Subscribe to Bitch—an award-winning, 80 page feminist magazine. Image Map

Tuning In: Up Dawson's Creek

Dawson's Creek began airing on the WB in January 1998, which, like the principal cast of northeastern high school outsiders played by telegenic white actors, was during my first year of high school. It ended in 2003, flashing forward from the ensemble's sophomore year of college to their burgeoning adult lives. Though its ratings began to slip in the early 2000s following creator Kevin Williamson's exit, the super-articulate teen drama was responsible for the WB's success, which the network acknowledged when it broadcast the pilot before signing off in 2006.

As Ben Aslinger notes in his essay "Rocking Prime Time: Gender, the WB, and Teen Culture," Dawson's Creek was also an originator of a new model of musical branding for network television that incorporated soundtracks comprised primarily of unknown (and therefore hip and affordable) talent, bumpers at the end of each episode to emphasize featured music, interactive Web sites, and the use of soundalikes to expedite DVD production. In short, Dawson's Creek defined the WB, influenced the careers of Josh Schwartz and Alexandra Patsavas, and set the pace for the CW, which the WB would merge with UPN to become.

The show was also a professional accomplishment for veteran actors James Van Der Beek, Joshua Jackson, Michelle Williams and, during the show's college years, Busy Philips. Jackson has found success with Fox's Fringe. Philips is often the bright spot on shows like Cougar Town. Williams, who played my favorite character, is considered by some to be one of her generation's great young actresses, with star turns in Brokeback MountainWendy and Lucy, and the behyped Blue Valentine

 

Most notably, it starred newcomer Katie Holmes, an actress who was briefly considered to be a rising star but whose limited talent and controversial marriage to Tom Cruise derailed her trajectory.

It also had me as a reluctant fan. Now, I fully acknowledge that the show is terrible. As a matter of fact, my sample essay for entrance into my master's program was a college term paper comparing the gender and sexual politics of the show against My So-Called Life, with the latter framed as the more progressive example. Also, as Dawson's Creek set the tone for network television's corporate exploitation of bland indie rock, so too was it responsible for the WB's white flight following its success with and subsequent drop of several programs with predominantly black ensembles.

Yet something about the show's soft lighting, quippy characters, and high melodrama entranced me against better judgment. I would later find out about Freaks and Geeks and the WB's Buffy: The Vampire Slayer and Gilmore Girls, which featured girls who were fans of the Grateful Dead, Cibo Matto, and Sonic Youth, and would then kick myself.

Apart from the inclusion of Jack McPhee, a well-developed gay male character who was friends with most of the female characters, Dawson's Creek was pretty misogynistic. It also rigidly aligned with the can-do/at-risk binary girls' studies scholar Anita Harris set up in her book Future Girl: Young Women in the Twenty-First Century, with Holmes's Joey Potter and Williams's Jen Lindley occupying each pole. A girl character may seem good, as McPhee's brainy sister Andie did upon her arrival in season two. However, once McPhee slept with Jackson's dashing underdog Pacey Witter, she began hearing the voice of her dead older brother, checked into a mental facility, cheated on Witter, mixed her antidepressants with ecstacy at a rave, and was written out of the show before graduating high school.

Duress did not befall sexually active male characters, who were drawn as complex, sensitive, and romantic even though their chivalry suggested the term's sexist implications. Most notably, Witter grabbed attention early in the series' run for sleeping with his teacher. But the consequences were pretty dire for the female characters. Potter, a smart, working-class tomboy, only had sex with guys framed as her "soulmates" and blossomed into an Ivy League-educated publishing editor with a steadfast Witter by her side. Lindley, a jaded debutante who cavalierly discarded her virginity, became an impoverished single mother and died of a heart condition in the series' finale. To make matters worse, I found Potter to be a sanctimonious, insecure, and judgemental slut-shamer and considered Lindley to be a progressive supporter of gay rights and female autonomy.

As I mentioned earlier, music was always foregrounded in the show. The gang would occasionally see bands like No Doubt in concert. They also talked about acts they liked, with Lindley winning me over with her professed love of Liz Phair's Exile in Guyville over the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street.

Since college is often represented in media culture as a time of liberation (re: keg parties with buxom co-eds), it's interesting that music was so important to the female characters on the show. Potter, who sang Les Misérables "On My Own" at a high school beauty pageant, briefly fronted a band. Potter's outspoken roommate Audrey Liddell (Philips) took her rocker inclinations from dressing up as Nancy Spungeon for Halloween to fronting the band, Hell's Belles, which later led her in the unfortunate professional direction of singing back-up for toxic bachelor John Mayer. And Lindley, once the punk head cheerleader on her high school's squad, found her calling as a college deejay.

It's a minor form of self-actualization, to be sure. However, just as Dawson's Creek is noted for its pioneering use of music on teen television, it should be recognized for its female characters' strong identification with it.

Want more from Bitch? Good news! Our quarterly magazine, Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture, is packed with 80+ pages of feminist analysis, reviews, illustrations, and more. Subscribe today

Subscribe to Bitch


Comments

11 comments have been made. Post a comment.

This article reflects a

This article reflects a large part of my Masters' Thesis on teens and sexuality on television. it was great to read....and always good to feel validated, by your opinions. Thanks!

This article reflects a

Ooh, I'd love to read your thesis. What shows did you focus on? I gave short shrift of Jack McPhee in this entry, but I actually thought he was one of the show's more complex and progressive characters and like that the show extended this toward his sexuality. It's too bad the show didn't provide that sort of nuance to all of its characters.

Alyx Vesey

Great article--I feel rather

Great article--I feel rather silly for having totally subconsciously sucked in all these misogynistic undertones as a middle school and high school student. But yes, you're right--the bit about michelle williams' character dying from a heart attack is absolutely absurd (as if it were a punishment for her slightly slutty ways), and the way she went on and on and ON about her (lack of) virginity was ridiculous. I hope you'll keep writing for bitch! I'd love to hear your thoughts on some of the female characters in popular tween and teen shows right now...

