Film and TV | Gay Iconography | Television | Wilson Cruz

Gay Iconography: The Legacy Of Rickie Vasquez

Rickie

The phrase "gay icon" gets tossed around a lot, but what does that really mean? Welcome to Gay Iconography, a new feature where we present a proposed iconic figure or character and then ask you to weigh in with your thoughts. Last week, we discussed Roseanne and received lots of interesting responses about her work, her legacy and her more recent controversial comments about the trans community. If you missed it, you can join that conversation here. This week's installment shifts its focus to another '90s ABC series.

Even though it only lasted one season, My So-Called Life is one of the most beloved television shows of all time. Its realistic portrayal of the teenage experience extended beyond just the ennui, awkward first loves and Manic Panic dye jobs. It also encompassed the show's deft handling of hot-button topics that were allowed to unfold over the course of several episodes and often avoided the kind of hokey happy ending that plagued "very special episodes" on other series.

Chief among the issues tackled by MSCL was the ongoing coming out process of Rickie Vasquez. The show's commitment to authentic adolescent storytelling ensured he never became just the eyeliner-adorned B.F.F. in the girls' room, nor was he only reduced to his tragic backstory. If Rickie was a proto-Kurt Hummel, he did it with just as much style, but more heart and much less support. Not to mention the significance of Rickie being a queer person of color on primetime network TV played by an out actor (Wilson Cruz) in 1994.

Revisit some key Rickie moments from the show, and share your thoughts, AFTER THE JUMP …

Rickie's Got A Gun: Angela (Homeland's Claire Danes) confronts Rickie about a rumor that he brought a gun to school. Turns out, he's behind the rumor himself in an effort to get folks to stop harassing him at school.

 

The Other Person's Perfectness: One of the things that makes Rickie so lovable is that he's a hopeless romantic. While this clip contains his advice to Angela, it reveals so much about his own insecurities and relationship fears.

 

Touched By An Angel: When Rickie's abusive uncle kicks him out of the house, he's got nowhere to go for the holidays. Angela's parents are forced to confront their own discomfort with Rickie when her mother Patty (Bess Armstrong) says Rickie can't join them for dinner, but (straight, white) Brian Krakow (Devon Gummersall) can. Sure, it took divine intervention in the form of an angel played by Juliana Hatfield for Patty to realize what her stubbornness could cost, but even that fairly cheesy plot device doesn't make her physical embrace of Rickie any less moving.

 

Gimme Shelter: Still with nowhere else to go, a gay teacher tries to get Rickie set up in local shelters. When that doesn't work out, he takes him in himself. In light of the recent discussion around ENDA, the portion when Mr. Kitimski (Jeff Perry) weighs the implications of a gay teacher taking in a gay student still feels relevant nearly two decades later.

 

Just Dance: Ricky's dance with Delia is his opportunity to proudly put himself out there and not care if he's blending in. Once you've seen this clip, it's hard to ever hear Haddaway's "What Is Love" without imagining Rickie and Delia vogueing in a high school gymnasium.

What do you think? Did My So-Called Life's tendency toward teenage navel-gazing make Rickie feel endearingly realistic, or did you never connect with the character?  Tell us why you think Rickie Vasquez is (or isn't) an iconic gay character in the comments.

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Comments

  1. The Christmas episode has a totally cheesy plot twist, it's sure, but the performances of the entire cast, especially Bess Armstrong as Angela's mother, are so uniformly good they transcend the clichés. The moment with Angela's mom asks the angel "how did you die?" and the answer is "I froze" - implying she was homeless like Ricky - can still take my breath away to this day.

    Posted by: CPT_Doom | Nov 15, 2013 12:53:59 PM


  2. I never connected with Rickie at all. But I'm glad he was there.

    Posted by: Randy | Nov 15, 2013 1:00:21 PM


  3. My thought is: As sensitive as Wilson Cruz's portrayals of Rickie were, with all the humanity he brought to them, it still can't stop willfully ignorant commentators from referring to his character as a "queer".

    Lord, deliver me! The self-loathing is so deeply ingrained in so many of the current LGBT generation, I don't know what it would take to dislodge it. And for the life of me, I don't understand how LGBT folk of any age can stand perceiving themselves through the eyes and the language of their oppressors. One of the reasons I survived a youth designed to drive me to suicide was my stubborn refusal to do that.

    "Queer" is not just a word, it is a concept, and an extremely poisonous one: the notion that any sexuality or gender expression other than hetero or binary is abnormal and/or marginal. Nature disproves that foolish notion every day! Liberation begins with the way you think and talk about yourself. If it doesn't begin that way, then it isn't liberation.

    Posted by: Stuffed Animal | Nov 15, 2013 1:33:52 PM


  4. I remember the first time seeing the character Ricky on MSCL when I just very young (under ten). Watching this handsome guy on TV being out in school and dealing with all of bs one may go through and it somehow making me feel apart of something. He is the first gay "person I remember seeing in POP Culture and it being ok, well him and RuPaul lol. I am greatful for this show Ricky's character and the subsequent movement after. Thank You.

    Posted by: Anthony | Nov 15, 2013 1:39:08 PM


  5. It truly was one of the greatest television programs of all time, I used to watch it with my family when I was in middle-school.

    Cruz's portrayal was heartrending, and the Christmas episode in particular was achingly beautiful.

    It was so wonderful as a tween to not just see a gay character, but a decidedly queer one at that. One that was valued, and loved and was himself in a world that didn't want him to be.

    Gay Icon? Most definitely! In Rickie I saw the guy I wanted to one day be: a guy who was true to himself in every way.

    Totally inspirational.

