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Marissa Cooper’s Death on ‘The O.C.’ Was Homophobic

Marissa Cooper’s Death on ‘The O.C.’ Was Homophobic

On the anniversary of the iconic TV drama's end, a writer reconciles her grief by diving deep into the controversy.

When the final episode of The O.C. aired on February 22nd, 2007, most fans were still shocked by Marissa Cooper's death at the end of season 3. My favorite element of Marissa's character was (albeit retrospectively) her queerness, but her tragic storyline and on-again, off-again relationship with Ryan eclipsed the fact that Marissa was definitively queer. Marissa's death in a fiery car crash took the world of a show meant to portray the polished struggles of life in Newport Beach, California to a darker place than most fans expected. One of the show's four core characters, Marissa was described as Newport Beach's princess, a girl "so beautiful that she was embarrassed by it," according to executive producer Stephanie Savage. Although fans said goodbye to Newport Beach twelve years ago today, I began to revisit The O.C. because I was seeing someone last summer who was watching the series for the first time. She was obsessed, and I really liked her, so I decided to start watching myself. I was surprised to see a femme couple with moxy in the glossy world of early 2000's teen programming. When this content originally aired, my understanding of queerness was limited to Hilary Duff's PSA that calling something "gay" as an insult wasn't kosher. I clearly wasn't aware I was in the closet myself, albeit one that stored some of Limited Too's finest.

It wasn't until I began rewatching the series in full that I recognized how neatly Marissa's story fit into the "bury your gays" trope -- a phenomenon in movies and TV shows where queer characters are systematically, and homophobically, killed off instead of surviving long enough to be developed with the same depth as their straight counterparts. This phenomenon has disproportionately favored queer women of late. "Broadcast television (and television as a whole) has yet to recover from the past two seasons, which included the deaths of an overwhelming number of lesbian and bisexual women characters," said GLAAD's annual report on queer representation in TV from 2017-2019. "These deaths were often in service of another straight, cisgender character's plotline, and sent a toxic message to audiences." The message being that queer characters are disposable, all too often used to deliver morals on inclusion or portrayed as stereotypes instead of characters that feel human.

Although it feels extreme to exclusively attribute Marissa's death to the service of Ryan's character -- a straight, cisgender man with a heart of gold who had a rough go of it, but a straight cisgender man nonetheless -- the only queer member of the show's four central characters was eliminated when a major plot change was needed. Show creator Josh Schwartz told Vulture in 2007 that Marissa's death was a way out: "The Ryan-Marissa drama just became a stranglehold around the show, and we couldn't figure out any other way to break out of it."

Marissa's queerness existing within the world of The O.C. beyond her relationship with Olivia Wilde's Alex could have broken that stranglehold. The O.C.'s network, Fox, was so uncomfortable with Marissa and Alex's storyline that Marissa's ultimate death was a far more likely fate for her character than a second queer relationship.

Schwartz told journalist Bill SImmons over email that "the network was very nervous... It was an extremely conservative time in our country (thank Janet Jackson for that) and everyone was freaking out. We had a whole episode where every kiss between them was cut out, just so I could get one kiss in the 'Rainy Day Women' episode. I was literally on the phone with Broadcast, Standards and Practices bartering for kisses. It was a battle, and The Powers That Be are part of a big corporation, and were going in front of Congress at the time (every network was) -- so I understand. They are all good people who were under a lot of pressure."

The fact that Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction impacted Marissa and Alex living their truth not only makes me want to roll my eyes like Summer at Seth's stupider antics, it illustrates the erasure of queer storylines to appease the often patriarchal preferences of network executives. This has changed in recent years as queer representation in media has improved, but until "bury your gays" is buried itself, being a queer woman on television is dangerous.

Schwartz also acknowledged Marissa and Alex's first kiss "was actually very romantic and surprising and kind of touching," yet, Fox "made us cut like three-quarters of it out, so what you got was like this peck, basically. And then you saw the commercials for it, like, 'Don't miss the last five seconds for the hottest kiss ever!'

"Not only did we lose all credibility with the way we were selling it, but what we were told to do was not what we were selling," said Schwartz. The simultaneous ostracization and fetishization of queer relationships between women is nothing new, but it remains a toxic paradox. Equally troubling was the reaction of other characters to Marissa and Alex's relationship. Marissa's mother, Julie, acknowledges "experimenting" in her wild days, and Kirsten Cohen reassures her that Marissa's queerness must be "a phase" for someone like her. Summer, Marissa's best friend, asks if sharing a hug as friends "turns her on." Seth sees Marissa staying over at Alex's apartment and tells them to "keep doing what they're doing."

The O.C.'s cast of 106 characters included four queer individuals over as many seasons, including Marissa. Three are not killed off, but do permanently leave Newport Beach before they became core characters. It seems there was little room for queerness in a world meant to be perfect, even one that drew the majority of its plot from highlighting the imperfections most characters tried so hard to gloss over.

Marissa's queerness wasn't explicitly tied to her death, but it is a definite element of her character not being allowed a happy ending, or happiness in general. The O.C.'s Executive producer Stephanie Savage, once said that a rule she and Schwartz followed in writing Marissa and Ryan was that "we didn't want it to be easy for them."

Although much of Marissa's experience comes across as prime time soap opera hyperbole, her character experiences a disproportionate amount of trauma than any other on the show. Marissa survives addiction, stalking, and has haphazard parental support at best. Marissa survives sexual assault. Marissa is painted as never being able to "catch a break," and her deviant sexuality is described as part of this bad luck.

Sometimes this feels like a rule for queerness or queer people in general. A world where some form of trauma isn't inherent to queerness seems idealistic even to an optimist these days, and the dark utopia of Newport Beach has held up as no exception.

Olivia Wilde recently posted an image of herself as Alex Kelly to her Instagram, acknowledging how radical her role was for its time. "I'm so happy to see how far we've come as a society when I think about how sensational it was to play a queer woman on TV back then and now it seems almost quaint and young people are rejecting labels altogether and that is why they shall rule the earth and save us all."

None of us can rewrite Marissa's fate, but I like to think that a version of her on television today might have at least had the vocabulary to educate her peers about queerness, and a few more queer friends (Imagine Marissa and Taylor Townsend dating!). The moment when Marissa firmly tells her mother that Alex is not her friend who's a girl, but her "girlfriend," was among her most assertive.

Although Marissa and Alex didn't last, (and neither did I and the girl who inspired me to revisit The O.C.), they were queer femme representation in a world still in desperate need of it. Let 2019 be the year that we write more queer characters capable of saving themselves. Maybe in some part of California with a melodramatic soundtrack and Chanel accessories, for good measure. For now, does that chopped footage of the kiss still exist? Asking for my friends, and myself.

Advocate Channel - The Pride StoreOut / Advocate Magazine - Fellow Travelers & Jamie Lee Curtis

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