Great article--I feel rather

Ah, thanks for the kind words, Nancy T. Are there any particular current tween/teen shows you're thinking of? I've written a little about Gossip Girl on my blog, Feminist Music Geek -- specifically on Taylor Momsen, Anna Sui's themed collection for Target, and Sonic Youth's appearance in a recent episode. A show from the recent past that I know I need to watch is Veronica Mars. I've followed some of 90210, and feel there's much to say about how the CW is remaking Aaron Spelling's 90s output for Fox. I have a limited grasp on Disney's and Nickelodeon's current programming. If you have any suggestions, I'd be happy to look into writing about them on my home turf or elsewhere.

Alyx Vesey

Oh 90s TV...

Really interesting post! I just finished my own thesis about representations of girls on Teen TV shows and talked a lot about Dawson's Creek.

I have really complicated feelings towards the show. I LOVED it in high school. Rewatching it I see all the obvious problems and I agree with a lot of what you said here. In my thesis I talked a lot about how Joey, Jen, and Andie are always being positioned as someone's "soulmate" or "dream girl," and how when they fail to fulfill those positions their story lines become secondary, or in the case of Andie end altogether (although one quibble with what you wrote - she doesn't get written off before graduating high school. She graduates early and gets to go live in Italy, which I actually think awesome, if only it didn't mean she had to cease being on the show). And I was always so furious not only that Jen freakin' died, but that her dying was used to facilitate Joey making a final choice between Dawson and Pacey.

On the other hand, I kind of have to stick up for Dawson's. For all its problems, I thought Joey, Jen, Andie and Audrey were all really good characters, who were just as well written as any of the guys on that show. Dawson was always the one who was more obsessed with the whole soulmate idea, while Joey and Jen were concerned with figuring out how to be OK just being themselves. I felt like Jen's struggles about her sexual history were a comment on how girls' sexuality is unfairly condemned by society. And even though I hate the way the female friendships were usually portrayed on the show, I think it did a very good job of portraying cross-generational relationships with Gail Leery, Bessie Potter, and Grams.

Oh 90s TV . . .

Point taken about Andie, gin_in_teacups. Also, I seem to remember that she appears in the finale but her scenes were cut from the episode when it aired on the CW. And I also agree that the female characters were as complexly rendered as the male characters. But killing off Jen broke my heart.

Do I ever wish I had time and space to write about the mother figures on Dawson's Creek, so thanks for bringing it up. I've also  wanted to do a comparative analysis between Grams and Six Feet Under's Ruth Fisher, as their relationships with Jen and Claire contained similarities. Also, I think both women do a considerable amount of personal growth throughout their arcs, something we don't always get to see with older female characters.

Alyx Vesey

So did Katie Holmes become a

So did Katie Holmes become a married slave to Tom Cruise because of Dawson's Creek?

So did Katie Holmes become a

I sincerely hope not. I'd like to think Holmes's inability to transition from the show into a successful career and marrying Tom Cruise are unrelated.

Alyx Vesey

Dawson's and MSCL

I loved loved loved "My So-Called Life" and was a guilty fan of "Dawson's," so Alyx, I'd love to read your paper.

I was also a Jen fan and thought she got the shaft. I actually thought she should have ended up with Pacey.

Ok, first off I am not

Ok, first off I am not afraid to admit that I am 30 years old and still love Dawson's Creek. I've watched most of it on DVD recently and was just as hooked on it as I was when I was a teen. Yes I did not like Jen dying, but I still think she was a great character and refuse to let her death undermine that. For a girl like me that was an outsider at school, seeing a character like Jen on DC was very refreshing, since I could really relate to her, and I hadn't been able to relate to very many characters on TV before then.

I do disagree about what you said about Joey's sexuality though. She had sex with 3 different guys during the series, and it was pre-marital sex, which means that it could be considered sinful. I don't think it matters whether she loved those guys or not, she still had sex and nothing bad ever happened to her as a result (unlike with Jen, and as someone else here noted in their comment, Andie actually had a pretty happy ending after her rough patch, even though it involved her leaving the show, which I was glad about, since I didn't like her), and in the end, Joey actually goes on to have a pretty good life too.

I always thought Joey was a good female role model, she was smart and determined and follows her dreams. In some ways, the show is more so about her journey, than it is about Dawson or the other characters. It is about her being afraid of change and of growing up, and then finally coping with those things, and becoming an adult, and no longer running away from having to make decisions and taking responsibility for actions. Yes, it sucks that it took Jen dying for her to have this realization, I agree with that. But I don't think that undermines the fact that Joey was a positive female character, and I do think Katie Holmes played her well, despite the fact that what she's done after DC hasn't been so good.

Ok, first off I am not

Thanks for your comments, roxie. I agree that in some ways, Joey is a good role model and the show is often about her journey. However, she was often the most judgmental and hostile, particularly toward other girls (especially Jen). While I appreciate that teen girlhood can be about having to overcome insecurities, unfairly comparing oneself to the perceptions of others, and homosocial rivalry, having Joey serve as the "good" role model and Jen as a cautionary tale was unfortunate on the show's part.

Also, I think that while Joey did have pre-marital sex, it was justified within the show because she only had sex with guys she loved and cared about. This is in sharp contrast with Jen, with whom she was often contrasted against, who often engaged in sex with guys who didn't care about her (her clandestine past was often alluded to -- Dawson actually breaks up with her in the first season because he finds out she's not a virgin -- but she wasn't shown engaging in much casual sex). Again, I think this reinforces the point made above.

Alyx Vesey