Are Bitches Still Welcome In The O.C.? The Geography of Adolescence In Teen Drama

“Boy, if you’d told Mallory Ortberg of The Toast in 2015, ‘Hey, six years from now, you’re gonna be like, a happy fat guy living in Brooklyn talking about Warhammer with a wife and a girlfriend. How do you feel about that,’ she would have run for the hills! She would have eviscerated that guy! Are you kidding me? Her whole thing was about, like, work-appropriate Spanx and never looking foolish…I sometimes really enjoy that moment of, ‘Oh, she would have crossed the street to avoid me.’”

I have a new show (Big Mood, Little Mood) with Slate that’s an outgrowth of my old show (Dear Prudence); the first episode aired this week with guest Aubrey Gordon (@yrfatfriend) and it was such a joy to get to record – I hope you’ll listen to it if you get the chance. We offer a little advice and then mostly talk about Orson Welles’ sex appeal, which seems like just the right balance for a show.


I was talking with Claire Cox last night for an event about her debut novel Silver Beach, and the conversation eventually turned to the question of California vs. the world, that curiously embattled and diminuitized position of being-from-California but not-exactly-Los Angeles, and the various defensive techniques peculiar to both the West and East Coasts. It struck me that the run of teen dramas from roughly 1990 to the mid-aughts streamlined those techniques.

There seemed to be a game of tug-of-war that eventually devolved into a maximalist glitz arms race by the early aughts, perhaps as a rebuke to the flanneled vagueness of Dawson’s Creek (somewhere in Massachussetts, I think?): The O.C. said WEALTHY TEENS LIVE AND WREAK HAVOC IN CALIFORNIA, and Gossip Girl said NO WEALTHY TEENS LIVE AND WREAK HAVOC IN MANHATTAN, and so on and so on. Of course we all know they were 27 and filming in Canada, which is entirely beside the point; the question is “What is the capital of moneyed adolescence? Where does it dwell, what city’s belly holds its pedigreed heart? In what state does it make sense to be young?” We might then best understand these teen dramas as themselves adolescent siblings in a sprawling, multi-generational family, each one squabbling in the backseat over whose turn it is to be a fictional town just north of San Diego.

Beverly Hills, 90210: Being a teenager is about relinquishing Minneapolis (pop. 2.1 million in 1990), the source of parental identification, and embracing the ongoing process of city-incorporation (pop. 31,000 in 1990) within greater Los Angeles.

My So-Called Life: No, being a teenager is about living almost in Pittsburgh (“so-called”), where problems are real, and not finding an audience is the point, actually.

Party of Five: No, being a teenager is about attempting to redeem the structure of the nuclear family in San Francisco.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: No, being a teenager is — and has always been — and will always be!! — about living as a blonde in southern California. Fine, not Los Angeles, but even the Beach Boys went to Ventura sometimes.

Daria: No! Being a teenager is about living nowhere.

Dawson’s Creek: No, being a teenager is about living near a lighthouse, which is where college was invented.

Felicity: No, being a teenager is about leaving the West Coast in order to get to the East Coast. The West Coast is where persons are made; the East Coast is where persons may choose to define themselves. It’s easier to lie to people on the East Coast, which is why so many Californians go there to start over. (The East Coast, shortsightedly, uses at least 20 different states to accomplish what California does with three, that is to say, to make a coast. California makes the West Coast and graciously allows Oregon and Washington to sit on the top steps, like second-tier bridesmaids. It perhaps goes without saying that in Oregon being a teenager is about being neither a vampire nor from Washington.)

Roswell: It is not possible for teenagers to be from New Mexico. They are in fact adults from outer space filming just outside of Santa Clarita.

Freaks and Geeks: A long-awaited return to MS-CL form! Teens are actually from the Midwest, and you had no idea, where they are subsequently funneled out to the West Coast (Freaks) or the East Coast (Geeks).

The Gilmore Girls: No, being a teenager is about your mother, who is small-town New England.

The O.C.: No, being a teenager is about Southern California. Everyone knows this! Johnny Carson is late night, McDonald’s and Coca-Cola, don’t overthink this, blonde hair, Southern California. We’ve always been here.

One Tree Hill: No, being a teenager is about North Carolina. No, that can’t be right. What year is it? Being a teenager is — how many years has it been? What place is this? What region, what quarter of the world? Where am I? Beneath the sun’s rising or beneath the wheeling course of the frozen Bear? Is this the boundary set to Ocean’s stream by that farthest land on the western sea? What air is this I breathe? What soil lies beneath my weary frame? Surely I have returned to earth –

Veronica Mars: Being a teenager is Southern California.

The O.C.: Thank you —

Veronica Mars: —in San Diego, right along the PCH—

The O.C.: THE PCH DOESN’T EVEN GO THAT FAR

Veronica Mars: —in between San Diego and Los Angeles — I can go as far north as San Juan Capistrano, if it please you, sir —

Gossip Girl: No, being a teenager is about New York. It’s about all the buildings going up at the same time, boat shoes, brick grandfathers, and the social rivalries that only the very oldest and best families can pull off — and we’ve got the Veronica Mars to prove it.

Skins [inaudible]: Sometimes being a teenager happens in England.

But of course, we know that it doesn’t.