Jen Lindley’s Demise: Dawson’s Creek and the American Dream

jen and joeyBuzzFeed just posted about the finale of Dawson’s Creek, validating my desire to write about the old teen soap. If you read the BuzzFeed piece, you either learned or were reminded that Jen Lindley (Michelle Williams) dies at the end of the series. I only just watched Dawson’s Creek in its entirety last summer when it first became available on Netflix. And I was rather upset when Jen fainted at Gail Leery’s wedding and proceeded to expire. The thing is, Jen almost always got the raw end of the deal. For whatever reason, writer and creator Kevin Williamson was consistently dealing her a bad hand, while dealing Joey Potter (Katie Holmes) one good hand after another.

After being dubbed a “bad seed” for teen sex and drug use, Jen’s parents banish her from New York City to live in a lame small town with her abrasively conservative grandmother. So clearly, Jen has some emotional issues and unsupportive parents. When she first arrives in Capeside, things initially seem okay. Everyone thinks she’s pretty and she might get a fresh start. But soon it all goes to hell. Let’s recap, shall we:

  • She develops real feelings for Dawson and wants him back. Despite having been (briefly) head over heels for Jen, Dawson now has eyes for no one but Joey and rejects her.
  • Her grandpa dies, which is a tough emotional blow.
  • Being rejected by Dawson and dealing with her grandfather’s death causes Jen to have an emotional breakdown. She starts hanging out with the not-so-supportive Abby (Monica Keena), and starts drinking excessively (which would never happen to Joey, who has far too much integrity). After one particular drunken debacle, Jen watches Abby fall into the lake and drowns, and Jen can’t save her.
  • Jen and Pacey (Joshua Jackson) start fooling around to appease their raging teenage hormones, but Jen soon discovers Pacey’s in love with Joey, which makes Jen feel like shit, because all the men in her life she’s closest with (don’t forget about Jack!) have fallen for Joey.
  • In college, Jen meets Charlie Todd (Chad Michael Murray) who initially seems like the perfect boyfriend, but after a passionate few weeks, she discovers he’s been cheating on her. Later on, Charlie falls head over heels for – can you guess? – Joey, for whom he wants to be a better person.
  • Jen falls for C.J. (Jensen Ackles), who, for some reason, is into the hot mess that is Audrey (Busy Phillips) and sleeps with her, much to Jen’s chagrin.
  • Although C.J. later develops feelings for Jen and seems to love and respect her, he eventually leaves her, implied by the fact that in the series’ epilogue, Jen is a single mother whose been abandoned by her significant other (possibly C.J.).
  • As if an unplanned pregnancy and abandonment weren’t enough, Jen is terminally ill and dies when she’s only 25 or 26.

While Jen faces one disappointment after another, Joey’s life seems envious. She’s portrayed as wicked smart, goes to the (fictional) Ivy League university Worthington, and becomes a successful book editor in New York. Plus, she wins the love and affection of pretty much every guy she meets – including many men Jen has been involved with. Why? Why is Jen the black sheep and Joey the golden child?

My initial reaction was that Kevin Williamson was infatuated with Joey Potter as she was portrayed by Katie Holmes – consider that as the show progressed, it became more and more Joey centric; season 5 even begins with Joey’s narration, despite the series title being Dawson’s Creek. All the men who fell for Joey – Dawson, Jack, Pacey, Charlie, her professor David Wilder (Ken Marino), Eddie (Oliver Hudson), and pretty much every other guy on the show – seemed like a projection of Williamson’s own love for his creation.

However, I think there are other forces at work here. The fact that things turn out so well for Joey, “the good girl,” perpetuates an idealistic picture of what a woman “should” be like – wholesome, chalk full of unshakable integrity, wicked smart, and gorgeous without trying – remember that Joey for a long time was portrayed as a “tomboy.” When she entered a beauty pageant for the chance of winning money for college (because that’s the only reason a girl of real character like Joey would enter a beauty pageant), Jen helps her with her hair and makeup, because Joey apparently doesn’t have a clue about these things.

