My So-Called Life: Angela Chase, Body Image, and Teen Angst

In August 1994, ABC aired the pilot episode of My So-Called Life, and for the first time I felt that a television show spoke directly to me. I was fifteen, self-conscious, and searching for identity in a rural suburb of Lansing, Michigan. Shows such as Beverly Hills 90210 and Melrose Place obsessed over affluence, sexuality, and ideal standards of female beauty. These unrealistic portrayals of “teenagers” produced a negative effect on my body image. But in My So-Called Life, I witnessed Angela Chase, also fifteen, struggling with society’s unrealistic expectations of femininity. To teenage girls of the 1990s like myself, she was the epitome of the “alternative girl” we wished to emulate. Generation X, both then and now, is defined by its angst, lack of direction, and irreverence for the expectations of their Baby Boomer parents.

The recession of the early 1990s loomed as the reason for such malaise in films like Reality Bites, which depicted the slacker tendencies of post-collegiate adults struggling to find meaningful careers. But what did young, white, suburban women like Angela Chase have to worry about? The wealth of middle-class families remained unchanged from 1983 to 1992, and then saw a 43% jump in the following ten years.1 As My So-Called Life demonstrated, Angela’s search for identity was not shaped by economics, but rather by her privilege. Her character was beloved and relatable to its white, Generation X audience because her transparency was unique in a television world built upon caricatures of girls rather than real ones.

Since its cancellation in May 1995, My So-Called Life has become a cult classic for its viewers. Angela narrates seventeen of the nineteen episodes and the show is her lived experience, not one dictated by adults. The series taught young women that it was acceptable to possess a body in which you were uncomfortable; to say “no” to the pressures of sex without the adult tinge of the after-school special; and to create a new identity if you did not fit into the popular crowd. And yet, these were all issues addressed in other teenage shows during the 1990s. What made Angela Chase so remarkable? For the first time in television history, the show illustrated that girls had a voice and deserved to be heard.

Girlhood in the 1990s

My So-Called Life entered primetime television during an era rife with contradictions. To the average American, feminism was still confusing and scary. Riot Grrrls questioned the exclusivity of the term “feminism” and redefined feminine beauty. Yet, their reclamation of terms like “slut” and “bitch” offended the mainstream. News outlets demonized Anita Hill for her testimony against Clarence Thomas in October 1991, but later announced 1992 was “the year of the woman” after the election of several female senators and representatives. The world wide web became an outlet for girlie feminism and women-only spaces but also for pornography.

Anita Hill giving her opening statement in her allegations of sexual harassment by then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. Watch the full video on YouTube. (CSPAN)

Young women felt the pressures of these contradictions, especially when it came to the toxic expectations of feminine beauty. Television and magazines taught them that their intellect should not shine above that of their male peers and led them to believe that their bodies should be lean and beautiful to fit their value in society. Before My So-Called Life, there were no female protagonists to look to if you were a young girl questioning your identity or worth.

In 1993, after the success of ABC’s thirtysomething, which portrayed a group of troubled Baby Boomers, producers Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick sought to focus on Generation X. Herskovitz and Zwick gave writer Winnie Holzman carte blanche to write about budding female sexuality and the interactions of the female protagonist with her former activist parents. While the recession of the early 1990s did not bring about the dire predictions of some economists, film and television storylines focused on creating authentic representations of the white American family shaped by economic and social uncertainties. Compared to the Baby Boomers, their children were slated to face exorbitant costs of higher education and student loans, trouble finding jobs, and rising costs of living.

As a television character, Angela Chase was a white, attractive, teenage girl coming of age in Three Rivers, a fictional suburb of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in a pleasant home with two working parents. As Michele Byers argues, My So-Called Life presented its viewer with “essentializing versions of adolescent female heterosexuality.”2 If Angela was the young innocent, her friends were the “slut” (Rayanne) and the “conformist” (Sharon), while the heterosexual male characters exhibited normative adolescent male behaviors. Despite these differences, both Angela and her friends experienced similar hatred of their bodies, regardless of their shape.

