Tuesday, September 14, 2004

I wrote a very long post, and my computer ate it. I will try again, hopefully with more success.

My very long post was about how annoyed I was with the teen drama Jack and Bobby and how to me it represents much of what's wrong with the teen drama genre. Jack and Bobby, if you missed it, is a standard-issue WB high-school soap with a twist. Most of the drama takes place in the present day and concerns two brothers growing up in a college town with their single mother, but the main story is framed by a faux-documentary from the year 2049 that reveals that one of the brothers will die young and the other will grow up to be president. This conceit gives the whole proceedings a kind of cheap gravitas: there's an air of tragedy about the good-looking, broody, doomed one, and we're supposed to care about the struggles of the nerdy, asthmatic one, because we're witnessing the making of a Great Man.

Emphasis on man there. There are, so far, two important female characters on the show. The first is Jack and Bobby's mother, Grace McAllister, and she's a monster. She's both a single mother and a college professor, and since neither unwed mothers nor smart women fare very well on T.V., she has a double dose of awfulness. She's selfish, self-pitying, controling and manipulative. She's pathologically overprotective, but when one of her sons is in actual danger, she's reduced to hysterically screaming that the other one should fix it. When the boys get in trouble, it's for bringing her pot to school. She insists that she's entitled to do drugs because her life is so difficult, but she's totally insensitive to her outcast son's pain at losing his only friend. She's so ashamed of her sons' father, a Mexican busboy, that she concocts an elaborate lie about him being a Chilean anthropologist who died tragically while doing research. By the end of the pilot, the boys know the truth, but we are told that Bobby will keep on telling the lie to protect his mother and that it will come close to bringing down his presidency. The implication is that Grace is such a bitch that she'll continue to ruin her son's life for years to come.

(Given that Jack and Bobby's father is Mexican, this might have been an opportunity to cast people of color in lead roles on a teen soap, but no dice. The boys are as white as white can be. In this show, as in pretty much every show in the genre, people of color are relegated to being best friends and trusted advisors.)

The other female character is the cute, feisty girl across the street, whom we are told will one day be the First Lady. The important people are boys and men; women are the important people's wives and mothers. Women are prizes to be won or impediments to be overcome.

I'm a big fan of the The O.C., but it has exactly the same problem. It's a particularly good teen soap: the dialogue is sharp and witty, the show doesn't take itself too seriously, and the (male) characters are appealing and well-developed. But the female characters, and especially the teenaged girls, are totally flat. There's the quirky one, the ditzy one, the screwed-up, beautiful one, and the one from the ghetto. They exist only to serve the boys' storylines. Smart, quirky Anna isn't a character: she's a temporary impediment to Seth's budding relationship with sexy, ditzy Summer. Summer isn't really a character, either: she's a step in Seth's maturation process. She's the girl who will sleep with him and make him a man. Marissa isn't so much a character as a manifestation of Ryan's pathology: he doesn't trust people, he gets in fights, he falls for an alluring trainwreck of a girlfriend. It's impossible to feel any empathy for Marissa, but it doesn't matter, because she's not so much a person as a problem for Ryan, the one who counts on this show. Similarly, Theresa is a plot device, rather than a character. She's the ghetto siren who will lure Ryan away from his cushy new life, because that made for a good season finale cliffhanger. The girls on the O.C. are totally objectified. They're players in someone else's story.

And the thing is, most of the people who watch these shows are young women and girls. It's like our expectations are so low that we don't even think we're entitled to T.V. shows in which people like us are represented as fully developed characters.

Hi and THANK YOU for your O.C. analysis. My very straight boyfriend and his friends love this show, so I rented season one to see what the rumpus was about and how it could be possible that a bunch of ivy league straight male journalists could get into it. Well, what I discovered is that its a mens' soap opera, with male heros surrounded by underdressed girls and women with one dimensional characters that are almost uniformly negative: the money grubbing, unbelivably evil Julie, the pointlessly vacuous Summer, all the horrid "ladies" of the hood, and of course, the initital cause of Ryan's trouble, the alcoholic trailer trash mother who abandons him.
Even the 'good' women aren't so good: Marissa and Mrs. Cohen are both toy with infidelity and are both alcoholic, while Mrs. Cohen's knee-jerk blind prejudice nearly ruins Ryan's initial chance to get a better life. The only remotely cool girl was the one from Philly who seems to have disappeared- and she is defined as "cool" because her interests are those of the boys- comic books etc- ie she is effectively a guy on this show.
My favourite is how sympathetically Jimmy the wife/money stealer is portrayed- while Julie and the kids' ridiculous demands are held to account for his grand larceny!
In this show, wrongs done are usually portrayed as those done by the women, while the men's actions are rarely judged- like when Ryan and Grandma get it on, its because Grandma is a bored gold digger, not because Ryan lacks the moral fiber to resist another man's wife. The only man portrayed remotely unsympathetically is the jock who looks like a car- and even he is correct and even honourable at times: first, he is right to suspect Ryan and Marissa, he saves Ryan from the fire then fesses up to his part in the cause of it, he helps Marissa escape the hospital even though she is with Ryan when she does it, and finally, he becomes a nice guy when his father is discovered to be gay.

It distresses me how watchable and generally enjoyable it is - because it is just outrageous how there are really no bad guys in Orange County- just good guys surrounded by an endless supply of either stupid, evil or simply meddlesome females who happen to look mighty fine in their bathing suits.
When I put the words "The O.C." and "sexist" into google to see if anyone else saw this, yours was one of the only posts to mentions how outrageously sexist the show is. So, thank you.
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