Sunday, October 16, 2016

Female Role Models: Clarissa Darling

Seriously, I was lucky to have grown up in the 90s. It was an amazing time for empowered, smart, creative women. If the 90s were your formative years you had so many great icons and role models; singers like Kathleen Hanna, Liz Phair or Shirley Manson, and even fictional characters like Xena, Buffy, Scully, and of course Clarissa Darling.

Chances are if you grew up in the 80s and 90s you know this show. And chances are that if you were a straight boy or a gay girl Clarissa was your first real crush. I know she was mine. Quite frankly, ten or eleven year old me didn't quite exactly understand what it was that Clarissa made me feel when my stomach got all squirmy while watching the show. All I knew was that I certainly wasn't about to tell anyone about it.

Luckily it didn't matter because boys could watch Clarissa too. She was cool. She was actually a cool enough girl that it was okay for boys to like the show too. In fact, my sister and I watched the show religiously. I even remember one year we were at my grand parent's house and had to sneak away from a family event down the TV in the basement so we wouldn't miss that week's Clarissa Explains it All. It was the one where her and Ferguson are contestants on Double Dare.

Okay, before I get further into this, let's slow down just a minute for those of you who grew up without cable or lived in Mongolia or some other country where American pop culture isn't the only topic of thoughtful discourse. What the heck is Clarissa Explains it All and who the heck is Clarissa Darling?

Well, let me start by saying simply "na na na na na."

Okay, yeah it was those neon years of the late 80s and early 90s.

Clarissa Explains it All was a basic family sitcom that centered around a fourteen year old girl as she navigated school, crushes, career aspirations, family, friendship, jobs and life. Clarissa would often break the fourth wall and talk directly to the audience in little asides where she would give her thoughts on the episode's topic. She was smart, sarcastic, rational and witty, but also anxious too. She tended to overthink things and obsess over worst case scenarios.

There was also her pet alligator, Elvis.
As star Melissa Joan Hart wrote in her memoir Melissa Explains it All, "When Clarissa was set to debut in March of 1991, it was nicely positioned to make an impact with a new audience. The creators hoped the teen sitcom would appeal to boys and girls by casting a clever, compassionate, free-thinking female lead."

What really made Clarissa stand out, and I think what really had an impact on me, is that she felt real. She wasn't a "type." You know, a type. Like how quite a lot of shows, especially kids shows, try to create characters in easily marketable categories based on a single characteristic; the smart one, the funny one, the jock, the artist or the posh kid. Throughout the series Clarissa was all of those things, or at least dabbled in them the way that we all really do. She was smart and creative and anxious like Lisa Simpson but also funny, irreverent and scheming like Bart. She was a three dimensional character. I think that's why people liked her. That's why I naturally liked her too.

How could you not like those pants?
You see, what I was used to, what was marketed to me growing up were those simple categories of characters like I mentioned above. Only I left one out. The other category was "the token girl." As a young, confused boy who knew that I identified with girls, I wasn't quite sure what to make of most of the 'girl' characters that were being marketed at me. They were lame, one dimensional and only existed to be sidekicks or to be rescued.

That's why Clarissa was such an important character for me. As a young transgender girl still trying to figure out this whole gender thing, I had found a show that was cool for a boy to watch and that featured a cool, smart, well-rounded three dimensional girl as the star. It's still amazing to me to think that this even existed.

I knew I wanted to be a girl but wasn't sure quite what being a girl meant. Luckily, Clarissa was there on TV for me to see. She showed me that girls can be funny and sarcastic and outspoken. They could be weird and creative and design their own video games. Girls could be smart and being smart didn't mean that they couldn't also have a cool fashion sense. Girls didn't all have to like the same thing.

You could be a girl and have your own taste in clothes or music or TV. It was okay for girls to be ambitious but it was also okay to be anxious too. Most importantly, Clarissa Darling taught me that being a girl meant that you could be yourself and it was okay, even if you didn't quite know who you were yet. It's okay to just be yourself.

You might think I'm exaggerating by trying to say that this silly little cable sitcom from the early 90s was important, but it was. It broke new ground in kid's entertainment. Before Clarissa Explains it All, shows with girl protagonists were exclusively marketed to girls. After this show they were able to market those shows to boys too. 

And for me, as a gender confused boy that was a huge thing. It meant that I didn't feel ashamed or wrong for watching a girls' show and that meant that I could tune into Clarissa and enjoy stories about a well written, well rounded, smart, ambitious and funny female character. It provided me, and lord knows probably lots of other transgender kids, with a really cool example of what it can mean to be a girl. It showed me that being a girl was actually pretty cool. 

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