• Death and The Maiden: What Rewatching The OC Can Teach Us Now

    Kelly Marie Coyne on Society’s Lethal Obsession With the White Starlet

    Last month, Mischa Barton went on Alex Cooper’s viral podcast, “Call Her Daddy.” She revealed that she turned down a spot at Yale to star in The OC; that, at 17, she lost her virginity to her then 25-year-old costar, Ben McKenzie (a relationship, she said, that was encouraged by producers); and that TV executives also gave her prescription drugs so that she could work past burnout. The only teenager on set, she was frequently ostracized. An image of her off on her own reading, while other members of the cast mingled, has repeatedly appeared in cast and crew recollections of the situation.

    Barton’s life quickly fell into disarray: a DUI, a roofied drink that led to a public meltdown and hospital stay, a boyfriend who surreptitiously installed cameras around his home to record and sell tapes of the two of them having sex. “The constant feeling of being hunted affected me entirely,” Barton said in an essay about the time.

    Might Marissa’s fate on the show have predicted Barton’s twenties? With the release of the “Call Her Daddy” interview and Alan Sepinwall’s Welcome to the OC: The Oral History (HarperCollins, November 2023), there have been quite a few revelations about the conditions on the set of the teen soap, which ran from 2003 to 2007 on Fox. And the reevaluation of the show has contributed to a broader conversation—in part, incited by Quiet on Set: The Dark Side of Kids TV (Netflix), which exposes the underbelly of 1990s and early-aughts Nickelodeon shows—about the costs of stardom for children television stars. But a closer look at the subtext of The OC, specifically its treatment of both Marissa (Barton’s character), and her mother, Julie Cooper (played by Melinda Clarke), reveal the dynamics present both on set and in aughts America more broadly: a time of low rise jeans, bug-eyed sunglasses, and Lindsay, Paris, and Britney.

    Like the media industry’s fixation on Barton’s cohort of white starlets, the show revels in putting Marissa on a pedestal, destroying her, and then lifting her up again. Marissa faces several threats to her life—an overdose and a sexual assault, to name only two—before she is killed, in a car crash, after being chased by an abusive ex-boyfriend. From the start, this was strategic on the part of the producers.

    During the first season, they toyed with having Marissa drive over a cliff while under the influence or using an overdose to kill her off. Josh Schwartz, the show’s creator, said the overdose was because Fox executives “wanted to have the ability to make a casting change.” One of the series’ dominant motifs is the shot of Marissa being carried, unconscious, by Ben McKenzie’s character: arms hanging limp, bones popping out of her shoulders. The first time we see this shot is in the pilot, the final time is at her death, in “The Graduates” (Season 3, Episode 25). From the beginning, we know that she will likely succumb to a tragic fate. Her safety is always an open question.

    “The extreme delight viewers apparently take in despising the villainess testifies to the enormous amount of energy involved in the spectator’s repression.”

    In all of these images, she is beautiful: as Edgar Allen Poe put it, “The death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.” The poeticism of such imagery, as Rebecca Wanzo points out, also relies on the woman’s whiteness. Like other depictions of dead white women on TV—which have been examined closely by Wanzo and Kristy Guevara-Flanagan—the motif relieves the threat of being seduced by a teenage girl, the ultimate sin. But it also allows us to voyeuristically indulge in her passive body, without the chance of being confronted by a character who can look or speak. When Marissa finally dies, it is as though the world—the one her teenage body threatens to overpower—is finally safe, that order has been restored.

    But the show’s dubious treatment of women extends beyond Marissa. While soaps tend to be made for women, their plotlines are fundamentally traditional. Over and over, The OC presents an impossible conundrum: that men are the only source of protection for women, that the fate of its women characters lies in the men on whom they rely for protection, and that this source of protection is precarious at best and dangerous at worst.

    Like Marissa—who is both physically unsafe and cycles in and out of the exclusive private school the other teen characters attend, against her will—her mother Julie’s position in Newport Beach is always precarious. While Julie successfully slept her way from working-class Riverside into the wealthy enclave of Orange County, the show never fails to put her in her place in the end. Julie’s ascent will always be contingent—never the real thing. Her daughter’s death is the ultimate punishment.

