“Don’t you remember?” Rayanne’s mom asks Angela’s mom after a PTA conference. “There’d be like this one person who had like perfect hair or perfect breasts or they were just so funny and you just wanted to eat them up, just live in their bed and just be them. Like everybody else was in black and white, and that person was in color. Rayanne thinks Angela is in color. Way in color.”
Twenty years ago, My So-Called Life premiered on NBC. I was two years old. And while I did form rather sophisticated television tastes in my youth, in those days, I stuck mostly to talking dinosaurs and magical school buses. In fact, I didn’t watch all 19 episodes of what many consider to be the best teen drama of all time until I was in college. A few years older than Claire Danes’ Angela Chase—the plainspoken teenager whose diary-style internal monologue drives the show’s narrative—I fell for the series like a teenager in the throes of an exciting new crush.
“So I started hanging out with Rayanne Graff. Just for fun. Just because if I didn’t, it seemed like I would die or something,” Angela says in the first five minutes of the pilot. It’s one of the first glimpses into her psyche, which so perfectly captures the raw intensity and volatility of teenage angst. Everything is life or death. Every feeling burns. In this early moment, she’s talking about her new best friend, Rayanne, played by A.J. Langer, with all the hearts-in-eyes romanticism of a princess finding her prince. To Angela, Rayanne is just as mysterious as resident heartthrob Jordan Catalano (Jared Leto). She’s spontaneous, brazen, broken, of a completely different world from Angela.
Despite their differences, Angela and Rayanne form a beautiful friendship. It remains of the most honest depictions of young female friendships ever shown on television, and that's because the writers of My So-Called Life understood a fundamental truth about most close friendships between young girls: that they’re almost romantic. Young girls hold hands, share beds and their darkest secrets, and it’s all very intimate, if not outright sexual.
For young queer girls, that can be really confusing. It’s just a friend crush when it’s a girl, right? When you’re a little queer gal trying to figure shit out, it can be extremely difficult to untangle all the emotions and desires wrapped up in close friendships with other girls. And even though MSCL never explicitly explored the latent queerness of Angela and Rayanne’s friendship, it hints at it in ways I’d never seen before on television.
Because television often doesn’t cater to us, queer viewers search for subtext, hunt for signs of sexual subversion. But it doesn’t take a seasoned Gay Detective to read Rayanne as queer, or to interpret a certain level of sexual connection between her and Angela. In the pilot, when Rickie asks Angela what she wishes someone would say right before sex, she replies: “You’re so beautiful, it hurts to look at you.” Rayanne laughs at the response, mocking Angela’s wholesome romanticism. But later, when drunk in the back of a cop car, Rayanne tells Angela she’ll always watch out for her, always be there for her. “With your hair like that, it hurts to look at you,” she says, without a trace of sarcasm.
We’ll never know how Rayanne’s identity may have evolved over the course of the show. It’s easy for me to imagine Rayanne identifying as queer in the nonexistent second season or at least becoming romantically involved with a girl. Maybe it would be Dana, the girl who Rayanne brings up out of nowhere in the second episode. Rayanne babbles about how Dana has gone from wearing catwoman eyeliner to a more smudged look and how her feet are perfect. She talks about Dana with the same observant infatuation Angela uses to dissect Jordan. And when Angela asks what Rayanne’s point is with all this Dana talk, she quickly replies: “Nothing. She just annoys me.”
It doesn’t matter whether or not Rayanne is really queer or not, or how that might have been explored had the show not been canceled. What matters is that I see so much of my young self in Rayanne and I know that other queer viewers can, too. It may not have been the authorial intent, but Rayanne’s overt need to be sexual, her recklessness, and her intense connection with Angela can all be read as stemming from identity struggles most queer teens face in the rigid confines of high school heteronormativity. A.J. Langer nails the character’s quick flicks between boldness and self-doubt, creating a layered performance that's full of mystery. We’re never fully sure of who the real Rayanne is and what she wants.
At its time, My So-Called Life was really the only show grounded firmly in the perspective of a teenage girl. Young women showed up in plenty of shows, but usually as plot devices or sexual objects, rarely in control of the narrative. That, of course, started to change post-MSCL. We had Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Felicity, Gossip Girl, Veronica Mars, and many of these shows featured wonderful friendships between young women. But none quite explored the raw romance of a close adolescent friendship like My So-Called Life did.
Then, last spring, MTV premiered the new teen dramedy Faking It. Initially, I had several reservations about the premise: Two best friends pretend to be lesbians to gain popularity at their ultra-progressive high school. Yeah, yikes.
As it turns out, Faking It—while tonally much lighter and less grounded in realism than My So-Called Life — similarly gets it right when it comes to young female friendships and the intimacy between girls.
Only Faking It pushes the blurred lines of a romantic friendship even further. In the pilot, Amy, played by Rita Volk, and Karma, played by Kate Stevens, just go along with it when fellow students mistake them for a couple. But when they’re accused of lying in front of the whole school, Amy decides to sell it by pulling Karma into a kiss. When they finally pull apart (it’s a long kiss — I counted the seconds and watched it approximately four times, and if that doesn’t convince you of how starved queer women are for girl-on-girl mouth touching in media, I don’t know what will), Karma can’t believe how great of a performer Amy is. Amy, however, wasn’t acting.
Faking It isn’t a perfect show, and for supposedly being a romantic comedy about queer teens, it sure does feature a lot of hetero kissing and sex. But it also expertly navigates the frustrating, fluid world of young teen sexuality. Amy, like young teenage me, has no idea what the fuck her attraction to Karma means. Is she gay? Bi? Queer? Confused? Karmasexual? She doesn’t know yet. As viewers, we get to watch her as she tries to figure it all out, and the show thankfully doesn’t obsess over categorizing her in any particular way.
One of the most striking things that happens on Faking It is how people’s attitudes toward Karma and Amy change once they think they’re a couple. Amy’s Republican housewife mother Farrah (Rebecca McFarland) suddenly disapproves of Karma and Amy’s actions now that she thinks they’re girlfriends and not friends. At her wedding reception, Karma and Amy do a choreographed dance to “Straight Up” by Paula Abdul, and it freaks Farrah the hell out, even though the dance is something the girls might’ve done a few weeks prior without her batting an eyelash. When everyone thought they were just friends, Karma and Amy could hold hands and have sleepovers and no one would have thought anything queer was going on, which was probably part of why it took Amy so long to figure it out for herself. She sees Karma in color, way in color, and she finally starts to realize that the lines we draw between friendships and relationships are somewhat arbitrary, reinforced by heteronormative assumptions and policing.
Faking It is obviously more explicit about queerness in young female friendships, but it’s hard not to think of Rayanne and Angela when watching the tension between Karma and Amy unfold. Rayanne and Angela also hold hands and exist so closely that it’s hard to determine where one ends and the other begins. And the only reason the viewer doesn’t assume anything beyond friendship is because queerness is never assumed. Our social norms are designed to expressly discourage that. No one reads Karma and Amy as queer until they say it.
Both shows—whether implicitly or explicitly—explore these complicated intersections of sexuality, language, and behavior. Female friendships are wonderfully complex and can oscillate rapidly between a connection that’s sisterly, then friendly, then romantic, then sexual, then volatile. That emotional turbulence resonates with both Angela/Rayanne and Amy/Karma, even if it’s in very different ways. There’s more nuance here than the typical “coming out” narrative shown on TV. It’s real, honest, and messy, just like the diary of Angela Chase.
Kayla Upadhyaya is a contributing writer. She tweets here.