It will be impossible to fully explain to the youth what the world was like prior to social media, but we can start with this: It was a hell of a lot easier to lie to people. We’re not saying the internet has killed dishonesty. If you watch the news, you may notice that it sometimes still occurs. We’re just saying that prior to the mid-2000s, anyone could say whatever the hell they wanted to a stranger, and they just had to go along with it. There was no easy way to verify anything.
Nothing demonstrates this more starkly than common movie plots that aren’t even that old, but now portray a culture we barely recognize. Think about how …
It Used To Be Easy To Lie About Your Career (Romy And Michele’s High School Reunion)
A comedy that came out in 1997 shouldn’t feel like ancient history, but when you realize only 20 percent of the U.S. had internet connections at the time and iPhones were a decade away, it might as well be the freaking Dark Ages.
So in this Clinton-era romp, Romy White (Mira Sorvino) is a cashier at a car dealership, and Michele Weinberger (Lisa Kudrow) is unemployed. When their ten-year high school reunion is coming up, they realize they have failed miserably at being grown-ups (see, because back then, it was absurd to not have a steady career by your late 20s). So they decide to fake it for all of their old friends back home. Because that was an option.
They borrow an expensive-as-hell Jag from the dealership Romy works at, and Michele makes them business suits. Their plan is to tell their former classmates that they invented Post-it Notes, figuring it’s something everyone has heard of but no one knows the inventor of. See, that’s the kind of lie you could tell in 1997, and during all of human history prior to smartphones. Who was going to spend a whole day at the library debunking it?
The lie lasts until the third act of the movie, when they have the extreme bad luck of running into the one woman who went to business school and happened to have had a lesson on the couple of guys who accidentally invented the Post-its’ weak rubberized glue. Of course, today they could take five seconds to look up that story and find out that no one involved was named Romy or Michele, if they hadn’t already seen it on Reddit or any one of a billion trivia sites. We probably wrote about it on Cracked at some point.
But in 2018, they would never have even progressed to that stage. Anyone at the reunion who is a Facebook friend of a friend of a friend of either one of them would know exactly where they’ve been working for the last ten years. Even if they didn’t want to know, they’d know; Facebook shoves it down your throat. “Hey, did you know your high school bully got tagged in a photo posted by the girl who sat behind you in algebra and it was liked by a dude you were pretty sure died two years ago?”
It didn’t used to be like this! As long as you lived in another city, you could pretty much be whoever you wanted to be when you took a trip back home. Speaking of which …
Changing Schools Used To Mean A Fresh Start (The New Guy, Many Others)
There used to be a genre of teen comedy in which some put-upon youth concocts a way to move to a new school under a completely new identity. In 1985, we had the subtle masterpiece Just One Of The Guys, in which a young woman feels she isn’t being taken seriously because she’s too hot of a babe, and thus enrolls in another school as a male (the idea of someone enduring several gender-related mishaps in a locker room was considered hilarious at the time). In 1987, John Cryer had some convoluted reason to go back to high school as an adult in Hiding Out, pretending to be a new student and taking the opportunity to do it all over again.
In 2002, we got what has to have been among the last in the genre set in modern day, The New Guy, in which the nerdy Dizzy (D.J. Qualls) endures a series of humiliations that results in him deciding to get himself expelled so he can start over at a new school, reinventing himself as a tough, cool bully. In all of these movies, the hero eventually gets found out. In most of them, they reveal the secret themselves after months of humorous close calls. In every case, they learn something important about themselves and why it’s wrong to judge people or whatever.
First of all, if you made it through school without ever having the urge to bail on it and start over elsewhere with a completely rebooted persona, congratulations. You’re one of the lucky ones. For the rest of us, these plots weren’t just a wacky fantasy. If your family moved to a new town, you could actually do this! Change your hair, get some different clothes, just … reinvent yourself. Pretend you were the prom king or queen back where you were from. Tell everyone your nickname was CashWolf. All of your embarrassing history, just wiped clean.
Not now. Wherever Dizzy went, no matter what he called himself or what color he dyed his hair, his past would follow. Dizzy’s old classmates would have been all over social media with posts, pictures, and videos of the kid with his tighty whities pulled up over his head while sporting an erection in their school’s library. Hell, it’d have been on Tosh.0 by that point. He’d have been meme-ified worldwide as “Wedgie Kid.”
You Could Actually Lie About Being In A Relationship (Sideways, Chasing Amy, Etc.)
Let’s start with the 2004 movie Sideways, starring Paul Giamatti as Miles, a wine aficionado who goes on a trip to wine country with his best friend Jack, played by Thomas Haden Church, who wants one last sexual fling before getting married. This was an era in which some kids might have MySpace pages, but a middle-aged dude certainly would not — if he said he was single, you just had to take his word for it.
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Sure enough, on the road, Jack strikes up a romance with a wine pourer named Stephanie, they grow close, and he even meets her daughter. It’s only when Miles accidentally reveals to a third party that Jack is engaged that she finds out, resulting in her jumping him in a parking lot and bashing him in the head with a motorcycle helmet:
That’s right, kids. Once upon a time, dudes could cheat on somebody they were scheduled to marry in two days, and it’d be fine as long as their nerdy friend could keep their mouth shut. Their victim couldn’t just whip out their phone, know everything about the engagement within 15 seconds, and know the exact name of the wedding cake decorator within five minutes.
So many romantic comedies used to be based in this kind of deception. Hell, that’s how most plot twists occurred! Like in Chasing Amy, which stars future Batman Ben Affleck as Holden, a comic book artist who starts dating a lesbian, thinking that he’s the first man she’s ever been with. Later on, he learns that she’s actually had numerous men in the past, instead of learning that within minutes of meeting her via several thousand Instagram selfies with each of those guys.
