How Winona Ryder became my alt girl role model

I met Winona Ryder when I was in seventh grade, back when my world was exclusively black liquid liner and Tim Burton movies. She, in the guise of Beetlejuice’s Lydia Deetz, deadpanned, “My whole life is a dark room.”

“Oh my god, same,” I thought. And from then on we were the best of friends.

We bonded even closer in my teen years when my dad brought home a DVD copy of Heathers. Ryder’s character Veronica Sawyer distilled the essence of high school to its purest forms: disdain for a cruel system and the prioritization of love and slushees, not necessarily in that order. Of course, I never had an affinity for shoulder pads or manslaughter, but I totally got her lust for Christian Slater’s eyebrows. When I broke up with my eleventh grade boyfriend, it hurt, but I had Veronica’s strength to channel. If nothing else, I could be glad that no one blew up in the process.

Not every part she played channeled a dark ingénue. In Edward Scissorhands she put on a blonde wig to play cheerleader Kim, and I knew the role wasn’t easy for my girl.

“It really was a difficult part because it was a kind of girl I’ve seen but never known. She sort of starts out like the girls who used to throw Cheetos at me in high school,” she said of the experience. Though we both had a hard time relating, I was supportive nonetheless. I watched the film a hundred thousand times, forever resentful that Johnny Depp could give up such a woman.

“He doesn’t deserve you, Winona,” I thought, as she danced serenely in the snow. “Nobody who wears that many fedoras could.”

Then there were my early college years, where we grew somewhat estranged. Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Girl, Interrupted, once sleepover staples, collected dust as I withdrew into the soul-crushing world of design school, peppered gently with some horrible life decisions concerning menfolk. In short, things were pretty much the worst.

But when I returned home after two years of depression and color wheels, Mermaids was waiting for me on Netflix. It was like no time had passed, and once again, Winona and I were gonna get through this.

Just when I thought she had nothing left to teach me, I stumbled upon Reality Bites at the Holmdel library. Though Lelaiana Pierce’s post-grad experience and my post-grad experience were 20 years apart, we were both having the same struggles. I finished my college career with a stellar portfolio of writing clips, and Valedictorian Lelaina had a solid job in media. Very quickly things deflated for the both of us, leaving us with shaky self-esteem and creative ventures that we clung onto. “I was really going to be somebody by the time I was 23,” Lelaina lamented.

“Oh my god, same,” I thought. That week, I watched the movie three times.

Even though I claim Winona Ryder as my bestie (because she is), I know that she remains an icon to Gen Xers and sardonic millennials alike. And besides that cool It-Girl factor, the question is, why? Well, I can’t speak for everyone, but here’s my reasoning.

Cinema, especially female-centric rom-coms, is filled with narratives about perky go-getter blondes who are going to show the world how strong they are. And those narratives can be important and inspirational: Don’t think I’m putting down the flaxen-haired majesty of Elle Woods and Cher Horowitz. There’s a place in my DVD collection for both. But on the day-to-day, these aren’t necessarily girls I relate to.

I always loved Winona for embodying these bizarre, three-dimensional characters that were making really human decisions. They fell for the wrong guy—be it a crazed psychopath, a slacker philosopher, or, you know, the prince of darkness. They challenged the conventions of their family, shrouding themselves in black lace or picking up Christianity as a fun hobby. And at the end of the day, maybe things weren’t wrapped up nicely in a neat little package, but there was always a light at the end of the tunnel, a sense that everything would be okay for our fair heroine.

When you’re a bit of a misfit, things can get lonely as you awkwardly claw towards womanhood. But I’ve never felt really alone, because I’ve always had Winona Ryder and her myriad of characters by my side. It always felt like we were in this together, that the adolescent (and post adolescent) female experience was a constant work-in-progress. And that’s why it’ll be me and Winona forever. But, um… I don’t feel obligated to get a tattoo about it.

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