print this page
Deciphering Rayanne by Marc Ehrlich

All of my friends love Angela Chase, and why not? She is a striking beautiful creature to behold; Claire Danes' chiseled features and rich auburn bob draw MSCL's lenses closer for the fetishistic close-ups that reveal from whose perspective the show's intricate bourgeois melodramas are really told. Her face resolves easily into wistful introspection: the crux of the show. Her floppy overalls bunch at the ankles of a tightly knotted adolescent existential crisis. MSCL dramatizes an ongoing clash of unresolved insecurities, which is why its psycho-drama is entirely subtextual, and explains how MSCL writers infuse suburbanite banalities with high melodramatic tension. Every move demands interpretation, and no glance inconsequential. Plot points pass with the consternated pursing of Angela's lips. The show thrives on internalities. Even Hallie Lowenthal's fantasy of cooking-as-sex with Graham dwells in a forest of furrowed brows.

I can totally relate to Angela...perhaps too well. She and I are so much alike that, in light of the deep pathos she evokes in me, allowing my subconscious carnal instincts to surmount my doting fondness for her would be like obsessing about my own image in a bathroom mirror, or worse, having a crush on a twin sister. Imparting the glint of desire to my gaze would be narcissism--or incest--of the most nefarious order.

Now, Rayanne Graff...she's another matter.

Rayanne is the show's dominant crypto-slut (a term coined not by this obsessed fan, but by one with more critical distance from Rayanne's lithe, pre-collegiate body), the limber sexpot who looks as if she could wrap her legs around just about anything she was disposed to hang onto. She integrates insolent capriciousness with an urgent libidinal energy, tying it all together with a few gauzy ribbons, and highlighted with a peroxide streak through her long, sandy hair. Hair that would flow like flax if she would soften herself enough to let it fall over her shoulders more often. It would fly through the dank high school air as she walks--with a standoffish moxie that invites and repels at once. She lugs her fashion accessories and school books around like so much emotional baggage--Rayanne is used to the burden, and for that reason, she's established a jaunty equilibrium which allows her to expose enough juvenile flesh to keep the other kids excited. And then, there are her eyes. While Angela's limpid eyes penetrate, boring into you and exposing all your accumulated micro-cruelties and evoking the memory of the innumerable social injustices you perpetrated and were victimized by--all this, merely by virtue of her undemanding, yet deeply penetrating gaze... While Angela incriminates you with her own innocent profundity, Rayanne's eyes are a bit glassier; they rove over you, sizing you up, stripping you down. Angela's gaze may be inquisitive and incriminating, innocently probing for answers, buy Rayanne's eyes are calculating and analytical. Yet, they are expressive as well, charmingly unraveling her otherwise impervious defenses by revealing her host of weaknesses and insecurities. Sure, Rayanne knows how to pose, should you be bold enough to gaze back at her. Sitting cross-legged on the sink in the girl's bathroom, or flashing a gratuitous and sarcastic punctuative smile, she is revealed, both intentionally and accidentally through a thousand entrancing layers, each superimposed over the next, but only visible one at a time. However, Rayanne is at her most delicious when she puts her girlish sexual charms on hold, allowing her nubility to announce itself through unconscious posturing. I don't know if this is just masterfully contrived body language on A.J. Langer's part, or whether, more delectably, it's just how she moved naturally. But oh, but the well-oiled motion of a shoulder hoisting a book bad, the gently flung hip that leans on a locker... Rayanne incites the desire described by Roland Barthes; he locates it where the hem of the dress ends and the flesh begins. Mere exposure is boring, but Rayanne's suggestion of more is overpowering.

And goddamn, what an ass.

Still, Rayanne Graff is a brilliant creation for reasons that transcend her role as a naughty, extroverted, promiscuous foil for Angela's sublimated sexuality and gnawing anxiety. She is more complex than any archetypal nymphet. Likewise, Rayanne can't be pigeonholed as the Freudian counter-weight to Churskey's prim super-ego admonitions, completing the three-fold female consciousness of the show with herself the id, and Angela as the ego, torn (of course) between two psychical extremes. On the contrary, Rayanne is network television's closest brush with reprising the manipulative heroines of Jean-Luc Godard; she personifies sexual politics, Liz Phair meets Lucy Van Pelt. Rayanne's narrow face and bright eyes exude shrewdom, yet her inviting body language belies an intoxicating emergent sexuality, spiced with the aroma of fading innocence--and, one suspects, overly sweet perfume. Rayanne is a lovely hybrid, and insofar as that goes, she conforms to MSCL's model personality sketch. Rife with internal contradictions and uncertainties, some qualities expressing themselves while other recede; she is capable of adapting to soft light and stark shadow. Thus I humbly, if obsessively, submit that she is the most fascinating character on the show (as well as the most deliciously proportioned), because she is the most tragic. Naturally, Rayanne is a tight little package of inviting, parabolic curves, but her sexuality smolders regardless of her maturing physique and witch/bitch accessorizing. He has an intensely animal, powerfully instinctual range of behavior which makes her gypsy-like accouterments superfluous. Rayanne moves and speaks with the quick motions that belie ulterior motives, and reveal her preference for plans still forming in her bead-bedecked head than those actually unfolding in the back-lit halls of Anytown High. she hurries as if standing in one place for too long is dangerous; there's no telling what kinds of questions people might ask. Rayanne knows she's guilty of the petty transgressions that violate the normative codes of the MSCL bourgeois universe, and thus, immobility equals vulnerability for her. And vulnerability is something she already has enough of, what with her drinking, her licentiousness and an aesthetic that over-compensates for a lot more than missing out on the golden years of Stevie Nicks. All her multilayered clothes are distractions which disperse the critical gazes of those around her, so that her friends don't notice her real shortcomings. They are paradoxical camouflage, concealing her body from innumerable scrutinizing glances, but occasionally revealing enough to draw boys closer. She is a walking pastiche of fear and bravado, a psychological contradiction. But all that is obvious.

