“How Saved by The Bell made me an Sexist Orientalist Bloke”

Who would not want to be Zack Morris?
Looks, charm, wit, the ability to turn a cul-de-sac into a gaping French door of opportunity; there was an episode where he quiet literally managed to (almost) fool an Ivy league school into accepting his friend- believe me, having gone through the trials and tribulations of applying to uni, you soon realise that penetrating such an impermeable fortress like UCAS is exceptionally difficult. He had the gift of the gab, the girls and exuded an arrogance that was oddly likeable. Forever the epicentre, even when his schemes dropped others into the proverbial, all was forgiven because he was Zack Morris.
I grew up watching Saved by the Bell (I even graduated through to the College years although the New Class was appalling). We watched it, not because of the Lawrence Olivier-like performances or the solid script, or even the well rendered character formations, but because of its escapism and now its nostalgia. Those characters encapsulated everything we secretly wanted to be. They imbued an ideal of how we imagined our formative school years to be- even if our memory glossed the then reality. We may not have actually lived out our secondary school like they did at Bayside, but maybe our minds play tricks, changing what really happened to what we really wanted to happen. Whether we watched it then or now, in a very real way, because the characters struck a positive chord, they helped shape our world view. They helped us make sense of our surroundings, our relationships, what it meant to be in love, or be a jock or nerd or the startling reality that all good things come to an end. It is because of these reasons that I don’t think I can ever watch it again….
Coming toward the end of my masters, I had little to do and, being an adherent of the maxim that boredom will kill us all, I began to think of creative ways to pass the time. Writing, socialising, the gym and of course, as every student does, satisfying my addiction of watching old shows/The Wire online. Saved by the Bell was an interesting choice- it featured so heavily in my adolescent life yet had been locked away in the narrow crevices of my memory.
Before I knew it, I could hear the school bells vibrating accompanied by those scintillating lyrics. I watched, reminisced and laughed. But I also did something else I never used to; I cringed and scorned and turn away in embarrassment. The characters were just how I remembered but they were also horribly misogynistic. For a moment, I actually checked if I was watching the same ones and not some New-Class bullshit but it soon became disappointingly apparent- Zack and Slater were the embodiment of the orientalist-sexist alpha male. There orgy of quips spanned a veritable sexist spectrum, to the seemingly ‘harmless’ to the outright degrading. Women were merely accessories, commodities or bargaining chips. They conformed to the roles that were typically paved for them, not out of choice but out of duress. Indeed, authoritative figures such as Principal Belding would equally acquiesce in such tawdriness.
Perhaps worse, Jessica Spano’s quasi-feminist contestations to the andro-centric high-school milieu were painted as socially inept and positioned her firmly as an outcast. I’m not sure what made me sink my head into my hands more- the fact that a women speaking her voice was deemed ‘weird’ or that often she would succumb to the conventions her male peers would assign her. They would call her ‘chick’ or ‘babe’ as if she was, at worst an animal, at best a lesser human being.
Lisa was the mutated progeny of the vacuous, superficial and cosmetic ‘sex-in-the-city’ behemoth whose character belied a horrible emptiness of cosmetic female aspiration. Her ‘tokenism’ combined with an obsessive materialism firmly locked away any exploration of her character or cultural background. And Kelly, the tick box stay at home girl existed as if she’d been lifted right off the pages of the book ‘Shallow Lads, Ideal Women.’ There was no strength, no culture, no independence. The women were extensions or antipodes of their male masters rather than their own person.
Carrying on in the theme of race; now Zack and Slater weren’t exactly shouting out *igger and pak* to every person of colour that adorned that iconic hallway. Indeed in one episode, Zack delves into his native American roots and much to his surprise enjoys surfacing his cultural heritage. But there are many distorted and oritenalist depictions of other cultures which would make Eddy Said think that no one had bothered to read his Magnum Opus. Not least the tokenism of a few black characters ‘peppered here and there’ which in many ways was even worse than calling out racial epithets, but the subtlety of these visual imageries legitimised seemingly benign conceptions of other cultures that were in fact racist- one dream sequence where Screech dresses as what I assume is an Egyptian Arab (or ancient Egyptian- its not clear) and he is surrounded by his ‘concubines’ just reeks of outdated colonial narratives of the ‘exotic orient.’ Another episode has Screech playing against a Russian chess champion that is littered with all the tiring and poisonous cold-war japes and hysteria that would make even Senator Joe McCarthy take down notes.
But why does this matter? Saved By The Bell, and indeed other popular culture shows were not meant to be culturally accurate nor any beacon of moral authority. Ill be honest, I still enjoy watching Saved By The Bell and I know that so many kids were receptive to its message, some of which were positive (particularly the episode when they stopped an oil company drilling at Bayside) but the fact of the matter is, when I, like millions of other normal kids watched this, we did not bat an eyelid to this marginalisation of women or racism. Like all popular culture, the effects on children are always amplified. Maybe it was just telling it how it is; after all, these shows are not meant to be sending out strong social messages to our kids, right? Well perhaps not, but there are certain things, when one is in a position of cultural power and therefore responsibility, you can avoid like telling a women ‘that she should cook’ (or telling a woman anything for that matter) or taking pictures of girls without their consent to sell calendars (yes this did happen) .  Deep down every guy wants to be their school’s Zack Morris or AC Slater. But after watching Saved By The Bell now, I think I’d rather be Screech….but then again maybe not.

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