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Angela's World

2.4. What "My So-Called Life" Means To Me

"You can't hurt somebody this bad unless you really matter to them" -- Rayanne Graf

"The truth is out there" -- Fox Mulder

My love affair with Angela Chase began at a time in my life when I was only beginning to truly understand how the world works. I was thirty-six years old, educated, professionally successful and in full command of my own life. I couldn't imagine what a fifteen year-old girl on TV could teach me. But when she bobbed up from the sink, her head soaked and dripping, her hair dyed Crimson Glow, I decided to stay and listen. For what it's worth, here is what I learned.

I begin with a view of the world in which MSCL sprang forth, the world seen through the television screen. According to the political commentator and activist Noam Chomsky, our country is run by a "ruling class" comprised of corporations, elements of government and a few people who run those institutions, which makes the important decisions about how our society works. The rest of us are the "bewildered herd," which is not part of the policy and decision-making process. The ruling class wants the bewildered herd to stay out of the way and obediently hand up what wealth it has to the ruling class. It is the job of the media to indoctrinate the bewildered herd with values and attitudes that fulfill the desires of the ruling class.

Tabloid-like gossips shows, sitcoms and sports spectacles forcefully and consistently reinforce such values as apathy, submissiveness to authority, greed, lack of caring for others, fear and hatred of real or imagined enemies. Television creates a world of one-dimensional, dysfunctional individuals, where crime, violence and the wanton destruction of basic relationships is commonplace; where sex is a taboo, the ultimate wrong and not part of life; where the one-line put-down is the highest, most respected form of intellect. Television elevates consumerism, the spending of money we do not have for things we do not need, to a form of culture.

Television "news" creates the illusion of a "real" world where we dare not walk outside at night because our neighborhoods are overrun by gang-bangers, drugs, teenage prostitutes, psychos, child molesters and serial murders. Television also serves as a soapbox upon which politicians stand to talk about the needs of the "African-American" community, the "Hispanic" community, the needs of "women," "gays," the "disabled," the "elderly," and so on until the community is so fragmented with competing interests that we no longer believe the proposition that everyone, being human, has the same basic needs.

Thus, television creates a culture of consumerism and separatism and portrays a dangerous world where none can be trusted but the designated authorities, and we should assume that television intends to do so to serve the will of the ruling class. So says Chomsky. (And, lest you think you have fallen into the ravings of a Chomsky disciple, let me add that, although it is irrelevant here, what Chomsky has to say about the Second Amendment is utter bullshit. IMHO.)

But as I read more of Chomsky, MSCL and its struggle to stay on the air became an object lesson proving that everything Chomsky says about the "necessary illusions," (the title of a Chomsky pamphlet), of society is absolutely true.

Into the illusions of television emerges MSCL, which tells the story of all of its characters, and does not "promote" anything. To "promote" a concept means to portray it in a positive way and advocate it as a valid choice in one's life. Certainly, Rayanne's troubles with booze and drugs, and the general state of being under the influence, is not portrayed in a positive way. Nor is it presented as a valid lifestyle or as a valid means of dealing with problems.

Certainly, teenage sex is not portrayed in any positive manner. Sharon has sex and, for many of the right reasons, regrets it. Rayanne has consistently expressed the emptiness she feels with sex, and after having sex with Jordan, regrets doing so and realizes the effect the act can have on other people. Jordan's sexual adventures are essentially empty experiences for him. And "Pressure" clearly teaches that the choice of abstinence is both a correct and highly moral choice.

And to get MSCL's overall message about sex, factor in the sex lives of the adults. Ultimately, the only sexual relationship MSCL portrays in a truly positive manner is the one between Patty and Graham, who are married adults. Their sex life is consistently portrayed as satisfying, enjoyable, fun and spiritually uplifting for both of them. There are few married couples on television AT ALL who have such a healthy sexual relationship.