For the viewer who resists succumbing immediately to her Circean charms, the payoff if that this is not a zero-sum game of adolescent catch-and-lure. Rayanne skirts the edge of cruelty and vulnerability better than anyone on the tube. She tells Krakow that she fears the dark because her dad used to lock her in the basement...but no...she's only fucking with his head...but perhaps not entirely. It could be a clever recovery from an accidental break in character. "Rayanne" becomes Rayanne, if only for a fleeting moment. Rayanne selectively vents her volcanic sensuality, but it sometimes escapes her ability to manage it. Sure, she likes to show a little leg just to give Brian Krakow a hard-on beneath his corduroys, and she likes to make out with meaty jock trash in bathroom closets, but all of this reveals her emergent craftiness, an attempt to orchestrate an elaborate power dynamic. Rayanne is still taking inventory of her sexual arsenal, and doltish 15-year-old guys are perfect live fire practice for her. She mind-fucks them with the authority of a girl who knows she's destined for greater challenges. The procession of faceless jar-heads is merely a distraction between classes. As for Krakow, he begs for abuse with that pudding-face of his that advertises: if you talk to me, I will become indignant. In her own way, Angela is entranced by Rayanne's sorcery, which moves her to search out her own sexuality and explore its limits. And Churskey finds her perplexing and offensive at the same time. Rayanne occupies the center of a tidy cosmos of rotating boyfriends, fascinated geeks and mystified friends in order to offset her lack of control over alcohol, her foolhardy impetuousness, and her incomplete family life. Rayanne's coquettish behavior is the ruling force in her safely predictable social dynamic.

Rayanne tries to keep the recreationally cruel aspect of her life partitioned from her relationship with Angela, Brian and Jordan Catalano. Her sexual gaming is strictly business, not permitted to impede on her alternate existence. She plumbs the depths of suburban gentrification for a little acceptance and a clue about how to grow up better adjusted. But Rayanne can't succeed because she's too young and inexperienced to control her tangled desire for intimacy with Angela by letting the school Neanderthal slip her the bone. In the same move, Rayanne tries to appropriate something from a life which seems more attractive than her own. She's not going to be able to relate to Angela's parents--Patti and Graham are severely near-sighted--and emotional exhibitionism can only explode in a few of the show's climactic moments. So, Rayanne makes a foolish mistake, expressing her feeling in the most demented way imaginable. Her goofs and weaknesses suggest that some fallibility hides beneath those layers of gauzy scarves, although it appears only in a flash--when her smiles misfire, or, when the going gets serious, if she has really hurt Angela.

Rayanne is a tragic heroine, in the most profound Shakespearean sense; a contemporary Macbeth-ette with perky breasts and emergent hips, whose fiefdom contains not rival thanes and warlords, but a pantheon of other sluts, brains, geeks, dope-heads, parents and teachers. She tries desperately to organize a social universe with herself at its gravitational focus. She over-reaches because she possesses uncommon social guile, but lacks, as does any tragic figure, the prudence to use it wisely. The prophesy that misleads her, the long-standing high school myth about the cleft between hip and lame, and like her unfortunate Shakespearean analogue, Rayanne inserts herself into the high school narrative because the prophesy is true insofar as it goes. You get boys and have a lot of fun if you are possessed of the gift of guile, but suddenly all the trees around her look like Macduff's men because, in her local cosmos, repercussions materialize pretty much right away. Fortunately for her, Rayanne is written into confrontations whose purgative effect allows her to start afresh. She is allowed a little redemption every couple of weeks.

Because her reach exceeds her grasp, Rayanne is on the receiving end of most of MSCL's accusations, I forgive her choice of rainbow kevlar; perhaps, since I'm not in high school anymore, I find it alluring in that fawning, Humbert Humbert way. I'm thinking of aurochs and angels... I now that Rayanne's vulnerability functions not to make her the slut-with-the-heart-of-gold, but more significantly, to reinforce the notion that she needs to be saved from herself, that she can be redeemed if only she would wake up and smell the lip gloss. It's almost more difficult to watch the haughty cuties like Rayanne suffer, because there's more irony in it, and her pain elicits a more sympathetic response--a crazed brew of desire and pity that hypnotizes me like cartoon eau de toilette fumes draws all the animated alley cats to the window of the local feline femme fatale. Of course, Rayanne can't understand why this drives guys like me crazy; she thinks it's all due to her artful style of grown-up feminine guile. The truth, of course, is much more charming. Rayanne is so sexy because she writhes under the pressure of craving redemption and yet, not feeling that she deserves it. All of this makes her so wonderfully tense, perpetually mobile and inviting. Her body simply reinforces this vulnerability-cum-defensiveness, physically articulating a tragic dance, a casual opera, by undulating before my eyes. If only I could reach out and touch her (at so many levels), she could be made to understand, but then, of course, the image would fade because Rayanne is this tension between salvation and redemption; without it, she can't exist. She has to be irredeemable to remain interesting, which lures me closer and frustrates me all the more. Rayanne's charm lives in the realm of the almost. Almost a mighty slut. Almost a perfect tease. Almost a manipulative bitch. Almost a loyal friend. Almost redeemable. Alas, almost real.

prev | up Breathless | next

“School is a battlefield for your heart.”

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