To de-stress after long, arduous days, I generally like to binge-watch lowbrow television, particularly cliché teenaged melodramas. Yet despite this preference, I always avoided One Tree Hill… until I exhausted most of the teen shows available for “watch-instant” streaming on Netflix.
I finally overcame my extreme aversion to all things Chad Michael Murray and started the pilot. Within two weeks, I was six seasons in. Watching with ironic detachment, I took great pleasure in the show’s veritable cornucopia of middling dramatic performances, ridiculously far-fetched plotlines, and excessive teen angst. When Chad Michael Murray wept, I laughed uproariously. However, I noticed two dominant tropes persisting throughout the series that — despite my sardonic delight in all things camp — I could not indulge: first, a terrible understanding of race and racial politics (a topic deserving its own post), and second, an intense drive towards domesticity.
As far as the residents of Tree Hill, North Carolina are concerned, the only way to achieve true satisfaction in life is by raising a family. At different points in the series, each character speaks of a deep void that can only be filled with hetero marriage and the correlative production of children. Unsurprisingly, this domestic desire is particularly amplified in the show’s female characters.
Careers? Friends? Those things do matter, but are absolutely secondary to the establishment of a stable family — and on One Tree Hill, the sooner, the better. The show’s central couple, Nathan and Haley, marry their junior year of high school and have their first child by graduation. Peyton and Lucas, after years of intense longing, are married with their first child by the end of season six. In fact, the doctor tells Peyton to terminate the pregnancy, as Peyton’s placenta praevia could very likely kill her during childbirth, but she insists that the possibility of having Lucas’s baby outweighs any risk to her life. (Spoiler alert: mother and baby live happily ever after.)
Which leaves us with Brooke, who ditches life as a Manhattan fashion designer to move back to suburbia and contract what I’ve come to identify as the “Baby-Rabies” — within a few months, she’s adamant that the only way to feel whole is to reproduce. And though she does attempt to resist and prioritize her career, her mother ultimately urges Brooke to “follow her heart,” noting that she gave her company the wrong name: Clothes Over Bros. Brooke’s forced to “realize” that clothes (her professional livelihood) shouldn’t trump affairs of the heart. She needs to put romance first. And she does: by series end, she’s married with a brood of her own.
Alarmingly, this all happens before any character hits 25. Sometimes the show flirts with casual sex and partying, but such storylines are always followed with hangovers and deep bouts of depression, as well as presented as mere roadblocks forestalling the (straight, white, conventionally attractive) woman’s arrival at domesticated motherhood.
Of course, the push towards heteronormative coupling is not unique to One Tree Hill, nor the teen-show genre. Feminine longing for a suitable romantic pairing and all that comes with it has been a mainstay of literature, television, and film for hundreds of years. I’ve seen this narrative before countless times, so why does OTH’s iteration irk me so much?
Partly, I think, because their subliminal campaign is more heavy-handed than in most media I’ve consumed lately. But more significantly, watching at this particular stage in my life has catalyzed an especially aggressive form of resentment; I now, more than ever before, feel alienated by the domesticated lifestyle One Tree Hill romanticizes.
As a straight, career-driven woman in her early-late 20s, I’ve reached the point where I’m soon expected to settle down and adhere to the standards of heteronormative coupling. Two of my closest childhood friends have already married, bought homes in comfortable suburban neighborhoods, and been knocked up (on purpose!). Consequently, a few other friends have developed an intense case of the Baby-Rabies. They’ve also expressed some concern regarding my level of contentment, presuming much in the way of Brooke that my life must have a gaping void that can only be filled by getting myself a stable relationship and a baby, as they’ve done.
But I’m no Brooke. I value living in a big city, seeing live music, spending weekend nights out drinking with friends — even binge-watching lowbrow television. I’m focused on getting my PhD and will prioritize finding a desirable job over finding a desirable spouse. I’ve also come to the firm conclusion that I absolutely do not want children anytime in the foreseeable future — much to the chagrin of my mother, who constantly makes passive-aggressive comments about all the grandchildren I’m not giving her. I’ve yet to reach 30 and am already looked upon as an aberrant spinster. Though part of me still feels guilty that I can’t give my mother what she wants, I can rationalize that this social prescription should not be expected of me, and that women can lead happy lives without spouses and children.
I’m obviously not the first person to critique gender norms in this way, but it’s always worth reiterating that a more expansive understanding of “womanhood” is still needed — and that one way to achieve this is through expanding representations of female characters on television. While traditional family values are passed down from generation to generation via child-rearing practices, heteronormative ideology is further promulgated through popular media. The plotting of One Tree Hill may seem insignificant, but it’s just another example of how media naturalizes a set of beliefs and lifestyles; our consumption of media informs how we see the world, and teen shows constantly position their audience to both want and expect female narratives to end with domesticated romantic coupling. Gossip Girl, for instance, has us ask, “Will Blair end up with Chuck?” rather than, “Which career path will Blair choose?” (Spoiler alert: she ends up with Chuck, and they’re married before she can even legally drink). This is how young girls are taught to see the world: questioning who they’ll end up with, not the women they’ll be or the things they’ll do.
I know I’m not the only one wanting those other questions answered. I want to see young women prioritize their education, their careers, their friendships, their life experiences, not solely concentrate on finding a life partner before they’re 18. And while we do get the occasional triumphant divergence — the series finale of Gilmore Girls, for instance, when Rory picks her dream career as a journalist over a marriage proposal — they’re few and far between. Television is overpopulated with Brookes, leaving too few opportunities for Rorys.
But hope is not yet lost; luckily, my One Tree Hill binge coincided with my sudden and intense obsession with Broad City.
Though very different types of shows, Brooke, Peyton, and Haley are (in the later seasons) supposed to be in the same age group as Ilana and Abbi, the principal characters of the female-created Broad City. But unlike the residents of Tree Hill, Abbi and Ilana are unabashedly twenty-something. They have unemotional sex without shame or regret. They smoke pot and drink excessively, without any fear of seeming unladylike or ascribing to any feminine ideal. They prioritize fun and friendship over romantic entanglements. They’re constantly complimenting, supporting, and looking out for each other. Though they’ve yet to achieve successful careers, they’re cheerfully works-in-progress, enjoying life as it happens–
But I’m not here to make a comprehensive list of reasons as to why you should watch Broad City (no, but seriously, you should watch Broad City). I’m just here to express my fervent hopes: that more shows like Broad City and Gilmore Girls expand cultural understandings of what women do and want, and that more female filmmakers are given the chance to portray these varied subjects, experiences, and identities. Because no matter how cliché or lowbrow, popular media operates as a space in which the changing configurations of cultural power can be negotiated, reified, and even resisted. In other words: Baby-Rabies, we’re coming for you.
Annie is currently pursuing a PhD in media studies and (yet again) binge watching Veronica Mars; please direct your ridiculous screencaps of Chad Michael Murray to unabsolutelyfabulous.tumblr.com.