Next to no one is Cher from Clueless when they’re a teenager. But a lot of us weren’t even Lizzie Maguire, who, while a social outcast in her own way, really could have done a lot worse. My high school wasn’t anything like the hellish caste system of Mean Girls, nor did morality matter as much as it does in the gossip-fueled judge-fest high school in Easy A (although we did have some religious zealots of Saved!-like proportions). Our high school seemed barely clique-y to me, and I’m actually living proof of that: I was not thin, or pretty, or nice—I was known as “Debbie Downer” and for a streak of “brutal honesty” that put me at odds with a lot of people. I was known for being an overachiever and (likely) kind of a suck-up who took too many classes. I was known by my collection of 20 (or so?) Nirvana t-shirts. I was nominated for prom court and homecoming court, although in the case of the latter I asked to be taken off the ballot because I didn’t want to feel obligated to go to the dance during a busy time of the year (and after not making it to the top 4 of Prom Court, I felt like it was a big waste of time). Anyway, I wasn’t like the scum of the earth for wearing glasses and being sarcastic, but our high school wasn’t like the ones on TV or like those ones you hear about on the news where the popular kids run wild hazing everyone to death. That doesn’t mean I didn’t feel like a misfit or anything, because I often did, and I felt misunderstood and all that crap that everyone feels at that age. And if you look anywhere on the internet, it’s not like this is going to be a fresh group of teen characters you’ve never heard of before, and they’re mostly all just sarcastic like I am. But at least I didn’t include Juno!
8. Kat Stratford, 10 Things I Hate About You
I was a less-pretty version of Kat Stratford when I was having a bad day—a “heinous bitch” if “heinous” had still been in the parlance of our times in 2004 (as opposed to when the film came out in 1999). One day that comes to mind involved me intently reading The Bell Jar on a symphonic band trip while people around me kept shoving garbage on the seat next to me. Naturally, I was sitting alone during this incident.
Yeah, basically, I sometimes used my intelligence/vocabulary to be abrasive on purpose. I never drunkenly danced to “Hypnotize” on a table, but, unfortunately, Heath Ledger never fell in love with me, either.
7. Veronica Sawyer, Heathers
I know the first thing I said was that I was the farthest thing from Cher possible, so it kind of seems like I’m invalidating my own argument by citing Veronica from Daniel Waters’s black-as-night teen comedy Heathers. Veronica is popular because she’s friends with the Heathers. The Heathers aren’t dumb by any means (okay, maybe Heather McNamara…), but Veronica is the only one who vocalizes her feelings that her intelligence is being wasted by her participation in the school’s clique-y micro-society. Furthermore, Heathers is a savage social satire that paints the world around it as incredibly vapid. And unlike in, say, Mean Girls, that world becomes deadly. Veronica’s diary entries documenting her and J.D.’s descent into homicide are clever and raw, and show how hard it can be to turn away from a social structure that you hate being a part of.
And…not to repeat myself, but I never tried to blow up the school and make it look like a mass suicide, but then again, Christian Slater never wanted to date me, either.
6. Lydia Deetz, Beetlejuice
I went through my “Goth” stage pretty early. I was in 5th grade, actually. I bought all black clothing, but I wasn’t allowed to wear makeup yet. I pretended to be poetic and drank bottled Frappucinos (as much coffee as I could stand to taste). I remember seeing Beetlejuice and thinking, “Whoa if I dressed like Lydia I would look so cool.”
Really I think what I was looking for is validation that not everyone is shiny and happy all the time. I probably found it here first.
5. Angela Chase, My So-Called Life
Ah, Angela Chase. My So-Called Life was probably the teen series I got into the latest, and it is best described as crack-injected cheese—very addictive, but incredibly cheesy. Angela is a dreamer at heart, and the bulk of the episodes of the short-lived series featured voice-overs by her that sound good the first time you hear them if you don’t think about them. Example: “Love is when you look into someone’s eyes, and suddenly, you go all the way inside… to their soul.” Um…what? What the fuck does that even mean? But, then again, these pseudo-profound turns of phrase at least demonstrate a sort of honesty that maybe not all other teen shows do: most teenagers aren’t that clever or articulate or experienced enough to put a voice to complicated feelings they may experience. When you’re that age, there’s feeling and acting, and sometimes even when there is thought, it’s often irrational thought.
