How Seth Cohen Ruined a Generation of Women

Twenty years ago, I was 18, freshly graduated from high school, and had long forced my friends into watching movies and TV shows together, whether it was Y Tu Mama Tambien or Degrassi: The Next Generation.

On one fateful night, crammed in my friend Caitlin’s parents’ basement, I made everyone watch the premiere episode of The O.C., Fox’s new teen drama about a teen boy (Benjamin McKenzie’s Ryan Atwood) who ends up under the wing of the wealthy Cohen family in Orange County, Calif., after his family abandons him.

Yes, The O.C. just turned 20.

In that sweltering August, watching that premiere episode, I was immediately obsessed. Looking back, some of that fascination may have been because I also went to a suburban wealthy school, where my single-parent household with limited resources didn’t quite fit in. I wanted to be a cool party girl (now, dark to look back on) like Marissa Cooper (Mischa Barton) in her hip-baring Marc Jacobs skirts. But above all else, I needed a Seth Cohen of my very own.

Aside from the incredible good looks of Adam Brody, who played the character, I loved that Seth was funny and always kinda rumpled. He had a zinger for all comebacks, great taste in music, loved comics, and read books. As an aspiring hipster at the time, Seth had all the “qualities” I wanted in a potential boyfriend.

A picture of Benjamin McKenzie, Peter Gallagher, and Adam Brody in ‘The O.C.’ on the beach.

Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection

In that moment, The O.C. became a formative text for me—a show I’ve revisited many times. Seeing it as an adult, I now know I’m not a Marissa, I’m a Taylor Townsend (Autumn Reeser). And in hindsight, my attraction to Marissa wasn’t so much that I wanted to be her but more about my latent queerness. The most tragic part of these later-year rewatches, though, is realizing that Seth Cohen kinda sucks.

Despite his good qualities, he’s selfish and mean to Summer (Rachel Bilson). He’s self-righteous and uses his good taste to temper many of his bad qualities. And unfortunately, I can now see a direct pipeline from Seth Cohen to some of my worst exes.

I’ve long joked with friends that Seth Cohen is now a giant red flag, a character who ruined a generation of people. But of course it’s more complicated than that.

(Throughout this piece, I will be referring to Seth Cohen by his full name. Obviously. He is never just Seth. He is Seth Cohen.)

For many of us, watching The O.C. and feeling any sort of connection to Seth Cohen as a teenager was a lot about identification as we were figuring ourselves out.

For Elizabeth, 42, Seth Cohen was a character she could relate to because most Y2K teen shows never gave her female characters that she felt could connect with. “I’m certainly more Seth than Summer. It kind of annoyed me that all these things I saw in myself—outsider status, being a little bit of a culture snob, being wildly self-conscious—were male-coded, but I was pretty used to it by then,” she said.

Many people I spoke with said they related to Seth because he was Jewish in a majority non-Jewish area, which made them feel seen, because of their similar backgrounds and upbringings. Emily, 33, made yamaclause’s from The O.C.’s infamous Chrismukkah episode with friends to raise money for a school club.

Aside from Seth Cohen’s faith, a majority of people related to him because their interests and tastes didn’t align with what was considered cool when they were growing up. Seeing a character on television who was adamant about what he liked (and didn’t) and stood firm in those convictions was inspiring.

For Caroline, 37, seeing Seth Cohen on her television screen felt like a breath of fresh air. “I went to high school in a very small town, where everyone was either a beauty queen or a cowboy. There was no ‘indie’ scene, and everyone seemed to be into the same type of culture. I always felt like I was different, like there was something for me ‘under the radar,’ and Seth Cohen was the first alt kid I saw portrayed in mainstream media. I understood his tastes!”

A picture of Adam Brody and Rachel Bilson in ‘The O.C.' doing the upside down Spider-Man kiss in the rain

Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection

The character opened a door for many teens at the time to be able to feel like they could be an authentic version of themselves. But many fans also were able to expand their own sensibilities through his tastes on the show, like listening to Death Cab for Cutie and Bright Eyes, or reading comic books and Michael Chabon’s The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Emily and her husband will be spending their fifth wedding anniversary at the upcoming Death Cab for Cutie & The Postal Service 20th anniversary tour. And Seth Cohen got Tiffany, 27, into sailing—a pastime she still enjoys.

Even Seth Cohen’s style lives on, as Chris, 37, says. “The T-shirt with an open button-down over it. I’ve been stealing that from Seth for 20 years.” Seth Cohen’s fashion even made its way into romantic gestures, when Amelia, 36, bought a boyfriend Seth Cohen’s argyle Banana Republic sweater, which he wore on the show, as a gift.

