Michelle Williams made headlines multiple times in January as she furthered the women's movement now storming mainstream media. But before the actress was co-founding Time's Up, using the Golden Globes to shine a light on sexual harassment and abuse, setting #BestFriendGoals with Busy Philipps or pushing Hollywood to recognize its egregious pay equity issues, she was Jen Lindley on Dawson's Creek.
The quintessential teen drama premiered on Tuesday, Jan. 20, 1998, on the then-WB network. The pilot centered around Jen Lindley's arrival to Capeside, Mass., a small northeastern town that Dawson (James Van Der Beek) and his friends Joey (Katie Holmes) and Pacey (Joshua Jackson) dreamed of escaping. Williams' first scene as Jen saw her emerge in slow-motion from a taxi cab in a sundress and cardigan that feels church-worthy by today's standards, but was played up to look sultry in the introductory sequence. Dawson and Pacey wasted no time in responding to Jen's arrival with a surge of teenage hormones which forced Joey to immediately become defensive and wary of the newcomer as she sensed a seismic shift in the group's dynamic already taking place.
In one shot, Jen Lindley became Dawson's Creek Other Woman, an age-old trope in which a voluptuous outsider is pitted against the Good Girl Next Door, embodied by Joey Potter. In the pre-woke television era, Jen Lindley spent the early seasons of Dawson's Creek as Joey's foil whose main purpose was to be an obstacle between the show's pre-set soulmates. But despite her inception as plot device, over the course of six seasons of the show, Jen Lindley transformed into a sexually-confident, independent woman who first and foremost empowered other women. In a necessary and beautiful subversion of tropes, Jen Lindley arrived in Capeside as the girl Dawson Leery would never fully give his heart to, but she left as a feminist icon.
Jen's transparent sensuality is what sparked the series' first love triangle, but it's also what lead to her demonization. Dawson pursued Jen because she was exotic (by Capeside standards) and didn't come with the same we've-been-best-friends-for-years hang-ups that Joey did. Their romantic entanglement lasted approximately two episodes before Dawson also felt intimidated by Jen's sexual history and dumped her. At the time, we were trained to see Jen as the interloper and since the show was told from Dawson's perspective, her experience made her an Other. Her value was determined by the male gaze and if Dawson was turned off by her sexual experience — which vastly outstripped his — then she was undesirable. But rather than bow to the labels that had been placed upon her, she took ownership of her sexual identity and didn't apologize for her desires, even if it didn't line up with Dawson's limited world view. (Side note: It needs to be said that Pacey was sleeping with his adult English teacher as all of this was happening and the statutory rapist was never served as much disdain as Jen was for not being a virgin.)
As Jen was pushed to the outskirts of the central friends group because she was no longer the center of Dawson's romantic ambitions, she could have reformed, turned herself into a Good Girl 2.0 to reinstate the love triangle. Instead she subverted the expectation and found a real — if not perfect — connection elsewhere. In an even bigger twist for a romantic teen drama from the 90s, it was a platonic, turbulent friendship rather than the romance every other character idolized that set Jen on the path to feminist icon. The sophomore season of Dawson's Creek paired Jen with Abby Morgan (Monica Keena), the show's Mean Girl. Their friendship was mostly seen as a way to further villainize them both. In actuality, Jen and Abby's bond was the first example of a loyal female friendship to take place on the show.
Jen did a lot of things that were meant to relegate her to a soap opera-level villainess during the tenure of her time with Abby, but it was vitally important that instead of changing herself to be more ideal for a man she found solace, acceptance and loyalty in another woman, proving two females could spend time together without competing over a boy. They played psychological games with the group. They broke curfew. They drank. They flirted. They weren't afraid to say what they wanted and go for it. They called each other out when need be, but they stuck by each other.
When Abby was killed off at the tail end of Season 2, Jen gave a eulogy at her funeral that set up who she would be for the rest of the series. As the rest of her peers painted Abby with saccharine brushes, Jen defined her friend with brutal honesty. Like Jen, Abby wasn't a Good Girl, and Jen wasn't going to let her friend's flaws be covered up to comfort the masses. These women were flawed, but they accepted and loved each other for how they were and Jen stayed loyal to Abby's spirit until the very end. Their friendship proved that women don't have to be perfect to be found interesting or to be valued. By sticking by Jen when the rest of the core group deserted her, Abby set Jen on an important path of empowering other women throughout the course of the show.
It's only after this strident declaration of her solidifying principles that Jen became a true core player of the show. When the series shifted primary focus to the Joey-Pacey-Dawson triangle (ironically making Dawson the Other Man) and their tension threatened to implode on the group, Jen was the only one trying to diffuse the bomb. Jen was able to put aside Joey's early harsh judgments to stand by her side in her moment of need, pushing Joey to finally put her needs above Dawson's and to follow her heart. In one of the show's best twists, the Other Woman became Joey's closest ally. Jen's maturation enabled her to see the bigger picture as her three problematic friends sought to destroy each other. She attempted to guide them to embrace their own personal truths and protect them from breaking their own hearts, despite how they ostracized her in earlier seasons. The fallout from Pacey and Joey's relationship was horrific, but it would have been catastrophic if it weren't for Jen Lindley.
Thus, Jen was finally able to evolve out of a trope and embrace her true self as the group's guiding light. In claiming her sordid — at least in friend group's eyes — past, she shed her scarlet letter and instead used her superior emotional intelligence and experiential knowledge to save her friends from their various attempts to destroy themselves. Jen Lindley broke her Other Woman mold to become the glue that held the group together.
That identity was cemented in the series' final two episodes. A five-year time jump saw Jen give birth to a daughter with a man we never met only for Jen to be diagnosed with a fatal heart condition that killed her before the series end. In her final moments, she didn't lament not finding long-lasting love or being unsure of who her soulmate was as the others around her did. Her dying wish was to make a video for baby Amy where she passed on her hope that her daughter would be brave, gracious and strong. In the face of certain death, Jen Lindley's first priority was to instill in her daughter the same empathy that uplifted and empowered a whole generation of women, ensuring a future generation a chance to make a change.
Her death, as series creator Kevin Williamson pointed out in The Hollywood Reporter's series retrospective, pushed the other characters into living their lives more fully; Doug (Dylan Neal) came out of the closet, Jack (Kerr Smith) allowed himself to create a family full of love that he didn't experience growing up and Joey made her final decision between Dawson and Pacey. Jen was the catalyst for all of that because she always lived her life honestly and her death reminded those closest to her that life is too short not to do the same.
When the pop culture zeitgeist looks back at Dawson's Creek it is mostly the love triangles and the teenagers' absurdly advanced vocabulary that's remembered. It's shocking how little Jen Lindley even enters the conversation. She was created in an era where television didn't know what to do with two women except make them fight over a man and Jen Lindley was set up to lose that fight. She evolved past those expectations though and didn't submit to the pressure of the male gaze, it's only now 20 years later that audiences are understanding the lessons she taught Joey, Dawson, and Pacey: Only after being honest with yourself can you figure how to solve life's most frustrating mysteries. