Why the 1999 TV Show Popular Was Ahead of Its Time

Popular was among many TV shows in the 90’s that was gone too soon. The series premiered in the fall of 1999 and ran for two seasons until it’s cancellation in 2001. It was co-created by Ryan Murphy in his pre-Glee and American Horror Story days, and follows two teenage girls, Sam and Brooke, on opposite sides of the “popular” spectrum (hence the title of the show) who end up living together when their parents start dating.

 

The show explores both girls’ friend groups: Brooke’s superficial, blonde cheerleader buds and Sam’s all-brunette crowd of respectable outsiders who care more about “the issues,” like saving frogs from dissection. The feud between the popular vs. unpopular kids trope was common in entertainment aimed at teens at the time, and Popular embraced the excessive cruelty of the cool kids and oblivious pretentiousness of the losers to its full extent.

 

 

I began rewatching the series recently and realized there were a few things I didn’t remember or hadn’t understood when I watched it as a kid. The first was the bizarre twinge of dark humour that would weave its way into most episodes without explanation. This grim tone would lead the characters to sometimes make insensitive comments about heavy topics such as eating disorders.

 

However, I noticed while revisiting the show that a wide range of issues were explored and handled respectfully. Although the show made light of eating disorders in some instances, it also addressed Brooke’s bulimia and previous inpatient treatment, spreading out the storyline over the course of several episodes to show her relapse and return to treatment. Another character attends the same program for overeating, something the show had shown him struggling with before. Popular portrays different types of disordered eating and validates both as legitimate issues, while also demonstrating that eating disorders aren’t magically cured in one go and can have a long term impact.

 

 

Popular also addresses sexual harassment in a real and somewhat unprecedented way. In one episode, a female character, Lily, is harassed and cat-called while walking down the school hallway because of what she’s wearing. Shaken, she is disappointed again when her male friend refuses to stick up for her and says that the guys were “just having fun” and she “should be flattered.” Popular establishes that seemingly harmless comments are still harassment, and infers that complicity is just as bad, especially if someone makes excuses for the harassers.

 

The rest of the episode centres on the cat-calling boys attending a boot camp for “sensitivity training.” At one point, they walk through the hallway while girls spew the same disgusting comments at them that women hear routinely, realizing how horrible supposedly “flattering” comments can feel.

 

One of the boot camp boys ultimately realizes his comments weren’t okay when he yells at Lily “It’s not like I hit you,” mirroring the excuse he made earlier to his mother for his verbally abusive father. Popular parallels sexual harassment and domestic verbal abuse here, demonstrating that there doesn’t have to be aggressive physical contact in an attack for it to be hurtful and wrong.

 

It’s frustrating that this episode ultimately presents the “What if this was your daughter/sister/mother?” argument to get through to the boys, because men shouldn’t have to envision women as their family members in order to respect them. Still, the episode did more to tackle the issue of sexual harassment than most other sources of media at the time by stressing the importance of impactful lines like, "A girl should be allowed to wear whatever she wants without fear," and shutting down statements like, "If you didn't want the attention, you wouldn't have dressed like that.” The episode’s message is summed up with the poignant statement, “That is what harassment is all about…taking away somebody’s choice not to be touched…taking away somebody’s choice to be left alone.”

    

Arguably, the most progressive and groundbreaking episode of the series deals with trans issues in an earnest way, a very rare discussion in the 90s. The students’ beloved shop teacher Mr. Don comes out as a trans woman, informing the class that she’ll be transitioning and asking them to call her Miss Debbie. Everyone has different reactions—disgusted, confused, making jokes. Initially, I cringed; I thought the episode would just be a parade of transphobic bashing with no redemption, but I was glad to be proven wrong. Though Sam and her friends initially make cruel comments towards Miss Debbie while using male pronouns, they come to realize that she deserves to be treated with respect. One of Sam’s friends, whose mother was fired from her job in a previous episode because she is a lesbian, is particularly swayed when he realizes Miss Debbie is in the same position as his mom, demonstrating that homophobia and transphobia are equally pressing issues.

 

Some characters eventually decide to support Miss Debbie for trivial reasons, while others do so because they believe it’s the right thing. An adult character points out the similarities between the trans rights movement and significant social movements during her own youth, like feminism and civil rights. Popular is noting that transgender people are a marginalized community who face discrimination—like women and people of colour—and not just the punchline to a joke, which a lot of TV shows, films and society as a whole failed to understand when the episode aired. Ultimately, Miss Debbie loses her job, an unjust but painfully realistic fate for a trans woman that leaves you feeling upset and infuriated.

 

I am not, by any means, trying to say that this show was perfect. Practically the entire main cast was white, and one of the only central characters played by a person of colour vanishes from the show with no explanation. Meanwhile, the character of Sugar Daddy, played by a white person, blatantly appropriates and exploits black culture in a mocking, stereotypical way. These problematic areas of the show are demonstrative of what was and wasn't acceptable to do on TV back then, and the ignorance most of the entertainment industry had towards things like diverse casting and appropriation. Still, for a show made at the turn of the millennium with a teenage demographic as its target audience, Popular addressed issues that very few had previously done, and the show was all the better for it.