the most toxic part of my brain still thinks i have a real chance with jess mariano
or, the ethics of writing things meant to be consumed by teenage girls
There is a tried-and-true formula you can use to create the ideal early-2000s WB boy heartthrob for my specific set of neuroses. If you are any combination of troubled, emotionally intelligent, and tall — doll, you can make it in this town.
My gold standard is Jess Mariano from Gilmore Girls, but he is not exactly the gold standard. He is only troubled and emotionally intelligent — not insignificant! Almost perfect. But he is not tall, or at least he is not tall compared to Rory Gilmore, who is tall. Proportion matters! Also, height is a mindset, and whatever.
(Yes, I AM tall-shaming and height-blaming, which is my right as a woman under 5’0” who recently had to go through the process of learning that, to some very, very online people, I am inherently “minor coded.” Please remind me that I currently hate this when I’m 32 and having an “I’m going to be 40!” “When?” “Someday!” meltdown like she does in When Harry Met Sally).
(Also, I just recently found out from a TikTok that people of normal height experience can… See over top of the shoe aisles at Target? Instead of climbing between them like a zoo animal, chronically unsure of where anything is? Wild. The world was not built for me).
The face DOES MATTER, however, and I think Jess Mariano from Gilmore Girls has a perfect face — those eyes! That dead-nerve-ending crooked, shy smile! He exists in this tall boy pantheon on the good grace of his face, and on the knowledge that if I, Sarah Jae Leiber, were sucked into Stars Hollow in a non-sinister WandaVision-esque spectacle, he would be tall next to me.
Because that’s part of it, right? How well can you sell the fantasy of yourself to the target audience of your television show? How well can you disappear into the melodrama, and find truth in the Michelle Branch song blasting over top of your love scenes?
I’m slightly too young to have watched any of these WB shows and loved any of these boy characters contemporaneously, but I have young parents who watched a lot of TV and instilled in me the value of watching a lot of TV. I think I liked Spike from Buffy, initially, because my mom liked Spike from Buffy, and I didn’t have any context for how a dude should act at that point.
He’s sort of corollary to the point, considering James Marsters was already pretty old when he played Spike, and I’m talking about the teens played by guys in their 20s, but he is definitely a WB heartthrob from the late ’90s and early aughts. And I think Spike’s heart was in the right place — not really in terms of plot and character (I’m well aware of the ways Spike and Joss Whedon are terrible), but in terms of positioning.
Spike was troubled, and maybe not emotionally intelligent, but certainly intelligent about his own emotions. (He was also a rapist and a vampire). He was only 5’9”, but he was tall next to Sarah Michelle Gellar, my sister in Judaism and being named Sarah and using all three of your names professionally.
And I think the thing that was magnetic about Spike — other than his fake British accent and rock-star swagger — was his devotion to Buffy. He loved her completely, messily, obsessively. Unhealthily, sure. But how does that register to a young teenager watching “Once More With Feeling” for the 98th time in her living room, where Spike is framed as the big, romantic hero? How else are you supposed to internalize that big swell of music and that old Hollywood kiss? My brain for legitimate media criticism, unfortunately, arrived long after my first period. I also unironically loved Encino Man around this time.
The WB absolutely contributed to my borderline unreasonable expectations for romantic relationships, by the way — not in the twee, “Spike from Buffy ruined me for other men” way, in the “I expect to be so viscerally understood that it’s okay if my feelings get run over by a Mack truck in the process, because at least there was a process and a reasonably-paced dramatic arc” way.
When you’re eleven and discovering new feelings and you are so awkward, it’s strangely comforting to see ~love~ depicted so desperately and so reciprocally. It’s groundbreaking to witness desire packaged for your specific set of adolescent needs. Boys on The WB almost always matched young women’s big feelings (and, incidentally, your big feelings). In the heat of the moment, they were often the more emotional one of the pair. How often, in life, is that the case?
Seeing that stuff changes your life and rewires your brain. It’s fun, but it’s dangerous, right? Because teenage girls are the audience, and they’re the most important people in the world, and their thoughts and feelings drive the culture. But they’re also absent from writers rooms (not because they can’t write; because they have school in the morning). And a lot of these writers rooms are run by people who are not exactly interested in creating safe environments for girls, period.
I digress. Back to the boys. I think Pacey Witter from Dawson’s Creek is THEEEE triple threat. He is THE great TV boyfriend, and I wish I’d discovered him at a formative age instead of when I was 23 and in quarantine and desperate for a 6-season soapy hole to fall into. He is just like the rest of these boys, except non-toxic. Totally edible. A dream.
He was 6’2”, so he objectively fulfills the tall boy quotient better than anyone else here; he had a rough home life, but one that made him uncommonly kind; and he is maybe the most emotionally intelligent character that has ever existed on television. I’m going to leave much of my Pacey talk to an upcoming newsletter on Andie McPhee and Jen Lindley (the troubled blondes of Capeside and the Pacey that loves them), but I will say I think he is the ultimate version of this thing I’m circling. He is not perfect, but at least the things I want to fix about him are primarily cosmetic. Why did they let him have that goatee in the latter seasons?
You could also say Logan Echolls from Veronica Mars was a true triple threat here — troubled, emotionally intelligent, AND tall. Jason Dohring is only 5’11”, but Kristen Bell is a tiny imp lady, and 5’11” was more than enough. He looked like a giant and it absolutely ruined my whole fucking life.
