by Marianne Eloise
There are some cultural objects that many of us dismiss as trash, often sight unseen. This is in part due to taste cultures; in our society the tastes of educated cis straight white men are considered ‘high’, while products that appeal to anyone else are ‘low’ (Jenkins 1992 p.17). I have previously written for TLF on high-low culture regarding Twilight (2008); here I will be looking at television and male fandom. Why do so many dismiss certain media? After all, the decisions we make regarding taste are rarely organic, and that there is no universal definition of ‘good’ taste.
This essay focuses on television aimed at young women – in particular Warner Bros. teen drama The O.C. (Josh Schwartz 2003-2007); looking firstly at its massive cultural impact, but also at its male fans and detractors. It will be exploring the idea that men often dismiss products that they believe are aimed at women or children. The O.C. has been carefully selected as a case study because it best exemplifies the strong positive and negative reactions that audiences can have to certain media, regardless of its success.
The reactions to The O.C. demonstrate the idea that men often dismiss products that they believe are aimed at women or children.
The O.C. may have had a cultural impact in 2003, but due to its perceived status as a teen drama there is an instantaneous dismissal of it by some viewers; leaving its fans to feel ashamed. This will affirm the idea that taste cultures are arbitrated by upper-class white males and, whilst teenaged girls are avid consumers of television, their tastes are not considered legitimate. My argument is not that The O.C. is inherently good, nor that anything is above criticism, but that in its status as entertainment it should not be criticised solely for its perceived ‘feminine’ associations.
The O.C. was an American TV show that ran from 2003-2007 on the FOX channel; the debut work of 26-year-old creator Josh Schwartz, who wanted to document his feelings as a white Jewish LA transplant from the East Coast. The show is centred on the lives of wealthy teenagers and their parents in a prestigious and largely fictitious version of Newport Beach, Orange County. It begins with central character (and Chino native) Ryan stealing a car; wealthy lawyer Sandy Cohen defends him and, upon seeing Ryan’s rough home life, opts to take him in.
Despite the Cohen’s wealth, Sandy is from a poor white Jewish family from the Bronx; and his background gives the family down-to-earth values and thus, distance from the WASPy and similarly placed white people of Newport Beach. This distance and Ryan’s own confusion enable the show to become a satire of shows such as 90210, which deal with the exploits of over-privileged teenagers. However, despite this cynical viewpoint of the privileged people of Newport, the show still functions as a sincere teen drama.
The O.C. received critical appraisal, and was viewed by as many as 9.7 million people in its first season. It promoted extraneous material, official soundtracks, merchandise, and a number of parodies in sketch shows such as Saturday Night Live. All of this only goes to show that for teenagers in the early 2000s, The O.C. was formative. But despite all of this, it is still often considered as ‘low’ in the cultural canon; even by its fans.
But why are men reticent to admit that they watch a show equally as targeted at them as at women? The show’s creators were aware of the stigma surrounding teen dramas, and opted to take a “post-modern twist” (Meyer p.455) on a familiar genre. Josh Schwartz describes the show as a ‘Trojan horse’: a glossy outer skin that sneaks in “soulful, quirky characters” and social commentary. He has not spoken against the teen genre, only stating that we live in a “post-everything” universe and everything has to be done ironically. (huffingtonpost 2013).
For this study and in an attempt to explore the complex notion of fan-shame, I interviewed several men in the age range 23-35, who were around 14-26 when The O.C. was last on television. This ensured that when the show ended, the men were within the intended audience. I asked these men whether they knew of the show, and for those with strong responses, I conducted longer interviews. My final interviewees were: Sam and Ben, both proud fans of the show, Jake, a secret fan, and Josh, a male who has not watched the show but hates it. The main questions asked of fans were:
- How did you first start watching The O.C.? (Flipping channels, intentionally,
through a friend, etc.)
- Are you ashamed to be a fan? Who would you disclose that information to?
- What do you like about it?
The questions asked of detractors were similar:
- Have you watched many episodes of The O.C.?
- Why don’t you like it?
- How do you feel about other shows – Desperate Housewives (Marc Cherry 2004), Gilmore Girls (Amy Sherman-Palladino 2000), Gossip Girl (Josh Schwartz 2007), etc?
Through these questions I hoped to understand what it is that detractors not only dislike about the show, but how they justify their dislike when they haven’t seen it. I also aimed to gauge their feelings about shows that are assumed similar despite massive differences to try and get a picture of whether or not their dislike of The O.C. is a case of bias.
Through the fan questions I wanted to understand why men who love the show often keep it as a guilty pleasure, only disclosing the information when someone else initiates the conversation. I also wanted to see how viewers got into the show, and whether they intended to get sucked in. I expect to find that the reason men dislike the show is the same as the reason why fans are ashamed to admit it – because of The O.C.’s association with teen drama, and therefore, the assumption that it is for women.
