Roseanne Barr, in a recent piece in New York Magazine, pointed out that there’s next to no television these days about working-class people, much less working-class women. It’s certainly true now and was true then, in the 80s, when she got started. And in the 90s, when teen television took off, the flagship show was Beverly Hills, 90210—not exactly a blue-collar zip code.
Yet there was one show that did deal with class and teenage life, the struggles not just of economic pain but of the difficulty for working-class and middle-class kids to understand each others’ problems. A show that knew that the struggles of surviving high school were sometimes just that—literally a struggle to survive.
Rayanne Graff is the glamorously weird friend, the rock’n’roll chick with wild hair, the Bad Influence that Angela Chase’s parents worried about, but mostly a danger to herself. Rayanne is the only daughter of a single mom who works as an X-Ray technician and drinks too much, the girl who spends the rare child support check from her father on an epic party for all the kids at school to enjoy (and of course, some of the money on a few hits of Ecstasy for herself.)
Rayanne and Rickie Vasquez and of course crush Jordan Catalano represent the other side of the tracks for Angela, a step away from her perfect family (which has its own problems, but they don’t include fear that her parents are going to abuse, neglect, or forget her). The whiff of trouble that gives her an adrenaline rush, though, becomes all too real all too often over the course of the show.
Ignore Angela, she’s the product of a two-parent household! Rayanne shouts.
Angela is supposed to be the one the audience would identify with, but I found myself halfway between Angela and Rayanne—halfway between good girl and bad influence.
Halfway between middle class and something else. Something I had no vocabulary for at fifteen—though I had words for racism and homophobia and the bullying dished out every day on our campus. I had words at fifteen for the girls who were older and tougher than me, for the girls who led me into battle.
I had words on a page, words in the margins of my notebooks, words of anger and of teenage love (expressed mostly in hearts).
I had no words for what it meant that my mother had gone from hiring a cleaning lady (well rather, ours were white men, my mother progressive in spite of herself) and nanny to starting a cleaning business with our former nanny. To being a cleaning lady, ruining her back and shoulders scrubbing the floors of women she used to golf with, or could have.
I don’t know what it took her to do that, but I know that even now when we speculate on what ruined her back and shoulders we almost never refer to those days.
She kept her fast car when we sacrificed almost everything else, as if in acknowledgement of how much else she had given up.
And so I went from perfect clothes to ripping them on purpose. From The Limited to scouring cheap mall stores for things that my mother said made me look cheap.
Being the stuff people notice is my hobby, Rayanne says.
“Cheap.” That word that implies slutty as much as poor.
The word “slut” didn’t even carry a sexual connotation for most of its vicious life. It simply meant a woman who didn’t keep herself and her things neat and clean as a woman should. Slovenly, dirty, untidy. Poor?
How does class slide into sexuality so easily? Virtue was for upper-class women. Innocence was for Angela. Even Jordan just thinks of sex as something that’s expected of him.
Bad girl. Low-class girl. Dirty girl. Those things so intimately involved. Imposed on you from outside.
Punk rock girl was a choice. Goth girl another. “Alternative,” hanging out in Harvard Square, dyeing our hair and shoplifting music and comics, scribbling our names in marker on a wall and benches. Weird girl.
Of course we were punished for that too. “Freak,” in our school, short for any number of things. Short for “queer,” for “poor,” for “he’d rather draw on his shoes than pay attention in class—or than scribble notes to his friends rating the girls in the class.” Short for “look who she hangs out with NOW.”
Look who Angela hangs out with now. Turning her back on perfect Sharon (who has perfect sex with her perfect boyfriend and manages, at least in the one season that happened before cancellation, to not be punished for it) to cut class and make out in the boiler room with Jordan, to skip extra credit work with Brian Krakow to get a fake ID, to go to Rayanne’s party instead of her family party. Dyeing her hair red.
Rayanne’s thrift-shop clothes tossed on in layers an affection that I understand too well, the decision to embrace “Most Slut Potential” and giggle about it, waving the paper with the high school boys’ poll on it around. This is who they would make you, so you make it yourself first. You even mostly enjoy it.
Anything causes a scar. Living causes a scar, my mother has a humongous scar from having me, does that mean I should’ve never been born? Rayanne asks.
One of the things the show hinges on is Angela’s anger at parents that her friends would kill to have. It shows both the futility and lack of direction of teenage rage and its inevitability. When you have so little to be angry about, to be worried about, you will make your problems into earthshattering ones. Or you will find other people’s problems to care about. That’s what makes Angela tolerable, after all—that she loves and takes care of Rayanne, Rickie, Jordan.
And Rayanne’s fierce protectiveness—Rayanne, like Roseanne Barr, would take a knife to a business argument, would claw the eyes out of anyone who looked at Angela wrong, would put her big heart on the line for her friends every day. Rayanne understands why Angela’s dreamy love for Jordan is dangerous, and it’s not because Jordan is a bad guy. It’s because Jordan, like Rayanne and Rickie, had to grow up way too fast way too soon.
It’s fitting that the show opens with Angela spare-changing with Rayanne, asking for “change” and giggling about pretending to need money. Pretending, because why would she ever really need it?
I needed that change to fix the broken bits of my own life, the floor falling out from under me, the friendships that I was unsure of. The fierceness, suddenly, of real problems. And my own Jordan Catalano, beautiful broken boy with dark hair falling in his eyes. My own boy who threw things away to keep from having to admit that he deserved something good.
No matter how weird, how lost, how bad I got, he still didn’t think he measured up.
And when Rayanne has sex with Jordan in the back of his car, what is that moment if not both of them throwing up their hands at trying to be perfect enough for Angela and embracing what, after all, they’re both constantly being told that they are? Isn’t it about them finally thinking they don’t matter that much at all?
