootings happened less than a month following the release of the Matrix, sparking conversations about gun violence and its portrayal in the media. Problematic themes and behavior aside, I will always have a soft spot for these films as they represent a certain period in my life — and a turning point in our culture.

Reflective nostalgia is a favorite topic of mine (and apparently a cornerstone of my writing career). So much of what we are exposed to in pop culture becomes a part of who we are on some level, and 1999 was a great year for women because it marked a shift in female roles in film. Seeing Kat Stratford devour feminist pop culture and pay no mind to boys or watching Trinity, a female computer hacker with as much cred as her male counterparts — seeing women in these groundbreaking roles was a big deal for me, especially at an age when I still wasn’t entirely sure who I was or who I wanted to be.

Representation in film matters, sometimes more than we might realize.

(The image for this post is me in 1999, the summer before my senior year of high school. Memories!)