Many of the men I spoke to for my study had not even watched The O.C., and had based their opinion on a snap decision made on the basis that it was a “teen drama” “for girls”; proving again that we instantaneously dismiss anything associated with female viewers. Were this statement true their dismissal would still be unwarranted, however, it is not. The women of The O.C. are multi-faceted, interesting, and likeable characters – but this is not their story.
The story of The O.C. is told primarily through the eyes of a handful of male main characters, with the women occupying secondary roles; they only come into the narrative as partners of the men.
In secondary research, I found some academic work on The O.C. – thus proving its status as a cultural phenomenon. The show’s funny, postmodern critique of Orange County life proved incredibly popular and had lasting impact overnight. Writer Alan Sepinwall, author of Revolution was Televised (Sepinwall 2012) and Stop Being a Hater and Learn to Love the O.C. (Sepinwall 2004), has worked to break down assumptions about the show since its first season. He holds the position that the only thing standing between a hate of the show and a love of it is letting go of the stigma that surrounds soaps and teen drama. He even ranks it alongside shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997) and Breaking Bad (2007) as changing the nature of television on the whole. The blurb of Stop Being a Hater and Learn to Love the O.C. caters to an ashamed audience – “why watch a teenage drama when you’re now twentysomething?” and whilst the first few pages are dedicated to arguing the show’s legitimacy and that it is “not just a soap opera”, the book primarily exists as a companion to the show (Sepinwall 2004 p.3). If nothing else this book’s existence proves one thing – that there are male fans of The O.C.
One piece, Masculinities in the O.C. by Elizabeth Meyer (Meyer 2012), provides a dismissal of the show on another basis – not that it is associated with women, but that it isn’t feminist enough. She chose to watch the show as she recognised that in 2003 her entire class had been watching it, proving its ubiquity. Throughout her analysis, however, she states that the women occupy unlikeable archetypes and consequently, a show that had appeared to break gender norms had simply reinforced them (Meyer 2012 p.455). This is a matter of opinion – she may not like the female characters, but they only occupy archetypes in so far as all characters do. Critics have otherwise praised the portrayal of the women as interesting characters who occupy similar screen time to the men (huffingtonpost 2013).
Meyer concludes that despite the show’s attempts to subvert norms of masculinity, it lacks the ability to battle problematic ideologies in Hollywood and instead joins the ‘boys’ club’. (Meyer 2012 p.60). This may be true, but what Meyer is missing is that the show does not have to have a political message. It is entertainment, and never claimed to be anything more. The very fact that her students – both male and female – were engaging with a genre previously assumed as “women’s media” is interesting enough. It is unfair to place the onus of political change on a mainstream media product – despite its occasionally subversive or self-reflexive nature, The O.C. should still be judged within its own parameters for what is to be reasonably expected from a television show in 2003.
What is interesting about this study is that Meyer recognised an audience of men and women – meaning that men were freely admitting to their enjoyment. Nine years after The O.C. ended I faced difficulty in tracking down male fans that were willing to discuss their fandom, which could be indicative of a change in attitudes or behaviours since 2003-2007. Or it could be due to the fact that during its initial run, there were simply more viewers. Those that I have spoken to who have continued re-watching or who remember watching it are more likely to be die-hard fans or fanatical haters – it is hard to find anyone watching it organically so long after the finale aired, as it’s near impossible to happen across The O.C. during channel flipping. For this reason, my focus group is far smaller than it would have been in 2003.
My first subject was Jake, aged 24. He was just 11 when the show aired, but remembered it fondly. I tread lightly at first, asking him if he liked it – to which he was reluctant to disclose. He said that he “thought it was okay” and I asked my first question – after confessing that I was a fan. He told me that he “watched it because [I] was in love with Mischa Barton”. This answer is interesting, as he appears to be admitting to being a fan whilst self-consciously retaining an amount of masculinity and heterosexuality. I asked what kept him watching – and he stated that he developed something of a “man crush” on lead actor Adam Brody, and that he felt like he “was him”. When asked what he liked about it, Jake remembered that it was funny. I asked if he was ashamed to like it, and he said yes.
Despite earlier claiming to “kind of remember it”, after a while Jake leapt into vivid descriptions of storylines and confessed that he stopped watching after Marissa died in a dramatic season three finale because he was “heartbroken”. I asked him why he was ashamed to watch it, and he said simply that it was “for girls”. He confessed to gauging the conversation and my reactions before freely discussing how much he enjoyed it. I found a lot of things about this discussion interesting – firstly, his attempt at preserving masculinity. This indicates that there is an assumption that there is anything emasculating about enjoying teen drama – a cultural understanding that it is not for men. Jake actively denied himself the pleasure that he felt discussing the show in order to appear more masculine.
