Neal Fersko lives in Alexandria, Virginia.
Those of us who remember the pale static of adolescent afternoons, when My So-Called Life marathons on MTV stretched into the early evening, can still fall into the comfort of looking at Angela Chase with the same faraway eyes that Brian Krakow did. If you’re not familiar with the show or its teenage characters, Brian – nerd and neighborhood to series’ lead Angela – served as a mascot for everyone’s pain and neediness. He rewarded himself for this distinction by constructing a monument for Angela and trying to debase her whenever she blemished it by being self-centered or misplacing her affections. His disillusionment became the worst personal embarrassment for someone who was already a magnet for undeserved floppy-haired ridicule:
What’s become ironic is that, with the addition of time and misplaced alternative-era nostalgia, Brian’s image of Angela has become the dominant one MSCL is remembered for. And this show is not alone in that distinction. In recent generations, one of the popular fall back archetypes for adolescent girls has been their portrayal as conduits of morality, strength and, maybe above anything else, an unattainable personal style. Not yet adults, they’ve yet to have their idealism and unique world view compromised by financial independence or community building instincts. She must must stand alone, but with young men admiring her difficult spirit and eccentric wardrobe from across the divide.
It seems like we’ve ignored some of the more troubling aspects of this kind of role because the alternative seemed so bleak. Maybe because, on a macro level, we’ve felt lucky to find some sliver of feminism in American mass culture; roles where women are placed apart from servile relationships towards men and regressive institutions. With reality TV culture on the march, it didn’t seem so bad that Juno was lecturing audiences about T-Rex and Iggy Pop. Or that Emma Stone and, just before her, Julia Stiles were portraying characters with a withering verbosity that could shame Elizabeth Bishop when she was twice their age. And we could even let Hannah Montana and her Disney Channel brethren off the hook for breaking a male stranglehold on mass youth culture.
Truth be told, some aspects of these portrayals are a necessary function to enhance storytelling. No one was going to follow Veronica Mars if her father was an actuary and she helped him solve data sets (well given its ratings…less people). However, should we spend so much time lauding what these characters are tasked to perform and not looking at how they are consistently set apart from the aspirations and anxieties of young women we’ve known in our own lives? So many portrayals of modern teenage girls are set up as a witches’ brew of Tess Durbeyfield, Zorro and Coco Chanel. Eventually, they are looked upon with the distance and menace that used to be associated with orbiting Soviet satellites.
We only need to look at the YA literature and author John Green to find maybe the most thorough example of female adolescent worship. Green’s notoriety among teenagers has been slowly culled from stories where lonely teenage boys evolve by humanizing the free spirited and emotionally unavailable girls with exotic names like Margo Roth Spiegelman and Alaska Young. While Green can be a poignant in channeling the complex inner-lives of young people, it’s always a little troubling when his portrayal of intellectual women is seen as a function of a male arc at almost all times. As if the specialness and strength of girls is meant to enhance the world that men exclusively know. Their deconstruction is only meant to add another layer towards boosting male understanding, whether it’s in story’s actual narrative or the thought process it took to put together a character:
Like psychiatrists who insist on diagnosing themselves, through the years we are handed Ramona Flowers (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), Allison Reynolds (The Breakfast Club), Claire Fisher (Six Feet Under), River Tam (Firefly) and a flood of others that you can trace on the Female Character Flow Chart so that men can feel they’ve succeeded where Brian Krakow was constantly disappointed. Through creating these finely tuned teenagers, they retain that satisfaction that they’ve lived up to the noble, esoteric standards which real women seem to fail at almost daily. The characters which they create only seem to celebrate the victory of their epiphanies.
When Buffy the Vampire Slayer was on the air it seemed, on the surface, to fully encompass many of these same plot contrivances (Buffy creator Joss Whedon even personally linked himself to Brian Krakow on the liner notes of the MSCL DVD set). At times, the show could be aggravating in the way that its female characters were elevated to the loftiest heights of power and benevolence while its male leads always remained somewhat stodgy and earthbound. Where Whedon and his team broke free of the mold was that they had no problem stripping away some of the most fanciful aspects of these same characters that lesser writers would worship to a fault. Particularity moving was a sixth season episode entitled “Dead Things” where Buffy is given the false impression that she has killed an innocent person and wrestles with the guilt of whether or not to turn herself in and what the consequences will be for her loved ones and the void she fills in the world. Not for the first time, she’s granted a peak at the violence that surrounds her life and is allowed to recoil at it and try to reconnect with her sense of self. The strength in Buffy’s portrayal is that she’s given the intelligence and compassion to transcend her first glance image as the cool chick with nice boots and a crossbow.
Tracing back to MSCL, what also set Angela apart from this paradigm was that her creator, Winnie Holtzmen, allowed her the freedom to be short sighted and callow while wrestling with the inevitability that it would hurt her later on. Maybe in that respect it’s unsurprising that when women are involved in writing adolescent female characters (Clueless, Gas Food Lodging, Gilmore Girls, Winter’s Bone, Mean Girls) a greater emphasis is put on exploring their fears and ambitions to strengthen them without the trappings of otherworldly personalities. These aren’t absolutes by any means, many women do write weak and emotionally unassailable teenage characters. But with men dominating the creative process in the arts, honeycombing their contributions to female perceptions takes on a unique urgency.
And while young men could gawk at the Crimson Glow dye in Angela’s hair on cable reruns as part of her untouchable authenticity, its origins began with the quiet loathing that she originally shared the same hair color as her mother. Her action was meant to break the connection she had with the misshapen world others had made for her and the struggle to identify any plausible response to it: