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Papers and Essays

Angela Chase's Existential Awakening

by Lauren Boc - added March, 23rd 2005.

About the author

Lauren Boc is currently (2005) a junior at Woodward Academy in Atlanta, Georgia and she wrote this essay for her AP Language class. Her e-mail address is lola0424 AT aol DOT com.

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In the revolutionary, short-lived television series My So-Called Life, protagonist Angela Chase begins her existential journey to adulthood. The first minute of "The Pilot" (Episode 01) reveals Angela's entrapment in a hollow, meaningless existence and the friend who will become catalyst for her existential awakening. Angela exists half-awake in mid-American purgatory, where the early 90's grunge youth culture was being called to action by the immortal Kurt Cobain. However, this emerging teenage self-expression, with baggy concealing clothing and angst-ridden music, was the antithesis of the repressed suburban world they inhabited.

In "The Pilot" (Episode 1), Angela's mother represents this conservative, straight-laced world; she is horrified by Angela's newly dyed red hair and is rendered speechless when Angela refers to her flamboyant new friend Rickie as "bi." In one of Angela's telling voice overs, she says of her loving but painstakingly normal father, "my dad thinks every person in the world is having more fun than him. Which could be true." When Angela goes to talk to her teacher about why she dropped out of yearbook, her words paint a portrait of the empty, inauthentic life in her town: "it's like, everybody's in this big hurry to make this book, to supposedly remember what happened but it's not even what really happened, it's what everyone thinks was supposed to happen. Because if you made a book of what really happened, it'd be a really upsetting book." In a world where the truth and reality take a backseat to appearing normal, Angela is struggling to breathe. Like many teenagers, she craves authenticity, but she feels that the reality she is beginning to discover is unimportant or, worse, unacceptable in such a repressive society.

There is one person, however, whom Angela perceives to be the epitome of what she strives to be: an authentic, internally defined person. Rayanne Graff is Angela's key out of her picket fence, white bread world: she is wild and free, uninhibited by the constraints of society. The first noise we hear is the voice of ebullient Rayanne whispering to Angela: "Go, now! Go!" In Angela's first voice over, she reveals that she started a friendship with Rayanne because "it seemed like if I didn't, I would die or something."

Angela is at a breaking point, with her family and lifelong friends who "always expect you to be a certain way." She is a sophomore in high school, tottering on the edge of adulthood, and she does not want to be defined by external expectations. Several exchanges later, she explains that she dyed her hair bright red at Rayanne's suggestion: she tells us "when Rayanne Graff told me my hair was holding me back, I had to listen. Because she wasn't just talking about my hair. She was talking about my life." Angela's life, a construct of the external forces of her childhood, no longer fits; she now must embark on an existential journey to define herself internally. Her existential awakening, after a lifetime of straining to create her essence, occurs in the middle of this groundbreaking series.

The first part of Angela's awakening comes about when she accepts her appearance rather than relying on external descriptions of beauty. In "The Zit" (Episode 05), Angela fights with her mother, Patty, over her mortification at the idea of participating in a mother-daughter fashion show. Angela is struggling with her own insecurities; in a "Sophomore Top 40," her two best friends, Rayanne and Sharon, are both listed but Angela is left off. Her mother, who was the most attractive girl in her high school class, seems to be slightly disappointed when her best friend and Sharon's mother, Camille, reveals that Angela did not appear on the list. This omission sparks Angela's typical teenage feelings of insecurity, which are furthered by her mother's untimely offer to help Angela medicate a pimple. Angela feels inferior to the perceived allure of her friends and her mother in high school; her pimple represents her feelings of inferiority to her externally created image of beauty. Once again, Rayanne prods Angela forward; in the bathroom, she urges Angela to pop her pimple despite her fears of creating a scar: "Anything causes a scar!" Rayanne says. "Living causes a scar!" Angela's journey, then, is not finished-she is still not truly living, because she is afraid of a scar. Scars are ugly, and they taint the perfect skin which society has taught Angela to value. In addition, scars represent permanent, visible individuality; no two people have the same scar, or the same story behind that scar. Angela's acceptance of herself is incomplete, because she is afraid of such radical individualism which society may deem unacceptable.

