When Dawson’s Creek premiered I was in seventh grade and caught in a blissful lustcloud of my first “relationship.” Greg Mann was the self-appointed Dawson of Pine Cobble School, not because he was arty or into film but because he was blond and wore baggy khakis and unbuttoned plaid shirts. He was generally considered the hottest guy in our class, and having beat out approximately nine other 13-year-old boys for the title (it was a very, very small school), he wielded it with a calm ruthlessness that made him irresistible. I’d attracted Greg’s attention by trading in on my obvious resemblance to Jen (I was blond and had moved to our town in western Massachusetts from Manhattan) and unseating the school’s equivalent of Joey, a popular brunette and a good friend of Greg.
Our romance started, as many did back then, with a fleeting exchange during a field trip to the Norman Rockwell Museum (ah, how the clichés abound). I’d lost my coveted mocha-shimmer Revlon lipstick, and Greg had been the one to find it. We’d exchanged all of ten words, but that was all it took before we locked eyes again on the bus back to school, and, a few rows ahead of me, he mouthed, “Will you go out with me?”
Our relationship was built on a sturdy foundation of watching and talking about Dawson’s Creek, imagining that our lives were somehow the blueprint for the show, never considering that it might be the other way around or that we hardly came close. On Tuesday nights, we’d tune in simultaneously, and Greg would call me (and a few other girls, I found out later) during the commercial breaks to marvel at the episode’s uncanny resemblance to our lives.
I remember the conversations going something like this:
Me: Did you hear the part when Joey was like, “Dawson, your life is a hurricane!”
Greg: And then he said, “No metaphors, Joey!”
Me: I know! That is, like, you.
But a lot of them went like this:
Me: So…do you think Dawson and Joey will ever get back together? They really shouldn’t because that would be a really bad idea.
Greg: Yeah, Dawson really likes Jen, so I think they’re going to keep going out.
The weird thing was, while you had to respect Dawson for being the show’s main character — making him a total hottie by default — I now fail to recall anyone (myself included) pining after him the way we did for Pacey, Dawson’s male BFF. I now actually feel quite bad that I maintained the illusion with Greg that Dawson was top dog, when really, all along, the girls’ locker room conversations were squeals and sighs about how Pacey was such a dreamboat. Pacey was supposedly the town fuck-up, born into a motherless family with a dad who hated him, when in fact he was crazy-smart (even though he coasted on a C average) and he was incredibly noble and loyal. He was the type of dude who would defend a lady’s honor and give a guy a bloody nose if he had to. While we wanted Pacey as a boyfriend, we acknowledged that Dawson was perhaps the guy you come around to and marry in the end, with all his classic notions of romance.
Maybe we were all just in the right place at the right time, but Dawson’s Creek managed to tap into our hormonally charged psyches like no other television show or movie had done before. At the core of every episode was melodramatic anger and confusion, which might have been the standard for any dramatic entity but it seemed far more real to us because the world of Capeside felt tangible. You’d recognize Jen or Joey sporting cargo pants from a recent Delia’s catalog, current movies were a constant reference, and I even remember once, Joey pulling out the same Adventures in Reading textbook we were using in English class. Considering she was a sophomore in high school and we were seventh graders, this made us feel immensely smarter.
While we felt incredibly sophisticated identifying with these oddly self-aware characters who traded hyperarticulate bons mots (“All right, I’m sorry if my confidence and convictions discombobulate you” — Dawson Leery) and thought a lot about losing their virginity, in retrospect I’m struck by the innocence of Dawson’s Creek and its characters — especially in comparison to its exponentially more jaded descendant, Gossip Girl. Sex was a huge plot driver on Dawson’s, but the mere fact that it wasn’t a default circumstance seems positively quaint today. At Capeside High, students may have talked like grown-ups, but when it came to sex and relationships they were still kids wrestling with unfamiliar feelings and unmanageable hormones. (By contrast, the characters on Gossip Girl seemed like dissolute middle-aged divorcées trapped in the bodies of teenagers.)
I now realize how lucky I was to grow up in the shelter of Capeside High. While my identification with Jen Lindley, the girl who was “moving really fast in New York City,” was borderline scandalous at the time, all you have to do is imagine that same character trying to face down Little J at Constance Billard to realize just how wholesome she was.
Of course, the thing about adolescence — and the real reason we love shows about it — is that even the blandest suburb or the toniest upbringing can’t shield you from heartbreak.
Excerpted from the book X vs. Y: A Culture War, a Love Story by Eve and Leonora Epstein.