Angela’s Virginal Body

In the 1990s and today, teenagers on television do not resemble typical high schoolers because casting agents often book actors in their twenties. Herskovitz and Zwick originally tapped Alicia Silverstone to play Angela but decided she was too beautiful and would subvert the aim of the show: “to authenticate the teen girl experience.”3

Claire Danes and Jared Leto in My So-Called Life. (Flickr)

Instead, they cast then-unknown actor Claire Danes who was thirteen at the time of her audition. With her waifish figure, baby doll dresses, and Doc Martens, Angela stood out in a culture of girls eager to impress and attract young men. At the time, as Joan Jacobs Brumberg argues, American girls had to choose between their desire for sexual expression and the prospect of sexual danger — a theme reflected in Angela’s character. The show recognized that female virginity was not the highest value of women and that adolescent women also have desires that need an outlet.4

In its treatment of female virginity, My So-Called Life did not frame Angela’s decision to not have sex with her dream guy, Jordan Catalono, within patriarchal tropes. Jordan gaslights Angela, making her feel as though she is not good enough because she is “so young,” refusing to acknowledge that they are together, and finally pressuring her to have sex with him for the first time in an abandoned house.5 In an episode aptly titled “Pressure,” Angela considers how her parents would be disappointed if she had sex as a teenager, while Sharon informs Angela that once she does, she “can’t go back.”6

Ultimately, it is not Angela’s fears of losing her innocence that leads her to turn down Jordan but her convictions to stay true to herself. Angela expresses this autonomy in the episode’s conclusion: “People always say how you should be yourself, like yourself is this definite thing, like a toaster or something. Like you can 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.”7

Re-watching this as an adult, I cheered Angela’s decision. But as a teenager, I had a very different reaction. My fifteen-year-old self had internalized the misogynistic message that we had to please men at every opportunity. Jordan would have all the opportunities in the world to sleep with any number of girls at his high school, but he had chosen Angela. In 1990, the American Association of University Women found that adolescent girls exhibited plummeting self-esteem between the ages of nine and fifteen due to the pressures of being valued by their male peers. According to Peggy Orenstein, by the sixth grade, both girls and boys came to equate “maleness with opportunity and femininity with constraint” in academics and in social norms.8

New Meanings in the 21st Century

In recent years, I have watched 90s styles coming back into fashion at the university where I work. I often ask my students, clad in mom jeans and baby doll dresses, if they know who Angela Chase was, but they have no idea who I am talking about. While my female students face new pressures on social media, I am hopeful they will experience more joy and less angst than 90s “girls” did.

In the #MeToo era, my students are armed with a better set of coping mechanisms and language than my generation was twenty years ago; their vocabulary includes words like “consent” and “sex-positive,” and while body image remains a point of major concern, “heroin chic” has been replaced with a more diverse ideal embraced by young women. They are driven to succeed, though some still exhibit concern over being perceived as brainy. Teen girls of today have pressures that I did not, and yet, they do not seem nearly as angsty as I was in the 1990s. What we can learn from Angela Chase and My So-Called Life is that girlhood was, and will remain, complicated and worthy of attention.

Notes

  1. Pew Research Center, “The Lost Decade of the Middle Class,” August 22, 2012, accessed November 30, 2018. Return to text.
  2. Michele Byers, “Gender/Sexuality/Desire: Subversion of Difference and Construction of Loss in the Adolescent Drama of My So-Called Life,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 23, n. 3 (1998): 711. Return to text.
  3. Soraya Roberts, “Riot Grrrls, Beta Males and Fluid Fashion: How My So-Called Life Changed TV Forever,” The Guardian, August 26, 2017, accessed October 22, 2018. Return to text.
  4. Joan Jacobs Brumberg, The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls (New York: Random House, 1997), 142. Return to text.
  5. My So-Called Life, season 1, episode 13, “Pressure,” directed by Mark Piznarski, aired December 1, 1994, on ABC. Return to text.
  6. My So-Called Life, “Pressure.” Return to text.
  7. My So-Called Life, “Pressure.” Return to text.
  8. Peggy Orenstein, Schoolgirls: Young Women, Self-Esteem, and the Confidence Gap (New York: Doubleday, 1994), xviii. Return to text.

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