Next I spoke to Josh, aged 27. I asked firstly if he had seen the show – to which he said he “might have caught some of it on TV once”. I asked if he had liked it, to which he appeared shocked that I would even ask. “Of course not!”. I asked why, to which he responded: “I hate all of that stuff.” I asked him to elaborate, but what he deemed “all of that stuff” was unclear. I asked him how he felt about other, perceived similar, shows – such as 90210, Gilmore Girls, and Desperate Housewives. He said that he hated “shows about teenagers in high school whining”. I asked him if he had ever watched any of the above, and if not, how did he know he hated it? He said he hadn’t, and that he hated them all sight unseen as they were “tacky, crass, and lacking story”. I asked what genres of film and television he did enjoy, and he told me that he watched torture porn and enjoyed “pushing himself”.
What I found interesting was that whereas Jake openly admitted that his shame was due to the show being “for girls”, Josh was careful not to say this at any point. Instead, he freely stated opinions of the show that are frequently attached to criticism of women’s media – that soaps, dramas, and other similar shows are simply idle gossip for women (Baym 2000 p.45). Whilst Josh’s interview was disheartening, it was not surprising. His vehement reaction to my mention of a show such as The O.C. is in part responsible for the shame that other male fans feel upon expressing their interest.
My third interviewee was Sam, aged 24. He was only 10 when The O.C. began and therefore didn’t watch it at the time, so I asked how he had managed to get into it. He told me that he had been “forced to watch it by [my] girlfriend” – similarly to Jake, when confronted with enjoyment of The O.C., Sam reinforced his heterosexuality. He told me that he found himself enjoying it against his will and again, identifying with the primary character of Seth. After his introduction, Sam found himself “sucked in” and watched the show in its entirety. Four times. Despite initial shame surrounding his enjoyment and his admittance even now that he feels it’s “for girls”, Sam confessed that he now goes as far as to consistently defend the show against “hate”. I asked him how he felt about similar shows and interestingly, wherein Jake did not like those at all, and Josh had never seen them, Sam was also a fan. It was the same story – he was exposed to it against his will over the course of an episode or two, and found himself enjoying it. I asked what he liked about it and I received a simple, if honest answer – “it’s funny”.
My final interviewee and one that I choose to include because of his status as an outlier is Ben, 33. Ben considers himself someone who was a fan when The O.C. was on TV, and was 20 during its initial run – perhaps a little older than its intended audience. Ben got into the show when he developed a crush on Marissa – much like Jake, and in keeping with my hypothesis that men often state a “masculine” reason for watching the show. Like many of my other subjects Ben also related heavily to Seth, even getting his haircut. However, Ben dropped off from the series around the second season as its scheduling clashed with his job. Regardless, when he found out that Marissa Cooper had died in season 3, he says that he and another friend were “dramatic” in their reaction to it. When I asked Ben whether he ever felt shame surrounding his love of The O.C. or that it was too girly, he told me that he “loved girly things” and everyone in his friend group watched it. This supports two of my ideas: 1, that outside influences from peers determine how men interact with a product (Ben had left school in 2004) and 2, that it wasn’t so unusual for men to like it at the time; it has become assumed so over the years. While Ben’s story is different to many of the other men I spoke to, I believe his answers still back up my original theory.
From these interviews and others that I conducted, it was clear that despite the show being critically and culturally lauded, despite its male characters, and despite its hard-hitting themes of alcoholism and other issues – people still shun it due to the belief that it is for girls. This assumption leads to a mass dismissal of the show, as often happens with media associated with women. Interestingly, though, The O.C. was overwhelmingly marketed as a show for men and women – even insofar as releasing his and hers perfume in 2003 (theocinsider.com 2006). But somehow, through its association with teen drama or due to its female audience, it has become assumed as “for girls” and therefore dismissed.
This assumption leads to not only unfair denigration of the show, but to ingrained shame in the male fans that do enjoy it. This shame is circular, because the quieter the fans remain; the less likely it is that other men will change their opinion. Our dismissal of certain media only serves to reinforce damaging hierarchies. This piece aimed to fill a gap in O.C. scholarship with fan studies, and encourage the reader to unpack their own prejudices and assumptions regarding taste. I would like my audience to consider that women can not only be consumers of popular media, but can also be tastemakers; and that their approval of a show might even affirm its legitimacy as a male viewer’s would.
Marianne Eloise is an MA film graduate and freelance writer who has been published on Dazed, Noisey, Hello Giggles, and more. You can follow her on Twitter @marianne_eloise