In Defense of Marissa Cooper, The O.C.‘s Tragic Teen HeroinePhoto courtesy of FOX TV Features The OC
Marissa Cooper receives an unwarranted amount of hate for someone who is literally just a teenage girl. As one of the most misunderstood characters in television history, fans have spent years criticizing Mischa Barton’s role in The O.C. for her melodramatic behavior, viewing her as a vacuum of self-destructive chaos. Whether it be in the form of unhinged Reddit posts discussing how annoying her character was, or being featured on listicles ranking the worst characters on television, it’s clear that Marissa was (and still is!) a topic of controversy.
The O.C. aired on Fox between 2003-2007, and follows the brooding Ryan Atwood (Ben McKenzie) after being adopted by the Cohens, one of Newport Beach’s most prominent families. In Season 1, Marissa is introduced as Newport Beach’s resident It Girl; bright and bubbly, she’s the rich girl-next-door whose eyes twinkle with mischief and rebellion. She’s intrigued by Ryan’s air of mystery, and the two quickly form a connection that remains threaded throughout the show.
The duo serve as foils as their experiences parallel one another. Ryan’s past is one lacking in wealth and stability, leaving him isolated by his circumstances. When he’s offered a home with the Cohens, Ryan is able to thrive in an environment that provides him with unconditional support. This contrasts greatly with Marissa, who comes from a life of empty privilege yet experiences the same kind of loneliness. Unlike Ryan, she isn’t provided the same safety net that keeps her from spiraling downwards. Though she has a loving relationship with her father (Tate Donovan), it goes downhill when his shady financial decisions leave him constantly going in and out of Marissa’s life. Meanwhile her relationship with her mother, Julie (Melinda Clarke), is strained at best due to a number of reasons. This includes, but is not limited to: an affair with her daughter’s 16-year-old ex-boyfriend, an attempt at putting Marissa into a psychiatric ward following her overdose in Tijuana, trying to frame Ryan for attempted homicide, and so forth. Just listing these out makes Marissa’s unruly behavior all the more understandable. I mean, I would also throw furniture in a pool and scream in Julie Cooper’s face if she was putting me through all of this!
The O.C. desperately tried to paint Marissa as a lonely damsel in distress, when in reality she remains one of the kindest and most resilient characters on the show. Despite suffering from depression and isolation driven by her chaotic home life, Marissa continuously went out of her way for the people she cared about, even when she shouldn’t have. As much as she needed people to come in and save her, she was doing much of the saving, as well. Though some may criticize her actions as being that of naivete or even a savior complex, it was really more of an indication of her unwavering loyalty. When Ryan returns to Chino to tie up his brother’s loose ends, Marissa follows him in secret and provides him with the necessary getaway right in time. She embraces his past with open arms, wanting nothing more than to be a partner he can share his skeletons with.
Marissa’s good intentions were constantly being taken advantage of by troubled guys unable to distinguish her compassion as anything other than an advance of her romantic feelings. In Season 1, she continued to help the unstable Oliver Trask (Taylor Handley), even through his frustrating red flags, out of genuine concern for his well-being. She was manipulated into isolation as Oliver obsessively inserted himself into her life and threatened to kill himself with a gun if she tried to abandon him. In Season 2, we see Marissa accompany Ryan’s brother, Trey (Logan Marshall-Green) in finding a job, keeping him company while Ryan was out of town. Instead of being thanked for her friendliness, Trey, in a drug-induced state, misconstrues her kindness and attacks her when she rejects him. In Season 3, when her close friend Johnny (Ryan Donowho) breaks his leg, Marissa generously nurses him as she feels slightly guilty for his accident. Time after time again, she finds herself in a cycle of betrayal and blame when her kindness is misinterpreted by the people around her.
If the first two seasons were brutal towards Marissa, it’s nothing compared with the unreasonably cruel treatment by the show’s writers in Season 3. We see her spiral more hopelessly than ever as she deals with the aftermath of shooting Trey in order to protect Ryan, as well as her PTSD from Trey’s attempted sexual assault. Meanwhile, her father abandons her again after promising to reunite with the family, and the Coopers are broke and forced to live in a trailer park. If that wasn’t enough, she witnesses Johnny’s death and endures a final break-up with Ryan, driving her to the lowest of points.
Even as the writers continued to torture Marissa with never-ending tragedy, she was still able, in the midst of it all, to pick herself back up and resolve to be better. When she receives a note from Jimmy asking her to work with him for a year, she’s finally offered an out. It’s a chance at a new beginning, a break from the pain that has plagued her for the past three years. But instead of giving Marissa a chance to start over, we’re forced to watch her die a tragic heroine, as if she was doomed from the start. The fatal car accident in the Season 3 finale is devastating, to say the least, as we watch her hopelessly die in Ryan’s arms.
Killing off Marissa provided the show with an easy way out after they exhausted every possible plotline they could with her character. The O.C. creator Josh Schwartz even admitted that the decision was “born out of feeling creatively like it was the direction the show needed to head and also, quite frankly, a function of needing to do something big to shake up the show.” But it is this careless mishandling of Marissa’s arc that did such a deep disservice to her character.
Marissa Cooper’s biggest crime was being an emotional teenage girl, and she was unreasonably punished for it. She was messy, flawed, and hopelessly tortured with an unseemly amount of trauma during some of the most sensitive years of her life, and yet throughout her hardships remained compassionate and determined to see things through to the end. To reduce her entire journey into one destined for failure completely disregards her innate capacity for growth beyond Orange County, because who knows what kind of beautiful life she could have led had she been given a chance to explore it?
Dianna Shen is an entertainment writer based in New York. When she’s not crying over a rom-com, she can be found on Twitter @ddiannashen.
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