Up Dawson's Creek

by Michelle Erica Green

May 2002

I am finished apologizing for the fact that I watch Dawson's Creek. I've been apologizing for it for nearly four years, and it's stupid. Not just because I enjoy the show on a superficial level, and I shouldn't have to apologize for that, even if most of my friends are [ahem] intellectuals. It's stupid for me to apologize because, compared to many shows that I watch and have watched and may be snookered into watching in the future, Dawson's Creek's treatment of female characters is exemplary.

Go ahead and tell me how unattainable Katie Holmes' figure is for most teenage girls. I'll agree. Remind me of the lack of racial diversity on the show; true, it's pathetic. Complain that the gay character gets less screen time and less substantive storylines than the straight characters -- you're right. Point out the self-involvement of the kids, their lack of social or political consciousness, the subtle and not-so-subtle ageism. Remind me of the half-hearted nods to responsibility and morality, the preachy politics of non-abortion, the superficial treatment of mental illness and parental abuse, the implicit approval of teacher-student love affairs and underage experimentation with alcohol and drugs. Then complain that it's a soap opera, that everyone on the show has slept with everyone else (which is totally unrealistic even forgetting moral issues), that these people never do the main thing students their age have to do at some point: study. I know. I don't care.

Tonight, you see, I watched the second-to-last episode for the season of 24 -- a show whose praises I have been singing for 22 weeks to anyone who would listen. I have been a little bit bugged all along about the roles for women, but none of them were heinous. I thought it was simply that Jack Bauer and David Palmer were the main characters, so naturally they were the focus of most of the attention. Sure, I could have gotten irked that we didn't get a female agent instead of a male one leading the Counter-Terrorist Unit, but what the heck; there were a lot of women working with Jack, or so it seemed at first. Plus we got an African-American candidate for president, so I ignored the fact that it was suggested that the senior African-American we saw at CTU was implied to have gotten her job because of affirmative action. A show with Kiefer Sutherland, Penny Johnson Jerald, Richard Burgi and a host of other decent actors, which kept fans engrossed in the moment-by-moment action and had wonderful production values, which managed not to be boring for more than a dozen consecutive weeks, well, such a show deserves a little credit, right?

Wrong. In the penultimate episode, my niggling little concerns about the sexual politics exploded into fury of the sort that made me say, "Let's just watch the two-hour Buffy finale next week and skip the last hour of 24 altogether." I realized that Good Daughter Kim, who did not have sex with her boyfriend, was going to be allowed to survive. That Bad Girl Janet, who did have loud rowdy sex with her boyfriend, was already dead, while Bad Girl Elizabeth, who had wild hot sex with that nasty Drazen boy, was going to jail for the rest of her life. That Bad Girl Patti, who offered to have sex with Holier-Than-Thou Presidential Candidate David, was going to get fired and humiliated, though she was spared further punishment because the nauseatingly sanctimonious would-be leader of the free world never let her confess all her sins. That Bad Girl Sherry was going to lose her husband, her family and her life's work because she's an aggressive, ambitious political woman rather than a True Supportive Wife like passive, prissy Good Wife Teri, who did not have sex with her boyfriend despite being separated from Jack when she met him, who allowed herself to be raped to protect her daughter from the same fate, who clearly was fated to be martyred either as a passive stay-at-home madonna (she's pregnant with Jack's baby) or via murder (so Jack will be untainted by her status as victim and free to have sex with Bad Girls next season). It was just inevitable that career woman Nina, who not only spent all her time at work but had sex with a married man, would turn out to be the series demon, a Fatal Attraction of the worst sort.

Yes, Dawson's Creek has got Dawson front and center in the title, but he's hardly the central character of the main cast; it's a quartet, they revolve around one another. Yes, it's about privileged, self-absorbed, pretty white kids. Yes, it's smarmy and sappy and has some of the most contrived dialogue ever heard on TV. But it doesn't have reactionary sexual politics. Joey and Jen are much more progressive than the women on the 24 producers' former futuristic tough-chick show, La Femme Nikita. They're more free from social restrictions and expectations than the smart women on Alias and The X-Files. They're light years ahead of the women on Voyager, not to mention Dawson's time-slot nemesis Enterprise.

