print this page

Angela's World

2.3. The "Different Voice" of "My So-Called Life"

My apologies if this segment rambles or repeats. But a decent respect for the scholarship of others has compelled me to explain the origin of a major theme in my analysis of MSCL. In the book "In A Different Voice," author Carol Gilligan addresses perceptions of reality and truth, and how the voices and experiences of women get shut out of the processes and theories which are formed to explain human experience. Gilligan asserts that this "different voice" is one of relationship and connection. For Gilligan, "voice" means literally the voice -- speaking and having something to say. It also requires listening and being heard; it is a relational process. These concepts are at the heart of MSCL, and accordingly, I have borrowed the term "a different voice" as a shorthand to refer to that part of MSCL, the characters and the thematic messages of the program, which "speak to" those concepts.

Angela's world is inhabited principally by characters who are of the "different voice," characters whose voice and opinions are not heard in the "mainstream" of American society: Girls, non-whites, gays, professional women, a father who is not the principle wage earner. (How telling, then, was ABC's decision to cancel MSCL because its appeal was "too narrow!") The "different voice" characters of MSCL are also, to a large extent, second-class citizens, because they will not always have the ability to make the important decisions in their own lives. Accordingly, a "different voice" also refers not only to the voice and its content, but to manner of speaking as well.

"Mainstream" America envisions the ideal family as one where Father "knows best," where Mother voices her opinions only to emphasize Father's greater wisdom and Father happily and lovingly shoulders his responsibility to care for those who are somehow less capable of caring for themselves.

Few such patriarchs exist in MSCL. Principal Foster is African-American. The I.R.S. auditor is both African-American and a woman. The Chase's family doctor is a woman. Mr. Katimski, the teacher portrayed most positively, is homosexual. The significant men clearly do not fit the "mainstream" ideal. Vic Racine is gravely flawed, particularly with respect to his role as husband and father. His advice to "Amanda" to drop out assumes a world where education will be irrelevant to a fifteen year-old girl. Chuck Wood clearly loves Patty, but barely listens to her.

Other potential father-figures are notably absent. Brian's father is a disembodied voice; Sharon's father is an image on a closed-circuit hospital television; Rayanne's father is a misbegotten birthday card; Jordan's father exists only by reference; Rickie's father is actually his uncle and a figure to be feared.

But MSCL is not an indiscriminate male-basher. Graham, MSCL's true father figure, is neither coldly logical and decisive nor the always the dispenser of Fatherly Wisdom. He does not go to work every morning and bring home the biggest paycheck in the household. But neither does he condescend to his wife or regard his daughters as pretty-but-irrelevant China dolls. In short, he displays none of the traits of Television's, or Society's, archetypal Father. Instead, Graham is the cook, provider of sustenance, source of love and familial support; he is the Magician. By not being what the "ideal" father, Graham is what every man should be: The provider of spiritual support and leadership for his family.

There are, however, two "mainstream" characters, Brian and Jordan. Both are heterosexual white males with European surnames. Both will slip into mainstream society, although in different niches. With these exceptions, "mainstream" characters are excluded from MSCL, and it is no accident in a program which tends so carefully to the details. Rather, the silencing of the "mainstream" is a conscious choice so that the "different voice" may be heard.

The muting of the "mainstream" reveals a pervasive dialogue about connection and relationships, which I have discussed more fully in episode analyses and in "The Geometry of Angela's World." Indeed, "undercurrents of connection" are taken for granted. However, two aspects of the dialogue should be examined more carefully, the roles of Brian and Rickie in the expression of the "different voice."

At one level, Brian is the stereotypical nerd, stiff and awkward in speech and manner, particularly when talking to girls. But MSCL never wastes stereotypes. While Brian may be viewed as a fumbling adolescent, he is also the voice of the "mainstream," which cannot, and may not wish to, hear or listen to the "different voice." But the "different voice" knows that to control its own destiny, it must make itself heard. Because the "different voice" lacks power, or the authority to make its own decisions, it must find the means to persuade the "mainstream" to make decisions beneficial to it. Hence, Sharon directly exhorts Brian to ask Delia to the "World Happiness" dance. Delia must come to Brian, not to ask him to go to the dance with her, but to get him to ask her to go to the dance with him. Angela cannot simply go to the dance by herself; she must go to Brian and persuade him to provide a "technical" way to the dance, i.e., an ostensible escort. (Her error is that he is still not listening.) Because "The Life of Brian" demonstrates the ways in which the "different voice" relates to the "mainstream," it is a crucial episode in understanding the world in which Angela lives.


Digression: Jane Addams

An excellent example of the "different voice" can be found in Jane Addams' "Twenty Years at Hull-House." As an unmarried woman in the 19th Century, Addams was truly a second-class citizen. As the founder and leader of a "Settlement," essentially a charitable institution, she was even more so a second-class citizen, for the Settlement produced no goods or profits in the same sense as any business. In "Twenty Years at Hull-House," Addams describes the techniques she developed to persuade Aldermen, Ward bosses, bankers, industrialists and religious leaders to help her improve the living conditions among the poor in Chicago. End of Digression.

If Brian is the symbolic "mainstream" character, then Rickie functions as the symbolic "different voice." Beginning as the mere echo of those around him, he must struggle to find his place in the world, a place where he belongs. In so doing, he finds his voice, and it is the relationship/connection directed "different voice."

In "Pressure," Rickie provides the moral context for Angela to say no to Jordan when he pressures her for sex: If you are not sufficiently connected to the other person, then you are not ready for the act of sex. In "Betrayal," Rickie does not condemn Rayanne on merely on grounds of impropriety, but rather frames his disapproval on the grounds of what her act has done to harm her connection with Angela; he admonishes Angela similarly.

"Why are you making this play for Corey Helfrich when you know how I feel about him?"

In "In Dreams," Rickie tries to be a bridge for reconciliation between Rayanne and Angela; he gently forces Angela to confront the truth about the author of the letter; he encourages Brian to tell Angela how he feels about her. Each of these actions are grounded in the philosophy that relationships consist of truthful communication.

Is there an impassible chasm between the "mainstream" and the "different voice?" Not if we consider the relationship between Brian and Rickie, the opposing symbols. Throughout, they struggle with their relationship, often finding the words difficult.

"Hey Brian, can you like, pick a sentence and go with it?"

But ultimately, they develop a level of trust and understanding that enables them to confide in one another. The friendship that Brian and Rickie build offers hope.

So what is the moral, what is the message, of the "different voice?" Only that we hear and listen, and embrace the "undercurrents of connection."

prev | up Angela's World | next

“I cannot bring myself to eat a well-balanced meal in front of my mother.”

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