    In part, Julie is a fixture of the genre: a classic soap villainess. Television scholar Tania Modleski, in 1979, defined this archetype as someone who “seizes those aspects of a woman’s life which normally render her most helpless and tries to turn them into weapons for manipulating other characters.” For instance, a villainess might intentionally get pregnant by a wealthy man in order to get his money. She is also often the negative image of the woman spectator’s ideal self: “the extreme delight viewers apparently take in despising the villainess testifies to the enormous amount of energy involved in the spectator’s repression” of her own desires for power, Modleski says.

    Modleski’s reading explains the bliss of hate-following reality-show stars and influencers today. The kinds of women that women spectators are most invited to have pleasure-and-contempt obsessions with are those who often capitalize on—if not weaponize—elements of femininity that have historically controlled women. Like Julie Cooper, influencers and reality stars capitalize on their bodies. Like Julie Cooper, they capitalize on the idea that “a woman’s place is in the home.” Like Julie Cooper, they capitalize on pregnancy and their children. For me at least, watching a woman unabashedly use these forces to her own end is like being served a cocktail of envy and moral superiority.

    The OC’s dubious treatment of women extends beyond Marissa. While soaps tend to be made for women, their plotlines are fundamentally traditional.

    But in The OC, Julie’s efforts are always futile. Take a scene from “The Showdown,” showing Marissa’s mother pouring Hollandaise onto a plate in an over-the-top Tuscan-style kitchen that looks straight out of Olive Garden. When her new husband, Caleb Nichol (Alan Dale), the wealthiest man in Newport Beach, enters the kitchen, she turns up to him with a seductive smile: “Bon Appetit.” Switching from a medium long shot to a closeup for Caleb’s reaction aligns us with his perspective over hers. Julie admits that it took her two hours to make the eggs benedict, and Caleb rejects the offer, telling her that it was insane for her to spend so much time making such a meal for a man with a heart condition. In Caleb’s words, “It was a wasted effort.”

    The OC follows Julie as she repeatedly tries and fails to control her position. She marries into the community after getting pregnant by a Newport Beach insider. Once his fraudulent business practices come to light and he loses his money, she leaves him. On and up, though: she uses her children as pawns to win Caleb’s sympathy and convince him to marry her.

    Julie’s sexual maneuverings—from one rich man to another, with the aim of achieving stability within the one percent—will always make her uncertain within Newport Beach ranks.

    Hanging over the show is Julie’s anxiety about her origin story coming to light: mentions of her roots repeatedly arise, punishments when she tries to move out of her place. In one scene, she criticizes the Cohen family—the show’s moral center—for adopting an outsider teenager. When the Cohen paterfamilias, Sandy (Peter Gallagher) overhears, he intervenes, naming Julie’s hometown as a power move. “This is supposed to be a neighborhood that welcomes outsiders. I mean me, I’m all the way from the Bronx, and you—you’re from Riverside, right?” Later, venting about it to her first husband—the wealthy but fraudulent Jimmy Cooper (Tate Donovan)—Julie says, “You will not believe what Sandy Cohen just said to me. He basically called me white trash. He said I was from Riverside.” In a comedic flip, he replies, “Honey. You are from Riverside.”

    The exposure of Jimmy’s white-collar crime reflects Julie’s persistent fear of being unmasked. And her fluctuations in status—from waterfront estates to trailer parks and back again—indicate, always, that Julie’s power is only temporary. It is her devious actions, the show seems to say, and not the fact that she is—and always will be—an outsider, that keep her financial wellbeing at risk.

    But even the status of Kirsten Cohen (Kelly Rowan), who seems, at first glance, to be an independent career woman as her family’s breadwinner, is subject to the whims of a male character. Kirsten appears as Julie’s opposite: even though she is a bad cook, she is frequently shown in her nice but not outrageous kitchen; she resists but never succumbs to extramarital temptation; and her cherubic blonde hair suggests her moral purity—a stark contrast to Julie’s red locks. Scheming has never been necessary for her, as her father, Caleb, employs her: she was born into Newport society. (Part of the show’s joke is that the Caleb-Julie marriage makes Julie, who was originally Kirsten’s frenemy, her stepmother.) Unlike Julie—who entered Newport through an “unplanned” pregnancy—Kirsten is the real thing, even if her place rests on pleasing her mercurial father.

