Friday 1 July 2011

My So-Called Life - It blotted out the rest of my face, the rest of my life.

My So-Called Life: The Zit.

One of the things that you only realize a couple of years after high school is that almost everybody has had a pretty hard time. It’s not just you and your friends, tortured by the horrible system that puts people with completely different interests and aspirations into close proximity and then adds a load of stress and hormones to the equation, it’s every single person around you, with the exception of the one girl who embraces all the things thrown at her because she couldn’t care less (I really liked Rayanne in this episode; I think that this is a pretty solid way to get through school, except that I assume we haven’t seen all of it yet and there’s still a lot we don’t know about her). That’s one of the points Popular made early into its run: even the less popular groups define themselves over who they are not, by pointing out that they are more intellectual, less shallow and somehow more “authentic” than those horrible cheerleaders over there. Liz Lemon, when reuniting with her former class mates, had to realize in a rather unpleasant fashion that those she considered bullies feared her because her cynical remarks always hit where it hurt the most; and in retrospect, it was possibly not my greatest moment when I quietly judged the girls in my class who thought it was a good idea to perform a Christina Aguilera song at the school dance, while listening to Conor Oberst tearing his heart out and skipping through a couple of boring pages in Sartre’s Les chemins de la liberté (yeah, I was THAT girl). Also, sorry for the introduction but I think that this is how most viewers relate to MSCL: it’s so personal and yet manages to be both broad enough to allow someone from another country with a completely differently organized school system to identify with the stories, but specific enough and with a very good grasp of who these characters are to not seem random and vague. 
In the beginning of the episode, Angela witnesses her former friend Sharon making out with her new boyfriend, and remarks, gloomily, that Sharon’s life is “developing in this natural, healthy way”, while hers isn’t. Oh, it’s the inevitable point (in some people’s life) when friends or acquaintances suddenly start hooking up with other people (or get careers and marry and have children, it’s not like this feeling can’t sneak up on you later in life…) Promptly, the episode introduces the theme via English class: Kafka’s Metamorphosis, which is either a gripping tale of a young man (who wakes up as bug one morning) who suffers from a family that doesn’t accept him after he’s changed and dies from loneliness, or a book written “by someone who smoked a lot of weed” (I borrowed this comment from someone in my class, who I think in this one particular case probably wasn’t that far off with his analysis). I’ve always admired how well MSCL (and Skins, for that matter) portrays the way in which the things students are confronted with in class sneak into their analysis of their lives, into how they make sense of what is happening to them, because there really is no greater reason to read and to watch movies and television than for exactly that. Angela is quick to adapt the concept of something being Kafkaesque for her own situation: it’s “Sharon Cherski having a boyfriend… and not me”, but on a greater scale, it’s feeling that the world around her is changing but she isn’t, she isn’t adapting to the new circumstance and ultimately fears to be left behind (even though the behind what exactly, remains undefined, as it is in real life). This is all summed up well in a conversation between Brian and Rickie. 
Brian: They've been holding hands for, like, two weeks. I'm serious, they never let go. I mean, it's like their hands have been surgically implanted, you know? I mean, how do they eat? Not that I condemn it, I mean, if they wanna hold hands…
Rickie: No, exactly.
Brian: I mean, it's fine with me... just... I'm just wondering when all this happened, you know?
Rickie: Do I.
Brian: I mean, people pairing off... into couples. It's like... I wasn't expecting it, or something, like, like, did we cover this, was I absent that day?
Rickie: You know I was.
To heighten Angela’s feeling of alienation, she finds out about a list the male students are circulating – a list of the Sophomore Girls Top 40s, and she isn’t on it (Sharon is, because of the size of her breasts). While Angela dismisses the list as sexist and misogynist on the intellectual level, she is also kind of worried that she isn’t on it (Rickie tells her to be happy she isn’t, because it means that she blends in which he “basically never will” – a small and easy-to-miss moment). Rayanne just embraces the fact that the list labels her as a slut, and therefore eliminates all the destructive potential this might have for any other girl in school. 

