Growing up in the simpler times of the '90s, we had candy commercials featuring anthropomorphic humans, toys that jeopardized children's lives, and Nickelodeon raising latchkey kids to become the well-adjusted millennials who would later invent Instagram.
Alright, so maybe times were tougher than we thought. Maybe we should've seen today's tumultuous issues coming. From the climate crisis and political division to historic economic crisis and coronavirus panic, it's easy to idealize the past, but the '90s were actually bonkers in their own right. For instance, look at Nickelodeon's sketch comedy series for kids, All That.
Among the illustrious careers launched by the 11 seasons of All That are Keenan Thompson (of current SNL fame), Nick Cannon (of former WIld 'N Out fame–but, face it, mostly being married to Mariah Carey), and...Amanda Bynes. Oh, Amanda Bynes.
Now known for her strange and erratic Twitter threads, public struggles with drug and alcohol addiction and subsequent criminal charges, court appearances in odd wigs, and threatening to sue the NYPD, TMZ, and her own family, the 33-year-old actress has shadowed her early successes with public meltdowns and bizarre outbursts (after all, once Courtney Love tells you to "pull it together dude," it's time to invest in a few adult coloring books and download some meditation podcasts–also find a therapist).
After resurfacing in the spotlight with a broken engagement, a judge ordering her to undergo psychiatric treatment, and announcing she has her first "baby on board" with a picture of an ultrasound, Bynes represents that bygone era of Nickelodeon innocence, crystalized in butterfly hair clips and slick lip gloss. How did we get to these down and out face tattoo days?
Once upon a time in the early days of MySpace, the elder millennial actress was a teen idol with her own Nickelodeon show, The Amanda Show, a sketch comedy series styled after late-night talk shows. Years before film critic Nathan Rabin coined the phrase "manic pixie dream girl" (and went on to regret it deeply) Bynes embodied that quirky, frenetic energy as she embraced goof ball characters and rejected the hot-girl-Paris-Hiltonism that was invading pop culture at the time. To many, she was a joy to watch as she tackled slapstick comedy sketches and mocked ditzy girl stereotypes, even earning repeated comparisons to Lucille Ball.
The two public images of Amanda Bynes, that of the early aughts and the face-tattooed version of today, seem irreconcilable. But in fact, there is one perfect image of Amanda Bynes' past and present, a comedy sketch of perfect contradiction that's been overlooked for decades: "Ask Ashley."
One of All That's recurring skits was the simple premise of "Ask Ashley," in which Bynes plays a child advice expert who sits on her doll-covered, pastel bedding and reads aloud letters from all over the country. The asks are juvenile and absurd, in the general vein of, "Dear Ashley, Why won't my pet fish take a walk with me?" or "Who's that girl staring back at me in the mirror?" Bynes-as-Ashley usually wore lacey sweater sets, Mary Janes, and a pigtail full of ringlets as she sat cross-legged on her bed and smiled sweetly, saying, "Our first letter comes from…"
Every millennial who grew up watching All That, with one of the most diverse casts in the incredibly white landscape of '90s TV, remembers Bynes' chirpy voice reading aloud every greeting of "Ask Ashley" and then pausing to croon her catch phrase, "Th-at's me!" And of course they remember the pay-off of the whole sketch was Bynes-as-Ashley's reaction to the silly questions: Raw, unfiltered rage.
That's right. While Bynes-as-Ashley sat beneath the adorable yellow letters of her name above her bed, she convulsed with fury as she waved her arms and shamed the letter-writer for their utter lack of sense. "FISH GOT NO FEET! AND YOU GOT NO BRAINS! WHAT KIND OF STINKIN' FISH OWNER TRIES TO TAKE THEIR FISH FOR A WALK? MAN!" And then the child actor would heave furious breaths to quell the storm of anger inside her before suddenly replacing her furious grimace with a grin. Then she'd calmly read the next letter; repeat.
The schtick is funny: a lovely little girl turning into an absolute rage monster and then back again within a blink of an eye. It's also an echo of an unfortunate facet of '90s humor, which was to casually mock and satirize mental health disorders and marginalized identities, from joking about thin females being "like, anorexic" to calling distasteful things "gay" as a synonym for "stupid."
And in that light, "Ask Ashley" perfectly captures the legacy of Amanda Bynes, as the public has taken it upon themselves to rampantly armchair diagnose the actress with everything from personality disorders to mood disorders, like bipolar depression. In a strikingly composed interview with Paper Magazine in 2018, Bynes said, "It definitely isn't fun when people diagnose you with what they think you are. That was always really bothersome to me. If you deny anything and tell them what it actually is, they don't believe you. Truly, for me, [my behaviour] was drug-induced, and whenever I got off of [drugs], I was always back to normal. I know that my behaviour was so strange that people were just trying to grasp at straws for what was wrong."
Today, while the actress remains under a court-ordered conservatorship for her own well-being (yes, like Britney Spears of #FreeBritney fame–more so than her music at this point), Bynes has yet to publicly share her diagnosis (if any); although prior to her Paper interview she once tweeted that she'd been diagnosed with bipolar disorder but deleted the post soon after. She also has yet to comment on why, just this week, she was ordered by a judge to check into a psychiatric facility for treatment.
So all we have are two flashbulb moments: the successful, smiling teen idol in low-rise flare jeans and blonde highlights and the erratic woman tweeting that the Obamas and Drake are "ugly" and yet she wants the latter to "murder my vag*na." There's a vast disconnect between the two versions of Bynes, and–while substance abuse and possibly mental illness define the space between–we see nothing but a performance that forces a grimace into a grin.