In the opening seconds of My So-Called Life’s single, nearly perfect, season, Angela Chase explains that she’s abandoned her existing group of twinset-wearing, yearbook-editing high school friends in order to playact panhandling with Rayanne Graff, a mismatched classmate as beautiful as she is troubled. Angela explains in an aside that if she didn’t get closer to Rayanne, she “might die or something.”
That’s the tragic beauty of the Rayanne Graff character: her breathless, frenetic energy seems like fun and games until the narrative reveals that all this breath play is actually dangerous, even potentially lethal. Rayanne walks a fine line between best friend and villain, but in the ethos of the dangerous ’90s girl, which includes Rayanne, Dawson’s Creek’s Jen Lindley, and Freaks and Geeks’ Kim Kelly, that line is never fully explored, cheating much more interesting narratives in favor of drawing a definitive line between girls who are hopeless and the heroines who are much easier to love. In the end, Angela gets Jordan Catalano and Joey gets both Dawson and Pacey, and Lindsey finally gets to pretend she’s Kim.
The crushworthy bad girls all of these series never get to be fully realized monuments to the beautiful confusion of teenage rebellion; instead, they languish as warnings against girlhood rebellion. The hopeless bad girls should have been treated with all the concern given to the virginal Angelas or the sexy leeway given to bad boys like Jordan. But the bad girls never really even got their own plotlines, much less the narrative space to spin a perpetually bad attitude into its own form of heroism. The underlying message, of course, is that there is only one type of girl who deserves a story: one who rebels without being too rebellious, one who can brush against trouble without getting stained by it. And as for all the troubled girls watching at home, hoping damaged didn’t mean broken beyond repair, well, too fucking bad.
Rayanne Graff didn’t invent the trope of the tough on the outside, yet soft on the inside bad girl. The makings of her character can be found in early-season iterations of 90210's Kelly Taylor; in countless Very Special Episodes of 30-minute family comedies before that; in pulpy warnings to teenage girls in books like Go Ask Alice; or in the beautiful cautionary tales of every much too free-spirited girl from Henry James or Jane Austen, who is too loose with her virtue and either gets fucked or rained on and dies (or almost dies) as a result of one or the other. On and on goes the list of pretty, flawed girls taking their last breaths. But Rayanne was the archetype to which all other ’90s teen dramas would latch—loud and sometimes mean but only because she was so deeply sad in a way that the show never explores because it was busy exploring Angela’s much simpler sadness. Rayanne is both exhausting and sympathetic but ultimately exists only as a yardstick to measure our sweeter heroine’s prudence.
Rayanne was the perfect storm of specifically ’90s fears—a generation raised by single mothers after the 1980s spike in divorce rates, a promiscuous club-kid acting out real-life worries about what kind of morals would stick to kids born amidst the sex, drugs, and rock and roll of the ’70s. But unlike the afterschool-special girl with the drug problem, the sex problem, the latchkey problem, My So-Called Life took Rayanne seriously, to an extent. Her father, whom she hasn’t seen in years, sends a card with a check that reads “Happy Birthday and Maybe More”; her mother is a fun roommate. Angela’s mother is sometimes overbearing and wants to meet her boyfriend, the source of much of Angela’s angst at feeling too normal. And so, Angela gets a boyfriend, while Rayanne has an overdose because, while My So Called-Life is a much more nuanced portrait of teenagers than most, there are rules. Maybe that’s why I forgive Rayanne for having sex with Jordan Catalano—that’s the only option for a girl like her in a story like this.
At least Rayanne has drunk sex in the back seat of a car with Angela’s love interest because she is in love with Angela. Maybe not sexually, but she is in love with what she describes to Jordan, while comparing Angela to Our Town’s Emily Webb, as Angela’s “innocence.” But what Rayanne is in love with are all the ways in which we, the audience, are meant to fall in love with Angela. Angela says no to halfhearted sex with Jordan Catalano when Rayanne says yes. Angela stops drinking before things get dangerous with those predatory older men. Angela discusses Anne Frank in the car with the police officers who bust her trying to sneak into a club until even the cops have to admit she’s a good kid. All Angela loves is a boy who is perhaps not smart enough to love her back but is trying his best. Rayanne is left to pine for a role she’ll never fill.