    Posted by: Little Kiwi | Nov 15, 2013 1:58:04 PM


  6. Ricky was an integral part of My So-Called Life; Jordan Catalano was mostly eye-candy for the girls of the story -- when they engaged him, it seemed there wasn't much going on behind those soulful eyes. Yet, who gets most of the post-network publicity?

    I've wished for years that someone would show the MSCL Christmas episode every year -- it could be a perennial, except it's about a gay kid. (Yeah, they exist, but why rub people's faces in it?)

    Yay for Wilson Cruz and Ricky -- television pioneers and truer to life than Will and Jack.

    Posted by: Murdoch | Nov 15, 2013 2:04:10 PM


  7. He was before my time, I think he was the first gay character targeted to "me" that I was aware of. Here is my timeline off the top of my head:

    This guy
    Mr. Smithers
    Dan Savage (I grew up in seattle)
    The gay guy on Dawsons Creek
    Rupert Grant
    Boy George
    Morrissey
    Will and Grace

    Then there were a ton. I only connected with Dan Savage, everyone else was pathetic, with the exception of Wilson Cruz whom I ignored as that show seemed terrible.

    Posted by: Fenrox | Nov 15, 2013 2:14:48 PM


  8. Murdoch That was because Jordan Catalano was someone a lot of girls can relate. The handsome crush who never noticed them.
    He worked better as a symbol than as a proper character. In fact he was the less interesting of the six main teen characters

    Posted by: jjose712 | Nov 15, 2013 2:15:16 PM


  9. Yeah...but Jordan Catalano...he's always leaning...against stuff. He leans great.

    Posted by: Little Kiwi | Nov 15, 2013 2:32:50 PM


  10. "How did you die?" and Rickie's What Is Love? dance are television moments I don't think I'll ever forget. The dance sequence was particularly inspiring me as a gay kid during a pre-internet era.

    Posted by: jeff | Nov 15, 2013 3:08:17 PM


  11. Thank you for this! I had completely forgotten how much I loved this programme as a teenager. It was one of the few (the first for me I think…) programmes on tv at that time to feature a gay teenager coming to terms with his feelings as I was and I looked forward to each week's episode. Hell yes Ricky is a gay icon; celebrate him!

    Posted by: Jamie | Nov 15, 2013 3:20:49 PM


  12. I have disliked Roseanne in recent years. But seeing how she has taken on the anti-gay and misogynistic trans activists, I am starting to like her again. She needs to stand firm against the trans bullies and call law enforcement the moment any one of them crosses a line.

    Posted by: Bill | Nov 15, 2013 3:24:42 PM


  13. Did you notice how my post has nothing to do with anything? It's because I'm an idiot and I hate trans-activists because they do nothing for *my* community, which is American Eunuchs.

    Posted by: Bill | Nov 15, 2013 3:40:51 PM


  14. Bill, or whichever alias you go by today: are you truly so hateful that you must promote anti-Trans bigotry in every single comment you post? You're a pathetic excuse for a human being and a troll.

    Stuffed Animal, I'm sorry you hate queers so much. And I'm sorry that you see the term as one of oppression. But many members of the LGBT community, particularly those in the younger generations, have redefined the term to mean something empowering. Your posts are usually pretty homophobic and trollish. Its clear that anti-gay abuse has triggered your self loathing.

    Posted by: Tyler | Nov 15, 2013 3:44:49 PM


  15. I never watched this show - past the pilot - so I can't honestly comment, but I cannot imagine a better Icon than this performance. When the boob tube still has precious few folks of color who are also LGBT, and that this is a young person who, despite whatever the world threw at him, kept on keeping on... What's not to root for?

    Posted by: YSOSERIOUS | Nov 15, 2013 4:01:11 PM


  16. This is a great series. It didn't even have a complete season. ABC moved it around, and production was on and off the entire season. (You can see it when the actor playing Brian has growth spurts between episodes.) It's worth watching on DVD. The Christmas episode is cheesy with all the angel stuff (that was a big cultural trend back in 1994), but the rest of that episode is very powerful, including an almost silent but nonetheless (or perhaps because of) moment between Rickie and Jordan Catalano. We don't really know what happened to cause Rickie to be homeless. It's hinted at but not explained. It's too embarrassing for him to say to any of his friends. And the dissonance of Rickie at the Chase's home is a powerful moment showing how middle class people really do live in a different reality from so many of the problems that face too many people. Rickie isn't a runaway. No one wants him. That happens to far too many teenagers, not just gay ones, and I don't remember this being addressed to this extent anywhere in the media prior to this series. And to a regular character, not a "very special episode." BTW, the writers and producers didn't know this at the time, but Wilson Cruz's own parents had kicked him out of the house when they found out he was gay, just a few years before this. He was impressed at how well the writers had captured what he had felt at the time in words. (See the commentary on the DVDs of the series.)

    Posted by: Houndentenor | Nov 15, 2013 5:48:03 PM


  17. @stuffed animal


    I quite agree with you.

    Posted by: Bean | Nov 15, 2013 5:48:30 PM


  18. This was, quite simply, one of the best shows ever on American tv. Cruz should be very proud of his iconic role being a part of it. The writing and acting are simply sensational. (And did Cruz grow up to be a serious stud or what?)

    Posted by: Dback | Nov 15, 2013 6:35:23 PM


  19. OK- I just went and watched the "What is love" segment. Somebody who watched this show please explain what I am seeing.

    Who is the frowzy headed blond guy lusting after?
    Who is the guy in the varsity jacket lusting after?

    Posted by: Endorado | Nov 16, 2013 11:57:34 AM


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