“Because it is a big deal…”: A conversation with author Soraya Roberts about virginity and My So-Called Life

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image of clare danes and jared leto in a car, smiling at each other

Image Credit: ABC Productions

“Sex made your whole life start and if you think about life as like a circle, sex and death are like the same.” – Angela Chase

Angela Chase (Claire Danes) takes sex seriously. Her attitude may seem overly dour, but the seriousness with which the protagonist of the short-lived ‘90s teen drama My So-Called Life approaches sex is not anomalous. Teen television, then and now, finds itself recycling a series of tropes: breakups, makeups, graduation, and of course the loss of virginity. Plotlines are typically instructive and didactic — ‘safe sex’ rhetoric obliquely advocates abstaining from sex altogether. Indeed, virginity is championed on most teen dramas, where pregnancy, STIs or social isolation are just a few of the exhibited consequences of ‘losing it.’ This anxiety is especially present for Angela. As far as she sees it, sex is never ‘just sex’; it is always consequence.

While these virginity-loss tropes vary in execution, and are by no means gender exclusive (Dawson Leery could agonize over his v-card with the best of them), one feature is ubiquitous: the virginity of a female character is far more contentious than that of her male counterparts. A female protagonist is to approach the topic studiously. If she takes too long to think about it, she is deemed immature, or worse, a prude. Too little thought? A slut, of course. Unwaveringly, the core message remains: while guys get to fantasize about sex, girls—like Angela—get to worry about it.

In her book, In My Humble Opinion: My So-Called Life, Soraya Roberts highlights the ways in which MSCL subverts such tropes. While the show, like its ‘90s counterparts, came into family homes in an era where sexual education was preaching abstinence and the AIDS crisis was in full swing, Roberts tracks its ascension parallel to third-wave feminism. The show follows Angela, who has become bored with her childhood friends Sharon (Devon Odessa) and Brian (Devon Gummersall), and now hangs with a more rebellious crowd: new best friend Rayanne Graff (A.J. Langer), the girl with the “racy” reputation; intermittent boyfriend Jordan Catalano (Jared Leto), who is uncommunicative and aloof, but endlessly dreamy; and the uber-supportive, androgynous Rickie Vasquez (Wilson Cruz). Where other shows like Beverly Hills, 90210 and Sweet Valley High depicted young (predominantly white) women dressed in Gucci parsing each other’s sexual history (or lack thereof), MSCL is defined by, and lauded for, its characters’ zitty, backpack-toting verisimilitude. (Though more progressive than its peers in many respects, it is worth noting that MSCL was nonetheless guilty of reinforcing an overwhelmingly white vision of “typical” teenagehood). Through Angela’s disaffected voiceover—a recurring motif on the show and a focal point of Roberts’ analysis—we can see just how hard Angela is struggling to make sense of sex as anything other than death’s equally foreboding companion.

I sat down with Soraya to talk TV tropes, teendom and The First Time™.

CE: What made you decide to write this book? Why now?

SE: I wrote an article for Bitch magazine in 2014 about what MSCL taught me about beauty for the show’s 20th anniversary. The editor of ECW’s pop classics series saw it and asked if I wanted to write a book about the show. But I needed more of a reason for why MSCL was important to the world rather than just me. That’s when I realized how close its airing was, historically, to the rise of third-wave feminist groups like the Riot Grrrl [movement], which gave the book an ideal backbone because both the movement and the show were giving a voice to teenage girls for the first time.

CE: What kind of tropes existed around female virginity-loss when MSCL was entering the conversation in the ‘90s?

SE: They weren’t so different from what they are today. Even though the number of sexual interactions between teens had increased, it was pretty much the same old story of guys being lauded for playing the role of sexual aggressor and girls being shamed for their sexuality.

CE: Do you think MSCL managed to avoid the didacticism associated with other teen dramas’ virginity-loss plotlines. I’m thinking of our Canadian-grown Degrassi?

SR: MSCL was one of the rare shows that actually allowed its teen girls to discuss their sex lives without touting any sort of rule book. What’s interesting is that Angela, Rayanne and Sharon, at various points in the series, question their own very divergent approaches to sex within the context of society’s approach to it. It’s a tension we have all felt as women within a culture that polices our sexuality.

image of clare danes and two cast members standing in front of lockers at a high school

Image Credit: ABC Productions

CE: You mention in your book that you were close in age to Angela when the show first aired and you began watching. Do you remember feeling invested in whether Angela lost her virginity or not?

SR: Of course! There was no way she could lose it — it was like her super power. In the book I write about how her virginity is the one thing she has that the other girls don’t, the one thing she has that Jordan Catalano can’t have, which is what keeps her in the power position.

There was no way she could lose it — it was like her super power.

CE: I was similarly invested in the virginity of my teen heroines. It all seemed very high-stakes. If they were going to do it, I needed a seven season build-up and for there to be roses on the bed (à la Donna from 90210). Which is absurd, but also very teenage: feeling completely abandoned when your friends experience those “firsts” that you have yet to.

