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Being a child in the 1990s meant a life wrapped in the blissful cloak of two layers of innocence:

  1. The wide-eyed naiveté that comes naturally to 8 year-olds
  2. The overall national sense of optimism and guilelessness of the early Clinton years.

The Cold War was over, the economy put a chicken in every pot and a classic Nintendo in every living room, and the park down the street was filled with all manner of splintery and jagged-edged wonders that would soon be verboten.

The whole decade felt just a bit too breezy, the contemporary news stories generally lacking in the sort of gravitas to which we have become accustomed in the ensuing decades. Perhaps it’s this attitude, then, that led to what can best be described in hindsight as a relentlessly disturbing set of children’s entertainment options.

This wasn’t obvious to us at the time, much the same way water isn’t obvious to a fish. But if you, as I have done recently, actually revisit the various movies and games with which we wiled away our carefree days, you’ll realize that most of them had elements reflecting an unsettling level of depravity.

Take the beloved dog movie Beethoven, which came out in 1992. You probably just remember a loveable St. Bernard engaged in all manner of comedic hijinks. But you have likely forgotten that the plot revolves around a villain, Dr. Varnick, who is impersonating a veterinarian in order to dognap pets so he can test ammunition for an arms manufacturer by shooting dogs in the head.

And just to be clear, the fact that they are being shot in the head is not conjecture, that’s explicitly part of the premise. It’s like the writers of the film were trying to come up with the most fucked up scenario imaginable just to see if they could sneak it into the movie.

“What if we have the vet really love the dog so he tries to steal it for his daughter?”
“No, that’s too soft, we need the kids to feel something.”
“OK, what if we have the vet getting paid by cosmetic companies to send in dogs for makeup testing?”
“Eh, that’s too logical and circumspect. Maybe the kids won’t realize Beethoven is getting brutally murdered by the companies.”

“Fuck it, let’s just tell the kids there’s a company that shoots dogs directly in the head for completely unnecessary reasons, and veterinarians sometimes sell pets to it.”

Compare that to the later Air Bud series, in which the greatest threat to the dogs is getting put up for adoption. Which is not only less deranged, but has the added benefit of resembling something that actually happens in the real world.

But Beethoven is just one example. I’ve got dozens.

The Lion King? Not only was Simba’s family situation fucked up in a (literally) Shakespearean sense, but he met his future wife when she was trying to murder and eat his best friend. And Honey I Shrunk the Kids is basically one long meditation on gruesome ways to commit negligible filicide. The list goes on.

And it’s not just movies. Most video games of the time were comically fucked up in terms of the messages they were teaching. I spent hundreds and hundreds of hours playing Mike Tyson’s Punch Out, for which the entire premise is fighting your way through a series of ethnic stereotypes.

It’s not like this is some minor part of the plot or that the stereotypes were subtly integrated. It’s literally all that you do for the entire game, and the characters are on some Amos ‘n’ Andy level shit—naming an Italian character “Pizza Pasta” isn’t exactly a nuanced wink to the player. (Note: Wikipedia helpfully clarifies that this character’s “first and last names are references to Italian food.” Thanks!)

As effective as it is as a boxing game, Punch Out is ten times more effective as a quick but comprehensive Primer for Young Learners on global national and ethnic stereotypes. Without this game, it may have taken me years to learn about French cowardice, Russian alcoholism, and Irish rambunctiousness in the popular imagination. I don’t know how I would have gotten through Model U.N. without it.

Board games? Yes, board games had their own nightmares and twisted logic. In Operation, the dude’s eyes are wide open, staring at you, unblinking, while you inevitably screw up his unanesthetized neurosurgery. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one still traumatized by that relentless buzz every time you accidentally slashed an artery. Guess Who is basically a training exercise in categorizing (mostly white) people based on physical quirks. And they wonder why millennials are superficial.

I’m not saying that there was some grand conspiracy, but it does kind of feel like the powers that be in the entertainment world were kind of messing with us out of boredom, just to see if they could. I can only assume at the time, we were all too caught up trying to find subliminal messages in the background audio of Disney films to notice the crazy shit that was explicitly integrated directly into the plots and premises. So go ahead, bust out that old school VHS player and NES. Sign up for the Columbia House Music Club again and get another 12 cassettes for a penny while your parents foot the bill for a terrible $20 album once a month for eternity. But be forewarned: when you revisit all of those movies and games, your nostalgic idyll will be shattered by the twisted reality they represent. Childhood is not how you remember it.

Matt Guttentag

Matt Guttentag is looking for his keys.

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