Being on the list has the opposite effect on Sharon: she is deeply embarrassed, especially when the boys start to treat her differently, and she grows even more self-conscious when Brian sort of tells her about the poll – and finally Angela tells her exactly what has happened (“Oh, you didn't know? You're on it. They both are.”) when Sharon doesn’t respond to her in the restroom, and then leaves without comforting her progressively more insecure former friend, who ends up breaking up with her boyfriend because she fears that her “ranking” is the only reason he’s with her – a problem he fixes in high school boy manner, by taking away his shoe (and completely contradicting the stereotype that male high schoolers in football jackets can’t be insightful and articulate, Four for you, Kyle, you go Kyle!)
Sharon: Tell me why you wanted to go out with me. And be specific.
Kyle: Because... this is embarrassing.
Sharon: Good.
Kyle: Your smile, I mean, I like it.
Sharon: Good, next.
Kyle: You're... usually in a good mood. Unlike now.
Sharon: Anything else?
Kyle: It seemed liked me.
Sharon: I did.
Kyle: You did, or do? It's not just what you've got, it's your whole... it's you. But I must admit, I'm happy you have 'em. Why, aren't you?
Sharon: I'm working on it.
The whole experience gives Sharon the insight to give a more proper analysis of Metamorphosis than Brian, who does realize that Gregor Samsa died of loneliness – but she points out to the assembled group of friends that “he’s the same person inside, no matter what he looks like”. 
Meanwhile, Patty convinces Angela to take part in a mother-daughter fashion show. Angela is less than enthusiastic (Danielle volunteers though), but finally gives in. Patty sees it as the last chance to connect with a daughter she feels is slipping away and will soon leave for college, and on another level she likes the confidence it gives her, when people tell her that she looks young for her age and beautiful, while completely missing how awkward and horrible Angela feels about her own looks (the zit, of course, works as the symbol for all her insecurities, as it slowly takes over her life). Finally, Angela admits to her mother, who’s been plagued by insecurities about her age and her looks the entire episode, that she doesn’t want to take part in the fashion show because she feels that isn’t as pretty as her, “because you expect me to be beautiful...because you're beautiful. Well, I'm sorry. I'm not. I'm just not.” – and Patty realizes that she was so focused on her own issues that she completely missed Angela’s (which Graham, who is a quiet observer for most of the episode, kindly points out to her: “you know, I mean, something unconscious and sort of overpowering, something that kind of prevented you from acknowledging her insecurities.” She finally realizes something, and that is the point of the episode: nobody really believes they’re beautiful. Not Sharon with her boyfriend, not Patty, not Angela, not the supermodel that appears in her fantasy and envies her uncomplicated hair and lack of boyfriend-baggage. 
Angela realizes that everybody feels this way about themselves, and she finally has a meaningful moment with Sharon, after weeks of awkwardly avoiding each other and glaring at each other with a mixture of regret and disdain. 
Sharon: So, um, look, uh, are you doing this fashion show thing, 'cause my mom, my mom keeps holding it up to me that you are.
Angela: I was, but I'm not. So, are you?
Sharon: No, but... my mom still thinks we are. She's, like, in denial or something. Why do girls have to tear each other down?
Angela: I guess 'cause they're jealous. I mean, I was... of you... for having what you have.
Sharon: Do you know how many times this week I wished I had what you have?
Angela: But I don't have anything.
Sharon: Exactly.
Angela: Well, this really makes sense.
Sharon: I guess it just... all boils down to what they used to drill into us at Girl Scouts.
Angela: What, sell more cookies?
Sharon: No! No, you know, um, what you are, is, no wait, what, what your gift is…
Angela: Oh! No, um, what, what you have is God's gift to you.
Sharon: Right. To you. And, and what you, what you…
Angela: Do with what you have, is your gift…
Together: …to God!
Sharon: Right! Exactly.
Angela: I can't believe you, like, actually remember that.
Sharon: Oh please, are you kidding me? Oh, we have Girl Scout cookies from, like, three years ago in our garage.
[Rayenne enters]
Angela: Hi. Where've you been?
Rayanne: So, was she, like, bragging about Kyle?
Angela: No.
Rayanne: If you wanna be friends with her again, that's fine.
Angela: I don't.
Rayanne: Okay. Maybe you do, after all, she's not a slut... yet.
Angela: You know what? How many guys you do, or do not sleep with, is, like, so, none of my business. It has nothing to do with our friendship, okay?
Rayanne: Okay.
What a brilliantly written scene! It acknowledges Angela’s and Sharon’s shared past, and that these shared memories are always going to connect them on some level, despite the fact that they’ve grown so far apart. It’s not really the beginning of a new friendship, because they also both realize that they don’t have this anymore. And then the really important moment between Angela and Rayanne, stating that who they choose to be with is irrelevant as long as they mean so much to each other, and that Angela isn’t judging Rayanne for who she chooses to be. 
In the end, Angela realizes that her little sister really wants to go to the fashion show with their mum, not because she likes fashion shows, but because she envies this connection Angela has with Patty. She feels left behind, because Patty PICKED Angela and didn’t even consider her, so the obvious solution is Danielle taking part in the fashion show and Angela cheering from the sidelines, after Patty explains to Angela that all she ever wanted was to convey to Angela not to constantly be self-conscious about the way she looks (“All I want for you is to enjoy what you really are”). 
Angela: Sometimes it seems we’re all living in some kind of prison, and the crime is how much we hate ourselves. It’s good to get really dressed up once in a while, and admit the truth. That when you really look closely, people are so strange, and so complicated, that they’re actually beautiful. Possibly even me.

