Riot grrrls, beta males and fluid manner: how My So-Called Life changed Tv eternally

The show lasted only one series, but it rewrote televisions rules, breaking down conventions and giving teens an authentic voice

” We all felt that it was time for a teenage daughter to be front and centre .” It’s weird to hear that now, but it was even weirder to hear it then. My So-Called Life creator Winnie Holzman was one of the few who felt this route in the early 90 s. At the time, teen girls who were taught to be seen and not heard had started aloud rocking out to the feminist antics of the riot grrrls, but mainstream culture wasn’t playing along. The likes of Beverly Hills 90210′ s Brenda Walsh and Saved by the Bell‘s Kelly Kapowski were all they had for role models, conventional beauties stuck within an equally sparkling entourage. At that phase, on television, there was no one like My So-Called Life’s heroine Angela Chase.

Appearing for one season on ABC in the US and on Channel 4 in the UK from 1994 to 1995, My So-Called Life revolved around a 15 -year-old girl searching for her identity. Like The Wonder Years before it, MSCL was that rare series to use a adolescent as its narrator, but, unlike Kevin Arnold, Angela Chase was a highly unreliable one.” People say you should be yourself, like yourself is this definite thing ,” she’d say. With her, the personal was political; Angela’s revolution was within herself, a insurrection against her former identity- the one prescribed by her parents. Despite her attempt at maturity, however, her solipsistic view of the world laid bare her white suburban privilege and her often contradictory opinions within that.

” Trying to do a television indicate from inside of a person’s experience was a fairly new thing ,” recollects co-producer Marshall Herskovitz.” Television was externalised in a very special way, and having the subjective point of view of this daughter that was not afraid to show her pain, to display her terror, that sort of thing was very new on television- and, I think, in certain ways ahead of its time .”

[ youtube https :// watch? v= SC_zgYzeLOk? wmode =op aque& feature= oembed]
Teenage angst … watch a trailer for My So-Called Life.

The seeds of MSCL date back to the 80 s when Showtime assigned Herskovitz to write a series about teenagers; he conceived a” very personal, very internal” story about a son and called it Secret/ Seventeen.” It was my interpretation of my own experience of being that age and what it was like to go through all the tectonic changes that your intellect and your body go through at that time ,” he recalls.

But management changed, and his series was not picked up in the end. So Herskovitz and co-producer Ed Zwick moved on to thirtysomething, a dramedy about the angst of a bunch of delayed adolescents in their 30 s. There they approached writer Winnie Holzman about creating their next series, and when Herskovitz mentioned Secret/ Seventeen, she” genuinely triggered to it”, as “shes been” ruminating about her own adolescence.

She started with a diary. Holzman wrote from her own memories of high school- Herskovitz says she could conjure them better than anyone he had ever fulfilled- formulating what would eventually become the voice of MSCL’s narrator.” Everything that you love about that indicate was already there, simply in those words that she wrote from this girl’s point of view ,” says Herskovitz, who adds,” It’s not like she was doing herself; what she was doing was[ projected] the sensibility that I suppose every sensitive introspective person has when they go through adolescence .” Both he and Zwick read her notes and immediately responded,” OK, run. You’ve got a present .'”

Family matters … Claire Danes ( centre) and the casting of My So-Called Life. Photograph: Mark Seliger/ ABC/ Getty

With Claire Danes, Holzman was able to mould these terms into the shape of Angela Chase. The as-yet-unknown performer was chosen over Alicia Silverstone, as the latter’s Hollywood beauty would have subverted the series’ aim- to authenticate the teen girl experience. Danes was beautiful one minute, plain the next; her body language conveying what terms failed to, her own life informing that of her fictional alter ego. As Brian Krakow( Devon Gummersall ), the geek who is crushing on Angela says,” She’s not just a fiction. She’s got, like, flaws. She’s real .”

Highly attuned to small-screen stereotypes, Holzman was intent on dismantling them. She dedicated Angela mothers( Patty, the breadwinner, Graham, the homebody) who were still themselves in the midst of establishing their identities and discovering their incompatibility with traditional domestic tropes. MSCL was the rare drama that focused on the mundane minutiae of family life( which entail the committee is also appealed to an adult demographic ), this sphere often being relegated to the slapstick genre. The selection was, in fact, made out of necessity, since, as a minor, Danes’ hours on decide were limited. But the mothers were ultimately essential to MSCL’s impact, because they not only represented our lifelong struggle with identity, they represented where Angela was coming from in the histories of where she was going.

” Most tales begin with an old order disintegrate because some unexpected force has exerted itself ,” Holzman says, via email,” That, for me, was Rayanne .” Angela’s newly acquired relationships with Rayanne Graff( AJ Langer) and Rickie Vasquez( Wilson Cruz) embodied her future, while her ex-best friend Sharon Cherski( Devon Odessa) personified her past.” I knew I wanted Rayanne to be wild and to lead Angela into challenging new situations ,” Holzman says. The epitome of excess, Rayanne was a physical onslaught- all those braidings, all those layers, all that volume- whose single-parent household and descent into drug-induced near-death was a means for the Chases to betray their suburban condescension and for Holzman to betray her commentary on privileged folk’s response to socioeconomic divides and the complexities of hierarchical friendships.

Chase mate … Claire Danes as Angela and AJ Langer as Rayanne. Photograph: Mark Seliger/ ABC/ Getty Images

Then there was Rickie, an effeminate teen- ABC detected his application of eyeliner more unsettling than anything else- of indeterminate race who crushed on boys and at one point determined himself homeless.” I belong nowhere, with no one. I don’t fit ,” he says in one episode, which is how Holzman conceived him.” I wanted Rickie to be- well, ultimately he identifies as lesbian, but initially I wanted him to be sexually androgynous- not so easily categorised ,” she explains.