Likewise, Jen Lindley shows up to Dawson’s Creek as a beautiful, worldly blonde foil to Joey Potter’s supposed hometown brunette plainness. She has had so much sex and New York City partying that her parents are finished with her. Her storyline starts when Dawson Leery wants to fuck her instead of Joey, who has been quietly pining for him all this time. But as the narrative of six seasons of Dawson’s Creek pivots to the more interesting love triangle between Dawson, Joey, and Pacey, the show self-consciously wonders what to do with Jen. She struggles with her own inner good girl/bad girl dichotomy, and her love affairs are mostly with her grandmother, who comes to accept Jen for who she is, and her gay best friend who helps her realize that there was never anything wrong with her.
As the show evolves to largely focus on Joey’s explorations of young womanhood, it forgets that Jen exists, giving her increasingly reductive plotlines after putting her in therapy to solve her troubles, having her halfheartedly take Dawson’s virginity before the narrative realizes she deserved better and just fades the relationship to black. Once she’s not the bad girl anymore, there is not much use for her. Ultimately Jen, a cast-off single mother with no straight man who loves her in the universe of the show, tragically dies. Her final wish for Joey, the show’s original level-headed virgin, is to choose love with either Dawson or Pacey.
In Freaks and Geeks, the teen soap opera set in the 1980s that became the late 1990s’ one-season classic in the vein of My So-Called Life, the beautiful troubled girl was Kim Kelly, who effectively acted as final girl Lindsey Weir’s id, and who could have been a second female lead if our culture allowed for that. Kim dated Daniel Desario, the hapless stoner Lindsey wanted to dump her math club friends for; she drove her car into crowds when she was angry instead of crying alone in her room; and ultimately, she showed up to cheer Lindsey on in a math competition. Despite being poor, having a single mother, a boyfriend who cheats, a penchant for hitting, and a whole host of problems that would never fly in a brown-haired main character, Kim didn’t want to be Lindsey. Kim wanted space to be Kim, a story arc that was hinted at when Kim’s mother picked at her flaws at a dinner table scene, or when Kim confessed to Lindsey that her self-worth is wrapped up in her shitty boyfriend’s desirability.
Though she was given much less screen time than the other blonde girl heartthrobs of the 1990s teen sitcom, Kim Kelly’s story is the most like one that comes close to approaching something that a character like her deserves. Who knows what happens to Rayanne? The point of the story is Jordan Catalano driving off with Angela while lovelorn loser Brian Krackow traces his bike in contemplative circles in the streetlight. Jen Lindley’s dead.
But Kim Kelly and Lindsey Weir jump on a tour bus to follow the Grateful Dead in the finale of Freaks and Geeks. The story, though, was in service of Lindsey’s decision to leave her schoolwork and twinset friends behind to hang out with Kim Kelly because she just might “die or something” if she doesn’t. In the end, Kim doesn’t get to be the main character, but at least she gets to be the last crush standing, rather than a foil or ultimately a plot device, which is as close as the breathless, blonde ’90s hot girl ever got to come to surviving her own cautionary tale. Kim Kelly gets to become Jordan Catalano.
Perhaps Kim’s progress at the end of the decade hinted at different iterations to come. For example, Netflix’s Sex Education, which functions as a nostalgic love letter to the teen soap opera boom of the 1990s, does away with the brunette girl altogether. Maeve gets to be blonde and troubled angry. She gets to like fucking and then, in season two, she gets to dye her hair brown and fall in love, even if that love is now in service of teaching our virginal hero, male this time, that he might not be as good a person as he believes himself to be.
My So-Called Life took a measured approach portraying American teenagers, taking the side of its characters, like Ricky, a bullied, gay Latinx kid who was actually given his fairy-tale ending in the form of a safe home with middle-class gay parents even more normal than Angela’s. It wasn’t an afterschool special packed with moral theatrics around completely normal teen behaviors, which is likely why it has been so often imitated in the years since its one season but was so misunderstood while it aired. At the heart of the show was Angela Chase and a love letter to the simple, heartbreakingly sweet confusion of teenage girlhood. But within that is the start of a letter to a much more complicated, perhaps even brutal confusion, one that deserves as much writing and rewriting as the one that actually got an ending.