Different Worlds: Does The OC endorse the economic segregation that threatens America?

Susan McWilliams

As The OC (and recent films such as Bring It On or Save the Last Dance) reflects, Americans are increasingly likely to live class-bound lives in class-bound places.

“From Ryan's first moments in Newport Beach, he found himself in conflict with the rich elitist society.” So intones the official website for The OC, the hit Fox television show which ends its four-season run on 22 February.

In some ways, by situating teenage drama in terms of socioeconomic tensions, The OC’s creators did not do anything surprising. We children of the 1980s know this. Like most of my friends, I grew up sympathizing with Andie Walsh, Molly Ringwald's character in what was for a long time the standard-bearer of teen cinema: John Hughes's Pretty in Pink. In that movie, Andie is from the proverbial wrong side of the tracks, bent on captivating Blaine McDonnagh (played adorably by Andrew McCarthy). You remember how this goes: Blaine is rich and therefore popular, always hosting and attending keggers. Andie is not rich and therefore consigned to hanging out with other less-fortunate types. These types do not have parties, and they are never invited to partake of the lifestyles of the rich and popular. Thus, absent a cataclysmic revolution in the high-school order, Andie stands no chance with Blaine. Of course, it is just such a revolution that this film provides. The poor girl and the rich boy end up in each other’s arms at their prom, Andie proudly wearing her hand-sewn dress in a sea of designer labels.

The success of Pretty in Pink sold Hollywood on the dollar value of portraying classroom politics as class politics. The OC adopts this plot formula, but emphasizes that poor kids and rich kids do not grow up in the same place. In the world of The OC a single digit in your area code makes all the difference: A 909 area code signifies that one lives in eastern Los Angeles or southwestern San Bernardino County. The area code for Newport Beach, in affluent Orange County, is 949. On the show, the characters from Newport Beach make much of the fact that Ryan is from "the 909.” Although Ryan's hometown of Chino is only 40 miles from Newport, it’s literally long distance.

The Chino neighborhood of The OC

All the show's talk about where Ryan is “from” trades on the assumption that even a slight variation in geography –- town, region, area code –- is coeval with a great variation in socioeconomic class. Nobody in Newport is working-class, just as nobody in Chino is wealthy. In other words, Ryan is not just from a different city, but from what seems like a different planet. In just about every OC episode from seasons one and two, the breathy Newport beauty Marissa Cooper explains her angst-ridden relationship with Ryan by sighing, “We’re just from different worlds.”

They are not merely different; the show suggests they are mutually exclusive. Many of The OC's most powerful scenes involve these worlds colliding: Chino kids, slack-jawed and uncomprehending, in Newport; Newport kids, tentative and uncomprehending, in Chino. And a recurrent theme is the near-impossibility of a Chino kid “surviving” in Newport, or vice versa. Only a remarkable set of events brings Ryan to Newport (A tough-but-caring public defender sees potential in the young juvenile offender and takes him home to his mansion on the sea) and the only adult characters who weren't born into money married into it (the deceitful, gold digging Julie gets knocked up to get in, and once in she keeps marrying up). But nobody earns their way into Newport. This city, where no manual laborers need apply for residence, is a far cry from the small-town, apple-pie-bound streets of Pretty in Pink. The OC is both much leaner and much meaner.

But it’s also more like our own America, where economic segregation has skyrocketed since the days of Ringwald’s ascendance. Census data reveal that income inequality has been growing since 1968 and shows little sign of slowing; over 50 percent of American income in 2004 went to the top fifth of households, and the biggest gains went to the top of that group. The average CEO now takes home a paycheck 431 times that of their average worker. As Jonathan Chait has just reported, over the last quarter century the portion of the national income going to the top one percent has doubled; the portion going to the top one-tenth of one percent has tripled; and the portion going to the top one-hundredth percent has quadrupled. Meanwhile, the wages of college graduates as a whole have dropped. America, as Peter Dreier and his co-authors have documented in their book Place Matters: Metropolitics For The Twenty-First Century, is becoming a class-bound society.

This monetary divide entails geographical division as well. Inequality among geographical regions in the United States has risen steadily since the 1980s. It’s not only that the richest people are getting richer; it’s the richest places, too. And even within regions –- southern California, say –- rich suburbs have become wealthier and other suburbs’ fortunes have declined. “Just as the gap between rich and poor widened at the individual level,” Dreier and company note, “it widened tremendously between suburban places.” In other words, as The OC (and recent films such as Bring It On or Save the Last Dance) reflects, Americans are increasingly likely to live class-bound lives, in class-bound places.