The character was inspired by Holzman’s teen peers, but also Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning, which investigated the marginalised- by race, class, sexuality and gender- worlds of New York drag balls. MSCL was the first primetime indicate to feature not only a recurring gay teen but one who also happened to be a person of colour.

And with actor Wilson Cruz coming out in tandem with his character, US LGBT magazine The Advocate dubbed him a” poster boy for gay youth “. The irony being, however, that Rickie was not meant to be a symbol but simply a part of Angela’s life, though he turned out to be the portion that caused the Chases to face their ambivalence about homosexuality and multiculturalism , not to mention their views on masculinity.

MSCL not only flirted with gender fluidity before it became a part of the national dialogue, it questioned the parameters of conventional maleness. Jordan Catalano( Jared Leto ), the show’s supposed alpha, was dyslexic with a rocky home life and a certain fragility about him( he didn’t stand, he leaned, and he was forever utilizing eye drops as though not even his eyes were able to exist in the world without leaning on something ). He was socially privileged at school, but was very much the object of Angela’s gaze , not to mention a step below her in the class hierarchy outside of the classroom.

Agenda-fluid … AJ Langer as Rayanne, Claire Danes as Angela and Wilson Cruz as Ricky.

Brian Krakow, meanwhile, may have pined after Angela but he was not without masculinity, especially when he was sharing a microscope with a girl he liked. It would be a few years before a guy like this would get the girl in the guise of Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s Xander, Dawson’s Creek‘s Dawson and Felicity’s Noel, Angela preferring, in this case, to choose fiction over reality.” Brian is part of her past, so someone she must repudiate if she’s going to move into this new experimental identity ,” says Holzman.” They know one another in a particular style- closely, in some ways- and yet, because they are both now struggling with her transformation, neither actually knows how to relate to each other any more .”

Whether or not its heroine was getting any, My So-Called Life was the rare primetime show that candidly discussed teen sex( according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, by 1996 merely 12% of reveals involved adolescent sex content)- not only that, teen girl sex. In Angela’s words,” There’s this dividing line between girls who have had sexuality, and girls who haven’t .” Thus Sharon, the suburban good daughter, self-flagellates for enjoying sex with a guy she doesn’t respect, while Rayanne, the deadbeat, is free to believe” you don’t have to, like, be in love to have a good time”, while ultimately feeling empty. And Angela, unable to conceive of copulation without all the losses associated with it, fails to bend to Jordan’s pressure. As she says early on in the series,” I don’t know, maybe I’d rather have the fiction than even him .” Even for Angela, sex is too actual.

While authentic adolescence could be heard in the words and ensure on the bodies of MSCL’s characters, the show’s accoutrements spoke to their reality just as readily. Beverly Hills 90210 had transformed the teen show into a vehicle for marketing manner and music, but the looking and sound of My So-Called Life interacted with the lives within it. Costume decorator Patrick R Norris dedicated each actor a closet, to preserve the realism of repeating, and ensured that Angela’s clothes did not overpower her internal dialogue, though her progress towards bolder plaid did convey her increasing emancipation. The seamlessness of her friendships was depicted in the fluidity of the characters’ wardrobes, with Angela later on in the series, for instance, sporting the kind of shearling coat favoured by Jordan.

Various characters- Brian and Rickie, Angela and Rayanne, Angela’s younger sister- even switched appears in order to explore each other’s identities. Similarly, alternative bands such as Buffalo Tom performed the characters’ angst, while a story arc to generate singer-songwriter and actor Juliana Hatfield devoted a clear nod to the riot grrrls’ power of turning the young female experience into art.

You’ve got male … alt-heartthrob Jordan, played by Jared Leto. Photo: ABC/ Getty

MSCL’s clothes and music were so inextricable from its characters that fans utilized both to express their connection to the display. They wore Doc Martens and listened to the Lemonheads as they read Claire Danes interviews in Sassy magazine and deconstructed the show’s feminism in Bitch. Despite this vibrant following, however, on 15 May 1995, months after the last episode aired, ABC cancelled the series due to its” far too narrow” appeal. In response, MSCL fans established the first online campaign to save a demonstrate. The self-appointed “Lifers” took over ABC committees and, though they failed to save their series, it did land another run on MTV.

” Networks didn’t understand that you could sell to adolescent girls ,” Herskovitz said year later. There was no precedent, he adds now, though he recollects everything changing around the time Claire Danes started working on the 1996 movie Romeo+ Juliet.” All of a sudden, “its like”, only boom ,” he says.” The culture had suddenly detected teen daughters .”

The year MSCL was cancelled, The WB became home to a panoply of series that owed “peoples lives” to Angela’s, including Felicity, The Gilmore Girls, One Tree Hill and Buffy. The show’s influence even reached outside the network to Fox’s The OC, MTV’s Daria and NBC’s Freaks and Geeks. But there remains something unique to MSCL, and even its inventors are not immune. Herskovitz says that lately he, Holzman and director Scott Winant were watching the pilot together on the advent of a new DVD release and by the end of it, all three of them were sobbing.” To look back at this thing that was so pure ,” Herskovitz says,” that anyone let us do it, that’s why we were weeping .”

In My Humble Sentiment: My So-Called Life by Soraya Roberts is published by ECW Press

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