“To say that a particular form of masculinity is hegemonic means that it is culturally exalted” (Connell 1990)
Ryan: You didn’t tell me there was dancing.
Seth: Well if I told you there was dancing, I’d be here by myself.
Ryan: Because I really don’t dance.
Seth: Neither do I. I just move well.
If you haven’t watched The O.C., do your inner 15-year-old a favour and get onto it. Perfectly capturing just how hard it feels to be young, The O.C. follows the story of Ryan Atwood, a “bad boy” from Chino, who ends up being taken care of by an extremely wealthy but “progressive” family living in Newport, Orange County. While The O.C. isn’t afraid to talk about teen sex, gay dads, or the inequities of wealth, it also hides a more subtle storyline about the importance of masculinity in the family, as well as maintaining a “pro-life” agenda (and that’s just season one!).
I first watched The O.C. when it was on free-to-air TV, which meant staying tuned for months on end as the stories unfolded. Now, re-watching on a streaming service means that I can skip through whole seasons in a matter of days. I realise now that the storylines which I thought passed over eons of time, are in fact being carried out over very short periods. For example, who knew that the main characters Marissa and Ryan only actually date for two weeks, even though (for teen-me watching at home) this seemed like decades. This is perfectly analogous to the experience of being a teenager: every minute stretches out and every drama means the world.
The other thing that is shockingly noticeable when re-watching The O.C. is just how terrible it is on questions of gender. Specifically, The O.C. reinforces an ideal of masculinity which it presents as central to maintaining gender order.
The central character Ryan is used throughout the show to symbolise the necessary masculinity for preserving the heterosexual family unit. Nominally from an impoverished working-class background, at the beginning of season one we see Ryan rescued from “juvie” (juvenile detention) by Sandy Cohen, a wealthy but well-intentioned lawyer. Pre-Ryan the Cohen household is in disarray. Sandy is an emasculated father figure who doesn’t earn much in his bleeding-heart public defence job. Kirsten, the mother, is a corporate woman who entirely fails at cooking: as we are too-frequently reminded throughout, her food is garbage. Seth, the son of the family, is an effeminately nerdy, scrawny, lisping boy, who can barely stay in school because of the ridicule he faces on a daily basis. Enter stage right Ryan, and you have the family eating barbeque by the end of the night (as Seth remarks, “You know, you’re a great barbecuetionist”).
What Ryan epitomises in The O.C. can best be described as “hegemonic masculinity”, a term coined by Australian sociologist Raewyn Connell. The term refers to the cultural ideal of masculinity that is held up and celebrated, which helps to maintain a gender order that includes both complicit and subordinate versions of masculinity, and that asserts itself over all forms of femininity.
Ryan’s masculinity—which includes a proclivity for punching people to resolve issues—is exalted within the show insofar as his presence is seen to resolve many of crises of gender experienced by the Cohen family prior to his arrival. Post-Ryan Sandy gets a “real” lawyer job, and steps up to a traditional breadwinner position. Kirsten still can’t cook, but she changes her workload so she can “spend more time at home”, which enables her to provide her family with regular takeout meals. But perhaps the biggest transformation happens for Seth, who stops getting bullied at school, and who begins attracting the sexual attention of multiple women, finally killing-off any implication that he might be gay.
This message is further reinforced by the fact that when Ryan leaves at the end of the school year, the Cohen family falls apart. When Ryan leaves, Seth runs away—leaving his queen bee girlfriend behind with no goodbye—to live with his friend Luke and Luke’s gay dad. The implication here is that without an appropriate model of masculinity, heterosexuality is quickly forgotten. The saga also leaves Sandy and Kirsten’s marriage on the rocks. During this time, their house is literally being knocked down, filled with shirtless labourers conducting renovations—a haunting reminder of the masculinity that isn’t there to keep their house in order.
Hand in hand with these themes of hegemonic masculinity, it is fair to say that there are a lot of “daddy issues” for women in the show. When Ryan begins dating the girl-next-door Marissa, he not only steps in as a boyfriend, but as a father figure. Ryan constantly keeps watch over Marissa, physically fighting off those who would harm (or, you know, want to talk to) her. When Marissa’s parents separate due to her father’s financial issues, Ryan steps in as the new man whom Marissa can rely on.
This is most apparent when Ryan becomes overwhelmingly controlling and paranoid as Marissa befriends another boy at school, Oliver. When Oliver eventually kidnaps Marissa, Ryan’s overly-possessive actions appear justified. Ryan rescues Marissa, a damsel in distress and in the aftermath Marissa’s parents are strangely absent—only Ryan is there to provide the protector role.
Marissa’s best friend Summer experiences daddy issues, leaving boyfriend Seth when her father disapproves of him. Kirsten also has dad dramas, with her mogul-father Caleb constantly treating Sandy as incompetent. Here we are confronted with the uncomfortable reality that women in The O.C. are merely chattel to be fought over or passed between men. Marissa is passed between Oliver and Ryan, Summer between Seth and her father, and Kirsten between Sandy and Caleb. The only female autonomy expressed in the show is when Marissa decides to get drunk and take pills in Tijuana (so, her autonomy is seen as dangerous to her health), and when Ryan’s ex-girlfriend decides not to have an abortion (so, apparently the only agency women can have is over their reproduction, as long as that means being “pro-life”).
What is perhaps most interesting about the representation of masculinity in The O.C., is that it inadvertently reveals the limits of understanding masculinity as the root of oppression. Because Ryan is one of the most under-privileged characters on the show, we see that his hegemonic masculinity is necessary for shoring up the nuclear family, but doesn’t actually get him, as an individual, very far.
In fact, Ryan’s masculinity is a constant threat to his own wellbeing: he nearly dies in a house fire because of a fight, and hanging over his head is the warning he will be kicked out of school or “taken away” if he shows physical aggression. Ryan is only able to survive because he is supported by the wealth of the Cohens—it is suggested that without them, he is destined for prison. Indeed, the far more successful male characters of the show, whose masculinity is not focused so heavily on, are the wealthy elite such as Kirsten’s dad Caleb. These men assert their power through money, not fists, and always manage to land on their feet despite exploiting all those around them.
If we look closely then, The O.C. shows us that it is not masculinity that is to blame for the woes of the world. Rather, there are larger structures of inequality that force us into the nuclear family just so we can get by.
Hannah teaches in gender studies at the Australian National University, and recipient of the inaugural ANU Gender Institute scholarship. Her work focuses on the topic of feminine gender expression as explored in feminist writing and queer femme subculture. She has published on The Conversation, in Us Folk Magazine and the Australian Humanities Review. You can visit her blog at binarythis.com or follow her on Twitter @binarythis
Great analysis. Re the last bit, do you think Ryan’s gender role and its viability reveal aspects of the relationship between the distribution of wealth and its dependency on gendered order?