“Do you think she’s pretty?”
In 1994, that’s all I could think to ask when faced for the first time with Angela Chase. I was 14, and being pretty was important; that’s what TV told me. Around that time, I was starting to question just how important it actually was. Then Angela Chase came along. The awkward, Manic Panic–topped teen with pallid skin and lots of opinions seemed to confirm what I had already started to believe—that being pretty really wasn’t that crucial. But as a girl, pretty-or-not was the vocabulary I had automatically inherited from Hollywood. So I asked the question anyway.
Last week marked 20 years since My So-Called Life first aired. The ABC series was beloved by viewers way out of proportion to its industry reception. (It lasted only 19 episodes before being canceled due to low ratings.) The web now brims with think pieces on its continued relevance not just in the realm of teen drama but in the realm of modern teen life in general. For adolescents like me, it was indispensable. To those of us didn’t look like cheerleaders and said things that were no longer considered charming, Liberty High was a flannel-clad sanctuary. In the midst of ‘90s television’s Swatch dogs and Diet Coke heads—the impeccably made-up Beverly Hills denizens of 90210, the brunette beauties on Party of Five, and the porcelain blonds of Sweet Valley High—Angela Chase and her pals offered up a new kind of clique.
In the very first episode, Angela dyes her mousy hair a brassy red on the advice of her new best friend, Rayanne. It didn’t make her prettier, but it did mark a metamorphosis, from wallflower into woman. “Rayanne thinks Angela is in color,” Rayanne’s mother tells Angela’s. “Major color.” Her new hair fit. But it was Angela’s voice that remained her most vibrant quality, a reedy intermediary cutting through every scene like a scythe.
Would the character have been as resonant as a pretty blond? It’s been widely reported that Clueless star Alicia Silverstone, who started modeling at the age of six, was almost cast as Angela. In a 2013 retrospective, MSCL’s co-executive producer, Marshall Herskovitz, revealed that they ultimately decided on Claire Danes because she wasn’t conventionally attractive. “Alicia is so beautiful that that would have affected her experience of the world,” he told The New Yorker. “People would have been telling her she was beautiful since she was six years old. You can’t put that face in what’s been written for this girl.”
Danes was to ‘90s teen TV what Molly Ringwald was to ‘80s teen movies. A decade before MSCL premiered, John Hughes had been inspired by Ringwald’s head shot, which showed a pouty freckle-faced redhead, to write Sixteen Candles. And he proceeded to lean on her “charismatic normality,” as film critic Paulina Kael put it, in 50 percent of the films that made up his teen canon. In Pretty in Pink and The Breakfast Club, Ringwald provided a welcome antidote to the buxom blonds that bounced across the reels of Porky’s and Revenge of the Nerds. As Jake Ryan, the hunky senior in Sixteen Candles, says of her to a meathead friend who wonders why he’d bother, “Maybe I’m interested in more than a party.” Ringwald’s characters, like Angela, craved something deeper than her hormones did. “What turned things around for me is remembering how serious I was at that age,” Hughes told The New York Times in 1986. “It’s the point in your life where you’re most serious, yet, due to conditions beyond your control, you’re also at your geekiest.”
The specter of the flawless prom queen hung over Ringwald and Danes alike. MSCL’s protagonist is exposed to the same ideals as the rest of America and Angela turns green as her school votes a tall blond “most beautiful” and, less officially, Sharon Cherski as best figure. Like the rest of us, Angela has been taught that her façade is her currency; when she gets a zit, it unsurprisingly eclipses everything else. “It was all I could feel, all I could think about,” she says. “It blotted out the rest of my face, the rest of my life. Like the zit had become… the truth about me.” Angela’s crush, Jordan Catalano, is a fellow tortured soul who is “always closing his eyes like it hurts to look at things”—to her, the most romantic thing he could say is, “You’re so beautiful, it hurts to look at you.”
At the same time, Angela resists this constant focus on appearances, ever reaching for the possibility that we are more than we appear. She sits opposite Jordan for the first time at a moment when her dress and face are covered in dirt; she fights with her Plastics-grade mother about the latter’s illusory beauty ideals. “You expect me to beautiful, because you’re beautiful,” says Angela, “Well, I’m sorry—I’m not. I’m just not.” But perhaps even if she were, it wouldn’t matter anyway: Angela’s mother embodies a dusty paradigm that no longer rules her daughter’s world. It’s no accident that when Jordan first kisses Angela, it’s while she’s in the midst of talking.
Though Rayanne is hard to miss with her multicolored hair, makeup, and wardrobe, Angela finds it “surprisingly possible” to be invisible. If men are going to look at her, she wants it to be for a good reason, a reason other than objectification. In one episode, a rumor that she sleeps around begins to circulate and her male peers stare at her under the misapprehension that she might have sex with them. Angela is mortified. “People are looking at me,” she tells Rayanne as she covers her already-covered chest. She’s particularly peeved when one classmate, “someone who never talks to me, has never talked to me, would never talk to me,” says hello to her. Again, it’s through talking that Angela makes connections.
Where Rayanne primarily connects physically with the opposite sex, Angela does the opposite—she relates to them emotionally and intellectually. But even despite Rayanne’s sexual promiscuity, and Sharon Cherski’s more conventional allure, none of My So-Called Life’s central female characters are really presented as ideal objects of beauty, because they all are. ‘It’s good to get really dressed up once in a while, and admit the truth—that when you really look closely, people are so strange and so complicated that they’re actually… beautiful,” Angela says. “Possibly even me.”
It’s worth noting that the show’s one unequivocal object of beauty is male. In comparison to the other characters on the show, Jordan Catalano offers little beyond his blue eyes and floppy hair. “He leans great,” is how Angela first characterizes him and that’s his selling point, his body – how he feels and who he is always seems less important than how he makes Angela feel. He’s a conduit for her, not the other way around. It’s a TV trope that up until that point largely belonged to the boys. “In the dream I keep having about Jordan Catalano, I’m trying to catch up with him,” Angela says at one point. The reality is that this embodiment of physical perfection remains out of reach for pretty much every female character in the show, including Rayanne and Angela’s mother. Ironically, it’s the person who tradition has designated Jordan’s physical opposite, Angela, that he gets closest to. It’s a twist worthy of Shakespeare.
In one episode, Jordan’s class reads Sonnet 130, the poet’s oft-quoted work in which the narrator expresses attraction to what appears to be a decidedly unattractive woman. In response, Brian, Angela’s neighbor who harbors a severe unrequited crush on her, sums up the reason her value—and all of ours—transcends the physical. “She’s not just a fantasy,” he says. “She’s got, like, flaws. She’s real.” Angela wasn’t in the classroom at the time, but the rest of us were and, for once, we were actually listening.
Soraya Roberts is a Toronto-based freelancer who used to intern for Bitch (back in 2003!) who has since written for Salon, Slate, and The Daily Beast, among other publications. She is currently working on her first book.