    Later in “The Showdown,” Julie’s security disintegrates, yet again. In only a few moments, we see her fall from cosplaying a high-class housewife to showing her true Riverside origins. After Caleb rejects the eggs benedict, Julie makes him agree to a dinner date, where they will ostensibly smooth out their differences. But Caleb has another motive in mind. Julie steps into the restaurant, visibly reveling in her position as Mrs. Nichol, and is served divorce papers. She storms Caleb’s office, papers in hand, where he confronts her with a series of photographs of Julie kissing another man, an ex-boyfriend who threatened to expose her past experience in a pornographic video unless she paid up. Its name, “The Porn Identity,” comedically hints at the repercussions this tape would have for Julie’s position in the community should it come to light.

    In an eerie echo of Barton’s experience with her revenge-porn ex-boyfriend, Caleb informs Julie that she has been surveilled since before the two married. While the show leads us to believe that Julie was successfully weaving her way into upper-crust Newport society, in the end, we too are fools: she has been played by Caleb all along. The funhouse mirror of an episode confirms Caleb’s position as the king of Newport and Julie’s as “white trash.” Like her careful preparation of eggs benedict, Julie, again, is a fool. Her marriage to Caleb is just another wasted effort.

    If I failed to mitigate the danger my unwitting teenage body made others feel, then I would be the one to pay the price.

    Last year, Melinda Clarke, who played Julie, had Barton on her podcast, “Beyond The OC.” It is an uncanny thing to see: the women who played mother and daughter watching their scenes together, with the distance afforded by time. A sense of amnesia haunts the episode. Barton was working so much at the time that she struggles to recall basic details of the plot. With Rachel Bilson, who played Marissa’s best friend, the duo watches Marissa die. In the scene, Marissa is driven by her on-and-off again love interest, Ryan (Ben McKenzie), as they flee her violent ex-boyfriend. Always, Marissa is in the hands of men who profess to adore her. They are her only forms of protection, the show suggests. But in the end, their hands are not safe.

    The podcast brought me back to when I originally watched Marissa’s death, as a freshman in high school. While Marissa’s ending was devastating, I knew it was coming—she was not a character the show would send off into the sunset, happy and healthy. What I didn’t expect, though, was what would happen the morning after the episode aired: A mangled car was parked next to the front door of my high school. In the lobby was a closed coffin. Lots of girls, mourning Marissa’s death, wore black; they had posted their plan on their AIM away messages the night before.

    It was “Grim Reaper Day,” the school’s attempt at raising awareness about drunk driving. To display the frequency of Americans killed by drunk drivers, a student dressed as the grim reaper would “kill” another student every 30 minutes. To mark their death, the student had to paint their face white and stay silent for the rest of the day.

    The tradition was weird, but it sent me a message, even if not its intended one: that, at 14, I was both dangerous and in danger. That if I failed to mitigate the danger my unwitting teenage body made others feel, then I would be the one to pay the price. We cannot let Marissas grow into Julies, the experience seemed to say.

    Unlike Marissa, starlets of the aughts have not disappeared with poeticism. It doesn’t seem a coincidence that Barton appeared on Cooper’s podcast the same year that Hilton and Spears published memoirs accounting abuse by the people who were meant to protect them: for Spears (The Woman in Me, Gallery), it was her parents; for Hilton (Paris: The Memoir, HarperCollins), it was sexual assault by teachers at a troubled-teen school she attended. And it doesn’t seem to be a coincidence that it was Cooper’s podcast where Barton agreed to share her story.

    Cooper, in her late twenties, is an icon for Gen Z women. Discovered by Barstool Sports—the bro-ey media conglomerate, after a bikini photo of hers they posted went viral—she was soon hosting a podcast for the company. But she broke away and signed with Spotify for a better deal. Cooper, who unabashedly sells her image, is a hawk about making sure that she is the one—rather than figures like Barton’s ex-boyfriend, with his revenge porn; or the executives on The OC, with the unconscious-Marissa motif; or Spears’ father, with her forced performances—who profits from it.

    These former starlets, after years of being raised and lowered on the media-industry flagpole for profit, are re-emerging to introduce themselves to Gen Zers. And it’s on Barton’s, Spears’, and Hilton’s terms that this cohort is getting to know them. It’s a privilege I wish I had at their age.

    Kelly Marie Coyne
    Kelly Marie Coyne is a cultural historian of film and media. She writes for The New York Times, The Atlantic, and The Los Angeles Review of Books, among other places. She holds a PhD in media and cultural studies from Northwestern, and currently teaches in the Department of English at Georgetown University.

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