It would be an understatement to say that I was a fan of The O.C as a teenager. Many afternoons, the world of the Newport gang overtook my own. I, in fact, spent entire days binging the DVDs, a roll of cookie dough in my lap and my cat Waldo judging me from his perched position at the top of the couch.
Like Ryan and Luke, I was transfixed by Marissa’s beauty and taken in by Summer’s spunky personality. I also had an aesthetic appreciation for the men that allowed my closeted teen self to piggy-back off my girlfriends’ remarks about Seth and Ryan’s hotness. As a teen grappling with her sexuality, the Marissa and Alex episodes were of particular interest to me, even giving me the courage to finally come out to my diary (and eventually, a year or so later, to friends and family).
Quarantine meant more time for binging, and The O.C. was among the old favorites I decided to revisit. Only this time, gluten-free snacks replaced cookie dough, while a shiny MacBook Air (instead of my parents’ boxy 1990s TV set) projected the Newport crew’s drama. There were no cats this time, unfortunately.
Rewatching it with a newer lens turned out to be quite the experience. Much has happened in the past 15 years, with both the world and pop culture having changed in rather dramatic ways. Here’s some of what I noticed.
1. Mental illness was thrown under the bus.
“He’s a sick kid, something doesn’t seem right about him,” Ryan keeps saying about Oliver, the guy his girlfriend Marissa has been hanging out with.
Was the issue really his mental illness? Or the fact that Marissa was spending a ton of time with a guy who clearly liked her, even though she was in a relationship with Ryan? Ryan had a right to voice his discomfort with the latter.
I don’t see why mental illness had to be factored into the equation, though. The show’s depiction perpetuates the negative stereotypes of people who struggle with it, suggesting that they’re violent and not safe to spend time with—even though the vast majority of them have no history of aggression or any violent proclivities. Our culture has come a long way in the destigmatization of mental illness these past 15 years.
2. They did a disservice to people of color and the LGBTQ+ community.
When Marissa and Alex got together, I was so excited to see what would become of them. Their relationship could’ve sparked interesting conversations about sexuality. It could have shown the world a positive model of a healthy lesbian relationship between two femme women.
Instead, their coupledom lasted only a few episodes. After it ended, Marissa simply went back to dating men, and the question of her sexuality was never discussed again. The build-up to the two of them getting together lasted longer than the relationship itself!
Comments from the other characters about the girls’ relationship only served to reinforce the trivialization of lesbian pairings. “I’m sure it’s just a phase!” was Kirsten’s response to hearing that Marissa was with Alex (and she turned out to be right). The show added fuel to the not uncommon belief that lesbianism was less an identity to be taken seriously than a fun temporary departure from a heteronormative timeline.
Annoying remarks from the men on the show also reinforced this. “She needs to be reminded that testosterone was missing in her last relationship,” Seth said in response to Zack after he found out that Alex had dated a woman before him.
Marissa’s relationship with DJ was similarly short-lived. He was never made a serious or important fixture in her life, but rather amounted to no more than the “yard guy fling.” And other than DJ, the only people of color I saw were the maid and Eddie’s hood friends.
Maybe that was the whole point though: to show that Newport was an inhospitable place for members of the LGBTQ+ community and people of color.
3. They didn’t condemn inappropriate relationships.
Julie Cooper’s relationship with 17-year-old Luke, the ex-boyfriend of her daughter, was framed as a betrayal of Marissa—not as statutory rape. “This will destroy Marissa” the people around her said when they found out about the affair, rather than, “Hey, Luke is a minor and half your age and this could have repercussions for him down the road.”
I also noticed there was a ton of venom directed at Luke. Marissa hits him and tells him to stay away from her before wishing him dead. Luke ends up leaving town just to give her peace.
I didn’t understand why Luke was taking all the heat for Julie’s decision to sleep with an underage boy.
It struck me as an example of the once-prevalent belief that men can’t be victims of sexual abuse, even if they’re under 18. Back in 2005, this issue was less talked about. Men were laughed at when they described themselves as victims. Since then, men like Jimmy Bennett in the Asia Argento scandal have stepped forward to counter some of these beliefs and expand the conversation, while programs like Hulu’s A Teacher have shown that men can be victims too.
4. Ryan had a seriously codependent mentality.
Even though every person is responsible for their own actions, Ryan repeatedly intervenes and tries to force people to change.
“How much did you drink?” Ryan asks his girlfriend Lindsay, who’s never been drunk before and who has just spent the evening with heavy drinker Marissa.
“As much as Marissa did,” Lindsay replies. Ryan immediately gets furious with Marissa, as if Lindsay weren’t an adult capable of making her own decisions, or as if Marissa had forced Lindsay to drink.
When Luke sleeps with Marissa’s mom, Ryan goes to “put an end to it.” I couldn’t help but think, Luke is a grown man and will end his relationship with Julie if he wants to, not because Ryan Atwood tells him to.
Ryan also tries to stop Eddie after he finds out he’s been hitting Theresa—as if Ryan will be able to stamp out Eddie’s violent proclivities with his own.
Maybe the point was to point this out as a character flaw in Ryan.
5. The dismissal and invalidation of feelings.
I cringed as I watched how people responded to Ryan during the Oliver plotline. No one would listen to his concerns. Ryan’s discomfort with Marissa and Oliver hanging out immediately got him cast as the unreasonable jealous boyfriend. No attempt was made to validate or help him understand his feelings, not even by the usually very woke Sandy Cohen.
At the same time, the show missed an opportunity to model how to healthily communicate feelings. Ryan never actually made himself vulnerable or admitted that he felt insecure and/or neglected by their spending so much time together (which, granted, could have opened the door for Marissa to dismiss him as jealous and irrational). Instead, he jumped right to villainizing Oliver. He got to work on building his case, using evidence to “win”—even though his feelings were valid as they were, so he really didn’t need to make one.
But then where would the drama and intrigue be? some of you might ask. It’s a teen soap opera, not a manual for how to be woke and navigate healthy relationships. It’s just that at least in my opinion, shows with substantial influence can still find a way to entertain without spreading harmful messages. A program with the power and influence of The O.C. could have done a really positive thing for teens by modeling healthy and vulnerable communication.
6. Harsh judgment towards strippers.
The characters on the show acted like it was an abomination when they found Kirsten’s younger sister Haley working as a stripper. Watching it in 2020, this struck me as a huge judgment call on The O.C’.s part. Some women feel empowered working as strippers and have pushed back against the shame and stigma attached to the profession to carve out a space of pride and acceptance.
We’ve come a long way in acceptance of the sex work industry as a whole, but these attitudes were less prevalent in 2005, which The O.C. mirrored.
7. Sexism and general lack of consideration.
Summer leaving Zack at the airport? Seth repeatedly trying to win her back even though she was in a relationship?
Did I think it was cute at the time? Or part of a grand gesture of passionate love?
I also didn’t like it when Seth tried to get Marissa and Ryan back together even though Marissa was dating Alex.
More shitty lines:
Lindsay: “He’s gonna think I’m crazy.” – Lindsay
Seth: “Oh ho ho. He knows you’re a girl. He expects it.” – Seth