This fact should strike fear into all of us committed to the idea of democratic government. For economic segregation strikes at the heart of the democratic project, undermining the social foundations on which a healthy citizenry depends.

Tocqueville understood this well. “All classes mingle together because they live so close together,” he observed. That intermingling, wrote Tocqueville, meant that no American considered himself a fundamental stranger to any other; poorer and richer people engaged each other every day. In communities where many classes lived and worked together, everyone could see their interdependence, the ways –- immediate and long-term -– in which their lives were linked. Thus, Tocqueville argued, Americans developed the sympathetic and interactive habits of mind necessary to sustain democratic rule.

Given that a certain amount of economic stratification is inevitable in a democracy, Tocqueville saw how the daily interaction among different classes does more than just mute class resentment. It points everyone, wealthy and not-so-wealthy, toward the idea that our different material standings are less important than our shared citizenship. Rich or poor, we all vote at the same polling stations -- and we all end up at the same prom.

When that interaction wanes -- when the rich and poor do not intermingle within the same community -- the overriding relevance of citizenship as a category that defines who we are begins to crumble, and people in different classes stop seeing themselves as sharing things in common or having a common destiny. The overtones of this phenomenon in American political life are already evident. The oft-discussed red-blue divide may best be understood as a divide between those Americans who live in places closest to the centers of power and wealth (which stand to get only more powerful and wealthy) and those Americans who live in places far from centers of power and wealth (where weakness and insecurity are felt more intensely).

At some points, the writers of The OC almost seemed to lament this problem -- and their characters’ economic parochialism. During the show’s third season, for instance, they inserted some middle-class people into the Newport Scene by sending Marissa to public school. (This happened, for those of you keeping track, because Marissa had been expelled from Harbor for shooting Ryan’s brother, Trey. Trey deserved shooting because had attempted to rape Marissa and was threatening to kill Ryan. Need I mention that Trey was from Chino, and didn’t make it in Newport?)

Marissa settles into public-school life, even getting flirty with a surfer named Johnny Harper. But just when you think that Marissa is about to embrace middle-class existence, the Harbor kids come together and convince the board to reinstate their prodigal daughter. Then, as the FOX website tells it, “a very happy Marissa joins the gang” for the Harbor class picture, and we know she is where she truly belongs. Shortly thereafter, Johnny Harper dies, falling off a cliff after drinking too much tequila. Exeunt middle class. The show’s not-so-implicit support for class segregation culminates at the end of Season Three, when Marissa is killed in a car accident caused by the drunk-driving of one Kevin Volchok.

Now, in the episodes prior to the fatal car accident, Volchok’s favorite pastime, besides drinking, is extorting and stealing money from the Newpsies. Needless to say, he is not a native. Marissa had been briefly involved with Volchok -- “going slumming,” as a number of The OC fan sites put it. And Volchok had in fact been Marissa’s date to the Harbor prom. But rather than melting in her arms there a la a Hughes movie, Volchok steals all the post-prom party money, drinks a flask’s worth of booze, and makes out with another girl.

With that storyline in the background, it’s hard not to watch Marissa’s death throes without thinking: Marissa never should have gotten involved with that Volchok. You knew he didn’t belong. Maybe this is all you need to know: Throughout the run of The OC, no cross-class teenage romance survived.

W.E.B. Du Bois got it right when he predicted that the central problem for America, and American democracy, in the 20th century would be the problem of the color line. What The OC indicates to us is that the central problem for 21st century American democracy is going to be the problem of the class line. Still, as Walter Benn Michaels has recently and convincingly argued in The Trouble With Diversity, we have yet to recognize that fact. Americans are still self-congratulating about the battles of the last 100 years, he argues, celebrating our “diversity” while ignoring our inequality. We’re invested in the appearance of justice, rather than in the fact of injustice.

Twenty years ago, when Molly Ringwald donned her homemade dress, Newport Beach and Chino shared at least one thing that they no longer have in common: the area code 714. But now, as then, democratic citizenship depends on the notion of a common life, and on the kinds of connections that you cannot make long-distance.

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