My So-Called Life defined a generation, or at least a sizable cohort of in-betweeners too young for Gen X yet too old for Gen Y. The flannel, Doc Martens, and boxed red-purple hair that Angela Chase favored recalls the specific texture of early 90s teenaged alienation, one that has since settled down into the pages of Urban Outfitters’ manufactured nostalgia. Like all genius cultural products, though, MSCL anticipated and thus transcends its own transformation from sincerely-felt anomie to mass-produced novelty t-shirt. The teens at the center of the show do not rebel in a vacuum, but rather in a world overdetermined by the ghosts of their Boomer parents’ countercultural pasts.
What distinguishes My So-Called Life from other navel-gazing works of generational anxiety, though, is timing. The show takes place shortly after the election of Bill Clinton, the first Boomer President, who occupies a surprisingly large amount of the show’s psychic real estate. Writing shortly after the 1992 election, Time Magazine heralded Clinton’s victory as a moment of generational torch-passing that would give “baby boomers a psychological gift that some of them will be loath to accept—irrefutable proof that they are mature adults.” My So-Called Life is profoundly shaped by this ambivalence over finally having to grow up and be in charge. This ambivalence manifests in a plot line where the IRS audits the print shop owned and run by Angela’s parents Patty and Graham because of some suspicious deductions taken by Patty’s father before he retired. After allowing her father to handle the audit only makes things worse, Patty must make the difficult decision to go against her father, pushing him out of the negotiations, and come to a settlement with the IRS herself. The allegorical resonance of this situation —in which Patty must take charge of and account for mistakes made by predecessors unable to clean up their own mess —is difficult to miss.
However, to take power required Boomers to reckon with the legacy of their rebellious youth —a psychodrama that played out in the run-up to the 1992 election. The cycle of attacks and counter-attacks over Clinton’s record of drug use, “draft dodging,”and anti-war activism lent the campaign an air of déjà vu, as the cultural battles of the 1960s were fought once again. My So-Called Life, too, engaged in this reckoning, articulating the attitudes of an increasingly conservative cohort of Baby Boomers who, far from mourning their lost ideals, began to turn on them. Indeed, it is no accident that My So-Called Life debuted mere weeks before the 1994 “Republican Revolution,”in which Newt Gingrich led the GOP to a smashing victory in large part by casting the Clintons as “counterculture McGoverniks.”Channeling Boomers’ growing discomfort over their youthful radicalism, My So-Called Life shows how Patty and Graham contain the radical legacy of the 1960s in order to come to terms with their newfound maturity.
This is precisely what happens when Vic Racine, a substitute teacher and New Left relic comes on the scene. Telling his students to “forget writing, forget grammar, forget the rules,” Racine transforms Angela’s English class into a “happening” that values authentic and creative self-expression over adherence to convention. Such methods earn his students’devotion even as they inevitably get him in trouble with the administration. The principal censors the class’ writing when it’s printed in the lit magazine and, ultimately, replaces Racine. Racine plays up his martyrdom, in a scene as ridiculous as it sounds, by bidding the class farewell with a Black Power salute.
The big twist is that Racine wasn’t fired. He quit because the family he abandoned caught up with him to sue for child support. When Patty and Graham tell Angela about Racine’s past, they use the information to dissuade her from protesting the school’s censorship of the lit magazine. Despite previously insisting she “stand up for [her] rights,”Graham now tells her that “Every fight is not worth fighting. You’re learning that,” while Patty chimes in, “It’s just part of growing up . . . Sometimes you have to compromise.” Their response at first seems a baffling non-sequitur. What does Racine’s personal life have to do with whether Angela should protest the school’s censorship?
On the one hand, we can read this cynically, as a kind of bait and switch. By discrediting Racine, Patty and Graham can sidestep Angela’s accusations of hypocrisy. When they first urge her to “stay out of trouble,” Angela incredulously responds, “what about all those boring stories I had to sit through my whole life about how committed you were in the 60s?” Indeed, Patty and Graham have peddled the heroic myths of their youth so well that Angela has internalized them. “It was a better time then,” she voice-overs in another episode, “When people knew what to do. And how to make the world better. Now nobody knows anything.” Revelations about Racine’s sordid character suggest that maybe nobody knew much then, either. Perhaps the moral clarity that Angela so admires about the 60s was simply a product of charismatic leadership, a kind of mass seduction. After all, isn’t that what happened to Angela’s English class? How else could they fall for someone so obviously unprincipled? More troublingly, her parents have a point. How can she can trust someone who abandoned his wife and child to judge what is just or unjust, what is or isn’t worth fighting for?
Looked at from another angle, these are the same question that pundits and conservative intellectuals had been asking for years about another seductive and charismatic figure: Bill Clinton. They asked if Clinton, as President, would follow the same moral compass that led him to commit adultery, if someone with so many personal failings was even fit for the Presidency. While many pooh poohed such questions My So-Called Life takes them seriously and articulates the logic underlying them in an exchange Angela has with Racine after he quits.
Angela: I’m just —I’m trying to–
Vic: To what? To understand? Look. My struggle for freedom is mine. Get your own. Get out before it’s too late, Amanda.
Angela: Get out? Get out of what?
Vic: That mind control factory. That warehouse they store you in. . .
Angela: You’re telling me to drop out of high school?
Vic: Good question. Yes. Run for your life. . . .
Angela: It’s Angela. And I have to say, I don’t think leaving high school is the answer. I don’t think leaving anything is.
What’s notable about this exchange is the equivalence it establishes between marriage and high school. The “mind control factory” Racine disparages finds a counterpart in his earlier description of marriage as “a prison.” Such parallelism suggests that Racine is not simply hostile to the family as an institution; he’s hostile to the family because it’s an institution. Racine, then, is the embodiment right-wing paranoia: a Trojan horse for radicalism, intent on corrupting the young by convincing students like Angela to throw their “bodies upon the gears”of the system.
This exchange also helps explain the saliency of Clinton’s “character problem.” Whereas Clinton defenders insisted that his private life had no bearing on his professional one, Racine suggests they are indistinguishable. That someone who violates a personal trust will likewise violate the public trust. The sex scandals that plagued Clinton’s administration, then, became a way of domesticating, both literally and figuratively, the radical legacy of the 1960s. In that age of “Family Values,” Clinton suffered for all of America’s sexual sins, past and present, performing a public expiation that allowed Boomer parents to turn him into another Racine: a fallen idol whose example it would be best to avoid.
Of course, what makes the show endure and what makes Angela Chase such an icon is how she resists such political inscription. She’s turned off by Racine not because he’s a dangerous radical but because he’s a phony, who can’t remember her name. At the same time, she’s savvy enough to recognize that Racine’s private life has no bearing on the question of censorship and decides to distribute the lit magazine anyway, telling her parents: “You told me to pick my battles. Well, this is it. It may not be, ah, a war protest or a civil rights demonstration, but . . . I just think it’s wrong to censor people.” Hoisting her parents on their own petard, Angela refuses to be dictated to by the ghosts of protests past.
—Brandon Gordon finds it easy being green.