SR: For sure. It was the same feeling in real life. I remember feeling terribly betrayed when I found out one friend after another was having sex before me. It’s like I believed we signed this silent contract saying we were in this virginity thing together, or like their sexuality was my property. It’s funny how crazy that sounds now as an adult.

CE: In Chapter 6 of your book, you highlight the ways in which sexual conversations on TV are gendered, and how MSCL relates to other shows of its time period in that regard. Can you talk a bit about MSCL’s depiction of sexual double-standards?

SR: [MSCL creator] Winnie Holzman was very aware of the double standards that men and women face in terms of sexuality and she used the show and its characters to interrogate it. Angela, having grown up in the wake of AIDS, associates sex with death and a loss of innocence, and considering innocence is what she believes she is valued for, she is somewhat terrified to part with it. Then there’s Sharon, who has discovered the pleasures of sex, but can’t quite allow herself to indulge because this doesn’t fit the standards she has been taught. While she enjoys sex with her boyfriend, she doesn’t love him, ergo she shouldn’t be enjoying the sex she has with him. Rayanne, meanwhile, is fully cognizant of the fact that sex can just be used for pleasure without all the trappings of romance; however, her inability to get emotionally close to anyone means she is also dissatisfied. It’s a lot less complicated for the guys, but it’s still not that simple. Jordan is celebrated for his sexual prowess to the point that it becomes a standard that determines his normalcy. Brian’s lack of sex seems to be associated with his lack of alpha male status so when he does express a libido it comes with relief as opposed to anxiety. Meanwhile, Rickie, who has no clear gender or sexuality, is sort of left to languish on the sidelines as convention takes center stage, which I think was a sad reality of the time, and maybe why Holzman didn’t push a little harder against it.

CE: One thing I find interesting is that Rayanne’s promiscuity is, in part, presented to the viewer as misguided, both morally and emotionally, due to poor parenting. In the simplest of terms, a teen could read this as Rayanne having sex because she’s sad and she doesn’t know any better, rather than for enjoyment or exploration. To me it’s a bit of a precursor to films such as Trainwreck (2015), which is supposed to be this feminist movie, but at the end it turns out she was only having promiscuous sex because she was “waiting for the right guy.”

image of teenaged girl in a washroom speaking to another girl

Image Credit: ABC Productions

SR: But this is Rayanne Graff through the eyes of Angela Chase. We see everything through her eyes, we see everything through a subjective reality, which means that everything, including Rayanne, has the potential for misrepresentation. Rayanne is the slut and Angela is the virgin because in Angela’s worldview, skewed or not, that is the dichotomy. And, yes, Rayanne is a device for Angela’s growth because Angela comes first in her own life; she is a teenager after all, we can all relate to the self-centeredness of that age. Angela considers her friend’s lifestyle misguided because traditionally that is how the lives of single mothers with promiscuous daughters have been viewed. And Angela is her mother’s daughter. Angela’s mom, Patty, may be a second-wave feminist, but she is still attached to some aspects of convention, such as virginity’s association with innocence and moral superiority, and she has passed that down to her daughter. Maybe Angela will one day acquire conflicting beliefs of her own, but she hasn’t yet. As for Amy Schumer, she should know better.

CE: What do you think was the lasting impact of MSCL’s depiction of virginity-loss, or, more broadly, the candid nature in which its teenage characters discussed sexuality? Do you think teenagers today can relate?

SR: I think the show was revolutionary in its depiction of the ambiguous nature of sexuality and how we approach it as men and women. Winnie Holzman’s presentation of stereotypes in terms of gender and sex allowed her to dismantle these tropes and present a more fluid, authentic reality, one which is less clearly defined and one which we have started to embrace a little more as a society today. That said, one thing I always thought was a little odd about MSCL, considering its overtures towards authenticity, was its lack of period talk. I just remember menstruation being a constant topic of conversation among us and it makes me wonder: Is Angela’s period cool? Does she not have a bad one? Because I remember a girl in my school literally on the floor in the hallway every time she got hers. But, as I mention in my book, being on ABC, MSCL had to toe the line a little bit. Maybe that’s why it’s not particularly visceral about adolescence. But if you are going for authenticity, to neglect a teenage girl’s period is a bit of an oversight.—particularly a teenage girl as introspective as Angela. I’m sure she has a thing or two to say about menstruation. “Can’t we just bleed, like, when we need to?”

CE: Finally, can you speculate as to what Angela Chase might be like as a contemporary teen on the internet? Twitter musings? Tumblr rants? Instagram self-portraiture? How do you think that would have factored into her own sexual self-identification/discovery?

SR: Considering how introspective Angela is, I’m not sure she would be as into social media as we might like to imagine. In one episode she writes a long letter about how she feels about Jordan, but even that is more for her, more like a diary, than it is for anyone else (even though she lets Rayanne read it). I think she would probably do a lot of journaling, possibly the odd Tinyletter for her friends, but that’s the extent of it. In that case, I’m not sure that her sexual self-identification would be any different from how it is depicted on the show — a slow hesitant move towards the realization that sex does not intend to kill her; quite the opposite.

A documentary researcher and culture writer working in Toronto.

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A documentary researcher and culture writer working in Toronto.