With a number of “celebratory” “think pieces” out at the moment about Dawson’s Creek in honor of its twentieth anniversary, the current climate of needing to make everything about female agency is saturating retrospective interpretations of the show. One analysis in particular by Constance Grady for Vox attempts to make Joey Potter (Katie Holmes) an unwitting feminist for the love triangle times of WB that required the female lead to be batted back and forth for the sake of ratings (even Gilmore Girls couldn’t avoid it).
As one of the first shows of its kind, building on the melodrama that Beverly Hills 90210 and My So-Called Life established (thank god we didn’t have to hear Dawson’s voiceover though) in the early and mid-90s, Dawson’s Creek amplified the emotionalism associated with being young and having repressed feelings of sexual yearning–particularly for your male best friend who is too fucking daft and up his own asshole to notice.
Because the current political climate of #MeToo and internet feminism requires it, however, Joey is being repainted by some as sort of “woke” female, who doesn’t feel obligated to stay with her one true love just because, well, he’s her one true love. As Grady puts it, after season one, “It moved away from a love story built on the unshakable, unquestionable belief that women belonged to men and that was all there was to it — and toward a love story that could at least gesture at valuing women’s agency and independent worth.” Oh come the fuck on. This wasn’t about Joey’s “agency.” This was about the show making an unprecedented move and wrapping up the conclusion of a plotline they could have dragged out for all six seasons in choosing to join Dawson (James Van Der Beek) and Joey instead at the finale of the first season.
Hence, they slapped Joey with this “I need to find out who I am without you” bullshit, a narrative that ultimately wrote itself toward Dawson’s male best friend, Pacey Witter (Joshua Jackson), for the sake of sustaining drama and shock within its very specific viewership. With these retrospective opinions, it’s also a wonder Dawson’s Creek hasn’t been the subject of scrutiny for its blithe whiteness, set in a carbon copy of a Cape Cod town where there is nary a non-Caucasian in sight. Yet the show does address class multiple times throughout the series, especially with regard to Joey, who works at a yacht club (therefore deals with a lot of entitled douchebags) and has a drug dealer father in prison (thanks to Dawson). The proverbial girl from the wrong side of the tracks with a chip on her shoulder, Joey is the perfect fodder for the plot of “Crime and Punishment,” the fifteenth episode of season three. In it, a meathead student defaces the mural Joey has painted (granted, it was very “white girl in the early 00s” cliche of her to use a Chinese symbol) that is intended to signify “Possibility.” When Pacey is the only one who comes to her defense because Dawson is too pussy to actually take any real action about it, the meathead is confronted by the black principal of the school and has the audacity to say, “I’m white. I’m rich. That’s all the possibility I need.” So yes, occasionally things got very political at the creek, and not just because Jack McPhee (Kerr Smith) has to confess to being gay in an autobiographical poem his homophobic teacher makes him read.
Overall though, Kevin Williamson’s brainchild is quintessential in its approach to onscreen romance and love triangles. Joey isn’t straying away from Dawson to take back her power, she strays away from him because he’s kind of a self-involved, misogynistic prickhead–and there really aren’t that many other straight male options in town other than Pacey. Anyway, when you think about it, Dawson’s whole obsession with Jen (Michelle Williams, who has hands down won the title for most successful Dawson’s Creek alumni) and how it turns sour is rather fucked up. The only reason he’s ultimately galvanized to pick Joey is because 1) she’s put some makeup on and entered a beauty pageant and 2) she’s still a virgin–a.k.a. she’s not an impure whore like Jen.
It would be nice to believe that throwing in the wrench of a storyline that was Pacey’s love for Joey made things more novel. Allowed Joey the freedom from Dawson that would never have happened in a Jane Austen book–or a John Hughes movie. Grady persists nonetheless with:
“The Dawson-Joey storyline was consistently built around the idea that Joey belongs to Dawson, and that if she doesn’t, he can buy her [this refers to an episode in which he offers to pay her college tuition]. In Dawson’s Creek’s first two seasons, this was the central mythology of the series. This romantic values system is fundamental to a certain kind of pop cultural romance, in which sex and love and ownership are messily intertwined, so that when a man chooses to fall in love with a woman, he takes ownership of her. A woman, in contrast, has no choice: She falls in love because she is loved, and in so doing, she cedes ownership of herself.”
So for Joey to cease in her willingness to sacrifice what she wants for Dawson (that trip to Paris being one such example), Grady is insistent that the only true value of the show was in flipping the script on the assumption that a girl should be with a boy just because he desires her. And yet, lest we forget, Joey was the one who had always desired him. It was once she actually got him that she questioned whether or not an attained love goal can ever be as good as we imagine it will. There’s too much pressure, too much potential for dashed expectations in this sense. Which is why Pacey, who was never longed for, turns out to be a more viable romantic interest. Again, this has nothing to do with Joey’s agency, so much as her boredom with the stasis of Capeside life. Dawson’s Creek, then, is really just accurately portraying the yo-yoing emotions of being a teenager, especially in a small town where nothing ever happens. In the end, to truly prove this point about Joey’s purported “agency,” she should have just fucking stuck with the Jeremy Sisto character in the final episode and continued living her fabulous intellectual life in New York as an editor without dredging up either of these two dead relationships from the past. And yeah, Jen has to die because she was a whore. And all whores die prematurely to atone for their sins. That trope will always remain the same as long as there are male writers.