The thing people always miss about Rayanne is her joy. We’re so busy obsessing over her clothes, worrying about her drug habits, tsking about her wantonness, being shocked by her drinking, that we overlook the reason Rayanne is such a compelling character: she’s having a really, really good time, on her own terms, by her own rules. And yeah, it’s not always pretty—because being a human being, let alone being a girl, is sometimes a rough go. And yeah, she fucks up, and yeah, she makes some bad calls. But Angela Chase doesn’t want to be Rayanne Graff because Rayanne is a sad sack of a girl. Angela wants to be Rayanne because, out of everyone, Rayanne is having the most fun.
Our culture is terrified of the appetites of women and girls—for sex, for drugs, for life, for food, for music, for power, for freedom. For anything at all. As a kid, I wanted the same things I want now—to get loaded, to get laid, to take over the world, to fall in love, to get up front at shows and fucking get reckless. None of that went away when I turned twenty, or when I turned thirty, and I wanted those things because I wanted them—not because some bad friend led me astray down a wild and dangerous path. I sought out trouble with gleeful abandon. And I also got myself out of it just fine, which was something the adults around me refused, over and over again, to believe—that I could want something dangerous, and also that I could, completely on my own recognizance, survive that danger. From the perspective of adulthood, our culture’s obsessive concern-trolling of teenage girls’ lives looks like nothing more than a prurient voyeurism as disturbing as it is unhelpful. If we’re worried so much about girls’ safety, maybe we should take better care to hand over a world that takes their agency seriously, that offers them equality, that doesn’t hamper them because of race or class or ability—or because of who they like to fuck or whether or not they like to get a little drunk on the weekends. Being a girl is a crazy fucking ride, no bones about it. What I wish someone had told me then was that it wasn’t me who needed saving; it was the culture around me.
Our adult lives are not fully-furnished apartments we walk into at the age of twenty, neatly closing the front door on our adolescences forever. We are, like it or not, the sum of our own histories. I am still in so many ways the same person I was when I was fifteen—reckless, hungry, smart, compassionate, impulsive, and a little mean. I have the same faults, the same passions, the same good luck in vintage stores, the same huge and all-consuming love of literature. I still get up front at shows. I still tell myself someday I’m going to learn to play guitar. I still jump on the bed and turn the Fastbacks all the way up, air-solo when the drums kick in thirty seconds into the Melvins’ “Joan of Arc.” I still make zines and I still dream big. And the life I have now is traceable, in every way, to the glimpse I was lucky enough to be offered as a teenager of a world outside what most people think of as adulthood—a world of people in charge of their own lives, making art, making music, making community, making family.
The moments that alter the course of our lives are tiny to everyone else but us, but we can all name them in a heartbeat: a show, a person, a glimpse of someone walking down the street who looked exactly how we wanted to look when we grew up. The skills I learned as a teenager—how to roll a cigarette, how to not kill myself, how to figure out when someone was a sketchball, how to tell a story—are skills I carry with me now. There’s no reason growing up has to mean letting go of what nourishes us, no good purpose for equating adulthood with misery, abandoning our ambitions, and being “realistic” about our prospects for a rich and joyful life. On the days when it feels like I’ll be poor and unknown for the rest of ever, I think back sometimes to what it felt like then, to be on fire with the possibility of my own life, to know that the second I got out into the world and was completely and truly the boss of myself, everything was going to be so awesome. I remember that person, remember that I am her, and I hang in there.
Meg and I started this project because the stories about girls we see all around us—in movies, in the media, on blogs, on television, in most books—are not the stories we recognize. They’re not our stories or our friends’ stories; they’re not stories about people, about girls who will grow up to be women who are fierce and tough and funny and complicated. My friends and I are all shapes and sizes and genders, all sexualities, all ethnicities and races and religions, and all of us were girls, and none of our stories are visible in the world around us, and that’s bullshit. Over fifteen years after My So-Called Life went off the air, there is nothing like it, anywhere. For all its very real flaws, for all its erasure of the larger complexities of race and class and queerness, it is the closest thing we have to a dominant-culture story of female adolescence that isn’t pathologized or victimized. Stories about girls just trying to make their way in the world shouldn’t be radical in 2011. We started this project because they still are.
Sarah co-edits the Rayanne Project with Meg Clark.