I live in a city where they say, “The dream of the ‘90s is alive.” Yes, Portland. And it so is. I picked up a book from a thrift store a few weeks ago and the cashier pointed to her head and back to the book cover. It was part of the Secret World of Alex Mack series, the Nickelodeon TV show that ran from 1994-98 even provided with it a series of paperbacks. Babefaced Larisa Oleynik (Alex Mack) is on the cover wearing a white t-shirt under a striped vest and a backwards snap-back hat, as was the thrift store cashier.
The backwards snap-back hat never died. I theorize that queer girls everywhere who rock the head accessory today—from here to Brooklyn and deep in the corners of any lesbian dance party on a steamy Saturday night— are not only taking a fashion nod from Alex Mack, but probably spent many a morning in the ‘90s dressing similarly for school because of her.
In the series, Alex Mack is the girl who gets into a chemical spill accident while riding her bike. As a result, the chemicals give her special powers where she can morph into a puddle of gaseous looking liquid and creep around at the foot of people’s conversations. As a downside, her skin glows when she gets nervous. (Not in a “I’m such a happy, healthy woman” way, just literal glowing.) Who can she trust with her secret? Alex’s sister Annie basically thinks she’s a Science Fair project. And Ray thinks it’s mad cool.
Her parents don’t know because this is the ‘90s! An independent teenager with special powers can be private if she wants. This is the ‘90s!
However, it’s time to set the record gaily straight. Alex Mack’s secret was perhaps a secret even to her. In real life, the little tomboys of the ‘90s were asking for Umbros, jean overalls, Airwalks, beanies, and duh—snap-back hats. There’s a photo of me in a backwards-black snap-back hat, Lycra shorts, an oversized T-shirt with the sleeves rolled, and all-black Reebok sneaks. I’m either a kid posing on the beaches of Florida in ’92, or I’m the newest member of a lesbian basketball team who might host Taco Tuesday for the team next week. Alex Mack was giving a new generation of gaybies a spin on the ol’ lesbian fashion wheel. Before there was Alex Mack, there was doe-eyed cutie Max West of Go Fish.
Go Fish, a groundbreaking film that explores gender, sex and social issues, also came out in 1994. Co-directed and written by Rose Troche and Guinevere Turner, it follows a group of lesbians in a series of vignettes as they break down dichotomies and dyke drama. Turner, who we all know best as The L Word’s hot but hated Gabby Deveaux—Alice’s “emotional cripple” ex—played Max West in Go Fish. In the film, Max is a student who meets a girl named Ely who has a girlfriend, but Max and Ely inevitably end up getting it on. It’s Max West who adorns the iconic backwards snap-back hat in the film, and is also looking for a “hip-hop Barbie.”
I’m not trying to say that levitating, skin glowing, melty, morphy, dreamy Alex Mack had the downtime to watch indie lesbian cinema. She’s in junior high and a chemical plant is possibly after her. But, somewhere in the atmosphere of that unexplainable connection we all have, we were all just deciding how many snaps we wanted our hats to have on any given day. And Max West and Alex Mack knew that.
Last year, The Huffington Post caught up with Alex Mack co-creators Thomas W. Lynch and Ken Lipman. They explain how they didn’t even write Alex Mack as a girl character. Alex was originally meant to be a boy.
Lynch says, “I think the success of it laid in the fact that I didn’t write a gender, I wrote a character.” This means that even when Olyenik came into the picture, the writers never compromised the character’s aesthetic to be girlier. Alex Mack was simply gender neutral. Oleynik expresses that she owns many of the hats worn on the show—and still wears them—hats that are deemed “iconic.” And we all still wear them too, as if we’re paying ultimate queer-girl homage to the ladies of the ‘90s who set the standard for what to wear.
Did Alex Mack grow up to be a full-time lez? She probably traded her Airwalks in for Birkenstocks and dreaded her hair. She went to college with Ray who found his passion in a soul band, and the two hung at a local coffee bar where open-mic nights with cute girls on bongos playing Indigo Girls covers happened on the reg. Annie shared intellectual opinions with Alex on strong women like Hillary Clinton and Rachel Maddow—Annie would so have the straight-girl hots for Maddow. In Alex’s adult life, she totally hosted Sunday night viewing parties of The L Word—no need for a remote; Alex can turn on the TV with her electric fingertips from the kitchen. (I know where you’re mind’s going…)
Alex Mack isn’t that much different than us. And she surely didn’t take some “cure pill” in the series’ cliffhanger episode to rid herself of her special powers. Was there even a real cure? Are we still talking about a chemical substance? Her real secret is out to all us lezzies who once spent Saturday nights glued to the couch to watch the girl who could turn into a puddle. At least in our dreams.