He was also rich, which puts him into another category of romanceable boys on The WB — your Logan Huntzbergers, your Dawson Leerys.
Unlike Huntzberger and Dawson, though, Logan Echolls is not painfully boring and safe. You (you being me) want to fix this rich boy, because he’s rich, but he’s also deep and has feelings and baggage — Logan Huntzberger and Dawson Leery are too confident, too self-assured, too selfish. Beyond fixing. Maybe that is fun and romantic for girls with healthy attachment styles, but this essay is about me. Me, me, me.
Besides, if he’s rich and you (I) can fix him, that means that once you (I) fix him, THEN you (we) can be stable and boring. It’s a process. Why should love be immediately easy?
(I don’t really blame The WB for my anxious attachment, but I really am still growing out of thinking that passion and intensity is what matters in a relationship, disregarding communication and stability for the drama of it all).
Anyhoo, that’s probably nothing. I also remember being so charmed by the sarcastic-but-literary notes Logan Echolls would leave as his outgoing voicemail message. Part of this specific fantasy WB boy is hey, look, there’s a boy out there who’s as smart as you are. More importantly, he actually respects that you’re as smart, if not smarter, than him.
When you break it down past that fairly shallow trifecta of characteristics I’ve used to frame this piece, the thing is really “troubled-boy-loves-smart-girl,” “troubled-girl-loves-smart-boy.” Smart girl is often carrying a truckload of baggage of her own, be it mental illness, tough stuff at home, grief, vampire slaying, or what have you. The ideal early-2000s teen drama couple on The WB complements each other and sees past each other’s pains and complicated pasts. As a mentally ill woman who often feels difficult to love — I just think that’s nice.
It’s important to see couples made up of broken people successfully loving each other, even if it doesn’t work out forever. It’s even nicer when you revive a show ten years after it ended and you get to watch a couple like Logan and Veronica grow up together, and let go of some of that intensity, and live a normal, healthy adult life after the dust has settled on their complicated past. Right?
[VERONICA MARS SEASON FOUR SPOILERS AHEAD]
It SUCKS that [series creator] Rob Thomas revived Veronica Mars just to destabilize the adult Veronica and take away the love of her life.
Of all the troubled smart girls of The WB, Veronica Mars might have been the smartest and most troubled. Each of three original seasons dealt with Veronica reacting to the aftermath of some major, cataclysmic life event(s) — the death of her best friend, being raped, survivor’s guilt after a school bus crash killed dozens of her high school classmates, etc.
Veronica Mars the original series was about how a world-hardened teenage girl reacted to her life falling apart at the seams, which worked great, because she was a teenage girl. Even without pointed, specific trauma, being a teenage girl is a nightmare. You grow up, and learn to react differently to pain — but everything you incur at that age stays with you.
So, when I say “Rob Thomas doesn’t want to see Veronica Mars happy,” I mean that from the bottom of my heart, which he crushed. When we first encountered Veronica Mars, we were also teenagers, experiencing life for all the pain and intensity our developing brains could allow. The revival failed because the show disregarded the power it has over its audience.
Killing Logan pointlessly and thoughtlessly after we got to spend six episodes with the new and improved adult version of this couple is especially painful in that light. Your audience matters — your audience hangs on your every word and grows up with you. Your audience projects their thoughts and fears and hopes and dreams onto your main characters and the people they love.
Seeing Veronica happy and stable meant so much to so many of us, and it was incredibly hurtful to find out the true moral of the story is “Veronica (and you by extension) will never be happy. No matter how hard she works at it, Veronica (and you by extension) doesn’t get to feel secure in her life and relationships.”
I think it’s probably really hard to get into the mind of a teenage girl if you’ve never been one.
Amy Sherman Palladino, who was a teenage girl and subsequently created Gilmore Girls, is really great at creating vivid characters, but she’s even better at taking an archetype and giving it dimensions until it jumps off the page as a living, breathing person. Gilmore Girls is almost vaudevillian — it’s big, bold truths hidden behind over-the-top artifice. That’s not to discredit ASP, or to suggest that Gilmore Girls somehow exists on a different plane than the rest of the series I’ve talked about — it’s just why it’s less important to me to critique it as a realistic depiction of teenage life. More than any of these other shows, including the one about the vampires, it’s a fantasy.
Obviously, I love Veronica Mars, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Dawson’s Creek, even though they are shows about (and, more importantly, for) teenage girls that were created and shaped by people who never had that experience. I’m not saying that men shouldn’t or can’t write teen dramas — but I do think that teenage girls deserve to understand partnership through the media designed for them in a way that centers their health and happiness.
As we learned from that one guy whose girlfriend yelled at me on Twitter that one time because I really, really hated the movie “he wrote,” TV and film that is purportedly “made for girls” can actually really hurt the girls in question. Writing a love interest for a teenage girl without ever having been a teenage girl puts you in a really strange position where you have the power to decide what traits to put forth as desirable, for the teenage girl and her partners — you can frame classic red flags as nothing to worry about and normal human behaviors as disgusting flaws, if you want to. That’s what your audience will internalize, if the actor’s tall enough.
Teenage girls aren’t stupid. They’re the smartest people alive. But if you tell someone over and over how to expect to be treated, they eventually start to believe in whatever you say.
I feel like it’s very important for me to recommend you listen to the new Olivia Rodrigo album in conjunction with all this talk about the horrors of being or having been a teenage girl. You can Venmo me if you liked this and want more at @Sarah-Leiber, and please follow me on Twitter.