As Jen is portrayed as the “bad girl,” having slept around and experimented with drugs, her demise seems like a condemnation of that behavior. Even though Jen was a smart, kind, and sympathetic person – more so than Joey, who was cruel to Jen upon her arrival in Capeside – these virtuous attributes evidently don’t cancel out what the writer may have deemed morally reprehensible behavior. Jen had to suffer for her supposed sins. I don’t know about you, but I’m really not okay with this unrealistic standard for women to be Joey Potter’s particular brand of perfection. Or any brand of perfection. Women are people, for god’s sake, and they can mistakes – although these might not be mistakes at all!

The contrasting fates of Jen and Joey could also relate to the Horatio Alger aspect of the American Dream. Joey’s childhood did admittedly suck. Her mom died when she was 12 and her dad was arrested and imprisoned shortly thereafter for selling drugs. Her sister raised her and they were dirt poor. Her ascent up the social and economic ladders then is a triumphant pulling-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps story.

It’s great that everything turned out so well for Joey, but I have qualms with the perpetuation of the Horatio Alger myth. Many people work very hard and can’t achieve the kind of success Joey did. Many people get stuck in low-paying positions with no real possibility of moving forward due to myriad circumstances beyond their control. And it can be problematic for people to believe that anyone can pull themselves up by the bootstraps – both for people who could allegedly do the pulling, and for people who have never needed to do any pulling because they were born into optimal circumstances. On the one hand, it could diminish self-worth for people in shitty circumstances, causing them to blame themselves for things that are beyond their control, or prevent them from taking realistic measures to improve their quality of life. On the other hand, it can hinder real compassion from people who have never wanted for anything.

Another qualm: Was Jen’s misfortune merely a way to enhance Joey’s success? Joey had a rough start to life. And when Jen came to town, Joey was jealous of her because she was pretty. So in a way, it feels like every shitty thing that happened to Jen was a way to lift Joey’s spirits, as if to say, See? You are better than Jen. You’ve worked harder, and no one deserves your success. Maybe Jen’s misfortune was actually a punishment for making Joey Potter doubt herself – as though that were Jen’s fault.



  1. Awesome! I’d forgotten about the show, but I did watch the first few seasons back in the day. I had never thought about or noticed all the crap the Jen character went through. Love what you wrote about beauty pageants. Also enjoyed uour commentary about the notion of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. Fun read and a great trip back in time to the days of Dawson’s Creek.

    By tbe way, I never thought Dawson was attractive at all but I think he was supposed to be perceived that way. Both Joey and Jen had feelings for him. Of course feelings aren’t just about physical attraction, but during the teen years that is a major part of it. Dawson just didn’t do it for me. Now Pacey on the other hand…

    • I always sorta hated Joey. She was petty, neurotic, and despite her insecurity carried herself with an air of superiority. Though we as viewers were frequently TOLD that Joey was wicked smart, there wasn’t much evidence outside of tortured monologues, and I saw less true depth, maturity, wisdom, and compassion in her than Jen. We were told that Joey was ‘tough’ and more desirable for not being a “girly girl”, but there was something sickeningly precious and cutesy about her (and a tendency to shit on other girls for being too feminine or overtly sexy). In a way Joey Potter reminded me of Ally McBeal in that the narrative beats us over the head to love her, love her, love her! without giving us a very good reason why. I agree that there was some unconscious stereotyping typing there casting Jen as the sexy girl you lust after and Joey as the wholesome, all-American girl you marry. P.S. Neither Dawson OR Pacey was remotely attractive to me.

  2. I’m in season 5 and Dawson’s fathers death moved me to read more articles about the show, and I end up spoiling the finale 😦 Jen was always one of my favorite characters she was always more balanced and fun loving then the reality escaping analyzing Dawson and Joey, I do think the writer portrayed Joey as the ideal women, but I think everything played out how it would in real life, Jen definitely my favorite character though, love Michelle Williams as well, so tragic she lost her daughters father Heath Ledger kind of makes me not want to finish the series 😦

  3. I think the reason for Joey’s success is that she is a much more positive person and she has a lot more mystery to her Dawson has known her all his life and hes still figuring her out. Jen wallows in self pity and is very destructive physically and emotionally and it only got worse when she became friends with abby who is just as bad. It also shows in her choice of men and she doesn’t leave anything to the imagination.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s