Winnie Holzman is the Emmy-nominated creator of “My So-Called Life,” which ran from 1994-95 on ABC. She was also a writer for “Thirtysomething” and “Once and Again,” wrote the book for the Broadway smash “Wicked” and is the showrunner of the upcoming Showtime series “Roadies.” She talked about pushing the limits with the network.
There was a teeny bit of reluctance (about including a gay character, Rickie Vasquez, played by Wilson Cruz). This might have been something (executive producers) Marshall (Herskovitz) and Ed (Zwick) shielded me from, but to ABC’s credit, I don’t remember getting a lot of pushback. The thing they were pushing back on, and it only happened once when we were shooting the pilot, was I had Rickie go into the girls bathroom with the girls and put on eyeliner. Standards and practices called me. They were like, ‘We don’t understand…’ We were literally in the midst of shooting at that point.
To give you some cultural context, Michael Jackson had just been on Oprah — it was a big Oprah moment — and he had a lot of eyeliner on. And ‘The Crying Game’ had recently won an Oscar. So I just went into this little speech, ‘People are ready, nobody’s going to bat an eye.’ I wasn’t bulls—ing, I absolutely believed it. What’s interesting is they backed right off.
(The network) was extremely conflicted about the show the entire time and not that into it, and ultimately took it off the air before the end of a full season. But they never micromanaged us, which is huge. All I can say is he’s on the show, with eyeliner, in the girls room.
What I learned is that what was perhaps scary about Rickie to the network was not that he was gay, but that I saw him as feminine. Not every gay man would identify with wanting to be in the girls room, but this gay man was a feminine person who wanted to wear makeup. That was a very specific kind of person, and It’s almost a bigger taboo than being gay.
What I was interested in was that there was an ambiguity to his sexuality. He wasn’t clear where he stood or who he was, because he was 15 years old. It was my choice at the time, but I didn’t feel like depicting someone who could say, ‘I’ve figured it out! I know who I am!’ That wasn’t interesting to me. What I wanted was to watch somebody figure it out.
The (fan) mail that Wilson received was so touching and beautiful. I actually don’t remember getting a stitch of hate mail. Wilson was playing the character, so maybe he got one or two, but nothing compared to the bags of beautiful mail. Even to do this day, people say to me, ‘I came out to my parents while we were watching “My So-Called Life” ’ or ‘Seeing that character gave me the courage to tell the truth.’ That’s a really cool legacy.
I remember what we really cared about (with all the storylines) was, ‘What would really happen?’ It’s about giving someone respect as a person, which interestingly is what teenagers usually want. That’s something they struggle for. And that’s what we were most interested to do, respecting the teenage characters and giving them every bit as much consideration as any adult character would ever get. It sounds so simple now. But honestly it was our guiding light.