In fact, Joey and Jen are more vocally feminist -- and treated better as such -- than the so-called feminists on the critically acclaimed political drama The West Wing. The womyn from the women's movement are constantly portrayed as harpies, destructive to the very causes they say they believe in because they're so narrow-minded, plus they can't help sabotaging good relationships with men. West Wing doesn't have a problem with strong women, but let someone try to embody the f-word and she's fodder for ridicule. The central women of the Creek, plus their cohorts Audrey, Andie and Nikki, and the older women on the show -- Bessie, Gail and Evelyn (a.k.a. Grams) -- are some of the best role models young girls can have, once they set aside the makeup-ad appearances as one must do with Buffy, Dharma and just about every other woman worth emulating on television, anyway.

Dawson's Creek is undeniably relationship-focused -- even at their young ages, the women believe their lives are far more enriched when they're involved in romantic pairings. But the men believe that too -- Dawson has more invested in the idea of a soulmate than any of the others, and his wish that Joey fulfill that role for him has not prevented him from helping her test her wings away from him. Having ranted for years against the notion that women can be defined as independent only when they're alone, I have no problem with these independent young women wanting to find love while they're finding themselves. It would be nice if they were a bit happier with themselves apart from their affairs, but it's not unrealistic and more importantly it's not such a terrible thing for people to start exploring themselves within the relative safety of teen affairs rather than the expectations of parents. The peer pressure felt by these young women comes not from experimenting with lovers, but trying to remain close to friends.

The girls of Dawson's Creek have never been made to suffer for their sexuality -- well, Jen has made herself suffer, but that's a result of horrific parenting, not external television-based judgment about her choices. Unwanted sexual advances get treated with scorn and aggressive denial, rather than politically correct speeches or, worse, acceptance. Pacey didn't turn into a demon when Joey lost her virginity to him, the way Angel did when Buffy lost her virginity to him. Grams chilled out on her Victorian mores, and despite early condemnation of interracial dating recently found love with a man of a different ethnic background. Bad girl Abby Morgan died, but that was because she abused alcohol, broke laws, committed slander, and acted very irresponsibly; she wasn't judged as a bad girl so much as behaving like a stereotypical teenage rebel, of which our adolescent models are usually male, and paying a price similar to that of many on-the-edge James Dean copycats. This is a world where women truly can be anything they want to be, even if they're unrealistic about little things like money and the cold realities of academia, Hollywood and the restaurant business.

In fairness, I sometimes get bored with Dawson's Creek. I skipped about half of the third season when I didn't much care about Andie's angst or Joey's dating dilemmas. Admittedly, I came back for the gorgeous exterior shots -- ostensibly Massachusetts but really North Carolina -- if Dawson is sitting on the dock, I don't care whether he's having a heart-to-heart with Joey, Jen, his mother or himself, and I could watch a whole episode just for a sunset over the water. And the soundtrack has kept me riveted even though the worst dialogue -- a show that introduced me to Mary Beth Maziarz, Billie Myers, post-Men-At-Work Colin Hay, Jann Arden, Heather Nova, Pancho's Lament, India.Arie, Savage Garden, Catie Curtis, Eagle-Eye Cherry, Sweetsalt, Edwin McCain, Jessica Andrews, Five For Fighting, Amy Cook, and which played Eva Cassidy's "Fields of Gold," Marc Cohn's "Healing Hands," Tuck and Patti's "Time After Time" and Janis Ian's "Days Like These," and which put Shawn Colvin's "Never Saw Blue Like That" on its soundtrack and made me aware of the existence of Beth Nielsen Chapman...well, this is a show I will remember forever with the greatest of affection for those reasons alone. Just about every one of my favorite songs for the last four years has a "Dawson" connection.

I'm not going to argue that Dawson's Creek is great television, any more than I'd argue that Dawson will be a great filmmaker if he just emulates his idol Spielberg. It's witty in a nostalgic Gen X way, and the characters are sort of like people of the current younger generation seen through the lens of someone who's from my generation (and sharing a lot of my artistic, musical, social and pop culture sensibilities). But look at the crap that women not only put up with, but apparently enjoy! Ally McBeal! Seinfeld! The Sopranos! Never again will I apologize for watching Dawson's Creek. In fact I would like to apologize for taking so long to express my appreciation for it. Kevin Williamson, WB Frog, I bow in your general direction.