One might argue that MSCL "promotes" homosexuality, but only if one accepts the idea that homosexuality is "promoted" because the homosexual characters are not portrayed as swishing drag queens, salacious perverts or irredeemably twisted. Further, the homosexuality can hardly be called "flagrant." We wouldn't have even known about Katimski except for a conversation he had in his own home. In any event, MSCL has not advocated homosexuality as a "choice," but as a state of being, as one finds it in real life.

In real life, we are not confronted with "issues." Rather, we find that some people are gay, (or sexually confused), some have addictions, some are abused, some are insecure, some are homeless, some can't read well, some can't relate well. We find that "everybody hurts, and everybody cries." We find that those people are people we know, our friends, our family, people we love, and sometimes even ourselves. And we don't "address" "deal with" or "tackle" their "issues." We try to understand, and try to fit the pieces together. And that is what MSCL is about: One girl's attempts to fit the pieces of her "so-called" life together.

Elsewhere I discuss the "different voice" of MSCL, and state that it is the voice of those destined to be second-class citizens. The single, overriding message of MSCL -- the simple truth -- in its "different voice," is that we are connected to one another, emotionally and spiritually, and through what we need in our lives. Each day, Angela and her friends look right past their differences and directly into what connects them, and discover that they cannot act, or sometimes fail to act, without affecting the lives of others.

Chomsky's "ruling class" resists the message of the "different voice" because it imparts too much power to those who "should" remain powerless. Our politics are built around that resistance. We argue the views of Democrats, Republicans, Liberals and Conservatives, the needs of the "Black" community, the needs of the "Hispanic" community, "migrant workers'" rights, "women's" issues, "gay" rights, "pro-choice," "right-to-life," "civil" rights, "criminal" rights, what-have-you.

Digression: Affirmative Action

Let us pause a moment to reflect on a subject of topical interest, Affirmative Action. Affirmative Action sprang from the realization that there were certain differences among individuals, such as race, sex, color and national origin, over which an individual had no control, and which were permanent, immutable and unrelated to individual merit or the right to the benefits and protections of the law. Out of that realization arose the principle that the law should relieve the lasting effects which caused by past discrimination on the basis of such immutable, irrelevant differences. What resulted was a complex and pervasive body of law which classifies by precisely those traits which we hold to have no relation to individual merit. The result is a fragmented society, where every easily identifiable difference both classifies us and serves as a basis for holding ourselves apart and at odds with others. Our politicians and the media lead the way, but as I believe someone said, (okay, it was Lincoln), "a nation divided against itself cannot stand." End of Digression.

We revile Apartheid abroad, yet embrace it in the very ideas and institutions that form our own society's politics and culture, severing our connections one to another, failing to understand that by letting ourselves to be divided, we let ourselves be conquered.

In short, MSCL is NOT about greed, or apathy, or submission to authority, or apathy or fear or hatred or anything else that keeps us apart. Angela and her friends and family care about each other and stand up for each other. They may dread the unknown, but they are not afraid to face it. They may misunderstand, but they do not hate.

Without regard to dismal ratings, MSCL is the subject of constant attack. The principal critic of TV Guide, a magazine heavily invested in, (if not definitive of), the status quo, reviles MSCL. A pair of articles in the Wall Street Journal portray MSCL viewers as, well, odd, and accuses MSCL itself, (and not the network that carries it), for "failing" to reach its target audience. Congressman John Boehner (Rep. Ohio) condemned MSCL for "promoting" flagrant homosexuality, teenage sex and alcoholism. With Nielsen ratings that make MSCL almost invisible, one might well ask why such heavy hitters as TV Guide, the Wall Street Journal and a United States Congressman even bother.

The heavy hitters bother because television, like school, is a battleground for our hearts. To present the illusion of the world that television provides as the correct view, it is necessary to hold something up as the incorrect view. Thus, the ruling class seizes the opportunity to decry a program such as MSCL which shows that the opposite is true: "MSCL is not good for you! It is immoral! Only weirdos watch it! You wouldn't like it. Trust us." Those who do watch are then dismissed as "statistically insignificant."

