I wasn’t allowed to watch My So-Called Life when it first aired due to the fact that it had a gay character (Way to go, parents! That one sort of backfired, didn’t it?). Once a week I would pick up a VHS tape of the current episode from the twins who lived down the cul-de-sac. I’d take the coveted tape to my friend Courtney’s house where we’d watch it in her basement. Courtney’s favorite character was Angela, because she could relate to her commentary, peppered with ‘likes’ and ‘whatevers’. I, on the other hand, was infatuated with Rayanne. Impulsive, loudmouthed, hedonistic Rayanne, saying whatever popped into her head and satiating her oral fixation with a cigarette, a beer, a joint, a pill, whatever. She reminded me of every ‘bad’ girl I’d attached myself to since preschool. Did I want to be them or be with them, or could the two bleed into each other to form some kind of delinquent feedback loop? I was in awe of women who confidently did and said things that were considered ‘wrong’ and who did so seemingly without the obsessive hemming and hawing I tended to apply toward every single decision to the point of paralysis. Rayanne fit the bill perfectly as the archetype of energy that could temper these tendencies.
Angela Chase was the character around whom an entire world of so-called lives revolved. We were tethered to her story by her inner monologue. The rest of the personalities in her solar system were bound together not by gravity but by gauzy emotions and feeling tones that waxed and waned in intensity like the moon’s glow. Throughout the single season of the show, various constellations of characters moved to the forefront, their stories becoming the pole star for an episode. Brian Krakow’s first erection from human contact! Sharon Cherski’s best global endowments! Ricky Vasquez’s eyeliner! Chase family infidelity drama! We cycled in and out of their lives largely through Angela’s pensive lens.
Afflicted by a classically melancholic demeanor, Angela was wistful, saturnine and approached everything on an incredibly grand scale. This life has been a test. If this had been an actual life, you would have received instructions on where to go and what to do. This was the kind of profundity to which she was prone, applying thoughts like this to decisions about, I don’t know, the appearance of a zit. Everything seems like a life or death decision when you can see in an instant the repercussions of each movement you could possibly make rippling out into the future.
It makes sense that she would be drawn into sanguine Rayanne’s sphere of reference. Extroverted to the extreme and rarely thinking about the impact of her decisions beyond the immediate effect, Rayanne threw Angela’s sentimentality into relief. She functioned as a sort of activating principle for Angela’s tendency to remain frozen in rumination by pushing and prodding her into leaving the etheric realm of thought. Rayanne said exactly what she was thinking and consumed life seemingly without reflection. This is not to say that she did it without emotion. The viewer became privy to Rayanne’s carefully disguised emotional world when she flipped a shit at Angela for giving away a pair Grateful Dead tickets. We saw her forcibly self-assured nature come apart at the seams when she blew her chance at being in a band. She recovered some semblance of bravado when she got the lead role in the school play, and maybe this is how she processed the fact that she destroyed her friendship with Angela by exercising her ‘slut potential’ with Jordan Catalano. Her deep, gaping vulnerability cracked wide open when she was able to channel it through stage acting, an intense way to end a television series and open the door for its mythology to seep into the viewer’s real life.
The push and pull between Rayangela and their differing temperaments was never really resolved because the show was cut short after one season. That’s what I think makes it feel so much more true to life. Because none of our relationships are ever resolved. They can only be dissected in moments of contemplation, like the ones Angela gave us. The show’s abrupt ending left us with a handful of scenes and moments, a necessarily process-rather-than-goal-oriented look at the way your heart feels like it could explode at all moments when you dive into another person’s experience. People are always saying you should be yourself. Like you know what it is even. But every so often I’ll have, like, a moment, where just being myself in my life right where I am is, like, enough says Angela, whose relationship with Rayanne was similarly frozen as a handful of moments.
As I went through middle and high school I continued to both idolize and lust after ‘bad’ girls. There was Katie, my camp counselor, who molded my sense of humor with her loud and crass proclamations and who like Rayanne, seemed to have no impulse control. She taught her bevy of campers that it was not just OK but also important for girls to be just as vulgar as guys. She did this through stories, like the one about when the scab from her tattoo (a giant crab, for her astrological sign) came off while she was having sex in a shower. Or other stories about farting during sex (or during anything, really), and about not letting whoever you were dating (male or female!) tell you that you weren’t good enough or hot enough or smart enough. There was Debbie, my babysitter and later friend who was an out queer vegan who listened to Helium and the Pixies and dressed in classic mis-matched thrift store attire and who peed in her driveway because she said “if men could do it so could she.” There was my friend Lindsay who smoked rolled-up newspaper filled with banana peels or whatever weird bullshit the 9th graders told her could get her high and who was constantly setting things on fire. If she saw a phone she’d compulsively make a prank call and tell the person on the other line to fuck off. I would just watch, laugh, egg on, totally in awe.
I desperately wanted to be these girls, to be less inhibited and less frozen by my own nervous system. And eventually I would be. Eventually I would blossom into a full-blown fuck-up, the introspective Angela turned inside-out. I would also live to see some of my Rayannes get burned by their ways and even die. I would learn that although there is wisdom in speaking your mind as loud and abrasively as possible and that tearing through life at a breakneck pace can be a strength, that it is also a lonely path to commit to. That is, unless you can find your karass (to quote Rayanne’s mom, quoting Vonnegut), your pack of other women who run with wolves. This is not always encouraged by society at large. A lot of the time, we get pulled away from each other by the allure of the Boy’s Club, because these uncompromising temperaments are treated as masculine. “I just don’t get along with other girls,” is an unfortunately common sentiment among Loud Broads. “They can’t take my strong personality.” We can take your strong personality! We love it! Let’s form a fucking decentralized global network of strong personalities and sling-shot this planet into a dimension where women everywhere draw down the moon and cultivate this strength in others, because if there’s one thing the legacy of the riot-grrrl movement has taught me it’s not to idolize anyone. You can actually be that which you’ve placed on a pedestal. Sniff it out in others, too. Forge a bond. And then take over the world.
I still feel like a total tween when in the presence of women who impose their enormous overflowing personalities on the world , who rock whatever whack-ass Rayanne Graff wardrobe they so choose, women who refuse to behave or sit still. I adore women who teeter along the line of self-destruction but who are in fact constructing new, stronger selves, who could totally hurt me but who also help me recognize that our lives are constructed of moments and the best thing to do with those moments is to take them and smash them against the brick wall of the future until it gives way.
Caroline Contillo is a New York based writer and artist who decided a few years back to use her powers for good. You can read her blog and see some of her work at www.carolinecontillo.com.