Saved by the Bell premiered 25 years ago this summer. We're sure to be seeing a lot of loving retrospectives of the sitcom about six friends in an upper-middle class high school, so I'm here to say that nostalgia has not made the show any more digestible. Instead, watching the show today feels like consuming a television relic.
The creators and writers of Saved By the Bell were not trying to create revolutionary programming for children and young adults. They stuck to lowest common denominator plotlines, packed the show with jokes you see coming a mile away, and always tied up each half-hour episode with neat resolution. The show remains part of our pop culture consciousness—in addition to the original 86 episodes, the show spawned two spin-off series, two made-for-TV movies, is the subject of a forthcoming unauthorized Lifetime movie, and lives on in infinite syndication.
The awkwardly coupled cast of the upcoming "Unauthorized Saved by the Bell Story."
As we hit a quarter century of Saved by the Bell, I think it’s time to look back and evaluate gender, race, and relationships in the show that millions of Americans grew up watching.
First off, the cast were all stereotypes: head cheerleader Kelly (played by Tiffani Thiessen) fashion plate Lisa (Lark Voorhies), feminist activist Jessie (Elizabeth Berkley), jock A.C. Slater (Mario Lopez), geek Screech (Dustin Diamond), and the preppy ladies man Zack (Mark-Paul Gosselaar). “You can tell how they feel about women,” comedian April Richardson told me—she’s watched every episode of the show for her podcast Go Bayside!, and it hasn’t been pretty. Kelly’s character is defined by being nice and gorgeous—and that’s about it. About Tiffani Thiessen’s casting, executive producer Peter Engel reflected on what he'd said at the time, “She can't walk, she can't talk, she can't chew gum at the same time. But she's going to be a major star." As for Lisa, she’s pretty too and shops a lot. That’s kind of all. In fact, Engel originally envisioned Lisa as a “Jewish princess from Great Neck, Long Island," which feels like an offensive a stereotype for their audience. Knowing what was at stake in the creation of Kelly and Lisa makes it all the more strange that Jessie was conceived of as a character who would deal with “meaty plots”: on the show, Jessie contends with complex issues like her parents’ remarriages, blended families, body image, and fears of not measuring up academically.
There are a lot of think pieces on Jessie’s personal brand of feminism, bestowed on to her by an all male writers' room (with the exception of Stephanie Garman and Hollace White, who received exactly one “story by” credit). Jessie was many viewers’ first exposure to a self-proclaimed feminist. Writing for Jezebel, Hortense Smith recalled, “I certainly knew feminists, but had never met a woman who identified herself as such, at least not in the definitive manner that Jessie Spano did.” It’s interesting that a feminist managed to get into a group of characters who are common American stereotypes. As Gabrielle Moss wrote on Bitch last year, “I savored every character who called herself a feminist during that ‘T.G.I.F’ era, even though these characters were rarely depicted as being reasonable. I knew that characters like Saved by the Bell's Jesse Spano were supposed to be the butt of the joke.” An avowed feminist on television—let alone on Saturday morning, then or now—is a rare thing indeed.
And yet, the biggest takeaway from Jessie’s character is how destructive her feminism is. As Smith wrote, “She was a one-woman army, railing against ‘macho pigism,’ as she called it, crying out for equality.” Her feminism is not one I could recognize, though if I had to place it, it has all the trappings of what a bunch of old men would assume feminism is all about. Jessie’s feminism is a hindrance that makes her annoying, she’s there to be made fun of. That notion is reinforced by the fact that even her female friends don't back her up most of the time. Contrasting Jessie with the popular Lisa and Kelly, the show’s writers strongly suggest that being a feminist is unappealing. On Feministing, Lachrista Greco remembers watching the show at ten years old and thinking, “‘God, I never want to be a feminist!’ She made it seem so whiney.” It’s in this way that the writer at blog The Son of Feeney doesn’t seem to be overreaching when they say the show “socially engineered its impressionable audience against feminist teachings.”
