Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a term that film critic Nathan Rabin coined and later regretted. Manic Pixie Jewish Boy is a term I just made up.
Specifically, it came to mind as I was frantically putting on lipstick before rushing to work to see Adam Brody give an interview about his upcoming TV show. But really, I was putting on lipstick before rushing to work to finally meet Seth Cohen, “The O.C.’s” adorkable sidekick and my quirky Jewish boyfriend since I was 13.
While I was applying the final touches of makeup, attempting to make my face look as much like Brody’s real-life wife Leighton Meester as possible, I had a disturbing thought. What do I really know about my boyfriend Seth Cohen? Well, he’s a Jew. Actually, his mom is a goy so he’s, I guess, technically not Jewish but, like ― he’s pretty Jew-ish. Moving on.
He loves Death Cab for Cutie and The Cramps and a bunch of other early-2000s indie bands. He is sarcastic and self-deprecating and he’s obsessed with comic books. He’s hooooot, like in this sexy nerd way where he doesn’t even know that his bone structure makes him look like a baby deer mated with a foxy philosophy professor whose students hit on him even though he’s devoted only to his studies.
But these are all things someone could list on their Tinder profile, or perform on a first date or during a brief, illusory romantic period in which someone sweeps you off your feet without ever really knowing you, you never really knowing him. Could it be that Seth Cohen is not the guy I thought I knew, but rather a sexy, stubbly shell of a man? A Hebrew hologram? A Manic Pixie Jewish Boy?
A Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a poorly developed female character who, throughout the course of the film, enters the life of a gloomy dude, transforms it entirely with her eccentricity and joie de vivre, and then peaces out forever. She’s a mirage with a cute haircut and very underground taste in music, who loves staying up all night and jumping into bodies of water randomly because life is full of surprises!
Basically, she’s not real. She exists solely to move a male character along his arc and look super cute and carefree in the process. She’s rampant in pop culture because most films are written by men, and most men create lazy and shallow depictions of women.
Could Seth Cohen be a reversal of this storied, sexist trope? Let’s examine the evidence.
The first time viewers met Seth Cohen was on Ryan Atwood’s first morning in the Orange County. Seth is wearing plaid pajama pants and a graphic tee ― vintage, no doubt ― sitting cross-legged on the floor of his parents’ palatial mansion playing video games like an overgrown, very good-looking toddler. He’s surrounded by two boxes of cereal, Fruity Pebbles and Cheerios, with a carton of orange juice and a carton of lemonade by his side. This tells the audience that Seth is the type of guy who mixes cereals and breakfast beverages. How peculiar, how niche, how adorable.
These are the kind of vapid details that say he’s not like other boys, the male equivalent of a girl who eats junk food with reckless abandon ― assuming, of course, she’s also hot.
Next scene. Seth takes Ryan out on his sailboat, which he’s named “Summer Breeze,” a tribute to his lifelong crush, popular girl and major bitch Summer Roberts. Seth enlightens Ryan as to his big dreams to sail to Tahiti to “hit the high seas and catch fish right off the side of the boat. Just total quiet, solitude.”
“You won’t get lonely?” Ryan responds. “Well, I’ll have Summer with me,” says Seth. When “The O.C.” begins, Seth is hopelessly in love with a woman who doesn’t even know he exists. His hobbies and interests are not necessarily just ploys to win her affection, but their importance pales in comparison to the mere prospect of Summer looking his way. Although he plays sidekick to Ryan’s lead, Seth’s own narrative always revolves around Summer.
As the show goes on, Seth and Summer do talk. And flirt and fight. And eventually fall in love. Summer grows from the experience. She starts the show as a one-dimensional teenage girl, obsessed with parties and popularity and the rock-hard abs of rich water polo players ― the holy trinity of O.C. living. Her best friend Marissa Cooper plays the game as well, but her heart clearly is in another place, a deeper place.
Summer, however, is all sun and booze and dollar bills. Until she meets Seth, and learns compassion, vulnerability, tolerance. She winds up going to Brown and becoming an environmental activist. It’s Summer who evolves as a character throughout the course of the show.
Seth, however, is plain old Seth through and through. Lovin’ comics. Makin’ jokes. Lookin’ yummy yum yum. You can always count on him to namedrop an indie rock band or lambast his low social standing, preferably while dressed in a tight-fitting retro sweater.
He’ll occasionally come up with quirky ideas like “Chrismukkah” ― the Christmas-Hanukkah hybrid! And his heart is clearly good, full of love for his family, Ryan and, most of all, Summer. But the more complex aspects of his interior remain off limits, and he remains a nebulous blur of hip nerd traits.
In Seth’s final scene on the last episode of “The O.C.,” he finally marries his lifelong love. We don’t see or hear from him again. In a 2014 interview with Nylon, when asked where Brody imagines Seth is now, he responds rather bleakly: “If I had to predict, I’d say Seth Cohen is dead.” Perhaps this is because, once Seth married Summer, he had nothing left to accomplish. Or because Seth’s character was rendered so indeterminately even the actor who brought him to life couldn’t hypothesize a potential future. Or maybe Brody was just making a dry joke, classic Cohen style.
I’ll love Seth Cohen forever. His perfect head of shaggy hair, his gawky frame, the divine way he pronounced the letter S. But I never really knew him. In a culture where women are constantly flattened and fetishized to be at once more than and less than any actual human being could be, Seth Cohen is a rare gem, a sexist device turned on its head. He’s a man built entirely from quirks and styles and gestures and beautiful brown eyes. His entire life purpose, it appears, is helping a woman find her way, and worshipping her in the process.
He’s a fantasy.
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CLARIFICATION: This article has been updated after some readers raised concerns that certain phrasing read as offensive. This was not the intent of the author, who is Jewish herself. We regret any misunderstanding.