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Identity

Lessons from Television's Teen Sluts

September 19, 2015, 6:20pm
Screenshot of Kelly Bundy via YouTube

As a ravenous television-consuming preteen and adolescent, I watched TV for the sluts.

Since I only understood sex in a conceptual sense, I deferred to characters like Blanche Devereaux and Elaine Benes as beacons of feminine wisdom. I studied the wayward women of the small screen to glean an insight into human sexuality. My devotion wasn't purely academic. I often responded warmly to the stars; female sitcom actresses stirred up a feeling I wasn't emotionally mature enough to recognize as desire. I lusted after them, and I wanted to be them—or at least attempt to make sense of myself through them.

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I was mostly attracted to TV sluts' inherent subversiveness. I admired the young female characters who seemed, in retrospect, to explore untethered sexual agency. At the start of high school, I was an angsty, insecure, little turd—a Heathers-adoring disciple of Bikini Kill in ripped tights. I smoked in the girls' bathroom, and I convinced myself I was the only misunderstood girl to ever drag Chuck Taylors across a high school quad. Anyone waving middle fingers at convention appealed to me, even if it played out before a live studio audience. In other words, I thought promiscuous TV teens were punk.

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Iconic masturbatory fodder Kelly Bundy, the daughter on Married… with Children, was the first object of my infatuation—which could probably be said for an entire generation. Being a Bundy, Kelly sure as shit didn't care if anyone took umbrage with how she choose to express her libido. When I fell in love with Kelly, I hadn't yet adopted my rebellious identity. I was in junior high, where I skulked along like the creepy girl emerging from the TV in The Ring, desperate to detract any attention from my big tits. Having D cups in 8th grade is a Kafkaesque horror show. Seemingly overnight, my body betrayed me and developed without asking for my permission. My Montgomery Burns posture began as a hunch I used to pull my giant boobs as far into my body as possible, a futile attempt to hide them from the vocal dickheads who populated my school. I admired Kelly because she wielded her acute fuckablity, even put it on display. She derived power from her sexuality, while I was at war with mine. Walking the halls to class, I did my best to emulate her bombshell swagger, even though I wanted to hide inside a locker. Say whatever you want, dumb fucks, I thought. I own this shit.

If the Bundy family existed today, they would upload their fights on World Star after Insane Clown Posse shows. The family was a biting caricature of typical 80s sitcoms about successful, respected patriarchs who helm loving nuclear families. The audience wasn't really supposed to respect any of the Bundy clan, let alone their trampy dumb cliche of a daughter, but the show rarely portrayed Kelly's sluttiness as a character flaw. Although the show's writers depicted Kelly as a sexual girl, they never showed her as a woman who should be pitied. Married… with Children was far from an aspirational show, but as a girl combatting shame from sexualization, I idolized Kelly Bundy.

It's the same reason I detested Jen Lindley, the repentant slut on the primetime WB melodrama Dawson's Creek. As the regressive counterpoint to Kelly Bundy, Jen embodied the sad broken bird trope, a victim of sexuality rather than its champion. After Jen was penetrated more than a Subway sandwich punch card, her parents sentenced her to an adolescence of eyebrow-raising from her bible-thumping grandmother in fictional Capeside. The town's D-wielders rebuffed Jenn for virtuous Joey Potter, the Veronica to Jen's Betty. Joey saw her sexuality as frightening; she was Capeside's Helen of Troy, an object of pubescent chest-beating and the central conflict of the show. The message to the young, largely female audience was crystal clear: Chastity is prized, and sexual transgressions are eternally damning. I felt so frustrated by the show's horse shit. Where my teen idol Kathleen Hanna wrote "SLUT" on her belly to co-opt pejoratives, Jen was apologizing for being a skank.

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I lost my virginity around the time Dawson's Creek first plopped out of the WB. Well, I certainly didn't lose anything—I happily torpedoed my hymen. It went down in the most typical way: to my boyfriend, when I was 17. I never suffered any hesitation or misgivings about this, nor did I feel bad about the rest of my sexual experimentation around that time, which consisted primarily of awkward gropings. Although Kelly Bundy inspired curiosity and excitement about sex, Jen Lindley made me feel bad about becoming sexually active. Even as a diehard riot grrrl who understood sexual shame was pure fuckery, I felt Jen's influence. I found myself mulling over every clumsy handjob I had given, every amusingly inept fingering in a park or car. Even worse, I questioned my responsibility for every sexually dubious incident filed away in my memory. The Jen Lindley legacy was sneakily pervasive. It ushered in the short-lived dark ages.

Thankfully, I soon discovered My So-Called Life. The series followed Angela Chase as she befriended her school's resident slutty, alcoholic iconoclast: Rayanne Graff. The bad girl's chaotic sartorial choices coupled with her frenzied hair was the perfect visualization of teen girls' self-destructive tendencies, but the look also served as a message to people who question girls' sexual choices. I loved Rayanne. She wasn't just Angela's bad girl shepherd; she was mine as well. She offered both of us the opportunity to vicariously experience life through a friend unbound by other people's value systems.

On the surface, the two girls may seem like another televised rendering of the virgin and the whore, but the writers never castigated Rayanne or punished her for being a trouser snake charmer. Rayanne was a broken bird, but she wasn't a cautionary tale. After she fucked sentient mop Jordan Catalano, she didn't get squinty-eyed or bemoan her past, like a girl on Dawson's Creek. Voted Liberty High's student with the "most slut potential" in the sophomore poll, Rayanne celebrated her slutty assignation. I found her revelatory.

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I related to Rayanne the most of all the girls I saw on TV. Like me, she was abandoned by her dad and under-supervised by her mom. She sought parental figures in her friend's home; I did the same. Rayanne was deprived of affection, but her sexuality was never conflated with pathology. Slutting around was just one aspect of the vivacious creature that was Rayanne Graff, a way she exercised autonomy within the constraints of being a teenage girl of no means.

I revered the sexually erudite girls on TV because, fumbling around in the hellscape of my teen years, I was looking for guidance. Jen Lindley may have sucked my pride out of me like a blonde dementor, but Rayanne Graff reinvigorated it. She lent me confidence to trust in my abiding sexual ethos. If my choices kicked tradition in the groin, all the better. If I wanted to indiscriminately hump on anything in my path, that was my prerogative. The show's producers probably didn't intend for teens to take life cues from Rayanne, but good lord, did girls need her.