Through My Eyes, Your Eyes, Their Eyes: An Analysis of "My So-Called Life"
The television series My So-Called Life created by Winnie Holzman came out in 1994. I was a bit young to probably understand it since I would have been six years old. I began watching it after getting into Jared Leto, a few years ago. To my surprise, what interested me the most in the show were the other characters, and how each one goes through something linked to a social issue. So, this article will examine those issues in relation to the character, the show, and real-life society.
Have you seen "My So-Called Life?"
Angela Chase (Claire Danes) lives vicariously through her friends, but her front-row seat to their problems teaches her about real life. For the most part, she is sheltered from genuine tragedy. What we do see Angela struggle with is the peer pressure to have sex. In the end, she refuses to go with the crowd to fit in, and while it costs her the new relationship with Jordan, it gives her confidence she may not be aware she has.
Today, surprisingly, less teens are having sex at a young age. According to Guttmacher Institute, statistics from May 2014 show most sexual activity occurs around 17-20 years old, and usually exclusively within committed relationships. Perhaps, more teens were having sex in the 90s, compared to today, but that doesn't make sexual activity at a young age any less of an important subject.
Sharon Cherski (Devon Odessa) appears to be the most together teenager there is. She is such an optimistic person that everyone wants to be her friend—even those who do not agree with her—her parents are still together, she's physically attractive, and has a jock boyfriend, Kyle (Johnny Green). In one episode, some students have put together a poll for its classmates. Sharon made the list of winners because of her body, and it causes her to become insecure, and suspicious of why Kyle is dating her. Although most adults would like to believe the focus on physical attractiveness ends after high school, this isn't true. It continues throughout our lives; otherwise, why would our magazines be filled with beautiful models? Why would there be articles about the impact of physical appearance in interviews that end with a job offer? It's an unfortunate reality that needs to be challenged over and over, until it ceases to be.
What would help persuade young people not to drink?
Rayanne Graff (A.J. Langer) is Angela's best friend. Within the pilot episode, it becomes clear through Rickie that she gets drunk a lot. Throughout the season, more attention is brought to that part of her character. At one point, she drinks so much that she almost dies. Rayanne begins seeing a counselor; unfortunately, after being sober for a while, she returns to drinking, again, and it leads to ruining her friendship with Angela when she sleeps with Jordan.
Drinking is a common issue for teens and adults alike. A CDC survey from 2013 shows that 35% of high school students had at least some alcohol, and 21% were binge drinking. As someone who has never been very fond of alcohol, I can remember watching videos about drinking as a teen, before events such as the prom. My take has always been that the attempt is in the right place, but the way most programs go about helping teens has been made into a big joke. I'm not sure what the solution is. No pun intended!
Jordan:...I'm a rudimentary reader with low-literacy skills...
Jordan Catalano (Jared Leto) has a learning disability. It isn't until a free-thinking teacher, Mr. Victor Racine (Roger Rees) challenges Jordan's "act" that he just "doesn't care," that Jordan begins to enjoy school. Also, Angela encourages Jordan to attend class so he isn't expelled, throughout the season, and later realizes his difficulty with reading. Jordan's popularity in Liberty High School as the "bad boy" would show that even emotionally tough people can have learning disabilities, and improve their situation.
As someone with a learning disability who was in special education classes for most of her education up until graduating high school, I have seen my fellow special students behave as though they just don't care about their schooling, and this could be true; however, if they didn't care, why would they ask me for the answers once the teacher left for a few minutes? Yes, this happened fairly frequently. My response was always to offer to help show them how to do it rather than merely give them the answers. So, this act of "I don't care" seems to be nothing more than a front to hide one's insecurities.
In the beginning of the season, Enrique "Rickie" Vasquez (Wilson Cruz) admits to being bisexual, and proudly wears eyeliner, but by the end he acknowledges that he is really homosexual, after realizing his disinterest in dating girls. Finding our true orientation can take some time, even for mostly-heterosexual people. As a character, Rickie is constantly struggling to accept himself for who he is because he has been bullied so frequently.
Mr. Richard Katimski (Jeff Perry) is, at first, Rickie's least-favorite teacher; so much so that he does imitations of him for his friends. When Mr. Katimski appreciates Rickie's acting ability by suggesting he join drama club, which he runs, and encourages the use of Rickie's birth name "Enrique" by saying the heartfelt quote, "Nobody should hate who they are," it changes Rickie's view of himself.
Rickie's home is one of domestic violence, and school is a place of destruction as well. His friends help him to cope by taking his mind off his problems. In fact, Rickie tends to focus on being there for those who have been there for him. In one episode, he risks destroying his positive reputation by allowing an untrue rumor make him appear threatening in order to scare the bullies away from hurting him, further. Late into the season, the audience and Angela finds out how abusive his uncle is, and that he can't return home.
I have written a few articles on domestic violence in general. Some are from my own experience and others are about the statistics. I would go more in depth on this topic, but it makes more sense to direct you, the reader, to my other posts if you feel so inclined!
Teen homelessness is such a surprisingly common problem that many, including Angela's mother, Patty (Bess Armstrong), don't want to believe it exists. When Angela goes to find Rickie at an abandoned warehouse, where several kids live, Patty is forced to acknowledge the reality of homeless kids, and face her own fears that it could even happen to Angela if they lose their bond as mother and daughter, completely. Likewise, by showing the audience the severity of teen homelessness, society has to face it.
More about this topic can be found in my article called "How Stereotypes Hurt the Homeless."
Manipulation of Minors
Brian Krako (Devon Gummersall) is a straight-A student because he has to be. His life is wrapped around academic success for his parents' approval. He is expected to do everything right, so he is put in the middle of many difficult situations. In the third episode "Guns and Gossip" he is hounded and threatened by the principal to tell on which kids were involved in a gun situation. Thankfully, Brian is so educated that he knows this behavior is inappropriate enough for him to get a lawyer. Teens are often seen as uneducated, but as long as they apply themselves they can know more than the average adult.
Patty Chase owns a printing press and her husband, Graham (Tom Irwin), works for her. After it becomes clear he is unhappy, she fires him to give him the freedom to find what he really wants to do. The power dynamic then becomes the wife as the breadwinner. It may not be set in the 50s, but it still creates imbalance. Unexpectedly, Patty's lack of faith in Graham comes through many times during the season whenever he is succeeding, but she assumes differently.
Gender roles are a significant part of our understanding of socialization. We may prefer to believe we have grown beyond set stereotypes of masculine and feminine, but one can see it seeping through almost everything. Let's not ignore it. Let's try to reprogram our minds!
Marriage and Infidelity
Although, Patty and Graham seem to have a steady marriage, they don't. In the pilot episode, Angela witnesses her father talking with a younger woman in person, and later on the phone. When she mentions this to Rayanne, she is informed that Rayanne's father has had about eight girlfriends since their parents divorced; thereby, showing the two ways to respond to the breaking up of marriage—let it scare you or accept that most don't last. Towards the end of the season, Patty is waiting for Graham to tell her he wants a divorce, when he pursues opening a restaurant with a woman, Hallie Lowenthal (Lisa Waltz), he appears to be a bit too close with. Even though all ends well, the tension between the married couple is enough to guess where it would go had My So-Called Life continued into a second season.
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What type of person are you?
These issues are still relevant, today. They all deserve more attention; unfortunately, society is taught not to question the norm of blindly accepting things as they are, even if doing so is the one way to improve them. Will you be the type of person to merely follow these socially accepted circumstances, or will you be the type to challenge them?
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