As teenagers especially, it’s easy to have parasocial relationships with the celebrity crush of the moment, but The O.C. ended up becoming such a behemoth that it changed how we consume and process pop culture even today. Kaitlin, 30, smartly notes that Seth Cohen as a character really kickstarted the fan practice of shipping character relationships and the idea of having “fictional boyfriends” today. “I think he impacted the world of stereotypes and magazine boyfriends. I think his name and Adam Brody became synonymous with this idea of an emo, nerdy boyfriend and how sweet they can be, though I can’t even say that was 100 percent true to his character on The O.C.

Adam Brody, by way of playing Dave Rygalski on Gilmore Girls, already had somewhat of a fanbase of women who were already into him before The O.C. aired. And while the two characters shared similarities, Seth Cohen was his own animal, one that wooed so many of us.

On the surface, many of the things that initially attracted people to Seth Cohen (aside from Brody’s gorgeous curls) was his sense of humor and his taste. But other aspects of his personality made people realize that they wanted intelligence in a partner, and to have a good relationship with their family.

Caroline says that seeing Seth Cohen made her realize that “men can yearn” too. Jeff, 35, was able to identify with Seth because they were both Jewish and hopeless romantics. Seth Cohen was a character who always wore his heart on his sleeve, for better and worse. Chris, the sole guy at his college The O.C. viewing parties, felt connected to Seth Cohen because he also “could not talk to a girl to save his life.”

But for Peter, 39, relating to Seth turned into something else, as he started to discover his sexuality. “At first Seth was a little too close to me, and so I was more interested in Ryan. But as I continued watching the show, Seth very much became my interest.” Today he’s still looking for a Seth Cohen lanky nerd type, but as an adult thinks that Seth “should definitely have dated Ryan over Summer.” Jessica, 33, remembers going grocery shopping with her mom to see the Seth Cohen look-a-like working or Tiffany who saved a “fake Seth Cohen” into her phone.

As adults, some O.C. fans even married Seth Cohen types. But watching the show with the perspective of age complicates the undying love for the character a bit.

Things like his sense of humor, intelligence, and good taste may never waver, but his behavior as a boyfriend certainly does. While at the time we didn’t have the language or “therapy speak” to talk about many of the ways Seth treated Summer. Words and phrases like “love bombing,” “negging,” “toxic,” “red flags” would all be used today to describe his behavior, whereas then, we all kind of swooned over it.

As a teen, I loved his grand romantic gestures—from Seth naming his boat after Summer when she didn’t even know he existed, or, once they’d already secretly begun dating, asking her to kiss him in public or “lose me forever.” But then, as an adult, when a guy called me 32 times in a row while I was napping, I realized that such dramatic shows of affection actually tend to be smothering and scary in reality.

A picture of Adam Brody as Seth Cohen in ‘The O.C.' laying on a bed

Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection

Chelsea, 31, now describes Seth Cohen as a “selfish dork.” He can be incredibly self-centered, mean to Summer, and he takes a lot of his life for granted, as Kitty, 27, mentions: “Seth is definitely a bit of a spoiled brat sometimes.” And, if we’re being honest, Seth Cohen never treated Summer well enough. At times, he was downright cruel, like when he lied to her about getting into Brown in Season 4.

Today, Kaitlin sees both sides of what complicates feelings about Seth Cohen: “I think he had a limited worldview, as most teens do, and I think he was kind of misogynistic and thought pretty lowly of Summer, the girl he was supposed to be obsessed with.” But as Jessica, 31, thinks many of the ways that Seth handled his love life, wasn’t actually out of cruelty, but more of teen indecision. And maybe that’s why Seth Cohen has had such a hold on me—on us—for two whole decades: Wanting the idea of something but not the reality of it is incredibly relatable.

At least, that’s been my experience with the pseudo Seth Cohens I dated over the years: The idea of them never quite lined up with what I actually wanted. As I began to navigate dating while The O.C. was still on the air and even later than that, I prioritized taste and ignored bigger issues—like the poet who only listened to classic rock but made fun of me for listening to Britney Spears or the comedian who listened to Earl Sweatshirt and had good politics (or at least talked about them) but didn’t have a bed.

But as Kelisha, 33, says, Seth Cohen was just a guy: “That’s a perfect reflection of who we are as a young adult—I’m sure I was insufferable and I know for a fact all the boys I had crushes on were also insufferable. It’s the beauty of that age! You’re a little crazy and feel things intensely and you make mistakes.” Even though he had a chokehold on my generation, he was also, importantly, a teenage boy, who is going to suck at times. If Seth Cohen were real and now in his late thirties, I’m very confident he’d deeply regret some of the choices he made in high school—who among us doesn’t?

As adults, we now see that Seth Cohen taught many of us how to embrace the ways we felt like outsiders. We honor Seth Cohen with tattoos, celebrating Chrismukkah in blended faith homes, and still listening to Death Cab for Cutie. And in the 20 years since, Seth Cohen and The O.C., can still transport us, as Chelsea says: “I still put the show or soundtrack on when I’m seeking comfort sometimes. It takes me back to a time when in hindsight, my problems seem so much smaller.”

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