The Secret World of Alex Mack (or how media made my childhood easier)

When I was growing up there was this show called The Secret World of Alex Mack.  It was a tween-oriented series centred around a girl (Alex Mack) who was accidentally covered in this industrial goop and developed weird powers.  Like most shows of the time, the target audience was gender neutral and included an opposite-gender best friend.  Every time someone asks me how it is I had very few problems with gender growing up I point to this show because it’s such a perfect example of the slightly odd period of the mid-90s I grew up in.

Note that Alex wasn’t meant to be a tomboy, she’s an average girl in a suburban town.  Who happened to dress not that differently from me.

Alex got girlier as she got older, but particularly early on the girly girls were portrayed as slightly different from ‘normal’.

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It wasn’t just Alex Mack either, most of the media I grew up on featured boys and girls that weren’t that different from each other.  See: the abundance of flannel even on the very much teenage girls Angela Chase and Rayanne Graff from My So-Called Life, particularly when contrasted with Sharon Cherski, Angela’s childhood friend.

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Back to Sherwood and The Adventures of Shirley Holmes were also favourites of mine, but they weren’t nearly as popular and are therefore difficult to find images for.  Are You Afraid of the Dark? always featured at least one tween girl in a backwards ball cap and ripped jeans.

The thing I think a lot of people forget is that the late 90s US was still very much inspired by grunge.  Teen and tween clothes were largely baggy, shapeless, and hobo-like.  It’s not something I enjoy now, but as a child it meant that there was no pressure to dress like a Spice Girl because no girls dressed like that.  It wasn’t until I was in the latter half of high school that the fashion influences of pop music really started hitting California.  Before that girls may have wanted to look like Britney Spears, but no school and very few parents would have allowed it even assuming they could find the clothes.

In contrast, most of the kids I know now watch things like The Haunted Hathaways

Or Good Luck Charlie

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Or A.N.T. Farm

Even shows like Liv and Maddie feature a tomboy who would have been considered girly when I was growing up.

I can’t imagine being a little trans guy right now.  All of the girls on TV and in movies seem to be these perfectly coiffed, slender beauties who need some sort of frill or pastel to be fully dressed.  Yeah, I probably would’ve realised sooner if this is what I had to go off of, but I also would have been miserable for many years because there is no way I could have come out to my parents.

6 thoughts on “The Secret World of Alex Mack (or how media made my childhood easier)

  1. I grew up in the 90s, watched these shows, and this is resonating hard with me right now! Seriously, thank you so much for writing this. What a trip back. You didn’t mention this particular character, but in the 1995 movie Now and Then, Christina Ricci plays a consummate tomboy whom I really identified with. She even bound her chest.

    Like you, I’m glad I lived in those times rather than now, because it allowed me to dress rather gender-neutral without involving my parents. I was actually able to drag the baggy jeans and the ball caps into the 2000s too, my parents believing they were still ‘in’. When I imagine myself as a kid, or imagine myself if I’d grown up a boy, I don’t see myself in anything else but the distinctly 90s clothes.

    In a way, my concept of masculinity is still based off of 90s fashion. I’m still partial to wide/chunky shoes, never been willing to try skinny jeans, and need to fight my magnetic attraction to flannel in stores. I associate these clothes with honesty and humility. Actually just today I was in a thrift shop and feeling really nostalgic and at home, I suspected due to being surrounded by 90s clothes. It brings me back to a time where I could trust anybody and I was free to be myself without a second thought.

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    • I did the same thing with the extending the wide leg jeans as long as I possibly could. They’re just so much more comfortable! I don’t understand how guys now wear skinny jeans, you can’t bloody move in them. I’m willing to sacrifice a bit of comfort in the name of vanity, but there is a limit.

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  2. I didn’t grow up in the US but the main character in the novel I’m working on did. This post is really interesting for me because I never realised the teen-fashion during the 90s. It was different in The Netherlands, as far as I remember (which isn’t very far, honestly, but at least the girls in my high school seemed to have been wearing “regular” girly clothes).

    Anyway, I was wondering if this grunge-like fashion was nation-wide? My character grew up in Detroit, would he have had a similar experience? And would it have been reflected in elementary school (age 9-11) as well or was that different?

    I’ll check back here but feel free to e-mail me as well, if you like. Thanks a lot!

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  3. This post. I laughed. I cried. I never thought I’d say this, but god I miss the 90s.

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  4. This captures my experience so well, although I had never thought about why fashion was gender-neutral at that point of time (your hypothesis is very convincing!). I also remember being surrounded by images of strong girls and women, which might have something to do with the popularity of the concept of “girl power” around that same time period.

    I was recently flipping through some old childhood books (specifically from the publisher Klutz) and I was struck by how gender-neutral the photos are: the girls, besides wearing neutral clothes, make silly faces in almost all the pictures, whereas today I think they’d probably put on more feminine or even “sexy” poses.

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  5. Wow…I just stumbled across this blog and am really digging it. I grew up in the late 80’s/mid-90’s too (I’m 34). And I felt the same way about fashion during that time…like I was able to kinda hide a lot of my true feelings about my gender, because I simply dressed, well, the way everyone else did…band shirts, flannel around my waist, Airwalks or Adidas Sambas, baggy jeans, newsboy hat…it’s just how it was. So nobody really noticed.

    When I came back out recently (I came out 9 years ago, considered transition, and got scared back into the closet. Yeah, it sucked), my mom even made a comment about how perplexed and sort of horrified she is by how much MORE rigid gender roles and gender expression have become for basically either end of the gender binary…but especially girls and women.

    This reminds me, Ricky from My So-Called Life is totally one of my favorite fashion inspirations! <3

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