Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Orange County: Affluent Paradise or Suburban Wasteland?

            For my blog post this week, I wanted to use this opportunity to continue with a project I began last semester in my Los Angeles cinema class and that I will be presenting at PCA this coming April as many of the topics from this week’s reading relate to my research. In particular I would like to focus on the practice of consumerism in suburban families and the ways in which television functions in establishing the “other” in relation to mainstream society. I will be focusing on George Lipsitz’s article, “The Meaning of Memory: Family, Class, and Ethnicity in Early Network Television Programs” in order to examine the social construction of suburbia through the coming-of age narrative in the Fox television series The O.C.. I know my ideas are not fully flushed out just yet, but I thought this would be a good excuse to rethink some of my earlier thoughts from a TV Theory perspective.     


            As Lipsitz says in his article, the popularity of the ethnic, working class sit-coms of the late 1940s and 1950s was quite unusual based on the commercial funded network programming in place (71). Because a mass audience was required in order for networks to attract the necessary advertisers to pay for the programming and make a profit themselves, the programs produced at this time worked to encourage a “depiction of homogenized mass society, not the particularities and peculiarities of working-class communities” (Lipsitz 71-72). This tradition carries on through to today, in which the majority of television features middle- or upper middle-class individuals and families, because these are the types of families to which the television producers believe the largest number of viewers will relate. Because the TV family is in many ways similar to the real-life American family, this resemblance between television family life and family relations resemble life and relations in real families allows for “television families often comprise the lexicon used to discuss real families” as well as being  “frequently seen to narrate, or even cause, changes in real family life”  (Douglas, 164). While it is recognized that Cohens and Coopers of The O.C. are not factual representations of family life, these characters can be used as a method of examining the ways in which television families are now portrayed as well as granting us new insights into our understanding of what growing-up and living in suburbia holds. As Lipsitz claims, it was this connection to the television characters through real life, identifiable issues- albeit in “truncated and idealize” forms- that allowed the audience to sympathize with these characters and the networks to maintain their large viewing numbers (86-87). I would argue that in the same ways the working-class, ethnic sit-coms of the 50s were able to negotiate the unattractive aspects of the working class characters, the upper-class character in The O.C. were handled in a similar way. In fact, more than anything these characters presented the ultimate aspirational lifestyle for viewers.    
            While many associate the rise of consumerism with mass production during the industrial revolution, this trend can be traced back to more recent developments following the years of sacrifice following the Great Depression and the two World Wars. One major source of this new consumer attitude arose based on the increasingly widespread acceptance of television with it’s heavily pro-consumption content. For the first time in American history, instead of comparing “one’s life to neighbors, coworkers and friends, television characters and lifestyles became the new benchmark for consumerist goals” (Bindig and Bergstrom, 87). As Lipsitz explains in his article, television of the 50s functioned as a tool used for the legitimation of emerging consumer lifestyles (75). By seeing relatable characters on television acquire and benefit from a vast number of consumer products, viewers in turn would come to accept the new consumerist lifestyle of the post-war era and turn away from the frugal traditions of the past (75). In the upper class Newport Beach of The O.C., consumerism is ever present and completely engrained within the lives of all the characters. This trait is brought to light when Seth comments in the pilot, “Why do they even need a fashion show? Everyday is a fashion show for these people.” And keeping up with the latest trends and designers can be a lot of pressure for these young characters. According to a 2007 study by Molnar and Boninger, teens represent one of the largest consumer demographics, making up approximately $200 billion in spending power, which also means these young adults feel the effects of consumerism more directly (Bindig and Bergstrom, 87). In addition to the financial burden of consumer culture, it has been shown that these kinds of consumerist mentalities can often negatively impact the “physical, mental, social, and emotional health of youth” (Bindig and Bergstrom, 88).  
            During the Christmukkah episode (S1, E13) Marissa tells Ryan how the mall makes her feel like everything is going to be all right. She calls it perfect and says, “You walk out feeling like all your troubles can be solved by the right nail polish or a new pair of shoes.” However, her troubles are just beginning because after the fallout of her father’s embezzling scandal, Marissa can no longer afford the trappings of her former life. This since of loss pushes Marissa to shoplift several items from the mall. The effect of all this consumerism on the characters is especially apparent among the female characters of the show. For Julie Cooper life has always been about keeping up appearances. In her Juicy Couture track-suits and manicured nails, Julie is the self-proclaimed “Queen of the Nupesies.” Julie’s and her family’s consumerism and constant spending are the primary reasons that pushed Jimmy to embezzle money from his clients’ hedge funds. It was important to the Cooper family to keep up the appearance of wealth, even when they were left with almost nothing. Julie would often name drop designers and tell Marissa what to wear or how to do her hair, thus pushing her own consumerist ideas onto her daughter. Julie’s behaviors are very similar to many of the original critiques of suburban living. It was perceived that “suburbanites drank too much and were too hungry for status. They ruined their own lives, then forced their children into the same competitive mold” (Marsh and Kaplan, 43). Keeping up appearances is important in this environment. As long as the teens were able to maintain the façade of togetherness, then the parents leave them for the most part to do as they please.

