Sunday, February 13, 2005

Chiming in on the O.C.controversy here. Short version, for those of you not following these things: the hit T.V. show The O.C., following a precipitious ratings decline, is featuring a romance between two female teenaged characters, a romance that is carefully scheduled for February sweeps. Is this a sign of progress for gay rights? Is it a cheap ratings stunt that relies on straight guys' fantasies about hot girl-on-girl action, fantasies that are rooted in porn and in male dominance, rather than in respect for real lesbians or bisexual women? It's hard to tell.

A while back, I posted about my issues with The O.C.". I adore The O.C., but I still think it's a pretty sexist show, in which men and boys are real characters and women and girls serve the plots of the men and boys. The real characters here are endearing geek Seth, his smart, wounded pseudo-brother Ryan, and their father/guardian Sandy. The women are mostly real or potential love-interests for those three characters. And even though Marissa and Alex's same-sex relationship seems to break that mold, I'm not really on board with it. I'm tending to the exploitative ratings stunt camp.

The problem with the plot is that, although when viewed in isolation it seems to be handled tastefully and sensitively, the audience isn't viewing the plot in isolation. We're aware of these characters' histories, and that our influences our interpretation of their romance. So it matters that both Marissa and Alex are both pretty screwed up. Alex seems to be basically functional: she has a job and an apartment and hasn't been shown doing anything really stupid. But we know that her parents kicked her out of the house after she was expelled from at least three different schools, and her friends all seem pretty unsavory. And Marissa, the one who is a permanent character and who will still be on the show after this romance ends, is defined by her self-destructiveness. In the year and a half since the series began, Marissa has attempted suicide, been caught shoplifting, got in a fender-bender while driving drunk, and jeopardized her boyfriend's probation at least twice. In the first episode of the whole series, she ended up passed-out drunk in her parents' driveway. She puts vodka in her morning coffee, and she carries around a flask out of which she drinks at school. Her last two relationships were both with working-class guys whose appeal seemed to be, at least in part, that in her wealthy, privileged world, dating a blue-collar man is construed as rebellious. When she was dating Ryan, she made his life a living hell, constantly getting into trouble and demanding that Ryan rescue her. In a show populated by needy, manipulative damsels in distress, Marissa has always been the most needy and the most fucked up.

If you're already inclined to see same-sex relationships as good things, you could view Marissa and Alex's romance as the first healthy relationship Marissa has ever had. But if you are inclined to think that all queer folks are sick or sad, you can see the relationship as part of Marissa's usual pattern. You can see Marissa and Alex not as two teenagers in love (yay!), but as screwed-up, self-destructive characters who have found another way to act out and self-destruct. And I suspect that the show, which has generally depicted all sorts of teenaged behavior, from drinking to drugs to sex, in a pretty non-judgemental fashion, is deliberately keeping this ambiguous. That way, they get points from gay-rights groups, but homophobes can see what they want to see.

Incidentally, The O.C. has dealt with homosexuality once before. Last year, uber-jock Luke found out that his supposedly happily-married dad was gay when Luke and Ryan accidentally observed Luke's father kissing another man. The resulting fallout made for the closest thing that The O.C. has had to a Very Special Episode. When Luke's father was outed, Luke's jock asshole friends ostracized him, which kicked off Luke's redemption arc and his transformation from a violent bully to a goofy, loveable lug. The outing crisis allowed various characters to weigh in on what it means to be a good man and a good father: the message was that what matters is being there for the people you love, not being straight or otherwise conventional. (That's in line with the show's overall message about what it means to be a man, an important theme in the first season.) Because Luke's father always loved and supported his wife and kids, and because he stuck around and dealt with the pain caused by his deception, Luke was able to forgive him. Last we heard from Luke, he had moved to Oregon to live with his newly-single, newly-out father. When Seth needed to get away from his family, he went to Portland to stay with Luke and Luke's dad. This aroused comment because of the running-away thing, but nobody seemed to think it was a problem that Seth was staying with a gay man. In fact, they seemed relieved that he had found a safe place to go.

I wasn't crazy about the Luke's gay dad plot. For one thing, it was a lot more heavy-handed and moralizing than The O.C. usually is, and I like my moralizing done with a lighter touch. For another, I never entirely bought that one trauma could transform a character as outlandishly horrid as Luke quite that quickly or smoothly. But from a gay-rights perspective I thought it was pretty well done.

However, two things are different about Marissa and Alex. The first is that they're women. (Actually, they're girls. Alex is supposed to be 17 and Marissa 16 or so.) There's the whole hot-girl-on-girl porn element, and you get the feeling that the guys who produce this show do like their porn. There's been one positive, humorous mention of porn, two episodes featuring strippers, and one featuring wacky hijinks involving prostitutes. Fun! And in general, as I've said, this show tends to objectify women, even as it produces nuanced, sympathetic male characters. So that doesn't bode well. But also, the show's creator has told reporters that he's been pressured to back away from controversial subjects and that he doesn't want to alienate conservatives. And frankly, a lesbian storyline that doesn't irritate conservatives is not necessarily one that I want any part of.

And with that, I am off to watch Desperate Housewives. They're going to revoke my feminist credentials any day now.

I just wish I let you talk me out of watching Medical Investigation way back when.
Heh. I stopped watching Medical Investigation after they had the one with teh poison pants. There's just so much disbelief I can suspend.
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