One impression a viewer could be left with is that feminism means not supporting other women. Case in point: "Hold Me Tight," an episode that features Kristy, a female wrestler who the male coach won't allow to try out for the team. Jessie advocates for her on the radio and in a public protest, declaring to Kristy that "We sisters have to stick together!" That is, until Jessie thinks Kristy is interested in her boyfriend, Slater, who's also on the wrestling team. Jessie recants her support of Kristy and tells her, again on the radio, that “girls have absolutely no business wrestling guys” and to “keep your hands off our men.” It's not that feminists can't be jealous—we are human, after all—but it’s that Jessie’s ready to dump her principles on a whim. Even the audience doesn’t buy in, Jessie receives an avalanche of negative “ooh”-ing.
It’s worth noting that we never see Kristy again. Zack has a lot of these encounters with women—one-episode arcs that teach him and us lessons about tolerance and difference. In addition to female wrestlers, he also dates fat women, homeless women, and women in wheelchairs. During these moralizing storylines, the writers choose certain issues that get kid gloves, Richardson notes, while other people—fat people usually, nerds always, and people with hearing disabilities—are made fun of with impunity. Though you may not remember these episodes, I can catch you up super quick: Zack meets these women, has an extreme reaction, says the wrong thing multiple times, and accepts them by the end. Without fail, they forget the horrible way he acted and the terrible things he said, and they kiss or hug. Cue credits. They are not flesh-and-blood characters, they are mere stand-ins for what the one trait that defines them in the theme of each Very Special Episode.
Two women had longer arcs: Stacey Carosi and Tori Scott. Stacey was not nice, fashion conscious, nor particularly socially conscious. She was smart and quick witted with a chip on her shoulder, and entirely more interesting for it. As Zack’s boss at the beach club where he worked, they butted heads right away because he’s the sort of guy who can’t respect a woman in a position of power. He tells her to “lighten up,” or replies to her with a “Yes, sir.” But, this being Saved By the Bell, all parties apologized eventually and fell for each other, their earlier conflicts no longer an issue. They lasted through a summer.
In the same way, Tori—born of necessity when Berkley and Thiessen didn’t sign back on for extra episodes in the show’s last season—didn’t immediately fall for Zack’s bright white smile and easy charm. But because of the traditional alpha male focus this show adheres to, both Tori and Stacey women eventually cave. What’s interesting and troubling is that Tori only begins to fall for him the meaner he is to her. In an effort to catch his eye during a final episode, she sheds her boxy leather jacket and motorcycle boots for a Laura Ashley dress and an updo, but it doesn’t work. She does toss her jacket back on over her dress, signifying that young women should just be themselves, but that split second moment passes in the blink of an eye over the longer moments of her preening for his attention.
Unlike Jessie, Tori, and Stacey, most female characters on the show do not even attempt to challenge gender norms. Perhaps the most prevalent example of this traditional dynamic is the way the show treats dating. For dramatic and sometimes comedic purpose, love triangles run rampant. Most last for only an episode or two, but the long running “who will get the girl?” award belongs to Zack as he competes with Slater for the attention of Kelly. Zack “wins,” but eventually loses Kelly to a college-aged guy named Jeff. When that happens, Zack pouts for an episode, but eventually shakes Jeff’s hand. On Richardson’s Go Bayside! podcast, her guest Paul F. Tompkins summarized that interaction by saying, "Congratulations on your acquisition of this property."
