Brow Beat

“I Choose Me”

How a supposedly feminist twist in TV love triangles became an inescapable cliché.

Jennie Garth as Kelly Taylor in Beverly Hills, 90210.
Jennie Garth as Kelly Taylor in Beverly Hills, 90210. Fox Broadcasting

In the Season 3 finale of The Bold Type, the frothy Freeform show set at a women’s magazine, social media director Kat Edison finds herself at that most familiar of television turning points, locked in a love triangle with two attractive parties both willing and eager to date her. But when the moment of truth arrives, Kat opts for the secret third option that hovers over every binary decision: none of the above. More specifically, she tells one of her rejects, “I’m choosing me.”

Yup, she hits ’em with the ol’ ICM, or as it’s more commonly known, the “I choose me.” The ICM is generally regarded as a cop-out, and for good reason: While love triangles are clichéd, they at least promise resolution, which makes it all the more unsatisfying when one doesn’t end so much as dissolve with no clear winner or loser. And this bait-and-switch happens too often to constitute any real twist or update on the love triangle storyline—instead, it only points back to the limitations of the love triangle to begin with. A no-winner romantic plot is trite enough, but what really kicks an ICM into high gear is actual utterance of the words that give the trope its name: I choose me.

For as long as love triangles have triangulated, the “I choose me” resolution has been theoretically possible, but it was one particular 1995 spin on it that really solidified the scenario into a full-blown trope: That would be the episode of Beverly Hills, 90210 when Kelly Taylor chose Kelly Taylor. At the time, after Shannen Doherty’s departure the previous year, Kelly (Jennie Garth) had taken up the female lead mantle, and the show’s two main heartthrobs, Dylan (Luke Perry) and Brandon (Jason Priestley), had thrown their hats into the ring for her affections. This love triangle itself succeeded an earlier, and much-buzzed-about, clash involving Dylan, Kelly, and Brenda. Kelly came out of that one victorious, but a few years on, she thought she needed to be by herself for a while. She was, in today’s parlance, pivoting to self-care.

At the time of this episode’s airing, 90210 was near the height of its popularity, appointment viewing for a generation of young (and young-at-heart) viewers. But however much “I choose me” reverberated at the time, no one could have predicted the phrase’s long afterlife. In addition to continuing to serve as common shorthand among TV-obsessed writers and screenwriters like Diablo Cody, it has been studied in college courses. Fan blogs have dedicated entire entries to its 20th anniversary, or tracking down the brick wall it was filmed in front of. In a 2018 Guardian roundup of the best teen TV shows, 90210 was allotted 150 words, but even that short blurb saw fit to mention “I choose me” as among the show’s “classic storylines,” as do many similar lists. When co-stars reflected on the sudden death of Perry earlier this year, it rated mentions then too. It was even parodied in a kitschy 2012 Old Navy ad starring Garth, Perry, and Priestley: “I choose … jeans!” Garth declares.

90210’s “I choose me” achieved that rare level of fame, wherein the fame itself eclipses and erases whether the event in question is remembered as good or bad. Related articles are roughly split on their use of the words famous vs. infamous to precede descriptions of it, diametrically opposed on whether the line “won the hearts of a generation” or rang as “particularly horrible.”

It’s understandable that at a time when 90210 was considered groundbreaking, many viewers would have regarded Kelly’s choice as admirably independent. It’s not coincidental that in the most prominent examples of “I choose me”s, it is a female character who chooses herself. One can imagine specific male characters who could get away with ICM-ing—pop culture–steeped nerd king Seth Cohen of The O.C. comes to mind—but it’s largely a female move. I would submit that this is because a woman leaving a relationship with no alternative but the wild blue yonder is, as writer Kelli María Korducki has argued, an inherently feminist act. A man deciding to be single just doesn’t carry the same baggage.

Or at least that’s how it read in 1995. Afterward, every post–Jennie Garth ICM stands in the shadow of the most famous example. If the case for an ICM situates it as mold-breaking and feminist in a world where women especially face pressure to pair off, that power, which hinges on the element of surprise, would seem to diminish with every use. So even though ICM-ing it might be the writers’ room’s best option for resolving a love triangle, that endlessly recurring problem of scripted entertainment, the bar for an ICM, and especially a literal ICM, only gets higher. The problems with an ICM pile up: Setting up a love triangle and then not ending it feels not only unsatisfying, it also risks making a show seem dated and clichéd, even as it’s trying to surprise viewers.

And an ICM can seem doubly cruel when the words “I choose me,” or some variation of them, are actually spoken. For one thing, it’s not unlike that moment in many movies when an actor says the name of the movie: too on the nose. Even if it’s fine in theory—opting out of any relationship to focus on oneself—who actually talks like that? “I choose me” as a phrase comes off as self-centered and overdramatic. It’s disappointing to the one being dumped in a similar way it is to the viewer: That person too had prepared themselves for one of a set number of endings, none of this “I choose me” nonsense.

With the long history of the ICM in mind, it’s safe to say The Bold Type’s version did not reinvent the concept, or play as especially memorable. Kat, the character who chose herself, is queer and deciding between two women, so her ICM can hardly puncture the patriarchy like Kelly Taylor’s did; Kat’s queerness has already done that. But maybe that’s just the current state of the ICM: so overused that it barely registers as a notable plot device, and one that instead fits right in along with such bread-and-butter storylines as a cheating boyfriend and a workplace in chaos. Kat’s ICM, which arrives in the season finale of the show, may delay her reunion with her ex, Adena, but how long can that last? Four episodes into next season? That might be all a standard ICM is worth anymore.

Or perhaps it’s time for the concept to evolve into its next stage. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s creators Aline Brosh McKenna and Rachel Bloom knew they had to reckon with the ICM when they brought their series to a close this year. Stories about love and relationships animated the show from the beginning, and as the end of Season 4 approached, the show’s writers seemed to be setting the stage for main character Rebecca to make a choice among three love interests. But in the end, Rebecca didn’t choose anyone; instead, she realizes—twist!—she wants to do musical theater and dedicates a year to training.

“The ‘choosing me, loving me, accepting me’ saying is as almost a trope in itself for these stories, as much as picking a guy is,” McKenna told the Los Angeles Times after the series finale aired. “But what I haven’t seen is this idea of what is the action item? Because I do think that everybody struggles with what they contribute to the world.” Instead of ending with an ICM, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend attempted to depict what comes after—the hard work of finding oneself. But the show also didn’t want to imply this meant Rebecca would end up alone, as if that were the only true feminist stance. “It always felt a little hypocritical for us to go completely the ‘I don’t need anyone else forever’ route because we know that’s not true,” Bloom said in the same interview. “We know that a partner can be very, very valuable, but you have to … know who you are.” As Bloom put in another interview, “Rebecca doesn’t see herself ‘ending up’ with someone. It’s part of our lives—a rich part of our lives—but it’s only a part.” Finally, an “I choose me” that honors a woman’s right to choose.