Debra, the lesbian who wasn’t there in “Empire Records”

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It’s been 20 years since Empire Records came out, which means it’s been one of my favorite movies for a full two decades. Growing up in the ’90s, seeing the movie about a ragtag group of high school graduates who worked at a fledgling record store (and had fun doing it) was everything I hoped for from life at that point: Friends, music, Rex Manning Day. I later realized my dream of working at a record store (two, actually, both now defunct) and found out I actually had to work and earn minimal amounts of cash doing so. (Free CDs, though!)

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Outside of the setting, Empire Records was so exciting because of its women: Liv Tyler as Corey, Robin Tunney as Debra, Renee Zellweger as Gina, and Debi Mazar as Jane. First, there was the fact Liv Tyler had, just a year before, been a part of the pivotal Aerosmith music video for “Crazy,” where she and Alicia Silverstone were bad school girls on the run in what proved to be a very Sapphic situation. I think I saw Corey’s relationship with Gina (her best friend) as a kind of continuation of that story in a way. Corey (I mean, come on with that name) and Gina enjoy eating cupcakes together and talking about sex. (Corey is a virgin who can’t drive. Seriously, Gina gives her rides.) At work, they dance to Rex Manning in their perfect ’90s outfits.

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But my dream girl was Debra (or, affectionately, Deb). The scooter-riding, nose-ring wearing tough girl, comes to work, she has an adorable chunky bob. After flipping Corey and Gina off (“She hates me.” “Yeah she hates me too. But I have enough sense to hate her back.”), Deb slams the bathroom door and decides to shave her head to a Cranberries song. This is definitely part of my root.

buzzI’m going for a Dolores O’Riordan meets Ani ‘do

Debra is sarcastic and tortured. She tried to kill herself recently with a lady Bic, and her co-workers are concerned, despite her playing it off. Gina jokes she’s having a “Sinead o’rebellion!” Gina is Debra’s witty match, and I like to consider their exchanges flirtatious because they are, even when Gina is saying things like, “Oh now, Debra, don’t be bitter, surely with your ever growing collection of flesh mutilating silver appendages and your brand new neo-nazi boot camp makeover the boys will come a-runnin’.”

gina-debBoys? No thank you.

Debra is uninterested in Cody Shivers, telling him what she’s going through is not about him. She asks him to stop touching her and to “get out and walk away.” She wants to be alone with her music and her depression….and possible lesbianism. Deb is not looking for a boyfriend: She’s looking for herself.

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Empire’s boss, Joe, offers to talk with her and she says “You gonna fix me, Joe?” She tries to be kind, in her own way, but she can’t help it. She’s not feeling right and she won’t pretend otherwise. For young questioning women, this is familiar territory.

Later, after Corey sees Rex Manning is a d-bag not worth her v-card, she freaks and takes it out on Gina. “I don’t want another guy!” she says, insulting her best friend by saying she enjoys doing “every guy she sees.” Gina then goes on to prove Corey right, by coming onto Rex herself. Meanwhile Corey tells A.J. she sees him as a friend and they have something better than romance. A.J. decides to flirt with Debra in front of Corey inside the record store, and everyone dances to “Say No More Mon Amour” until Joe forces them to get back to work. Corey is done. She doesn’t feel well, and she feels worse upon discovering Gina just did it with Rex Manning. Corey tells Gina she hates her.

“So is this how your life’s gonna be now, huh? You’re just gonna screw every has-been until your tits fall down and they don’t want you anymore?”

The two get in a passionate fight where Gina starts throwing Corey’s speed pills at her and calling out her habit, causing Corey to go even more crazy and knocking shit down in the store. Luckily Debra is there to help. (I know, right? DEB. HELPING.)

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“I feel like I should welcome you to the neighborhood or something,” Debra says, and drops trou to pee while making light of the situation, which Corey seems to appreciate. (The joking, not the peeing.) She can’t believe Debra is being nice to her. “Let’s save our Hallmark moment,” Debra says. So, naturally, Corey plans Deb a faux funeral. (I never got to do this at my record store.) At the “ceremony,” people pay their respects and Deb rolls her eyes.

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“I really miss Gina. I can’t stop thinking about her,” Corey said. Gina appears out of nowhere. “You’re always saying I do what I want to do but I don’t.” And it’s supposedly about her singing in a band, but it would have been entirely awesome if she then laid a kiss on Corey. Instead they whisper to each other and Deb says, “That’s so sweet, I think I’m gonna barf.”

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Debra reveals she tried to slit her wrists because she was tired of being invisible. It’s impossible to think Deb was invisible to anyone. Despite her disinterested in most everyone around her, her co-workers see her, and want to connect more, if only she’d let them. Her funeral is interrupted when Warren, the shoplifter with a gun, has returned to shoot up the place. Deb jumps up and takes control, reffering to God as “she,” which is reason #450 that she’s clearly gay.

The only true lesbian in Empire Records is Joe’s wife who “left him for another woman,” (We never get to meet her. She should get her own sequel.) but Deb was a lesbian icon to me at a time when I had yet to discover The Incredibly True Adventures of 2 Girls in Love or even Boys on the Side, both out the same year. (Also in 1995: The Celluloid Closet, Antonia’s Line and Showgirls, which I was “too young to see.”)  And it passes the Bechdel Test almost exclusively because of Deb and her having issues outside of dudes and talking about things other than having sex with dudes.

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Empire Records was written by woman, Carol Heikkinen, who also wrote one of my other faves, Center Stage, which is surely one reason the female characters are just as strong and well-rounded (if not more so) than their male counterparts. And at the end of the film, only Corey ends up in a neatly tied-up romance (with A.J.) Debra and Gina aren’t blessed with boyfriends to give them happy endings. Instead they dance together on the roof, having just saved their beloved record store from the Man. I loved it when I first saw it and still do, although I wouldn’t have minded if Deb would have had a big gay realization somewhere along the way. It certainly wouldn’t have been out of place.

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