The “Jessie Spano” Effect: Why We’re Still Afraid of Feminism in 2010
By Molly Knefel
If you’re anything like me, you’ve spent much of your adulthood recovering from the disappointment that life is not like Saved by the Bell said it would be. Nerds aren’t best friends with cool kids, caffeine pills don’t get you high, and Mark-Paul Gosselaar’s hair isn’t even blonde. But I was born in the 80s and grew up watching the show after school, and I was too young to know any better.
Recently, thanks to the miraculous series of tubes that is the Internet, I went back and watched the show again for the first time since childhood. Despite the fact that SBTB got it wrong on a few things (caffeine pills, especially), I still think it’s a fantastic show. But there was one aspect that stood out to me this time around. In the 15 years since I last watched, I have learned a lot. One of the things I’ve learned (besides caffeine pills don’t get you high) is this wacky idea called Feminism, which is basically just the idea that all people should be treated equally regardless of gender, race, or class. And there is something more important than caffeine pills that Saved by the Bell got wrong. Her name is Jessie Spano.
Jessie, as you may remember, was a feminist. She was also an egghead, a sometimes-cheerleader, and Slater’s girlfriend. Jessie was a relatively progressive character; she used words like “chauvinist,” she thought women should be valued for intelligence rather than looks, and she cared about the environment. This reminds me of how, in high school, any time I would advocate human rights I would be called a “tree-hugger”– anyone crazy enough to love humans or women must REALLY love trees, too. But, I digress: my point is, Jessie was pretty right-on, and it’s cool that the writers of the show were willing to articulate such issues. Right? Right… except for one problem. Slater.
A.C. Slater, with his Hammer pants and neon muscle shirts, was the chauvinist target of Jessie’s feminist rage. Every time Jessie would say something about not objectifying women, Slater would call her “momma” or “sugar lips,” and Jessie would melt and surrender (maybe this makes me especially angry since I never thought Slater was hot). It was only acceptable to have a feminist character if she was continuously foiled by a man. Slater’s character doesn’t just provide a comedic opposite to Jessie– he actually completely undermines her.
I was recently on a podcast hosted by three guys, and I off-handedly mentioned I was a feminist. Panic struck, and after come nervous collar-pulling and sweating, they asked me what that meant. I said that all feminism means is a belief in equality, and that they were probably all feminists too. They started to get defensive, giving me responses to the f-word I’ve heard before, claiming that that it’s about women being better than men (“the word ‘feminine’ is in there,” they argued). Once I assured them that I wasn’t going to punch them in the crotch or burn my bra in their studio, they relaxed. I plan on getting each of them a “This is What a Feminist Looks Like” t-shirt for Christmas.
Because of years of Jessie-like representations of feminism, our society still hears the word and sees the stereotypes: ball-busting, man-hating, and threatening. Because characters like Slater are always there to undermine the Jessies (see “The Ugly Truth” for a recent example), we still struggle to find a way to explain the merits of identifying as a feminist. I hope we start to move past the Jessie Spano representation of feminism. And it doesn’t mean we have to stop liking Saved by the Bell.
Molly Knefel is a stand-up comic and writer living in Brooklyn. She co-writes and co-stars in a web series with her brother called John and Molly Get Along, which can be found at youtube.com/user/johnandmollygetalong.