To celebrate my thirty-fifth birthday I held a throwback party. Everyone was instructed to come dressed as a favorite character from childhood. An array of notable fictional figures from the Eighties showed up – Magnum PI, Maverick, the Hamburglur, Karate Kid, Mr. Rogers – even a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle.
Me? I was Punky Brewster. There was no question that she was my favorite. She was everything I wanted to be at six years old – quirky, outspoken, optimistic, creative, funny, and downright colorful. Her mismatched socks and sunshine hair binders spoke to me. She didn’t want to be a ballerina or a princess when she grew up; her goal was to be an astronaut. In the wake of the Challenger explosion, my clearest memories are not of the disaster itself, but the dismay that Punky felt when the shuttle fell. Punky gave permission to a generation of young girls to look, act, and want to be different.
A 26-year-old co-worker asked me about my birthday party the following week. I enthusiastically told her that I had been Punky Brewster. I received a blank stare in return. “You do know who Punky Brewster is, right?”
“I mean, I’ve heard of her, but I don’t really know who she is.”
I was surprised, shocked, appalled! I had assumed that Punky Brewster was an enduring cultural image, like The Brady Bunch. Everyone knows Marcia, Jan, and Cindy no matter when they were born. But I was wrong. Only the class of kids edged between Gen X and Gen Y, cuspers born in the late 70’s and early 80’s, identifies with Punky. For our mini-generation, Full House, My Two Dads, and the rest of the TGIF line-up consumed Friday nights. Saturday mornings meant The Muppet Babies, Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, Small Wonder, and Saved by the Bell (starring my first celebrity crush, Mark-Paul Gosselaar, aka Zach Morris). We watched The Real World on MTV before reality TV officially existed. We were influenced by a very specific set of television characters throughout our youth. And it all started when Punky Brewster debuted in 1985.
The Wonder Years premiered January 1988; four months before Punky took her final bow. It may have been set in the Sixties, but the emotions and awkward adolescent moments of Kevin, Paul, and Winnie were universal. My heart exploded at the end of the first episode when Kevin and Winnie kissed for the first time on a rock in the woods. Was it creepy that this moment came right after Winnie found out that her brother had been killed in Vietnam? Not in my eight-year-old mind. I wanted to be Winnie Cooper sitting on that rock, a pre-teen Kevin Arnold longing after me.
The Wonder Years continued for many seasons, but after a few years of will-they-or-won’t they between Kevin and Winnie, I grew bored and progressed to more exciting television. My Mom decided that Beverly Hills 90210 was too mature for my 12-year-old eyes, but in my greatest act of defiance to date, I watched it every week on the black and white television in my room. I saved my weekly allowance and meager babysitting earning for months to purchase that television. Knowing I was breaking the rules, I would close the door and turn down the volume to a practically inaudible level so that I wouldn’t make my mom suspicious. Week after week I listened to the extreme drama of Brenda, Dylan, and Kelly as they navigated sex, school, and diet pills. Despite my addiction to this soap opera, I viewed the characters from afar. The chaotic lives of rich teenagers in southern California never made the emotional dent of other shows.
That would come in ninth grade with My So-Called Life. The same girls that idolized Punky Brewster sat down every week to empathize with Angela Chase as she fell for Jordan Catalano. When he finally decided to date Angela halfway through the first and only season, Jordan fulfilled the dreams of freshman girls across the nation. It was suddenly possible that the hot, creative, cool guy could notice me! How much time did I waste in high school waiting for that fantasy to come true?
We seared with agony when Angela’s best friend Rayanne slept with Jordan after Angela decided she wasn’t ready to have sex. I felt Angela’s pain so completely that I wrote a poem about the betrayal and turned it in for an English assignment! (See below for that stellar piece of work.)
Despite its short tenure, My So-Called Life defined early high school for me. I even have a magazine clipping at the front of my photo album from these years that says “My So-Called Life. You Know How It Feels.” And I did know how it felt. We all did.
A few years later we took sides between Dawson and Pacey in the WB classic, Dawson’s Creek. There was no Team Dawson or Team Pacey, but everyone had a clear opinion on who should end up with Joey, the tomboy next door. Who can forget when Dawson ran around Capeside in a desperate search for Joey when he finally realized that he had feelings for his best friend? We all had a Dawson in our life that we were waiting to make that same realization. I watched Dawson’s Creek religiously for years. I would even record it on my VCR in the dorm so that my roommates and I could watch it together after we finished studying.
Then we became real adults. The cusper girls were no longer a target demographic for advertisers and we lost the shows and characters that defined our early years. We would soon fit into the sect of early to middle age women that watched Grey’s Anatomy. And while I watched that show with enthusiasm for many years, it will never be a part of who I am. That will be left to Winnie Cooper. And Angela Chase. And especially Punky Brewster.
Betrayal (written in 1995 after an episode of My So-Called Life)
Sometimes she does things
That nearly bring you to an end
She tears at all your insides
But she was supposed to be your friend
She didn’t know she’d hurt you,
She saw only her own pain,
Even with your tearful expression,
She thought only of her disdain.
For a while you’ll live in silence,
Only understanding your own brain
She’ll never think twice about you
So you’ll live with your thoughts and pain
But then one day she finally knows
What she has done to you
Now it’s her turn to live in the tears and pain
That she has put you through
One day you’ll get the courage
To ask for the truth through her lie
You’ll stare her in the face and ask
Why did you do it, why?