This week marks 20 years since the groundbreaking teen drama, My So-Called Life originally aired on ABC. While it only lasted one season, the show was adored by critics and fans alike. The show made relative newcomer Claire Danes, who played teenager Angela Chase, a star. It also gave us unforgettable characters like wild child Rayanne Graff (AJ Langer), sweet and sensitive Rickie Vasquez (Wilson Cruz), and of course, the mysterious bad boy Jordan Catalano (Jared Leto).
In honor of the anniversary, Time Magazine ran an opinion piece by out writer/producer Savannah Dooley (Huge), who happens to be the daughter of My So-Called Life creator Winnie Holtzman. Her father, actor Paul Dooley, played Angela’s grandfather. Dooley, who was a young girl at the time, remembers the show fondly.
“I’d play behind the scenery, do my homework in the unused fake school hallway, and plunder the craft service snack table. I loved reading the scripts and watching rough cuts of the episodes.”
She recalls being drawn to the character of Rickie, and the actor Wilson Cruz, who now works for GLAAD.
“I was in awe of all the actors—even 14-year-old Claire Danes seemed impossibly grown up to me—but felt especially thrilled when warm, funny, magnetic Wilson would chat with me between scenes. “I’m gonna marry him!” I confided in my mom one day. She smiled. “That’s so sweet, honey, but you know, Wilson is gay.”
Dooley later credits My So-Called Life for helping her process her queer identity when as a teenager, she fell in love with another girl.
“By that time, I could appreciate more of the nuances of MSCL, like the fluidity of Rickie’s sexual and gender expression. He starts out identifying as bi before eventually coming out as gay; he wears makeup but experiments with a traditionally masculine look on Halloween; he tries using both the girls’ and the boys’ bathroom at school, but doesn’t quite “fit” in either. These details felt authentic to me as a teenage queer in flux, trying on different labels to find what felt right. It reassured me to know not everyone’s journey began with “I always knew.”
While Dooley notes she was lucky to have wonderfully accepting parents, she knows that many other queer kids did not, and stories like Rickie’s needed to be told then as they still need to be told now.
“That’s why characters like Rickie matter so much. They can be a lifeline for viewers who may not be able to talk to anyone about what they’re going through. And they can help change minds by humanizing those who are different.”
While Dooley’s experience is unique in the fact that her parents were involved in My So-Called Life, her feelings of affection for the show and characters are shared by many. As a young person myself, My So-Called Life was unlike anything I’d ever seen before. The characters felt so relatable, so awkwardly real. When I met Wilson Cruz at the GLAAD Awards this year, I instantly felt the way I did back then. I got butterflies as he stood in front of me, remembering how much his character meant to me at the time, even if I didn’t know why. When I told him of the impact Rickie had on me back then, he smiled broadly and his eyes twinkled just as they did 20 years ago.
To read Savannah Dooley’s entire Time Magazine piece, “Finding My So-Called Queer Identity in My So-Called Life,” click here.