Jessie Spano: Friend Or Foe?


We all have our little morning routines. Mine is to get up at 7:00 am, let the dog out, make some strong coffee, and settle in to watch an hour of Saved by the Bell.

I don’t know why I love Saved by the Bell so much. Perhaps I’ve been brainwashed to do so via subliminal messages on a Beau Revere tape, or more likely, I like it because it’s a time capsule of my youth, an alternate 90’s universe where the popular kids were decked out in Guess crewneck sweatshirts and acid washed pleated jeans, getting into wacky shenanigans with their principal’s car and reminding us all that there’s no hope with dope.

And though my love for Saved by the Bell knows no bounds, with each episode I watch and re-watch, there are certain truths that surface that are pretty hard to deny, especially in regards to the female characters on the show: Kelly Kapowski, cheerleader extraordinaire, Lisa Turtle, fashion/gossip queen, and Jessica Myrtle Spano, environmentalist/feminist/neurotic mess.

To say that Jessie Spano was the first “feminist” I was exposed to isn’t really a lie: when I began watching the show, at age 9 or so, 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. She was a one-woman army, railing against “macho pigism,” as she called it, crying out for equality as her best friends, Lisa and Kelly, rolled their eyes and laughed at her militant ways. But Jessie Spano’s brand of feminism was confusing to me: here was this teenaged girl who was telling me to speak out against sexism, but she ends up dating…A.C. Slater, the embodiment of teenage boy sexism. He refers to her as “Mama,” and though she corrects him when he refers to women as “chicks,” it’s done so in a manner that undermines her stance and makes her seem like a complete pushover who melts in the face of a man. (Pretty deep shit for Saved by the Bell, right? Beat-b-beat-b-b-beat, go Bayside!)

A friend of mine and I recently had a long discussion regarding “The Jessie Spano Effect,” which we deemed “the unwillingness to call oneself a feminist for fear of being labeled an uptight, neurotic bitch.” For every stance Jessie took, be it against being called “a chick,” standing up for the environment, or taking a anti-sexism stance on not one, but two beauty pageants, she is shown to the audience to be uptight, lame, and stuck-up. She’s not the pretty girl like Kelly, nor is she the cool girl like Lisa. Jessie Spano is the girl that everyone should be, but nobody wants to be.

In her quest to be someone great, she of course sabotages herself: a legendary caffeine addiction derails her from taking on both a singing career and an academic career (can’t have both, ladies!) and she deals with her rejection from top schools by bingeing on junk food. Jessie Spano is never happy. She’s tired, competitive, judgmental, angry, and painfully self-aware. Where her peers drift in and out of difficult situations (Kelly’s poor, Lisa’s intelligence is questioned), Jessie seems to carry this ridiculous burden of being trapped between speaking her mind and making her pink tank top wearing macho boyfriend happy.

Did Jessie Spano hurt feminism? (Apparently I’m not the only one who is wondering.) It’s hard to say, really. Though her impact on the young girls who grew up watching her, myself included, may account for the “oh, I wouldn’t call myself a feminist” bullshit that seems to be running rampant amongst women in their 20’s. And the fact that Elizabeth Berkeley had to play a Vegas showgirl to distance herself from Spano speaks volumes, as well. Because god forbid anyone get typecast as a feminist! Heavens, no! Now off with those pants, lady friend!

In the end, it’s hard to say if “The Jessie Spano Effect” is real or not. But even through her flaws, I suppose we can thank her for teaching us all to point out the bullshit that is “macho pigism” whenever we see it. Oh, and also to avoid taking too many caffeine pills before a geometry final. Because you’ll never get into Stansbury, the Harvard of the West, if you’re screaming “I’m so excited, I’m so excited, I’m so…scared!” at the admissions interview.

Jessie Spano Ruined Feminism [Feministing]

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