Honestly, though, it’s hard to see someone go through what you’re going through on TV when they have amazing hair. Angela’s problems are, like, the ultimate white girl problems—she gets with Jordan, Rayanne doesn’t die, and so on. Also, the episode “The Zit”? She has ONE ZIT EVER and it’s barely visible. She still gets to mack on Jordan Catalano, too, despite his lukewarm feelings—something that makes me totally unsympathetic to many of her Jordan-related plights. For all these criticisms, though, with MSCL hits me, it hits me hard. Like, actual tears. It hits close to home, too, in a weird way…I have a couple of friends who resemble Angela’s friends. And of course, according to speculation, Angela and I even went to the same college—never mind that at Reed there are no minors and there is no women’s studies department, never mind how all that truancy would have impacted Angela’s chances of admission.
4. Enid Coleslaw, Ghost World
There’s a whole essay I could (and would like to) write about the influence Ghost World had on me in my adolescence because its influence is just that huge. Again, the long and short of it is really that I needed validation for not feeling “normal” and worrying about climate change instead of school dances. I always wanted to look like Enid, dress like Enid, not give a fuck like Enid and listen to Bollywood musicals. I think Enid taught me the cultural value of being an indie piece of shit, and liking Ghost World was a marker for identifying other indie pieces of shit who shared similar interests.
What’s strange is that recently when watching Ghost World, I’ve found myself identifying more and more with Becky instead of Enid. The last time I watched the film, I was in the presence of someone with whom I was about to have a friend-break-up of epic proportions (like, college-campus-do-not-approach-order proportions), who kept arguing that Enid was like the coolest person ever. I remember thinking, “Actually, Enid kind of…sucks.” Anyway, it’s something I have enough feelings about that I can’t deny Ghost World‘s continuing influence.
3. Darlene Conner, Roseanne
My hair was the most like Darlene’s, although it never really looked as good. Again, Darlene is Queen of the Smartasses, but she’s the unflinching smartass everyone wants to be—unapologetic and artsy-fartsy. She goes through a goth stage and emerges a victorious, plaid-clad hellraiser.
Up to a point, too, Darlene’s softer moments are almost touching. But I think the more time she spends with David the less cool she becomes. Darlene falls into that trite sitcom pitfall where the main characters have one boyfriend for ten years and it’s their first boyfriend that they marry and it just happens to be her sister’s first-and-only boyfriend’s brother…uh….Anyway, I don’t think adulthood suited Darlene that well—after getting out of high school to go to art school and develop a burgeoning writing career, she….got pregnant and married her high school boyfriend and moved back in with her parents in Lanford. And then it all turned out to be a dream? What?
2. Lindsay Weir, Freaks and Geeks
Freaks and Geeks deals with some really heavy shit in a really good way. It’s also a show that, like MSCL, is about the problems of white, middle-class kids. Coming from such a privileged background myself, I related to shows like this because they were designed to be relatable to me, even though they don’t show a wide breadth of human experience. Lindsay Weir is aware of this, though; a lot of her friends come from crappy home situations and she’s often embarrassed by her own privilege.
Lindsay is like me in how she wants to have it both ways: she wants to be the perfect student and dreads getting in trouble, but she also wants to flout authority when authority sucks and be cool overall. A group of my close friends were probably on the verge of Freak-dom, but not quite there (it’s hard to be a true Freak when Led Zeppelin has fallen out of popularity). I still felt like an outsider at times, especially when it seemed like I’d mistakenly chosen calculus over my best friend. I think the boldest thing the writers did with Lindsay, honestly, takes place in the pilot, when she describes being present at her grandmother’s death as shaking up her whole perspective on things: there wasn’t a light, her grandmother looked scared to die, “she was a good person her whole life and that was what she got.” That shit is heavy.
1. Daria Morgendorffer, Daria
I don’t think there’s been a better social satire of the horrors of high school than that which Daria provides us. Whenever I re-watch the series, I’m always surprised by how complex the issues that Daria takes on are. For example, Season 1’s “The Misery Chick” deals with collective grief, or rather, a lack thereof, when a famous ex-quarterback who no one likes dies on a visit back to Lawndale High. I admire Daria for her unparalleled wit (as every viewer does) and I admire the show for never really improving things—sure, realizations are made, but Lawndale is always a dark and bizarre hell in one way or another. I’m pretty good at snappy retorts, but my timing isn’t as good and I’m not as ballsy as Daria.