Rayanne, after all, is a great actress, and it’s playing Angela that gets her the part of Emily in Our Town, the innocence of Angela that she knows she can never have. It’s that innocence that breaks her heart. And it’s that that breaks Jordan’s heart too.
So she takes playing Angela to the next logical step. And takes a swig of her drink and takes what Angela never would.
Think what you want, you will anyway, Rayanne says.
Rickie tells Angela that it was Rayanne’s way of trying to be Angela, but really it was the moment in which she was the most Rayanne. Or at least what Rayanne is told, constantly, that she is. Months earlier, when she calls her own mother to ask for advice about Angela’s treatment of her, her mother’s immediate reaction is “What did you do?”
So when Rayanne breaks Angela’s heart she goes to Angela’s mother instead, confesses and begs absolution (and receives it). Brian passes judgment, Sharon spills the secret, and Rickie is caught in the middle, and it is left to Patti to understand. To forgive.
I’ve never really hurt somebody this bad before. I guess you can’t really hurt someone this bad unless you really matter to them, Rayanne whispers.
Was it her test (and Jordan’s) of how much Angela cares? Or their expression after all of the futility of ever, ever trying to live up to what Angela is. Not having a word for “class”. Not having a word for “privilege.” Understanding, maybe, parents who are still together, but since we know from our view into Patti and Graham’s marriage, a stable marriage isn’t the thing that’s allowed Angela to retain her innocence.
And Rayanne still tries to stand up for Angela. Still fights for Angela to maintain that innocence, to not have to be hurt.
I lost a really good friend, she says.
But did she? Was Angela even capable of fighting for Rayanne the way Rayanne fought for her? Rayanne, at least, knew that she’d broken Angela’s heart. Angela drifts from Jordan to Cory, from one of Rickie’s crushes to the other, without even noticing that Rickie might be hurting.
She understands that the problems that occupy her entire world are nothing to her friends, but she doesn’t understand that their teenage hearts still bruise.
Rayanne, for all of her wildness and her trouble, knows that all too well.
It’s like you think you’re safe or something, cause you can just walk away at any time, because you don’t like, need her. But the thing you didn’t realize is, you’re wrong, Jordan says.
Jordan Catalano. Beautiful broken boy who covers it up with cool. Covers up that he can’t read and that nobody’s ever bothered to notice. No parent took him to a tutor or yelled at him about doing his homework. No one cared when he was left back once, twice. Not until Angela. Angela who did his homework until he stopped her, and then signed him up for tutoring and stuck him with Brian Krakow.
Did watching Jordan teach me how to love my own beautiful broken boy, a couple of years later, another boy who’d been told he was stupid so many times that he’d given up trying to be anything else? Or now, does my feeling for him bleed back into this show, seeing his shoulders in young Jared Leto’s, hearing his voice whisper “It’s OK.” Watching Patti be charmed by Jordan the same way my mother was charmed by Chris, remembering that day that my mother marched into the car wash where Chris worked and offered him a better job because she, too, couldn’t stand seeing him there. I wasn’t there. But I know what his face would’ve looked like. I dream about it.
Brian Krakow, whose parents aren’t perfect either and who turns to Graham for actual fatherly advice, whose parents express love in expectations of greatness. Brian swells and breaks under the attention of girls and doesn’t know what to do with actual interest other than break it.
Brian’s sort of a jerk.
I know that in the last episode of the show (was it supposed to be the lead-in to another season that they just left that way? Or was it written especially to leave Team Jordan fighting Team Brian until the end of time? Or just to be, as all the show has been, beautifully complicated) we’re supposed to think Brian has made some sort of change, writing that letter for Jordan.
We’re supposed to believe that Brian’s feelings are being expressed. But we’re also reminded that Brian bruised Delia’s heart (Delia, the most self-aware, confident character on the show). We see Jordan fumble and try to talk to Angela, try to apologize, try to say how he feels. He, like everyone else, can say it to Patti best.
I have all these dreams where I know exactly what to say and you tell me that you forgive me, Jordan says.
The most heartbreaking words, for me, in the whole show.
Knowing how to use words is a skill Brian has. It’s a skill Jordan never learned and in fact learned to run from. It’s his weakest point. That he’s even willing to try is huge.
And we forget that in their tutoring sessions, thrown together by the girl they both want, Jordan has taught Brian how to talk to girls. Jordan taught Brian how to even consider that a girl might want him. That more than one might. Jordan gave Brian the ability to write that letter, which is more than anything an expression of both of them.
That we, the imagined middle-class audience of this show, lean toward the obvious reading, toward the average-looking boy whom Angela, yes, has taken advantage of through the course of the show, that shows our own bias.
Jordan is the first to apologize. Before Rayanne, before Brian, before Angela.
Jordan who understands Rickie’s hurt, who reaches out to him in a way that lets him keep his dignity when he can’t stand to tell even the girls who love him what’s happened.
Jordan who is mystified by his own feelings but makes an effort to deal with them.
Why is he the bad boy, again?
I’ll always watch out for you, ‘kay. I’ll always be there for you, so, don’t worry, ‘kay? Rayanne says.
My So-Called Life didn’t give us the language to talk about the myriad cuts and bruises of class. That’s for college or the Internet, for those of us who gained access to them.
But what it did was shine a light on those problems, the little differences that neither Rayanne nor Angela, Jordan nor Brian, not even Rickie could name. It offered more than one option to identify with. Sure, it focused on Angela, but through that focus often showed us just how narrow her mind, her life could be.
It gave me a framework for understanding things that came later, for realizing why people wrote off that boy that I cared about, for understanding why I became a troublesome girl. Why I dyed streaks in my hair and wore thrift-shop clothes and dared people to look beyond the teen-girl armor I put on each day.
Why the people who did still matter.