Lessons from: ‘The OC’, Part I – America loves pretty white people with problems
Let’s start with the most obvious of lessons: When a large group of well dressed, beautiful and wealthy (and almost exclusively Caucasian) people gather in one room, drama will ensue. And America will watch with bated breath. But what does this say about our society as a whole?
Let’s take this one bit at a time.
“Well dressed, beautiful and wealthy.”
These shows teach us, whether we’re aware of it or not, that we will not be happy until we’re dressed in the hottest and most expensive clothing available. If you think that stores and designers don’t use these shows as free advertising, then you’re wrong, and also very naive. (Sorry.)
These shows count on viewers seeing their pieces on television and rushing out to the mall (or the more likely choice, their computers) to spend their hard earned cash on the jeans or the dress their favorite character wore in last night’s episode. These designers count on us thinking that by purchasing their clothes we’ll be happier or somehow cooler in the eyes of our peers. Think I’m wrong? Think that only shows whose primary focus is on the rich, like ‘The OC’, ‘Gossip Girl’ or ‘Revenge’, dress their stars in the most expensive of pieces? Think again.
Thanks to websites like Possessionista – a site that lists the clothing worn by the actors of several of the most popular shows on air today and where you can buy it for yourself – we now know how much the clothing costs on teen shows like ‘Pretty Little Liars’ and ‘Glee.’ And it’s not anywhere near the amount of money I suspect those kids get as allowance. Nor is it something every day folks like myself can afford to buy (though I will admit that I’ve scoured that website more than once – hey, I never said I was immune to the fashion marketing ploys of these shows!)
Characters like Quinn and Rachel on ‘Glee’ are often wearing items from Anthropologie and J.Crew and from designer labels like Kate Spade, Marc Jacobs or Milly. Characters in high school are wearing dresses that I wouldn’t even consider buying because they’re out of my mid-twenties-with-a-secure-job price range.
In last night’s season finale of ‘Pretty Little Liars’ the girls went to a masquerade ball in beautiful dresses that I suppose were just hanging in their closets since there was no time for them to shop, what with spending the night in a remote resort motel while searching for A and all. Spencer’s yellow dress, which is now sold out, was by Free People and cost $600. Now, I know that there are people out there who would have purchased that dress anyway, but with easy access to the origins of these pieces, American television viewers are unknowingly falling victim to the idea that we can be like these people, if only we’re rich enough to buy their clothes.
“Drama will ensue.”
If you’re not buying the idea that Americans love watching these shows because they want to be rich and have beautiful things just like the characters, maybe you’ll like this option better: Americans are obsessed with drama and violence. We’ve seen it again and again as video games and movies have become more violent and more gory over the years. We’ve seen it on television where it’s become more acceptable for characters to pummel each other instead of talking about their problems. No, we Americans cannot get enough of the drama, and often the subsequent violence, that encircles the lives of these wealthy fictional characters.
Now, it’s possible that we might just be enticed by the absurdity of men and women throwing punches while they’re dressed like they’re going to the Royal Wedding. And perhaps there’s a part of us that gets excited by the idea of getting revenge on those who’ve betrayed us. But more than likely it’s that we’re bored with our own dull lives and we live vicariously through the over-dramatic lives of television characters.
But when you step back and examine who these men and women are, most sane people would opt for the less wealthy, more socially adjusted (but no less beautiful) men and women who were staples on shows like NBC’s ‘Friday Night Lights’.
However, when you compare the ratings of that show – an average of 6.1 million in its inaugural season – to the ratings ‘The OC’ enjoyed in its first and second seasons – 9.69 million and 7.0 million respectively* – it’s pretty clear to see that while the critics were in love with the realistic portrayal of American life in Dillon, TX, more people preferred watching highly dramatized events where Ryan Atwood said things like, “You know what I like about rich kids? Nothing!” and then punched said rich kids in the face.
This has happened before and it will all happen again.
But ‘The OC’ wasn’t the first show to focus primarily on the dramatic lives of the wealthy 1 percent; the Carrington’s of the night-time soap ‘Dynasty’ ruled the airwaves from 1981-89 and are remembered as much for their lavishness as much as for the ridiculous drama that enfolded in their lives. But ‘The OC’ was a show that began its run in the summer of 2003 and was targeted to young adults aged 14-25, and thus had a more youthful cast of characters to dress up in couture clothing. Not to mention a more impressionable audience on which to market goods.
Following in the footsteps of ‘The OC’ are shows like the CW’s revamped ‘90210’ and ‘Gossip Girl’ or Fox’s freshman hit ‘Revenge’, shows in which almost every character comes from a wealthy background, wears haute couture fashions and attends a ridiculous amount of charity balls, fundraiser galas or some other form of event only rich people seem to attend, where blackmail, backstabbing and drama run rampant.
But let’s face it, America doesn’t want to watch a show where everyone is wearing a dress from Target or jeans they got from Old Navy and they sit around discussing their boring jobs. Because that’s what many Americans experience on a day to day basis, and there is absolutely no fun in watching a TV show deemed to be as mundane as your life. No, we prefer our characters dressed in the most expensive clothing and wrapped up in a spider’s web of lies and deceit because that’s how we know these people are pretty and people we should desire and strive to be, and because we’ll most likely never experience these things first hand.
Forget the fact that most of us will never be wealthy, most of us will never spend over $100 on a pair of pants, let alone a top that undoubtedly gets lost under the jewelry or the jacket the actor is wearing in the scene. Forget the fact most of us will probably never have a mother who sleeps with our ex-boyfriend, or a father who embezzles money from his clients, and we sure as hell probably won’t ever find ourselves passed out in a back alley in Tijuana after overdosing on pills and booze. No, forget all of that. Because as hard as we sane people of the world will try to fight it, we really do want to have it all. The American Dream teaches us that we can be anything we want to be if we set our minds to it. So why wouldn’t we want to watch – and be – these characters who seem to have everything we want – the lies and the drama and everything – even if it’s just for a little while?
*Nielsen ratings from here.
Note: Photo courtesy of Fox.
Click here and here for Parts II and III of this series.
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