MTV's Undressed may not court the same kind of nostalgia and cult following that other shows of the era enjoy, but the series was incalculably important to those of us who grew up as sheltered teens in the late '90s.
To understand the impact of Undressed, which ran from 1999 to 2002, one must think about how much mixed messaging young girls were getting at the time. On the one hand, we'd been encouraged to openly crush over the latest heartthrobs. Racing to the supermarket to collect all those JTT and Devon Sawa covers of Teen Beat was A-okay, and no one minded if we went to see Leonardo DiCaprio cosplay as Romeo a dozen times; our fascination with dreamy dudes was worth megabucks, so it was cute for us to fawn over our favorite Hanson brother and pledge allegiance to *NSYNC or BSB by spelling out those initials on our walls with glow-in-the-dark stars. These obsessions with male stars were seen as relatively wholesome and a bit too removed from reality to affect anyone's everyday choices or moral judgment. At the same time, though, there was this open tug-of-war in '90s pop culture over how charged our female idols should be.
While the Spice Girls were introducing us to all that "zig-a-zig-ah" innuendo, and Christina Aguilera brought her belly-baring "rub me the right way" aesthetic for "Genie in a Bottle," there was a noticeable push for pop stars to promote chastity. Natalie Portman recently caught flak for pointing out the confusion over Jessica Simpson's late '90s and early 2000s image — which included wearing a skimpy bikini while promoting her virginity on a magazine cover — but she had a point about the restrictive, and often contradictory roles women were expected to play. Simpson branded herself as a bombshell with an air of purity, and she was far from the only one. Most famously Britney Spears, whose breakout music videos featured her in racy school girl garb and lyrically proclaiming she was "not that innocent," publicly cherished her virtuosity while the media obsessed over whether or not her claims to be a virgin were true.
Meanwhile, teen dramas were doing their best to throw cold water on any collective sexual awakening, too. Jen Lindley was basically called a whore by her own Gram for french-kissing a guy on Dawson's Creek. Angela Chase was slut-shamed all over school over a rumor that she'd hooked up with Jordan Catalano on My So-Called Life. And after Buffy Summers lost her virginity, her boyfriend literally turned into a monster. There were exceptions, of course, but in the late '90s and early '00s there seemed to be a cultural kowtowing to a fear that we'd all suddenly start having sex like rabbits because Sisqo had convinced everyone to buy thongs.
Undressed, however, refused to accept that teens should either not know anything about the nitty gritty of bedroom behavior or only be shown portrayals of sexuality as warnings enforcing a purity narrative. Just as Sex and the City was starting to change all the rules about how female sensuality could be represented onscreen for adults, Undressed was breaking the mold about what adolescents could see about sex on TV, too.
The low-budget, light-hearted anthology series featured three situational vignettes in each episode that were centered on physical partnerships and which unfolded over varying lengths of time. Over the course of its six seasons, Undressed addressed all manner of sex-related subjects: there were threesomes, same-sex couplings, STDs, masturbation, puppet sex therapy — you name it, and it became part of a storyline. The very first episode dove right into the dirtiest details of a young couple trying to spice up their sex life while a more in-the-know woman helped her roommate open up a bit by gifting her a vibrator. The relationships were sometimes serious, sometimes casual, and sometimes not even relationships at all.
While each of these situations were obviously scripted and dramatized — you'll recognize some very familiar faces in the cast list — the show was so compelling because it put away all pretense and presented characters with a sense of liberation when it came to both having sex and discussing it. By encouraging identification between the audience and the subjects, the rotating protagonists were able to sub in as our big brothers and sisters as they showed us the business of bumping uglies and pushed the boundaries of what had been done on television before. Nothing was too taboo or unimportant to include in the half-hour comedy.
Watching Undressed was like eavesdropping on a grown-up conversation you weren't supposed to hear; the parental advisory persuasion that so often prevailed in entertainment built for teens was gone, and the people onscreen were talking bluntly about pressing subjects that were typically skirted around. Sure, most of us were already learning about reproduction at school, but all that clinical talk could hardly prepare us for what to expect when body actually met body.
Undressed didn't pose itself as an instructional series by any means, but it did reveal just how very normal those blossoming sexual appetites and experiences were — even the experiences that didn't quite go as planned. For those of us who couldn't get that kind of revelation and honesty elsewhere, the show was essential and eye-opening viewing.
Attitudes about abstinence-first policies have changed a lot since then, of course, but the series is in the process of being rebooted, and if Undressed 2.0 is as helpful in taking the stigma out of sex for another generation as it was in its original run, more power to it. Watch and learn, kids.
This week, TV Guide is exploring television's relationship with sex, puberty, and everything in between. As part of Sex Ed Week, we're examining how intimacy coordinators are changing the industry, why Sex Education filters raunchy teenage life through a candy-coated aesthetic, the most awkward sex scenes we've ever watched with our parents, and more. You can check out all our Sex Ed Week content here.