You Could Totally Change Your Personality To Impress Your Crush (Mean Girls, High School Musical, Grease)
In High School Musical, Troy Bolton (Zac Efron) meets a fellow teenager named Gabriella (Vanessa Anne Hudgens) at a winter teen party over Christmas break. They bond over karaoke and the joys of being hot young Disney stars before exchanging numbers and moving on with their lives. Except wait! Gabriella transfers to Troy’s school and he’s not the karaoke loving goofball she met at the party. At school he’s a jock. Chaos ensues as Troy struggles with which version of himself he wants to be – a basketball player or a singer. That’s right, back then you could just … choose. You know, all the way back in 2006.
In Mean Girls, we had something similar with Lindsay Lonan’s Cady Heron, a straight-A student who falls for handsome jock Aaron Samuels. She shares a math class with him, so luring him in is as easy as playing dumb and asking if he’ll tutor her. So what if she’s actually competing in — and winning — her school’s math bowls at the time? This was 2004, for Christ’s sake — a time when you could still trick a sufficiently dumb person with lies about your interests.
In fact, we’re pretty sure that such lies used to be the mortar that held all of society together. Go all the way back to Grease (made in 1978, set in 1958). To his friends at Rydell High, Danny Zuko is a tough ladies’ man who openly brags that he doesn’t care about any girl’s feelings. But when he spends his summer on the beach away from his hometown, he acts kind and softhearted toward his summer fling, Sandy. When Sandy moves to Danny’s hometown, he’s forced to confront how differently he acts around his friends than he did with her back on the beach, and decide which Danny Zuko he wants to be.
Do kids even try that now? How do they do pull it off? Do they claim to each group that half of their Snapchats are posted ironically? (“Did you see how I owned those theater nerds? By winning the lead role in Fiddler On The Roof?”) Was there a 1980s version of Black Mirror that threatened a dark future in which adolescents aren’t allowed to swap cliques depending on what party they’re at?
Stalking An Old Fling Used To Be Hard (There’s Something About Mary)
In 1998’s There’s Something About Mary, Ted (Ben Stiller) has lost touch with the girl he loved in high school, Mary. To find her, he hires a private detective to track her down, except the detective ends up falling in love with Mary himself and using everything he has learned about her to try to win her over.
That’s right, in the Before Times, in the dark epoch that has now all but fallen from the memory of man, the people you knew in high school were just gone after graduation. If one of you moved to a different city, it might as well have been Tibet. Catching up with an old fling in a romantic comedy meant paying someone hundreds of dollars to violate their privacy in a deeply creepy and unethical way. This is because your old crush was not livestreaming their toddler’s birthday party right there in your social media feed, or spamming you with Trump memes until you’re forced to mute them.
The whole running joke in the film is that everyone is lying about their past. Another of Mary’s friends, the handicapped British man “Tucker,” turns out to be an able-bodied American who also has been lying for years. That was a plausible plot point — a fake accent and some crutches was all it took to literally be a new man.
The key takeaway here is that digging up the details of an old classmate wasn’t just difficult; it was considered a weird, invasive thing to do. Memorizing personal details for the purposes of getting close to someone made you the villain of the movie, not one of hundreds of dudes she broadcasts that stuff to on a daily basis. Hell, we wish we didn’t know which damned craft beer our old chemistry class lab partner is into this week.
Apparently, Identity Theft Was Just Effortless (The Talented Mr. Ripley, I Still Know What You Did Last Summer)
“Smooth con man lies his way through a taut thriller” is another genre that might as well be dead unless it’s set pre-Facebook. There are still shows based on the protagonist living under a stolen identity (Sneaky Pete, Banshee), but usually they have to hand-wave away the entire concept of social media with “I’ll have my hacker friend change the online records!” No you won’t. You’re using the name of a guy who doesn’t look anything like you, and that guy probably has a LinkedIn, Twitter, Snapchat, and a popular Twitch stream in which he plays Fortnite as DrChubby_LIVE.
So then you go back and watch older movies, like Matt Damon’s The Talented Mr. Ripley (set in the 1950s). The setup is that a rich old guy named Herbert Greenleaf has lost contact with his son, Dickie (Jude Law), who has moved to Italy. He unwittingly hires conman Tom Ripley because he mistakes him for a former classmate of Dickie’s (today, easily resolved via any number of online platforms), tasking him with going to Italy to find his son and bring him home. There, Tom kills Dickie and then assumes his identity, creating a series of tense near-misses along the way.
The rest of the movie concerns Tom trying to hide from Dickie’s friends, who don’t know he’s dead. He even manages to convince a woman in person that he is Dickie, but this is as likely to happen in a Facebook world as Mark Zuckerberg proving beyond a reasonable doubt that he’s not a self-aware robot. All of which is to say that there was once a time when a wealthy young party dude could die and nobody would know for weeks! Today, search parties would be dispatched the moment he failed to upload pictures of his brunch.
And holy shit, how many potboilers lose their “Tell me your real name!” identity theft twists if set today?Vertigo, There Will Be Blood, the Sinbad psychological thriller Houseguest … you could just show up to somebody’s house and say, “Hey, I’m Billy, whom you haven’t seen in several years. I look different now. I am now a part of your life.”
Then there are all of those slasher movies, usually sequels, in which it turns out the villain is in fact the son/brother/whatever of the guy you killed in an earlier movie. Like in the I Know What You Did Last Summer franchise, when they kill murderer Ben Willis, and then in the sequel it turns out that their harmless friend Will Benson is in fact the SON of BEN WILLis. (GET IT?) That’s the kind of shit you could get away with back then! You could just fuck with people!
We’re not saying things were better, or that there are no scammers now (they just do it all from the safety of a keyboard). But damn, the rules of the game sure changed in a hurry, didn’t they?
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