Thus, the struggle for our hearts is a struggle about IDEAS. One the one hand, we have the "necessary illusions" of the ruling class. On the other hand, we have the simple truth of MSCL. If we, the "bewildered herd," were to embrace the simple truth, that we are connected one to another in very basic, human, ways, we might free ourselves from the illusions we have been fed. That prospect makes the simple truth dangerous -- to the ruling class. So the ruling class not only denigrates the simple truth, but holds it up as an example of what is wrong.

Unfortunately, MSCL's poor ratings suggest the battle of ideas may already have been lost, which brings us to ABC. The efforts to save MSCL were doomed from the outset because it remained on the ABC schedule long enough to serve its purpose as a scapegoat for the ruling class.

Elsewhere, you will read about what was done by OLS to save MSCL, but in a general sense, OLS marshaled the largest, strongest, most effective viewer campaign in history to save a television show. Where other campaigns generated a few thousands of letters to the network, OLS generated hundreds of thousands. Thanks to the efforts of Steve Joyner, (I do not say "tireless" efforts; every time I talked to Steve he sounded like he had just woke up or needed to go to bed.), OLS kept MSCL alive in the media during its "hiatus." Most assuredly, if MSCL had been renewed, it would have been largely due to OLS. Which is why ABC snuffed MSCL. You see, OLS was the beginning of a phenomenon which could make the "bewildered herd" a cohesive voice: Use of the Internet to recruit and organize action. But how to combat the threat of interference from people who don't know their place? The best way might be by making an example of them.

Rather than quietly cancel MSCL after its nineteen episode run, ABC puts the show on "hiatus." As a result, OLS and followers of MSCL spend another six months organizing, publicizing and writing letters, far more letters than any prior viewer support campaign had generated. In the past, networks had received as many as several thousand letters in support of a given show. However, a few thousands of letters nationwide would not be considered a significant impediment to the network's own decision-making autonomy. If the show was canceled, the network could rightly say that the show did not have enough support. If the show was renewed, the network could ride some free public relations by saying that it responded to public outpouring.

But in the case of OLS, ABC received hundreds of thousands of letters and e-mail messages to renew MSCL. Clearly, such a voice could not be ignored, but to give credence to the efforts of OLS might encourage on-line viewers of the next popular but poorly rated show to respond in kind. Further, the next popular movement to save a show would have the experience of OLS to know what, and what not, to do. Accordingly, ABC waits until OLS played itself out and then pulls the plug on MSCL, a decision that had been made months ago. The moral: If you're thinking about a on-line campaign to save a show, ("Relativity" comes to mind), think first about the failed efforts of OLS. If OLS could not succeed in sustaining MSCL, can any viewer campaign help any program? It is a question which the ruling class will answer in the negative.

There also remains a public relations problem for ABC. Hundreds of thousands of letters, a Golden Globe, critical acclaim, producers with a proven track record -- and cancellation. So ABC serves up Claire Danes. Claire is Angela. Angela is MSCL. MSCL works if loses any other character, but lose Angela, and MSCL collapses into the void. So it is convenient, is it not, that Claire has declared her fervent desire to not spend another season with MSCL. Well there you have it, ABC announces. The star walked away, and too bad, but this star can't be replaced. Go vent your anger on Claire.

So television intentionally creates an illusion which reinforces the worst about ourselves and the world we live in. In that desperate illusion arises a point of hope, MSCL, which allows us to see, feel and believe the best about ourselves. It is squashed.

MSCL stands for a simple truth: The world is a better place than we are led to believe. But that simple truth frees us from those who control our lives, and is therefore considered radical and dangerous. The simple truth also imposes a dream, which, as we well know, marks the beginning of responsibility: To make it so. To find the "voice" that allows us to speak; to look past the "illusion," look past differences and find that which connect us. It is not the world we live in, but rather the illusion that the world is a terrible place, which is truly terrible. If MSCL challenges that illusion itself, it also teaches us to challenge it as well. IMHO.

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“And, you know, with your hair like that? It hurts to look at you.”

Rayanne Graff, Episode 1: "My So-Called Life (Pilot)"