mscl hour

Rayanne Graff Is My Spirit Animal

Photo: Maya Robinson

We’ve been looking back all week at the hugely influential 1994–95 network-television season, which found new shows Friends and ER hobnobbing on the same schedule with SeinfeldThe Simpsons, and The X Files. We’ve counted down the season’s 100 best episodespresented an oral history of the first season of Party of Fivetested your Friends knowledge with an SAT-style exam, and so much more. But right now we are in the middle of our My So-Called Life Power Hour and it’s time to honor Angela Chase’s friend Rayanne Graff.

“So, I started hanging out with Rayanne Graff. Just for fun. Just ’cause it seemed like if I didn’t I would die … or something.”

From the opening three minutes of My So-Called Life’s pilot — during which teen protagonist Angela Chase is persuaded by new friend Rayanne to scam money off strangers (disastrously) and dye her hair red (iconically) — I knew exactly what Angela was voice-over-ing about. Where had Rayanne Graff been all my life? This 15-year-old ragamuffin-nymph who served as the devil perched upon one of Angela’s shoulders during MSCL’s lone season was so electric, so jagged-edged, so heart-stoppingly cool, I might die. To co-opt how Rayanne’s mom once described Angela, Rayanne’s mere existence, even as a fictitious supporting character who appeared but weekly on my TV, ramped up my black-and-white world into brilliant color. I wanted to live in her bed and just be her.

You know how Sex and the City fans always say they’re a Carrie, but their real lives probably more closely mirror one of her sidekicks? I think My So-Called Life worshippers are all Angelas who aspire to be Rayannes, insisting that every moment be a heightened adventure. That can mean singing a sultry rendition of the Sesame Street theme song while waiting in line at the movies; it can also mean, unfortunately, ODing on drugs and/or sleeping with your best friend’s ex. “I see everything in, like, slow motion, and I think, Something has to happen,” Rayanne once told Angela’s sister while inadvertently handcuffed to her parents’ bed. (Adventure!) “Only it never does. So I had to make it happen.” Here are seven ways in which Rayanne was, as she would so often say, “happening.”

1. She was sexy with her clothes on. (Seemingly all of her clothes on.)
At a time when baby-doll dresses were considered risqué and slutty was not yet a prerequisite way to describe a girl’s Halloween costume, Rayanne seduced not by taking it all off, but by putting it all on. Her ubiquitous flannels topped a scintillating barrage of leotards, tights, minidresses, embroidered jackets, fingerless gloves, ripped jeans, tie-dyed shirts, floral prints, camo prints, candy bracelets, and Ring Pops. Every outfit was a variation on her Stevie Nicks–meets–Punky Brewster theme, and one of the tangible excitements of watching MSCL was seeing what Rayanne’s next sartorial iteration would be.

2. That one bleached-blonde ringlet.
A more-than-social drinker who was voted by her classmates as having the “most slut potential,” Rayanne exhibited her wild streak quite literally on her head. While her entire mop of mousy-blonde hair was whipped into frenetic ‘dos that matched her wardrobe’s intensity, her single platinum tendril was like a siren (in both senses of the word).

3. She was no Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
Rayanne eluded quirky-girl clichés in one essential way: Her actions and choices weren’t predicated on others being drawn to them or finding them attractive. Who Rayanne was, she was for the sake of nobody, and she intrinsically knew a fact of life that took me many more years to figure out: Being young and female is often exhausting because you get the feeling you’re ideally supposed to be tough, soft, playful, acquiescent, provocative, and a good sport all at once. Unlike Angela, Rayanne knew exactly how cruel, unfair, random, and threatening the world was (“You have to look tough. Somebody once set fire to my hair at Let’s Bolt”) and comported herself accordingly, galumphing around like a linebacker and saving her less guarded moments for the tile-reinforced safe space of the girls’ bathroom.

4. She was the Dorothy Parker of Liberty High.
You can have Angela’s mushy, navel-gazing voice-over soliloquies; I’ll take any one of Rayanne’s tangy morsels of adolescent wit. Gun went off at school? “A bottle of soda was shot tragically.” Experiencing a massive crush? “People throwing themselves at people is, like, the basis of civilization.” Cynthia Hargrove showing off her new nostril stud? “It’s a pierced nose. It’s not like an actual personality or something.”

5. She was TV’s first girl with a gay best friend.
By 1994, Rickie Vasquez was another character I’d yet to see on TV or in real life. Being a gay high-schooler back then guaranteed that you’d be relegated to the freaks, which is where Rayanne lived. She wasn’t friends with Rickie to confer some sort of cultural cachet upon herself, nor was she friends with Rickie because she couldn’t find a hetero boyfriend. The two were simply and truly simpatico, protecting, teasing, and loving of one another in spades.

6. She stole the Buffalo Tom episode.
Everyone swoons when Angela and Jordan walk off hand in hand at the end of “Self Esteem,” but the scene that still thrills me the most takes place at Pike Street, right after a dejected Angela leaves Jordan Catalano at the pool table. Rayanne’s hectoring of Jordan (while rocking a sequined beret, no less!) is burned into my brain and was something I recited to myself for years afterward. “You know you like her. Would it kill you to admit it, maybe treat her halfway decent? Because, you know, she deserves it — and she’s not going to wait around for you forever.” How Rayanne stood up for her friends was how I dreamed of one day standing up for myself. In fact…

7. She was a better friend than Angela.
Rayanne had an elemental need for attention and committed the world’s worst friendship crime by sleeping with Jordan. But she was still decidedly more caring and loyal toward Angela than she got in return. Rayanne both owned up to her mistakes and stood up for others — including her nemeses, Sharon Cherski and Brian Krakow, procuring a ride to the hospital for the former (thanks, Tino!) while flirt-talking the latter out of a quasi-suicidal slump. Compare the laser-sharp lecture Rayanne unleashed upon Jordan at Pike Street to the way Angela squeamishly asked Jordan to invite Rayanne into Frozen Embryos. Rayanne was never embarrassed for or by anyone, even though coolness and loyalty rarely go hand in hand like that. In the 20 years since My So-Called Life’s run, I’ve outgrown Angela, characters like Sharon and Brian are but a hazy memory, and Jordan fulfilled his band-name prophesy of becoming Residue. But I still hope to grow up to be like Rayanne Graff.

Rayanne Graff Is My Spirit Animal