The first time Olivia Wilde’s character Alex Kelly appears on-screen in The O.C., protagonist Seth (Adam Brody) creeps up behind her while she’s wearing headphones. Startled, she traps him in a headlock. “Touch me again, I’ll hurt you,” she promises. But actually, it’s Alex who ends up getting hurt, over and over again, by every character she gets close to. She enters the television show tough and fighting, and leaves it heartbroken and crying. She’s used, thrown aside, and objectified. I want better for Alex, because she deserves it, and I want better for every other bisexual character, too.
Alex is introduced in season two of The O.C. as a love interest for Seth Cohen, the show’s awkward, geeky, self-absorbed antihero. Seth needs tickets to a sold-out concert to impress his ex-girlfriend Summer (Rachel Bilson), so he shows up at music venue the Bait Shop to try to weasel his way into the show. There, he finds Alex, the Bait Shop’s bartender and de facto manager. To get the tickets, he applies to work at the club as a janitor, and she hires him. But as is always the way with drama-soaked soap operas like The O.C., their professional relationship quickly becomes more than that.
Alex is everything the show’s spoiled protagonists are not (with the exception of “beautiful,” because everyone on this show is beautiful). Her blue-streaked blonde hair, tough tattoos, and rock-’n’-roll fashion sense make her stick out like a cactus spike amongst all the wealthy girl-next-door types in the cast. By the age of 17, we learn, Alex has been expelled from three different high schools for misbehaving, and her parents kicked her out when they discovered she was dating a girl. But she petitioned the court for emancipation, successfully escaped her parents, got the Bait Shop job, and moved into her own apartment. She’s doing well; she’s happy. At least, until Seth and his friends enter her life.
I’m enormously sentimental about The O.C. It was formative viewing for me at the tender age of 12, when the openly bisexual Alex made me realize that I, too, might be queer. I devoured each new episode with rabid enthusiasm, and pored over Alex-related fanfiction, LiveJournal discussions, and screencaps. She was tenacious and bold, but also feminine and sweet. I couldn’t decide if I wanted to make out with her, be her best friend, or be her. I’ve had countless conversations with other queer women who had similar awakenings in 2004, when Alex Kelly burst onto our TV screens and shook up the Orange County.
But upon subsequent re-watches, I’ve been forced to notice that Alex’s storyline isn’t the empowering queer narrative I remembered.
For one thing, all of her romantic interests take advantage of her and use her for personal gain. Seth, the cute dweeb she starts dating shortly after she hires him to clean her club’s toilets, just wants her so he can make his ex-girlfriend jealous: he brags about her in front of Summer. He consistently fetishizes her rebelliousness and queerness, talking about her like her tattoos, underage alcohol consumption, and sexual encounters with other girls are the most interesting things about her. He eventually breaks up with her because he says her too-cool persona is an “act,” a “crutch,” when in fact it seems to be the only thing that drew him to her in the first place.
From the ashes of her romance with Seth, Alex falls into a fling with Marissa (Mischa Barton), the show’s beautiful, rich, vapid female lead. Marissa’s spent the entire series rebelling against her mom, whom she hates. Earlier in the season, Marissa dates her family’s hot gardener, intentionally inciting her mother’s classist rage by mingling with such an undesirable person. “I’m not saying you didn’t like me,” he says when he breaks up with her, “just not as much as you hate [your mom].” But just a few episodes later, Marissa’s pulling the exact same trick again, by dating someone who’s not only working-class but also (gasp!) a girl.
To the credit of actors Olivia Wilde and Mischa Barton, their courtship is portrayed with an authenticity and vulnerability that the writing lacks. There’s one memorable episode where Alex’s vindictive ex makes off with her favorite heart-shaped necklace and Marissa accompanies her on a road trip to recover it. “You can’t let her steal your heart,” Marissa says, and the look they share is meant to be smoldering but comes across as sweet. It’s an emotional closeness I recognize from my own exciting initial forays into queer romance.
It’s heartbreaking for both Alex and the viewer, then, when Marissa gets overwhelmed by the social stigma of dating a girl and runs back into the arms of her safe ex-boyfriend. “I didn’t ask you to give up your life,” Alex pleads during their break-up scene, “All I ever wanted was to be a part of it.” For the remainder of the show’s four-season run, there were no further indications that Marissa actually liked women or identified as anything other than straight. She tried on bisexuality, and Alex, like a Marc Jacobs trench coat, before deciding it was so last season and she didn’t want it after all. And Alex disappeared from the show, just a footnote in the lives of the characters who had walked all over her.
Because of the sweet and brave way Olivia Wilde played her, I love Alex. I want a different outcome for her every time I rewatch her plot arc, but she always gets pigeonholed and mistreated in the end. I want her to be more than a “sweeps-week lesbian”; I want the other characters to appreciate her for qualities other than her aesthetic and her sex life; I want the show’s creator to have thought of her as more than just a punchline for the male lead. Josh Schwartz has written other queer characters whose storylines were meaningful and defied stereotypes: Eric van der Woodsen and Jonathan Whitney in Gossip Girl, and even another character from earlier in The O.C.’s run: Carson Ward. Why can’t he seem to craft a female queer character who isn’t a mishmash of stereotypes, objectification, and sad endings?
Call me a sap if you will, but I want a better outcome for Marissa, too. Actual queer women know how life-changing it is to fall for another woman for the first time. You don’t just dust yourself off and go back to a fancy-free life of shopping, lounging by the pool, and dating exclusively boys after a breakthrough like that. I want a Marissa whose queer identity matters to her, informs her decisions, or at least brings up some big questions for her. I don’t want it swept under the rug as soon as the “lesbian storyline” is wrapped up.
Bisexual characters shouldn’t be props, caricatures, or Manic Pixie Dream Girls. They deserve better than that. Bisexual people deserve better than that.
Kate Sloan’s writing on sex, kink, and feminism has appeared in The Establishment, The Plaid Zebra, Maisonneuve, Herizons, and her blog. You can follow her on Twitter @Girly_Juice and Instagram, and subscribe to her podcast for sex nerds, The Dildorks, on iTunes. Kate lives in Toronto and spends her free time playing the ukulele, curating her impeccable sex toy collection, and swooning over Olivia Wilde.