print this page
Anglea vs Brian: A Theory and a Puzzle by Guy Rohrbaugh

A few months ago, I began to realize just how serious my attachment to this show was. I was sitting around the house, engrossed in some book or other, when my roomate put on a tape of the show in the next room. Hearing just a few notes of the theme jerked my body to total attention, and then I found myself running to the next room, so as not to miss a second of the credits. It was around the same time that I began to feel totally uninterested in all my other television show, some of which I'd had relationships with for years. It had crept up on me the way these things will. The obvious question I've been asking myself and everyone else ever since is "why?"

I believe the crux of the show is the simple fact that the problems they face and wrestle with in high school are still our problems. Their so-called lives are ours. Turn this around and you get the, admittedly depressing, idea that we haven't made any real progress since high school. Sure, maybe we went to college, got a job, dated, had sex, drank, took drugs, got an apartment, thought about marriage, and more. We grew up, right? High school is far behind us. For some of us maybe. I suspect that these are the people who are puzzled by my fascination with the show. The rest of us, emotionally at least, are still fighting the same demons we were then: loneliness, loyalty, love, friendship, failure to connect and communicate, kissing, sexual confusion, how to relate to our parents, being good, being bad, and more. If I'm towing some kind of theory here, it's some kind of updated psychoanalytic one. The emotional issues for your life are indeed framed in your youth, it's just not in infancy, but when you're a teen. As far as I can tell, I became pretty much the person I am now around sophmore year. Childhood, Danielle's life for our purposes, is just another world. But when you turn fourteen or so, you have to start dealing with the stuff you will for the next, oh, twenty or so years. And no one tells you anything, except other people who don't know or whom you're constitutionally incapable of listening to.

The first question that always comes up is, "who's your favorite character?" This choice of identification, I suspect, is totally revealing, like some kind of projective test, only without the irritating ink-blots and vague symbolism. And this is where I hit my puzzle. There's never been any question in my mind: I am Angela Chase. I had made the choice before I even thought about it. But when I did start talking to people about this, it seemed like I might have made a mistake where none should be possible. What they said came down to, "But isn't Brian your soul-mate?" And I see their point, but I don't feel it, and I want to know why.

Brian is, after all, smart, academically inclined, alienated, pretty much socially hapless, totally in love with Angela, and can't do anything about it. He's the ur-geek. He's king of the utterly hopeless crush and the half-hearted acting on it. There's a constant stream of excuses for hanging out at her house, doing something with her friends, befriending her parents, helping her in geometry, lending her things, which is pretty much all he can do. Now in a million other movies, this is exactly the character I go in for, the Hughesian anti-hero, the uncool outsider. So why not now? Well, for one, the Hughes films, in comparison, are fantasies. You just know your guy is going to win in the end. No one ever complains that Sixteen Candles is unrealistic; meimeisis just isn't the point of the Hughes project. "My So-Called Life," on the other hand, is clearly striving for realism. At the superficial level, it's in the oft-cited authentic dialogue, but it ends up shaping our expectations for the plots. And in the real world, Brian isn't going to win. And here's where I think the first wedge between us comes from. I don't want to identify with someone who's just doomed. He has no real friends, despite his attempts to hang out with Angela's crowd. The only thing he can do is wait it out and go to college where there's somehow room for people there wasn't room for in high school.

The other problem is with him. I hate to say it, but some of the time I feel anger and contempt for Brian instead of the sympathy I by all rights ought to be feeling. Certainly a lot of the point of being a geek in high school, or justifying it to yourself, is occupying the moral high ground. It's o.k. that no one will talk to you because you're better than they are. But this is the very ground he surrenders over and over again. He's not just smart and academic, he's totally self-important about it. Like the fact that he's in calculus is what makes him different and better. He's, with rare exception, wholly self-involved and unable to listen to other people's problems, or at any rate, incapable of hearing them. The cental case in point is, of course, his treatment of Deliah in the dance episode. How's he supposed to feel superior to Catalano (which is totally central to his crush on Angela, that she really belongs with him because he's nice, her intellectual peer, not ambivilent, etc.) if he turns around and (1) treats Deliah like shit, (2) totally uses her for his emotional needs, as opposed to Catalano's, say, physical ones, and (3) complete ignores her feelings, just for another pointless attempt to be near Angela? I don't mind destroying my own life for these sorts of goals, but not someone else's.

So why Angela instead? There's all the surface stuff, the importance of which is not to be underestimated. More often than not, it's the little things about characters in books and movies which pull us in. And so it goes with Angela. She's stunningly attractive in that unstraightforward way where real beauty lurks. She has those little idiosyncracies which you end up latching onto when you fall for someone, as opposed to the bland statistical beauty of, say, mainstream modeling. And here I'm clearly riding some kind of line between wouldn't I love to look like her and wouldn't I love to go out with someone who looked like her. She's got her totally identifyable style of dress, centering around that shirt. Don't I still try to build an identity in part with my wardrobe? Why else do I smile so much when someone says I've got my own style and they like it. Then there's her body language, that awkward posture and limb position I find so totally familiar. And she dances around her room in a way totally different from how she acts in public. Also hauntingly familiar. I guess I find the shy and awkward mannerisms, and the self-doubt they manifest, so appealing because so unneccesary. In the capable, fetching and charming, such humbleness is becoming. She really could be all the things she thinks she can't, and isn't this how I want to see myself? Secretly capable despite my doubts, even conviction of the opposite. Definately not doomed.

One more thing I want to figure out has to do the with social role she's trying to play. In high school, there was that simple disvision of utmost significance, between the cool and the uncool, the in and the out, the popular and the unpopular. Being on the other side of this line is a totally defining experience, and Angela is riding this very line. She's dying her hair, changing friends, going out to clubs, kissing boys, all those things those people do. From the perspective of the uncool, she's just a traitor, following that dye-your-hair, social-climbing ladder to shallowness. I remember like yesterday walking this same road and how awful I felt. But this is precisely what fascinates me, because she's not over on the other side either. Jordan's friends still think of her as that weird friend of Rayanne's, but they know who she is. More importantly, she doesn't do all of this un(self)critically. She's not in so deep that she what everyone else is doing because something might happen and she'd miss it. She's not going to just have sex with Jordan because it's "normal," if she doesn't really feel ready. However tentatively, she's trying to find some third way. She doesn't scorn the trappings of popularity as immaturity in that way which always smacks of sour grapes. She's willing to get her ankles wet becuase it is fun. I guess I think there is value in posing and surfaces. But nor does she delude herself into thinking that's all there is. She doesn't want to be a mindlessly popular, nor could she be if she tried (witness one thankfully feeble attempt with Corey). I guess I think a lot of show is about revealing the significant relationships which cross over these official boundaries, but I think it's Angela who's balanced squarely, and painfully, over this line. It's this precarious position that I can so easily see much of my own life as spent trying to find, and perhaps why I am so her.

prev | up Breathless | next


“School is a battlefield for your heart.”

Angela Chase, Episode 1: "My So-Called Life (Pilot)"