Seventh Heaven Taught Me to Create My Life on my Own Terms
I am recently back from a week-long 7th Heaven staycation, because I’m just that cool. This week reminded me of something important about myself, something I’d forgotten — the ’90s bad girls of WB teen dramas taught me how to be the best version of myself.
Case in point? Mary Camden.
You might remember the name Mary Camden because once upon a time, a 17-year-old Jessica Biel posed topless in Gear Magazine, and Mary paid the price. You might also remember the name Mary Camden if, like me, you were a budding feminist, and it positively ate up your stomach lining to think that a bunch of male producers sat around trying to figure out how to punish their teenage star for the choices she made with her own body in her free time. The fact that they turned the character into a whipping boy for the “sins” of the actress has given me two decades of acid reflux. On the plus side, it did provide an entry point for my foray into Gender Studies, which basically shaped my entire academic life. So — thanks? I guess?
Pre-nude photo “scandal,” Mary Camden was THE BEST. The oldest daughter of a household of 7 (!) children, she was kind, whip-smart, and one of the few realistic portrayals of a teen athlete. In a time when most high school girls were portrayed as boy-crazy, vapid, clothing-obsessed overprivileged sex dolls, Mary was different. She had goals — she wanted to play in the WMBA. She had a life that expanded beyond chasing boys — she worked out every day and committed to her athletic path. She even, gasp, got sweaty sometimes, and not in a cute, dewdrop kind of way. Contrasted with her good-girl younger sister Lucy, the differences only shone more brightly. Like most WB ‘girls’, Lucy was vaguely “smart” yet always struggling with her schoolwork, vaguely “artsy” yet never took a single art class, and boy-crazy yet rarely committed to a boyfriend for longer than two episodes. In the end, because this was a WB drama, Lucy made good and followed in her father’s professional footsteps while Mary became a young mom who achieved none of her dreams. Yet in the end, I think Mary is the one who truly won.
In one notable episode, the two teens compete over a guy. Lucy follows “The Rules,” the handbook that tells women how to look and act around men to get male attention. Mary, on the other hand, is direct, responsible, and doesn’t bother to so much as dress up for the guy. In the end, Lucy wins. Yet Mary is the one who refuses to change herself to get a guy’s attention. In the end, I think that makes her the real winner.
Mary was brilliant, beautiful, and unashamedly herself. If television were real life, Mary would have won the game of life, hands down..maybe.
Because the other amazing thing about Mary is, she brought up some questions that young me just didn’t know how to answer. I didn’t know what to do with those questions, and for that matter, neither did 7th Heaven. In fact, I’m not sure 7th Heaven even knew what it was doing at the time. It is only in retrospect, after the #metoo movement has forced me to face some difficult truths about myself, that I can see why I related to Mary so much.
Mary turns down a boy at school, and he proceeds to harass her for the rest of the episode. He writes on the wall of the men’s bathroom that she is a slut. His friend snaps her bra. He stands around mocking her sexuality with his friends. Eventually, Mary snaps, and she sticks his head in a toilet. She can do this, because she is physically strong, an athlete. She can do this, because there is a crowd of people watching, including her brother, and they will make sure the boy does not physically harm her. She can do this, because this is a television show, and so the principal stands up for Mary rather than suspend her. Mary can fight back, because she is Mary Camden, a character on television, and so she will never have to face the consequences that women face when we fight back against male violence.
Mary can fight back, but the truly brave thing the television show does, without I think being aware of it, is to not let Mary win. Mary sticks the boy’s head in a toilet, but he does not stop harassing her. A few episodes later, he harasses her when she’s on a date. Then one day, one sunny day, she steps into the street to chase after her mother, and that boy hits her with his car.
This is a television show, so she does not die. But this is a television show that inadvertently reveals its own misogyny, which is also the misogyny of male baby boomer executives ever. So the boy who hit Mary Camden is never charged. Her parents do not want him punished, and the police station simply drops the hit-and-run charges. He is allowed to walk into Mary’s hospital room and apologize in person while she is recovering from surgery. He is allowed to express his remorse. Mary, because she is amazing, does not forgive him, but the show’s fathers forgive him for her.
Mary is a survivor. Her knee surgery harms her basketball game, but she works her way back better than ever. She works hard, and the assistant coach helps her. He helps, and then he corners her in a classroom and tries to force her to have sex with him.
Mary’s mother saves her. Her family considers that the end of the matter. They do not get her counseling, not even when, emotionally battered, she starts dating the boy who hit her with his car. Not even when she decides not to go to college. Not even when she takes out a credit card she can’t afford, then uses it to buy a sports car she has no real way to pay for.
Mary tries to take a different path in life, and fails spectacularly. She loses one job then another, largely by acting like the irresponsible teenager she totally still is. Her parents hem and haw her downward spiral, and still, the word ‘therapy’ is never mentioned in her house. Mary starts hanging out with exploitative people, because her self-esteem has disappeared. Mary stops looking for a job and instead spends all day every day watching movies at the local theater. Mary needs help.
Mary needs help, so her father throws in the towel and sends her to live with his domineering, patriarchal, verbally abusive ex-military father.
This is why Mary Camden is my hero.
Her story does not end happily. Eventually, sure, she winds up married with kids, because this is a WB show. But Mary is never really, truly happy. She remains obsessed with the ex-boyfriend who took her teenage self to a motel on Valentine’s Day to try to manipulate her into sex. She never plays basketball again. She remains fascinated, duped, miserable forever because the life she might have lived was ruined by the decisions made by the men around her.
Mary does not “grow up” and “get over it.” Mary knows the thing she would have to get over is her actual life, and she is not interested in just getting over it. Mary ruminates. Mary remains depressed, without the therapy or medication or emotional support that might have saved her. Mary is me in the ’90s, living a life circumscribed by sexism I did not have the words to name or the tools to fight.
Mary lets her experiences get her down. She lets the men who harmed her “win,” by showing her pain and refusing to pretend it does not exist to make her family more comfortable. Mary cannot fight back, because no teenage girl could possibly fight back effectively against the things that have happened to her. And so, she gives up.
I am not advocating for women like me to become women like Mary. I don’t think that giving up is the right answer. But I think it’s important to recognize that there is nothing wrong with counting our wounds, with recognizing the ways our lives have been changed forever by the harm that has been done to us. Mary’s life went off-track forever because of the ways men hurt her, and because of the ways her family turned a careful blind eye to that hurt. That is the legacy of ’90s sexism, to me. It is the legacy of never being quite strong enough to defeat the demons that keep coming and coming.
But like Mary herself, our lives have a coda. Mary was written by men, and so she was never able to access resources, to leverage her talents, to escape her patriarchal “such a good man” father Camden BUT. Jessica Biel did. Unlike so many actresses who earned a “bad girl” reputation, Jessica Biel became a respected actress in her own right, one who charted her own course for herself. The WB itself is no more, and the kinds of ‘teen girl’ characters who chased boys instead of goals have transformed into women of color kicking ass and gay teens discovering their identities and women, so many women, who have found so many wonderful things to be, other than boy-crazy.
Mary won, in the end. All of the Marys have won. Forever.
Mary Camden was my hero, because even though she failed because the male producers and writers of her life wanted her to, her life gave me the vocabulary to describe what was happening to me. Mary Camden was my hero, and even though she was not perfect, she tried to be more than just a good daughter or a good girlfriend. She tried to be a complete person.
Mary Camden was my hero, and she always will be.