            Throughout the series, The O.C. continually perpetuates the idea that working class individuals are in some way more likely to fall into criminal patterns of behaviour. By continually reinforcing this connection, the show is in many ways suggesting that crime is inescapable for children growing up in this environment (Binding and Bergstrom, 50). For the character of Ryan Attwood, his broken home life is often taken as one of the reasons surrounding his sometimes-violent outbursts. In addition to having an absent and incarcerated father, Ryan’s older brother, Trey, also serves as a bad influence on his younger brother. Surrounded as Ryan is by these criminal male role models and with an “addiction-addled mother who fails to intervene in any substantive way, the criminality of Ryan’s working-class family appears to be pathological and dysfunctional” and the characters in the series see these as valid reasons for Ryan’s anger and violent reactions  (Binding and Bergstrom, 50). However, in The O.C. crime does not disappear once you enter the affluent, suburban safe-haven of Newport Beach, the crime just changes. Where Ryan and his biological brother, Trey, were arrested for sealing a car, Jimmy Cooper was caught embezzling money from his client’s hedge funds. Newport Beach is therefore not devoid of crime, it’s criminals are just more “white-collar” criminals like Jimmy Cooper or the crime is masked, like in the case of real estate mogul and Kirsten Cohen’s father, Caleb Nichol, who uses backroom deals and extortion to build his real estate empire. Therefore, it is no surprise that both of these characters are wealthy and white because according to bell hooks, “class and race are intertwined, and analyzing how the institutional structures benefit the white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy” leads us to an understanding of how crime is perceived and represented among these differing communities and perpetrators (Binding and Bergstrom, 47). In the case of Ryan and Trey, the series portrays crime as being all around them and therefore their involvement is not unusual. In the cases of Jimmy and Caleb, their criminal acts are often interpreted as singularities within the community and are always justified by each man repeatedly saying they committed their various crimes in order to better provide for their families. 
            It should also be noted that ethnic minorities are for the most part not shown in The O.C., which is more than can be said regarding working class individuals who are largely portrayed in a negative light. Where you do see more diversity is only when you venture inland from the coast from Newport Beach. According to urban studies scholars, Mary Brooks and Paul Davidoff, from the earliest development of suburbs this separation along racial and economic lines has always existed within suburban environments. For Brooks and Davidoff, the creation of protected or defended suburbs has been one of the methods employed to separate rich communities from poor, “to protect rich Americans and their children from contact with poor and even middle-class Americans and their children, and to separate black Americans from white Americans. From an urban nation we have become predominantly a suburban one, and this shift of population and of lifestyle has helped to sharpen the race and class cleavages among us” (Davidoff and Brooks, 137). This separation applies to the teenage characters represented on The O.C. as well. 

            In general, lower class teens are not portrayed as multi-dimensional characters and are instead confined to the neoliberal representations of race, crime, and poverty demonstrated on the show. For example, the Hispanic character of Eddie who appears in the first season was originally depicted as someone who was “making it” in Chino. He had a steady job, an apartment, and was not caught up in criminal activity unlike many of his peers. However, it was later reveled that Eddie was abusive to his girlfriend, Theresa. While Eddie initially seems to subvert the cultural norms placed on him based on his race and social standing, eventually he conformed. “By depicting the working class [and ethnic minorities] as more dysfunctional than the upper class, the media are subtly suggesting that there are individual reasons for their economic situation rather than structural ones” which further sets the white, wealthy, characters apart from the rest of society-sequestered away from the riff-raff in their gated communities (Bindig and Bergstrom, 51). All of these things continually reinforce the neoliberal slant of the show meaning that by repeatedly representing crime to be linked to the working class, The O.C. consistently reinforces the notion that the inherent dysfunction of the working class is in some way a cause of their own unhappiness (Binding and Bergstrom, 51). Upon reading Lipsitz’s account of working-class, ethnic minorities in shows such as Amos ‘n’ Andy, it appears as if The O.C. does not fall in the same category. According to Lipsitz, “the working class depicted in urban, ethnic working class situation comedies of the 1950s bore only a superficial resemblance to the historical American working class” (92). In this way, ethnic minorities and the working class were presented as a ‘made for TV” version of their true representations. This makes me wonder what exactly caused this shift in television’s representation of these groups and what we can learn from this ever-changing perception?

Well, that’s all I have for now. Thanks for reading all my ramblings and if you have any thoughts or suggestions I would love to hear them because as I mentioned this is a work in progress for PCA coming up in a few months.   

No comments:

Post a Comment