Book Review: In My Humble Opinion: My So-Called Life, Soraya Roberts (2016)

August 5th, 2016 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

“Red is the color of revolution.”

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free ARC for review from ECW Press.)

“When I think about My So-Called Life,” WB regular Greg Berlanti told Entertainment Weekly, “I think about that line in Star Wars, when Obi-Wan Kenobi tells Darth Vader, ‘If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.’ That’s exactly what happened here.”

My So-Called Life hit the airwaves on August 25, 1994 – just weeks before I started my junior year of high school. From the first frame – “Go, now, go!” – I was hooked. I still remember the excitement of watching the pilot, on the ancient, staticky hand-me-down tv propped atop my sister’s dresser. (We shared a room. It was literal hell.) It was like someone had scrabbled through my brain, gathered all the best bits, and stitched them into the unlikeliest script ever. I knew, without a doubt, that I couldn’t be the only kid watching who felt this way. This was something new, something special. Something downright revolutionary. Like, what was ABC thinking?

I wanted to be wild like Rayanne, yet quiet and introspective like Angela. I dyed my hair red and took to toting around a ginormous purse stuffed with all sorts of ephemera and random clutter. I skipped school, drank liquor spiked with Kool-aid, and wore the most outlandish outfits I could come up with: forest green corduroy pants and a vintage mint green polyester top one day; a slip as a skirt or a camisole as a shirt the next. A weird mix of hippie chick and slutty goth. I lusted after Jordan, even though I had my own version (but not, like, really) IRL.

Though it only lasted one season, My So-Called Life stayed with me forever. It’s one of a handful of shows from my childhood that’s held up over time gotten better with age. Now I’m thirty-eight – much closer in age to Patty than Angela – and I think I appreciate it more than ever. Or at least understand it on a different level. The opening credits still make my heart skip a beat, anyway.

Enter: In My Humble Opinion: My So-Called Life. Written by fellow fangirl Soraya Roberts, IMHO is one of just two (TWO!) academic books about MSCL. (The other being Dear Angela: Remembering My So-Called Life, edited by Michele Byers and David Lavery and, frustratingly, not currently available in an ebook format.)

Roberts turns a critical feminist lens on the show, exploring how it dealt with issues such as gender, sexism, class, race, and sexuality:

Chapter 1, “A Toaster or Something,” places MSCL in its historical, third-wave feminist context; its emphasis on self-expression as activism makes the personal political, giving that oft-overlooked demographic – teenagers – a shiny new voice. (Remember, this was back in the olden days, before the Internet was commonplace. My family didn’t get dial-up until 1996.)

Chapter 2, “It Hurts to Look at You,” deals with the show’s use of, challenge of, and exploration of beauty, fashion, and identity. “None of MSCL’s central female characters are presented as ideals of beauty, because ideals of beauty don’t exist here.”

Rayanne takes center stage in Chapter 3, “That Rude Girl,” which delves into Angela and Rayanne’s complicated friendship (and the Chase’s relation to Rayanne and her mom Amber) through the filter of class. As Roberts points out, real sisterhood means that you’re equal – and Angela and Rayanne clearly aren’t: “Even in her own life, Rayanne is less important than Angela.” My mind itches to know what the writers might have had in store for them going forward.

Rickie gets his due in Chapter 4, “I Belong Nowhere,” which asks the question: “who is Rickie?” To Angela and Patty, Rickie (and Rayanne) is often seen as a project – though one taken on with ambivalence (see: Patty’s reaction to an abused and homeless Rickie in the Christmas episode). To the viewers, he’s often invisible – just like he is to his friends and peers. To ABC’s Standards & Practices department, he was simply too effeminate (and thus confusing) for mass consumption.

In Chapter 5, “How to be a Man,” Roberts looks at how Brian and Jordon – seemingly polar opposites – both conform to and challenge male gender norms. Though he often comes off like a typical alpha male, there’s more to pretty-boy Jordan Catalano than meets the eye; he’s “more Edwards Scissorhands than Paul Bunyan.” Meanwhile, Brian is more similar to Angela than she’d like to admit; perhaps this is why she loathes him so?

Chapter 6, “Sex or a Conversation,” argues that sex is a conversation – and what it says is often dependent on gender and stereotypes. In Angela, Rayanne, and Sharon, MSCL presents us with three essentializing versions of female sexuality – the innocent, the slut, and the conformist – only to bust them wide open.

Angels’ nuclear family – Patty, Graham, and Danielle – are the “Strangers in the House” in Chapter 7. Among other things, Roberts considers how Angela’s breasts – a symbol of her womanhood – come between her and Graham; how the Patty-Graham dyad bucks traditional gender roles; and the ways in which Patty and Angela’s relationship is a metaphor for the conflicts between second- and third-wave feminism.

Chapter 8, “Go, Now, Go” looks at MSCL’s lasting effect on pop culture, from Daria (similar in tone to MSCL, but arguably more successful because its presentation is less threatening in animated form) to Buffy the Vampire Slayer (which Joss Whedon described as My So-Called Life meets The X-Files).

Though it’s a little shorter than I’d like (see: the dearth of similar books!), IMHO is a thoughtful, engaging look at MSCL. While it definitely has an academic bent, it’s still suitable for lay readers (but a working knowledge of feminist theory is a big plus. Also, if you haven’t seen the show in awhile, you may want to brush up with an episode guide.) I’m not sure I agree with everything – sometimes I think Roberts is a little too lenient re: the show’s more problematic aspects (see, e.g. Rickie’s marginalization; of course, we don’t know how this might have played out in later seasons!) – it still got me thinking.

It’s been years since I watched the entire series in order, and I was pleasantly surprised by all the new-to-me information and avenues of exploration I found here. As I said, I wasn’t on the internet when the show first aired. By the time my parents finally made the plunge, I was in college and didn’t have time to read fansites or participate on message boards. Though I adored the show, I missed out on the fan-participation angle that we all take for granted now.

I learned that Claire Danes was just thirteen when she shot the pilot (!), and that the actors’ ages and experiences heavily influenced the direction of the show. For example, due to her juvenile schedule, Danes wasn’t always available; this led the writers to feature the adults, including Patty and Graham, more heavily in the plot. Though I didn’t consciously process it at the time, MSCL uses fashion, internal monologues, and voice-overs in interesting and meaningful ways; for instance, Roberts points out that our narrator often doesn’t see Rickie, even when his experiences glaringly mirror her own (e.g., Rickie’s crush on Jordan). Angela’s biases force us to confront our own.

Along with Freaks & Geeks and Firefly, My So-Called Life’s early death is one I continue to mourn. IMHO is an exciting and introspective celebration of its short life and lasting legacy.

Read with: the My So-Called Life box set in arm’s reach, because you’ll want to binge watch it the second you’re done!

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

 

Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Roberts examines the ’90s television show My So-Called Life from a feminist perspective; among other things, she looks at how MSCL introduced tropes and stereotypes about gender, race, sexuality, sexual orientation, class, and disability, only to tear them down. There’s some diversity in the show itself: Rickie is gay, fluid in his gender presentation, biracial (black and Latino), and, at one point, homeless; Rickie, Rayanna, and Jordan all come poor/working-class background; Jordan suffers from dyslexia and lives (or lived) with an abusive father; and Brian is Jewish.

Animal-friendly elements: n/a

 

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