In December 2003, I was a junior in high school, newly 17 years old, and obsessed with a new TV show called The O.C. If you’re around my age, and grew up in the suburbs, you may have had the same problem. The show’s moment was swift but all encompassing, not unlike the 18-month reign of the Spice Girls: It was the biggest thing on the planet, or at least my planet, and then it was over. They killed Marissa, and I collapsed on my basement floor, weeping. Then I went to college.
But before that, The O.C. almost single-handedly informed my sexuality. More specifically, the show’s first annual Chrismukkah episode taught me that there are two ways to get the boy you like to like you back: You can be a Summer, and use sex, or you can be an Anna, and use art.
For those who don’t remember this with crystalline clarity, the Chrismukkah episode of The O.C. is ostensibly about the Christian-Jewish holiday mashup invented by Seth Cohen (Adam Brody, the show’s allegedly “dorky” teenager who is nonetheless rich and hot). But more important, this episode is the one in which Summer Roberts (Rachel Bilson as the coolest girl in school and Seth’s longtime crush) and Anna Stern (Samaire Armstrong as the cool, new alt girl with short hair and bright tights) compete for Seth’s love by presenting him with Chrismukkah presents that speak to their individual female identities. Anna gives Seth a comic book starring himself that she’s drawn by hand. Summer gives Seth herself, dressed as Wonder Woman.
Summer/Anna is, of course, as false a dichotomy as Madonna/whore. But to a shy 17-year-old with a history of long, unrequited, un-acted-upon crushes on boys she didn’t speak to, this episode offered the illusion of choice. I did not consider myself capable of being a Summer, because I was not having sex, or even kissing anybody. I was also what my mother gently called a late bloomer, which meant breasts were a far-off hypothetical, and breasts seemed pretty essential to the Summer method of doing things.
Anyone who’s seen the episode knows that Summer’s gift is the superior one. It’s right there on Seth’s face. (He also tells her, “Good lord, I think I’m going to pass out.”) For any real-life teenage boy, this is not a realistic contest. The real-life Annas of the world do not stand a chance. I know this now.
But in teen TV land, Summer doesn’t win the Chrismukkah gift contest. Anna does.
Summer would, of course, go on to win the Seth Cohen war, but for a brief, holiday season, Anna won the Seth Cohen battle, which meant that, for a moment, cute won out over hot. I didn’t think I had it in me to do hot, but cute, I could do. I was positively overflowing with ideas for thoughtful, sexless gestures.
It’s thanks to Chrismukkah that I gave my senior-year crush a glittery Christmas card that vaguely suggested we “do something” over winter break, and it’s due to Chrismukkah that I gave him my number via complicated TI-83-graphing-calculator program. (He did not respond to either.) It’s thanks to Chrismukkah that it once occurred to me to mail a boy I liked an envelope filled with Minnesota wildflowers to let him know I missed him. (Thank GOD, a friend talked me out of it.) It’s absolutely thanks to Chrismukkah that I spent so many of my lazily earned Panera wages on vintage brooches and weird, embroidered sweaters from Urban Outfitters. And it’s thanks to Chrismukkah that I believed that a series of escalating crafts could get me a boyfriend without my having to do anything scary, like ask a guy out, or have sex with one.
It would not occur to me until many years and and a couple of therapists later that the effort I put into maintaining long, painful, ambiguous flirtations with unavailable and uninterested men was a way to avoid actually being alone with those men, or any men. As far as I could see, there was no alternative. Queerness as it existed on my radar was, for so long, reserved for the two out gay guys I went to college with and Tegan and Sara. I didn’t meet an openly gay girl my age until I was 25, which seems impossible now, but wasn’t then.
I think it’s probably different for high-schoolers now, and thinking about that makes me seethingly jealous. I daydream about who I could have been if I’d known I was gay in high school, and in the fantasy I’m not unlike Seth, fought over by two girls far above my social station. But it probably wouldn’t have been like that. I still would have been me, and I was never a Summer: I was Anna long before Anna was Anna, having spent most of seventh grade drawing comic strips for my best friend, who’d been dumped by her shithead eighth-grade boyfriend. At the end of every comic, I flew in with a cape and big biceps and beat him up in some new, creative way. They made her laugh, which was good enough for me.