Random notes: 

Angela finds out from Rayanne that Sharon “found” her new boyfriend at a “big game”, asks if they should “be, like attending those things?” – Rayanne responds: “Please, grip yourself”. Uh oh, this really is me at that age. 

 I really liked Rickie’s little subplot this episode: he picks up on the fact that people are misinterpreting the fact that he prefers being in the girls’ restroom (they are asking him if he intends to have a sex change operation – “I don’t want to be a girl. I just wanna hang with girls.”), so he decides to quit; and finds himself just as out of place in the boys’ room. But his friendship with Brian is growing, and totally parallel to everything 
that is happening with Angela and Rayanne. 

I’m also really enjoying how the show subtly portrays that Angela, Rayanne and Rickie are growing closer (just by showing the physicality of their friendship, the uncomplicated hugging and un-pretentious kissing). 

Angela also takes a speech by Malcolm X personally, which is an accurate portrayal of how teenagers work (self-involved and self-centred and all that) but it still makes me feel sort of uneasy, because I don’t feel that a speech about racism should be appropriated to criticize high school beauty standard hacking order (and I’m not saying that beauty standards can’t be racist; it just really doesn’t apply in Angela’s specific case). 
Rayanne: Look, stop screwing around and just pop it, okay? So you can get on with your life!
Angela: But won't popping it cause a scar?
Rayanne: Anything causes a scar. Living causes a scar. My mother has a humongous scar from having me. Does that mean that I should have never been born?

Jordan is in danger to fail English due to not having handed in his essay on Metamorphosis; Brian explains the plot to him, and in the end, Jordan is slightly disconcerted, cause “it's made up, right?”. OH JORDAN. NEVER CHANGE. 

In a tiny visual joke, the poster in the restroom changes in the course of the episode: it starts as a very reasonable message warning the students of the dangers of smoking, then Rayanne picks on it, then someone writes over it, and by the end, it’s completely damaged. 

Also, re:Rayanne embracing her label, in the end, she writes “slut” on her name tag. She’s starting to kind of remind me of Liv Malone. 

I’d say Mean Girls was at least a little bit inspired by this? 

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