(Disclaimer – I have only gotten to Season 4 as of writing this article.)
SPOILERS FOR Dawson’s Creek SEASONS 1-4
Dawson’s Creek is a teen drama that began in 1999 and ran for six seasons. The show follows Dawson Leery, Joey Potter, Pacey Witter, and their ragtag gang of friends as they try to navigate relationships, hormones, parents, and growing up in a small town. Since quarantine, many people have begun watching the show in its entirety for the first time – including myself. But the one thing that is so shocking is how blatantly offensive the material would be if the show had come out today.
The show tries its best to be progressive, but in only two areas, which happen to be a feeble attempt at feminism and an even less impressive gay/straight alliance. While the show tackles some modern themes, the way those storylines are handled show just how dated the show is. Being 21 years old, there are bound to be differences, but I was not expecting them to be so stark right off the bat.
First, the slut-shaming. Jen Linley is played by Michelle Williams, and is the cliche “new girl in a small town that came from a big city” character. Right off the bat, her ‘promiscuous’ past puts a target on her back that many characters poke fun at. Over and over Jen is shamed for embracing her sexuality, and while her character arc is beautifully complex and brutal at times, the story is always tied to her mysterious life in New York that she cannot seem to run away from. While Jen is an incredible character with more depth than most on the show, her enjoyment of sex is always the running joke in the background. Dawson’s Creek preaches feminism and girl power, but does little to actually put that message into action, leaving its most complex character to suffer from a vicious cycle of slut-shaming.
Next, the characters of Jack McPhee and his sister, Andie McPhee. These two are the best written characters besides Jen because they all have an agenda behind them – awareness. Jack realizes he is gay, and this is a major plot point for his character. He struggles with admitting it, and even struggles to truly embrace it once he has come out to his friends and family for fear of the backlash. Perhaps the backlash is due to a small-town setting, or because the show is over 20 years old, but the way his loved ones react in the beginning is shocking – especially by today’s standards. Andie refuses to consider the thought, saying that their family has enough issues to deal with, Dawson is in his glee because that means Joey will come crawling back to him, and Joey is so terrified of the truth that she ignores her boyfriend’s struggle in an attempt at normalcy. The only appropriate response is from Pacey, who supports Jack and fights on his behalf. The initial response to Jack coming out genuinely surprised me, since they seemed so out-of-character. Of course, everyone comes to accept and support Jack in his struggle with his sexuality, but not before expressing some sense of victimization on its account.
Andie McPhee goes through one of the most amazing and realistic character arcs in season two. Not only are we introduced to her character, we are also introduced to her struggle with her mental health. Her manic obsession with school is portrayed as a quirk in her personality, but it gradually reveals a larger problem that she is terrified to admit she needs help with. Instead of being ostracized because of her mental break, her brother Jack, and boyfriend Pacey, talk her through an episode and encourage her to get the help she so desperately needs. If anything, this is one of the better so-called ‘progressive’ storylines in the show, as it is dealt with in the most understanding and sympathetic of ways. Season 2 of Dawson’s Creek delves into Andie’s character and her mental struggles
Finally, (as of season 4, at least) the show deals with the pro-life argument. While Dawson is the titular character of the show, he is by no means the best one. He is very narcissistic and sees himself as superior to his friends on account of his taste in movies. He is the largest participant in the slut-shaming of his ex-girlfriend, Jen, and takes pride in Jack’s internal struggle with being gay because it results in Joey coming to him for advice. While all of this is definitely questionable, what is even more questionable is his obsessive views on his parents’ marriage. He uses every opportunity to remind his parents how they have failed in their marriage, and bullies them into getting a divorce, then bullies them into getting back together. As of season 4, he also makes his feelings on his mother’s surprise pregnancy very clear after realizing that his mother does not want to keep the child. Without a second thought, he asks his father what he wants, ignoring his mother’s final decision, which his father supports. Instead of using this moment to explain to Dawson the intricacies of a decision to give up a child, and how devastating it can be, the writers allow Dawson to be talked into accepting the decision by a friend, only for his parents to decide to keep the baby after all. The storyline had so much potential to teach both the naïve character of Dawson and the show’s audience about an incredibly important issue, but chickened out of the commitment at the last minute.