What Jessie Spano Taught Me

(an excerpt from my upcoming anthology, Olive Grrrls: Italian North American Women & The Search For Identity. This piece is in Part 2: Femminismo: How I Found Feminism). ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

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Jessie: “Slater, haven’t you heard of the Women’s Movement?” Slater: “Sure… put on something cute and move it into the kitchen”

No switch was turned on. There was no “light-bulb-moment.” It was more like a snowball effect—feminism began piling up; year after year. It was just me, this really big snowball, and Jessie Spano.

I didn’t want to be a feminist, because of Jessie Spano. I was eight-years-old, and my after-school TV-watching included, of course, Saved By The Bell. I didn’t like Kelly Kapowski, I wanted to be Lisa Turtle, and I hated Jessie Spano.

Jessie Spano was meant to feed the feminist stereotype. Defining character trait? Annoying. Sign me up!

My eight-year-old self wanted no part of Spano’s regime. She couldn’t take a joke, she wasn’t fun, she seemed whiney, and she was a bit of a prude. I felt annoyed just by seeing her float across the screen!

I grew up with a staunch feminist mother, who, as I like to say, “ran-away-to-become-a-lesbian-for-a-while-after-her-and-my-dad-divorced.” No big deal. Just usual family stuff. I don’t remember my mother particularly forcing any feminist doctrine down my throat. Though, she did take me to my first Gay Pride March. I was in preschool at the time, and evidently, the chanting awoke something inside of me, because at school the next day, I led all of the other kids around the room, bellowing: “2-4-6-8, How Do You Know You’re Kid Is Straight?!” So… there was that.

The snowball grew bigger.

In middle school, my afternoon TV-watching continued with seeing what “crazy” feminist antics Jessie Spano would talk about next. Except, this time—when watching—I stopped hating her, and started feeling pissed off.

I was pissed off at her character; I was pissed off at the men who created her; I was pissed off at the boys in middle school who made me feel small and insignificant and dirty and ashamed whenever I asked them out (I’m sorry, Bobby Grant, for asking you out in 3rd grade by the way—you were still dating Rebecca Olson—not to mention I was unpopular, and yeah, wow—didn’t time that well).

No longer was I mad at Jessie Spano or annoyed by her character. I was now realizing just how fucked up the representation of women was in this culture. I didn’t know what to call it, but it ignited something inside of me. The snowball began growing quickly.

A friend introduced me to Bikini Kill in 8th grade, and I listened to Pussy Whipped every day before school. I started an all-girl band called The Aviators with my two best friends, and sounded nothing like Bikini Kill, but had fun nonetheless. I played guitar, and sang all the songs sullen teenagers sing. Our band was beautifully emo (and feminist) in its execution. We had problems, though—nothing dark like on a VH-1 Behind The Music episode—but enough problems to break us up. I began reading a lot of poetry by women. I began listening to more female-fronted bands.

Jessie Spano was on syndication when I was in high school. Fifteen-year-old me would come home after school and flick on the TV (if I didn’t have dance class on that particular day) to make sure her hair was still curly, and that her brand of feminism was still taunting A.C. Slater. Yep, everything was as it should be.

Until it wasn’t. My two best friends (with the help of a third “friend”) accused me of the good ol’ pastime of talkin’ shit. On a bright Sunday morning, I was greeted by three “hate” emails in my old-school Hotmail email inbox. The main email started with, “Well hello Mary Sunshine—how has the Queen of the Bitches been doing?” It was official: my friends had dumped me. Did I mention that I was reading a lot of Sylvia Plath during this time? I wasn’t in the best head space.

I cracked.

Eating lunch in the girls’ gym locker room is anxiety producing. I was constantly worried a teacher would see me in there and yell at me, or worse, one of the popular girls would walk in, see me eating my peanut butter sandwich, and go tell everyone. I didn’t like eating lunch in there—the stench of puberty, B.O., and my food didn’t mix well, but I had no choice. My former friends ostracized me from the table I normally sat at.

I was getting angrier, but taking this anger out on girls. I understood (for a brief moment) why some girls would say: “I just get along better with boys.” This internalized sexism stuck to me like honey. The snowball lost some of its water.

Junior year of high school, I was put on Zoloft and Xanax. I was out of school for four months, because I was too sick to walk into the building. I had anxiety attacks and cried often. Eventually, I started spending more time with my friends from dance class. They went to other high schools, and I loved them. I started to read old issues of the Bikini Kill zine, and I was on a mission to get rid of grrrl-on-grrrl hate. I needed this poison to leave me. My new female friends provided a safe space for me. I fell in love again with friendships. The snowball grew bigger. I called myself a “Feminist.”

The summer before college, an older guy I was dating raped me. I didn’t know it was rape until I processed the incident years later in therapy. I felt a mess, but a survived mess. I only remember bits and pieces—but these pieces still stick to me like a kaleidoscope of butterflies in my tummy.

I think, “What if there was a storyline where Jessie Spano got raped?” Would she be blamed because she was a feminist? Was feminism dangerous? Was I identifying with danger? This is what anti-feminists want you to believe. Jessie Spano was only to be laughed at—not taken seriously. I was not to be taken seriously.

In college, I learned about feminism from an historical and academic standpoint. I began calling myself a feminist louder than I had previously. I went to rallies, marches, protests. And guess what? I became Jessie Spano—or so my artsy boyfriend at the time thought.

He thought my anger was useless. He and his best friend (who disliked me for some reason) made fun of my attendance at UW-Madison’s, “Take Back The Night.” I saw red. I fought with him—I yelled at him—I cried. I told him how important this was to me. How good I felt about attending this particular march. He apologized, but the damage was done. My monologue could have been said by Jessie Spano herself: “This is important! Listen to me! Why do you think this is funny? This isn’t funny!” I should have just called him “Slater,” laughed, curtseyed, and pretended it was all part of some feminist art piece. I dumped him. The snowball was large and in charge.

Three years later, I was back at home during winter break working on my graduate thesis. Day and night, I researched various aspects of domestic violence and the ineffectiveness of restraining orders. Needless to say, I needed a break. I decided to turn the TV on, and what would you know… There was Jessie Spano traipsing across Bayside High’s hallway.

I thought to myself, “You go, grrrl.”