Most of these love triangles—whether it’s Zack/Kelly/Slater or Zack/Lisa/Screech—they’re about ownership and have nothing to do with women making their own choices. The focus is always about men competing with each other. Richardson also noted that Kelly does get a few seconds of autonomy here and there, but mostly, “they fight in front of her face and she’s smiling. She doesn’t say, I get to pick who I date.” In “The Bayside Triangle,” the aforementioned Zack/Lisa/Screech triangle highlights the issue here: over the course of the series, we see Lisa reject Screech time and time again, and he never takes the hint. Yet, for one episode, Screech’s delusions are treated delicately, and Zack and Lisa’s hooking up is seen as a betrayal. When Screech fights Zack, Richardson said, “he talks about Lisa like he owns her,” saying to Zack, “You stole my girl.” The show allows his fantasy to be made real and suggests that his proprietary attitude makes total sense (Screech’s “I love you” and telling Lisa that she was his “first love” is met with audience aww-ing). The episode wraps up swiftly and Screech tells Zack, “Go ahead and take her.” The bottom line is clear: the feelings of women do not matter and that the focus is on men’s power to choose.
As I mentioned, the focus in these love triangles is on beating another guy, and this intensity for Zack and Slater can look “super homoerotic,” as Richardson said during her “King of the Hill” podcast episode. She explains it this way: that they are enemies, but “enemies that are in love with each other, secretly,” for their passion for Kelly can take a backseat to their passionate hate of each other. In that episode, they’re mid argument and “they’re basically kissing—they’re nose to nose.” But, just as quickly, they back off, and if the show was written today, there's no doubt the writers would have them say “no homo” if the standards and practices department would allow them to get away with it.
It's not gender alone that Saved by the Bell gets wrong. When it came to casting, Engel spoke about how Lark Voorhees, who plays Lisa, and Mario Lopez, who plays Slater, came to join the cast. They never intended to cast non-white actors in those parts, until a dearth in candidates made them widen the scope. Recounting that time, Engel said his direction to casting staff about finding a Slater was, "He doesn’t have to be Anglo… find me an Asian!" In that same interview, he crowed about winning "the first diversity award from the Academy" and that "[Bill] Cosby called me a hero!" All due respect to Dr. Cosby, if he even actually said that, but it's not heroism to have casts with two actors of color. Saved by the Bell should be praised for not stereotyping their characters of color in terms of race, but there’s only one discussion of race during the show, and it's done poorly in an episode titled "Running Zack."
In that episode, the gang is reporting on their family trees for class. In the first mention of Lisa's race ever, she says that her ancestors were slaves. Jessie finds out her ancestors were involved in the slave trade. She feels horribly guilty, though without an intersectional analysis that one might expect from someone who claims to be a feminist. "Unleash those centuries of repressed anger!" Jessie says dramatically to Lisa. Jessie spends the rest of the episode offering reparations in the form of sodas, piggyback rides, and paving her driveway. Lisa eventually threatens to beat Jessie up, then they hug, all forgiven. End of plot. Jessie’s efforts to make up for slavery are seen as a fool’s errand—we should all just hug and forget about the past. (And we haven't even gotten into Aryan-looking Zack's alleged Native American heritage, which is handled just as strangely.) This post-race attitude that scrubs away complexity makes theoretical sense for Saturday morning programming, but it begs two questions: if you can't do it right, with the richness the conversation deserves, why do it at all? Second, what messages is this show sending about how race should be considered and handled? Like the rest of the show, it role models largely questionable opinions for its impressionable audience.
When people write about Saved by the Bell today, they focus on the big cell phone, the eye-assaulting wardrobe, and a certain someone’s breakdown after a brief fling with caffeine pills. No matter how silly this show was, there’s no doubt of its popularity—to take this subject matter seriously is to take our consumption of culture seriously. This swirl of messages about gender and race in the show are confusing, but in my case, and perhaps for many others, I left the show behind in search of better characters with more relatable experiences. And yet no matter what I’ve found, I know that the show will always be around, airing weekday mornings as a nostalgic recitation of what a bunch of old male writers thought of young high school women.
Related Reading: Sitcoms Are the Golden LAnd of Feminist TV Characters.
Emily U. Hashimoto writes, tumbles, and tweets about women and queerness. Her favorite episode of Saved by the Bell is the one where they strike oil on school grounds, and the show pretends to care about the environment.