The Permanent, Empathetic Cringe of rewatching My So Called Life


by Bethany Taylor

What My So-Called Life meant to a thirteen-year-old girl, precociously angst-ridden and swaddled in the largest flannel shirts possible, was that I wasn’t alone in feeling like the wheels had just come off the world. Or, if you will, that the paper doll had woken up from her gingerbread house.

My So Called Life ran for one season twenty years ago, in 1994-1995. Teenagers in other media I absorbed in the 1990s seemed a lot cooler and more self-assured and somewhat dimmer than Angela Chase, Rayanne Graff, Rickie Vasquez, Jordan Catalano, and the rest. These kids weren’t happy, they had problems and moods and heart-breaking dramas and seemed to crawl inside themselves in ways that felt astonishingly familiar.

Nothing ever got solved, or if it did it never stayed solved. The undercurrents were always there—Angela’s searching for herself in other people, Brian’s depression and his unrequited love for Angela, Rayanne’s drinking, Rickie’s abuse and his still unfurled sexuality, Jordan’s emotional constipation. Things didn’t get wrapped up, they lingered, and sometimes the good guys won and sometimes the shit just hit the fan and Angela was curled up in her closet sobbing.

It was a relief to see that life wasn’t just an emotional roller coaster that I alone was riding. Teenagers, with all the hormones and changes and identities and questions, are among the most self-centered people on the planet. I was, of course, no different. But, because being kind of an angry confused Grunge-ish mess of a mscl3nerd girl wasn’t as popular a cultural trope as anything else—say, The Breakfast Club stereotypes, which they try to break in that film, but re-occur constantly—it was harder still to feel like what I was was normal. We talk about how important it is to have all kinds of diversity in pop culture, so that everyone can see themselves reflected, affirmed as a viable member of the human firmament.

I know that painfully shy, emotionally raw girls who swath themselves in large flannel shirts, baggy corduroys and Doc Martens so they don’t have to process and present their corporeal existence to the world aren’t a particularly discriminated sector of society. But to have a real television-peer–red-hair and questionable choices and complicated relationship with a guy who does not seem to deserve her and all— was priceless. I felt like I had more in common with Angela Chase than with a lot of my real, flesh and blood friends.

I suspect we all did. It was safer to connect with a fake person than with each other. Because what if we really were the only nutcase? Better to be lonely on the inside than shunned in society. This show helped combat that. It made being ourselves a little more okay.

I recently sat myself down for a My So-Called Life marathon. Jordan Catalano is still swoony enough to show up in my dreams, and all the rest seems unchanged. (It wasn’t a steamy dream, he, in all his blue-eyed, mussy-haired, shearling-corduroy coat glory, turned to me and said, “I’m not it, you know.” In case I still was in the mood to fall for wounded birds.)

I wasn’t immediately transferred back to being an insecure teen, but I did watch with a permanent empathetic cringe. As near as I can tell, My So-Called Life depicts the beauty and horrors of being a teenager with uncomfortable, intimate, accuracy. Sharon and Angela’s rocky friendship, Jordan’s blue-blinky stupidity and pressure on Angela to have sex with him, Brian’s constant figure-eights on his bike, the inanity of the teachers expecting any work to get done with the emotional freight heaving in and out of those little desks, all of it was bittersweet to revisit.mscl2

It was only a visit. I now have the benefits of being an adult. I am comfortable in my own skin, I wear clothes that fit, I talk to anyone, and I am by and large at peace with my insecurities.

Watching as an adult, 20 years later, I could see the adults a whole lot better. Part of the genius of My So-Called Life was the richness of the adults’ story-lines. I vaguely remembered some of the pieces—Rayanne’s mother is soft and flowy and free-thinking, but also doesn’t do shit when her daughter is on the verge of an overdose, Angela’s dad almost cheats but also gives her tickets to the Grateful Dead, Angela’s mom is bossy and overbearing, but is there when Rayanne gets her stomach pumped, a teacher takes Rickie in when he is homeless, etc.—but not much beyond that.

These parents are all, as best as they know how, trying to protect these kids they love and do not understand, trying to insulate them a little from the ups and downs and uncertainties of the world. And the kids push away, stifled by their parents’ love, needing to be held but also figure out how to fly.

My So Called Life gets that it’s everyone’s job, parents and teachers and friends, to do just that.

I work in a high school library. Much as I personally enjoyed my little return to Liberty High, I think that the real beneficiaries of this visit will be my students next year. I have been able to remember better where they are coming from, and can better meet them where they are.

And who knows where any of us are going.

Go. Now.

Bethany Taylor lives in New England, blogs and blogs at Granite Bunny and Hothouse Magazine, works as a farmer and a librarian, and generally tries to have a good time saving the world and writing about it.

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