However, after a brief but important apology from her mother, Angela begins her existential awakening by shattering the self-doubt created by the external world. As she watches the fashion show, another telling voice-over reveals her metamorphosis (coincidentally, also the title of the Kafka story she is currently reading in English class). She recognizes that life is absurd, like "some kind of prison..[where] the crime is how much we hate ourselves." Angela has realized "the truth: that when you look closely, people are so strange and complicated that they're actually beautiful. Possibly even me." She has rejected the external idea of beauty-blonde hair, blue eyes, perfect skin-and created her own internal definition of beauty. She independently defines beauty as individuality, something which she is beginning to accept in herself; Angela has begun to refuse to submit to society.

Angela's moral existential awakening naturally occurs in the next episode, "The Substitute" (Episode 06). She creates her own definition of morality, and she stands up for herself even though she will conflict with her parents, her teacher, and her principal. Different levels of courage and self-definition are required to face these authority figures, which she gains throughout the episode. A substitute teacher named Mr. Racine turns her English class into a modern day Dead Poet's Society, inspiring the students and provoking their creativity. On his first day, he throws the students' submissions to the high school literary magazine, the Liberty Lit, out the window because they are "safe, banal, homogenized, cutesy, [and] appalling." Angela's parents then tell her that Mr. Racine was wrong to throw her poem out, and therefore, she should go talk to him because they have always taught her to stand up for herself. However, when Angela goes to talk to Mr. Racine, she regurgitates her parents' words because she doesn't completely agree with her parents' explanations for why she needs to be there. When he poses the question to her "that was yesterday-what are you going to write today?" she responds with, "good question."

Angela has shrugged off the reality of her parents and assumed Mr. Racine's reality. However, she is still fighting to find her own reality. In the new short story she composes, she is a sleeping girl in a gingerbread house. One day, the girl wakes up, and she leaves the comfort of home. She walks down the street to find that all of the people are made of paper. Angela's story, now real and heartfelt, parallels her journey to define herself when surrounded by shallow, superficial shells of people. A fleeting but pivotal shift in Angela's relationship with Rayanne occurs when, as Mr. Racine speaks, she makes a trivial comment about the teacher's socks. Enraptured Angela hisses, "shut up! I'm trying to listen." Up until this point, Angela has been the follower-she dyed her hair at Rayanne's suggestion-and now she is leading Rayanne. Angela was once in awe of Rayanne's perceived authenticity and individualism; however, she has now surpassed Rayanne, and her newfound sense of self allows her to take control of her relationship with her friend.

Angela's new individuality extends itself into her ability to stand up for what she, internally, believes is right. A new Liberty Lit, full of Mr. Racine's students' new work, is published. Due to the sexual content of one poem, the principal recalls every copy of the magazine. Angela is furious with the principal's censorship. That night, when she tells her parents some of the ideas the students have had for protest, they tell her not to "get carried away." As Angela is able to see for herself, all of their encouragement to stand up for herself has fled now that she is in actual danger of punishment for her actions. When Mr. Racine is fired, he leads Angela and Rayanne to believe that the cause was the principal's outrage over the Liberty Lit. However, when Angela's father Graham goes to speak to the principal, he reveals that Mr. Racine was fired for assuming a false identity to avoid paying child support. Graham and Patty decide to tell Angela the truth: Mr. Racine is not the radically individual, existential hero she saw him to be. He is inauthentic.

Angela, now individual enough to recognize his inauthenticity, makes the internal decision to speak to Mr. Racine about the disturbing reality she has discovered. When he attempts one final stirring speech, this one telling her to drop out of high school and "run for [her] life," Angela counters by telling him that running away is not the answer. Her words are her own; her long journey has concluded with her discovery of her voice. She has found her own perception of reality.

Angela has now rejected society's moral code and created her own definition of right and wrong. Defying her parents and her principal, she distributes copies of the Liberty Lit independently, knowingly risking suspension. Once again, Angela does not act because of what her parents or teachers or friends have told her. She has made the internal, independent choice to stand up for her rights. She is no longer defining herself by external forces. Angela, just like the girl in the gingerbread house, "woke up."

The groundbreaking television series My So-Called Life was a whisper-a whisper, like many brilliant works of art, so faint that you might miss it if you aren't listening closely enough. In only nineteen episodes, this series defined young adulthood more honestly and boldly than any other before or since. My So-Called Life fearlessly displayed teenage homosexuality when the topic was taboo, and the show also covered violence in schools, peer pressure, and alcohol and drug abuse. Angela Chase's existential struggle to shape her own essence and resist external forces-forces which are almost overwhelming in modern society-is almost astonishingly true to life.

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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)"