Beverly Hills, 90210: Television, Gender, and Identity

Beverly Hills, 90210: Television, Gender, and Identity

Beverly Hills, 90210: Television, Gender, and Identity

Beverly Hills, 90210: Television, Gender, and Identity


In 1990 the fledgling Fox television network debuted its prime-time soap opera Beverly Hills, 90210, which was intended to appeal to viewers in their late teens and early twenties. Before long, not only did the network have a genuine hit with a large and devoted audience but the program had evolved into a cultural phenomenon as well, becoming a lens through which its youthful viewers defined much of their own sense of themselves.

By an overwhelming majority the fans were female-young women between eleven and twenty-five whose experience of the program was addictive and intensely communal. They met in small groups to watch the program, discussing its plot and characters against the backdrops of their own ongoing lives.

Wondering what this talk accomplished and what role it played in the construction of young female viewers' identities, Graham McKinley found several groups who watched the program and questioned them about the program's significance. Extracting generously from actual interviews, McKinley's investigation has the urgency of a heart-to-heart conversation, with rich anecdotal moments and revelations of self.


Across the United States for most of the 1990s, millions of girls and young women gave special importance to Wednesday evening, when Beverly Hills, 90210 aired. This prime-time soap opera chronicled the lives of a group of upscale students who attended two fictitious schools in glamorous southern California: posh West Beverly Hills High School (the numbers in the title refer to its envied zip code), then enticing California University. Dedicated viewers arranged their weekly schedules— homework, shower time, night classes, work schedules—to free themselves to watch 90210 and its spin-off in the following time-slot, Melrose Place. Whether they watched alone in their bedrooms or with boisterous friends in crowded dormitory lounges, their devotion bordered on the religious. Almost from the time the Fox network program debuted in the fall of 1990 (on Thursday nights the first season), to well beyond the spring of 1994, when the interviews for this study were conducted, the show commanded the airwaves for American girls and young women. At this writing, during the summer of 1996, it still draws a hefty following.

Experience of 90210 transcended the hour from 8 to 9 p.m., spilling into a world of orchestrated fandom and promoted merchandise— magazines, books, bubble gum cards, T-shirts, and cosmetics. the controversial central character, Brenda the “bitch,” became the focus of a national “I Hate Brenda” fan club. a World Wide Web site offered extended analyses and running commentary on the latest episodes. the show became part of the lives of millions of young viewers—perhaps most importantly in their conversations about it.

It was these enthusiastic discussions that first attracted my attention. in the fall of 1992, I heard intense conferences, even arguments, about 90210 among a number ofjunior-high-school girls with whom I worked. I learned that they often videotaped and rewatched episodes, read about the performers, purchased promotional materials—and exhaustively discussed the show with friends. in some cases, they said, they even dreamed about the characters. To me—an infrequent television . . .

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