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Dawson’s Creek: Nostalgia versus Messaging

One of the frequent discussions about sexual violence is one that revolves around the messages we receive about sexual violence and where those messages come from.  As a participant in trainings, I really disliked that question and discussion for several reasons.  I could never quite move beyond the generic answer of in the media, from our peers, etc.  While these answers are certainly true, they are not very specific.  But to be quite honest, I couldn’t remember specific scenes, characters, songs, media messages or friends that influenced my views or beliefs about sexual violence from when I was a child or adolescent. 

At first I thought perhaps this was because I had been shielded from these shows, movies, music, etc.  However the more I became ingrained in both feminist theory and knowledge about rape culture I began to realize that my initial beliefs were incorrect.  Today, I can look at the news, music, shows, comedy, and a variety of other forms of media and see how pervasive rape culture is and the negative messages that both youth and adults are receiving.  This isn’t because the content and messages has drastically changed over the past decade.  Instead, what has changed is my ability to perceive, recognize, and realize that these messages are wrong and a misrepresentation of sexual violence, perpetrators, and survivors.  As an adolescent, I didn’t have the language or skills to realize when messages about sexual violence were popping up.  Nor did I realize the true effect it was having on my perceptions about how sexual violence happened and who it affected.

For the past 5 days, I have been on a glorious and much-needed vacation visiting friends in Washington, DC – where I lived for 4 years before moving back to Boston.  It was my goal to avoid conversations about sexual violence as much as possible.  While some believe that should be an easy feat, let me assure you it is incredibly difficult!  I had to ban myself from Facebook and NPR because it was an explosion of articles and op-eds about Tosh.O, Lackland AFB, and the newly released report on Penn State leaders.  Even still,  I saw examples of street harassment every where and the topic of sexual violence came up at least once a day in conversation with my friends or strangers.  But all in all, I was able to substantially reduce its prevalence for my vacation. 

I stayed with some of my college friends while in DC.  One night, I was browsing their Netflix instant account and came across the entire series of Dawson’s Creek.  I thought to myself, now this is great!  The ability to reminisce about adolescence, watch a show I used to love, and potentially have the opportunity to make fun of it (and myself) for it’s cliché scripts and teenage angst  was just too tempting.  Plus, being on vacation, it was required that I watch trashy television.  I also thought that this would be perfect to continue avoiding sexual violent topics.  I had already seen almost every episode and couldn’t remember any themes or incidents pertaining to sexual violence.  Perfect!

Oh how wrong I was! This show is actually steeped in both direct and indirect references and examples of rape and sexual assault, starting in the very first episode.  Pacey, a male character, enters what is portrayed as an ‘illicit affair’ with a female teacher.  Both are portrayed as being unable to stay away from each other, physically and emotionally attracted to each other and legitimately enjoying all aspects of the relationship. However, this is not a relationship but rather sexual abuse and rape by the female teacher.  There is a clear power dynamic in addition to the fact that in many states, Pacey is not even of legal age to consent to sex.  However, since it is a male student with a female teacher it is termed as a ‘dream come true’ rather than sexual assault and rape.  The popularity of this show has certainly influenced countless people’s opinions of male survivors and whether their abuse is categorized as serious or as a ‘score’. 

From what I could remember about watching Dawson’s Creek almost a decade ago, the character Jen moved to Capeside from NYC because of the ‘bad choices’ she was making.  What these choices were had long escaped my memory; I simply remembered her as the ‘bad girl from NYC’ there to spice up life in dull, picturesque Capeside.  Upon re-watching, I realized that assigning her that title was the direct result of media messaging about sexual violence.  When Jen accounts of her history in NYC and the fact that she isn’t a virgin anymore, she starts by saying that she lost her virginity at the age of 12 with an older man and that she has had numerous partners since then in addition to abusing substances.  She describes her life as a continuous downward spiral.  First off, this is a clear-cut rape of a child looking at Jen’s age and description of the man who assaulted her.  Secondly, her behaviors after that experience are normal reactions and behaviors that many survivors use as a way to cope.  However, no one acknowledges that Jen was raped and that many of her attempts to lash out afterwards were because of the rape. Instead, what we see (and remember) is that Jen was the bad girl from NYC. 

And finally then there is the scene with Joey that plays out like the classic party scene.  Cool guy gets her drinks and then pulls her away from her friends for some quiet time on the beach.  This is the only incident that is actually recognized as sexual violence as Pacey comes to her rescue from the “serial rapist”.  While this is accurate of how a lot of rape happens and the fact that most perpetrators are repeat offenders, there are messages embedded with this scene.  First off, this is the only scene that is recognized as potential rape which places Joey’s character on a different plane than Pacey and Jen.  The writers are able to recognize Joey’s vulnerability to be raped because of her quiet and innocent characteristics.  She is not the party type and has never been in a relationship let alone had sex.  These are stark differences from the previous life that Jen led in NYC; from which adolescents learn that certain behaviors lead to certain outcomes and therefore Jen’s experiences cannot be categorized as rape.  Pacey is not seen as a rape survivor because he is a male and therefore is living the ultimate male fantasy of sleeping with a female teacher rather than a vulnerable teen.  

As it turns out, I received a lot of messages about sexual violence growing up.  Now that I have the language and knowledge I am able to recognize them.  I will continue to watch Dawson’s Creek on Netflix but will now be more conscious of the messages it gave to me and my peers rather than adolescence nostalgia it started out as.


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Posted by stacey

Stacey formerly served BARCC as the coordinator for Community Awareness and Outreach. Prior to BARCC, she worked for the Navy as a sexual assault response coordinator and volunteered for the DC Rape Crisis Center. She got involved with anti-rape work during college and has enjoyed doing both direct services and educational work.

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