Emo and the Problem with Seth Cohen
by Holly Genovese
The new millennium brought us The O.C., and with it the idea that it was better to accept shitty treatment from a cute boy with a good comic collection than a solid relationship with a seemingly vacuous hunk.
For girls in studded belts and band T-shirts, still lining their waterline, the idealized guys of teen TV were not all that great. The leading men of Teen Dramas of the 1990s were the heartthrobs of 90210 or the insufferable Dawson from Dawson’s Creek. The O.C.’s Ryan Atwood, the bad boy with a heart of gold and a closet full of white tank tops, fit the heartthrob mold. But Ryan Atwood was joined by Seth Cohen, and Seth Cohen was different. Seth was smart and competitive, into Indie rock, comic books, and “good literature.” There was a Ryan in every show, but at the time, Seth felt new.
I’ve spent much of the pandemic revisiting old favorites―books, films, shows, and music. Culture that I felt I outgrew a decade ago, before I needed that familiarity, comfort, and warmth as I settled in for seemingly endless months on the couch. Even though it’s a teen show from the early aughts, I never really thought I outgrew The O.C., as much as I hadn’t felt compelled to haul out my DVD box set in years. But during the Texas Winter Storm, we lost both water and internet for over a week but somehow kept our electricity. This meant I was safe, but very dirty, hungry, uncomfortable and unfathomably bored. So I pulled out the DVDs.
To my surprise, I was no longer team Seth or Ryan, and I was only rarely annoyed by Summer’s antics and instead frustrated by the boys. And I still loved Marissa, the hottest of all messes. I realized the character I most disliked was Seth.
Seth wasn’t a good person, not really. And he especially wasn’t a good boyfriend, or even friend, to girls. When the series starts, Seth had an over-the-top crush on Summer, a crush that in retrospect was creepy. He had never even really talked to Summer, but he named his boat after her, memorized her grade school poem, and idealized a fantastical image of her that never really existed. Even though Summer was quite the catch, it never quite seemed like Seth actually knew, or even liked, Summer. He much preferred the idea of her that he had imagined. For Seth, Summer was an object to acquire and not a person.
And once Summer starts to reciprocate Seth’s feelings, he somehow gets worse. He seemingly cannot decide between new girl Anna and Summer, stringing them both along instead of dealing with his own feelings. In many ways, Seth feels like he “should” like Anna, the nerdy smart girl who shares his love of comics―who he contrasts sharply with Summer. Because, for Seth, girls in bikinis who love fashion cannot be smart or interesting themselves. During the whole pseudo love triangle, he even gives Anna and Summer the same gift, “The Seth Cohen Starter Pack.” which shows an impressive lack of tact and incredible narcissism. Seth is the center of the story, not Anna or Summer.
The starter pack, if you’ve forgotten, included Bright Eyes’s “Lifted or the Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground,” The Shins’ “Oh, Inverted World, and Death Cab for Cutie’s “Transatlanticism” as well the novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon and the film The Goonies. Here, Seth reinforces the problems with early 2000s emo and pop punk, genres that The O.C. helped to popularize, in the form of a “gift.” In her defining essay, “Emo: Where The Girls Aren’t,” Jessica Hopper writes “It’s evident from these band’s lyrics and shared aesthetic that their knowledge of actual living, breathing women is notional at best. Emo’s characteristic vulnerable front is limited to self-sensitivity, every song a high-stakes game of control that involves “winning” or “losing” possession of the girl (see Dashboard Confessional, Brand New, New Found Glory and Glassjaw albums for prime examples). Yet, in the vulnerability there is no empathy, no peerage or parallelism. Emo’s yearning doesn’t connect it with women-it omits them.” (16). Even as Seth attempts to win both Anna and Summer, he doesn’t see them as human, but as possessions, reinforced by the music he gives them both. When taken together, the gifts double down on Seth’s need to “educate” the women in his life, women who mostly knew more than he did. He, for example, assumes Anna, who is equally obsessed with comic books, has not yet read the Pulitzer Prize winning Kavalier and Clay. His favorite bands, which many of us grew to adore, weren’t all so great about women. In Death Cab’s “I will possess your heart” Ben Gibbard sings “How I wish you could see the potential/ The potential of you and me/ It’s like a book elegantly bound but in a language that you can’t read.” How condescending can you get?
Seth constantly underestimates women. In the very first episode he is shocked that he could like the same music as Marissa, as if liking clothes and having *issues* means you cannot have good taste. Though Anna was brilliant, interesting, and homesick for Pennsylvania, Seth is convinced she would only move home because he broke her heart. And Seth’s shock and bitterness that Summer both got a higher SAT score than he did and got into Brown University shows that he feels entitled to have better taste, better scores, and a better future than women. For Seth, the nerdy kid who liked comic books and indie music was somehow inherently more deserving of high scores, women, and elite colleges than everyone else.
To be clear. Seth wasn’t the only male lead of the early aughts to inspire awe simply because of his so-called good taste. It was an archetype that worked. Jess Mariano of Gilmore Girls, the alternative millennial girl’s dream guy, made up of clash lyrics and a painful obsession with Ernest Hemingway, treated women poorly. He didn’t talk down to them in the way that Seth Cohen did, but his casual disregard for his relationships with women-whether it be his girlfriend's Shane and Rory or his mother—was made acceptable because he liked books and punk (and let’s be honest—was played by Milo Ventimiglia). Dan Humphrey of Gossip Girl was more obviously a villain (he somehow turned out to be Gossip Girl after all), but was seen as the intelligent, observant writer from Brooklyn, endgame for Serena, even after it was revealed he was spying on her and her friends for 6 seasons. Liking books, good music, and avoiding sports was somehow seen as virtuous, a moral high ground that made sexism and cruelty acceptable.
I think a lot of us, who grew up watching The O.C, listening to Indie and Emo, and trying to be the cool nerd girl, thought that we needed to take the sexist crap from nerdy boys as if it was somehow less damaging than the stuff hyper masculine bros pulled. But in the end, it might have been worse. At least you knew Ryan Atwood was going to punch someone. The toxicity of the cute, nerdy boy with “good taste” was hidden in plain sight. The nerdy boys of Emo and The O.C. felt they deserved women, women who they saw themselves as smarter, deeper, and better than. It’s no leap to see the ways in which this behavior could turn dangerous— or the ways in which countless teen girls turned these messages inward, until we saw ourselves as the objects in those emo songs.