in defence of marissa cooper
She’s the almost universally reviled female lead of teen drama 'The O.C.', but it’s time to start paying Marissa Cooper the respect she deserves.
The sun is shining. It’s the middle of summer break in Orange County, California, and a teenage girl is sunbathing by a swimming pool in the garden of her giant mansion. Her tranquillity won’t last. Before long, she’ll be screaming at her mother and throwing the garden furniture in a swimming pool. This is the iconic scene in the first episode of Season 2 of The O.C. where Marissa Cooper, the show’s femme fatale, has a full-on meltdown.
It was 15 years ago when the world was introduced to the glamorous, luxurious, complicated and sordid world of The O.C. It’s a show that, like Dawson’s Creek, transcends pure nostalgia for those who followed the exploits of Ryan, Seth, Summer and Marissa as they navigated the heady world of teenage dramas; fights, angst, love triangles and overdoses in Tijuana.
The show’s premise was fairly simple. After being arrested for a carjacking, Ryan Atwood finds himself taken in by his lawyer’s family, The Cohens. With Ryan's mother unable to take care of him, it isn't long before Kirsten and Sandy legally adopt him. But the Cohens have plenty of their own dramas. Ryan quickly befriends the Cohen’s son, outcast Seth, despite their radically different backgrounds and vibes. Ryan a brooding, bad boy. Seth, an awkward indie-loving comic book fan. And, before long, the two outsiders become romantically embroiled with the two most popular girls in all of Orange County -- Marissa Cooper and Summer Roberts. Love, life and loss, naturally, ensues.
But while Ryan was our entry point into The O.C., and Seth and Summer were our lighter comic respite, it was Marissa who became the show’s soul. Whether it was her on and (mainly) off again romance with Ryan, the dastardly plots of her mother -- the almost comical baddie with a heart Julie Cooper -- or the illegal exploits of her father, Marissa’s drama was always way more interesting than anything that was going on at her neighbour’s house, The Cohens. Apart from when Kirsten had to go to rehab then got scammed by a woman she met inside pretending to be a fellow recovering alcoholic. Because that was a moment.
Unfortunately, Marissa Cooper gets a bad rep. Retrospectively, people have come to the conclusion that Coop and her antics were actually pretty annoying. In our ever-changing morality landscape, Marissa has been cancelled many times over. There are many articles decrying her as “the worst” and, last year Buzzfeed ranked her as the 14th most despised character to ever appear on television. In fact, even at the time, there was anti-Marissa Cooper sentiment. Admittedly, she wasn’t always easy to love. (Season 3 I’m looking at you).
In my mind, however, the extent of the vitriol aimed at Marissa Cooper is unwarranted. Sure, she’ll probably drink all the vodka in your house, throw your furniture in the pool, possibly steal something. But underneath the Paul Frank skirts and lil Chanel handbags, Marissa Cooper is actually extremely misunderstood. In fact, she was what made The O.C. so great.
According to an article on Bustle, Marissa Cooper is “the worst” because of her negative impact on Ryan’s life. Personally, I find Ryan’s arrival in Marissa’s life to be the problem. It’s unlikely that Marissa’s spiral would have been as extreme (and fatal) if not for Ryan. Perhaps, as her mother suggested after the incident in Tijuana, she would have gone and sought help at a treatment facility. Thus she would have never met Oliver and become mixed-up in that annoying plot line. She wouldn’t have spent a summer drinking at lifeguard huts. She would never have needed to shoot Trey because Trey would never have assaulted her. There’d be no Johnny, no Volchok and ultimately no car crash leaving her limp body resting upon the pavement side as Imogen Heap's arresting cover of Hallelujah played out. Marissa Cooper might have just been okay.
Much of the acidity towards Marissa comes from her poor decision making and her general air of melancholia. But when you consider the sort of trauma she experienced in the three seasons of The O.C. before her untimely death, her impulsivity and seemingly irrational behaviour is comprehensible. Her father was a criminal, her parents got divorced and her mother was a scheming psychopath that went as far as sleeping with one of her daughter’s ex-boyfriends. Then there’s the impact of literally shooting someone. Marissa non-fatally shot Trey to save Ryan’s life. She never truly recovered from the PTSD she experienced after the incident with Trey.
Finally, her family lost all their money, leaving her living alone in a trailer while her mother scouted Orange County for a wealthy husband. Sure, it’s not the worst thing that’s ever happened to anyone, but if you went through all of that, I’m pretty sure you’d end up being as annoying (if not more so) than Marissa. Her deadpan delivery, rolodex of issues and knack for getting mixed up with troubled teenage boys should not be used as ammunition against her.
It’s easy to moan about Marissa, but when you consider what happened after she was killed-off, it’s hard not to acknowledge just how integral she was to the show. Her death left the writers, cast and character bereft of anything to actually do. Without her tornado of drama, the show spiralled from a far-fetched teen drama into unwatchable drivel. This, coupled with an extreme dip in ratings, meant that The O.C. lasted just 16 episodes before it was brought to a close.
Perhaps now, 15 years after the show aired, it’s time to make peace with Marissa and what she represents. She is a physical manifestation of all of our teenage woes. You may not have been as extreme as her, but her rattling crisis of identity, her inability to make informed decisions and the inherent sadness that she emitted represented all of the harsh realities about our own teenage experiences. It was just hard to see that mirrored on screen. 15 years since the show ended, it’s time to make peace with Marissa Cooper.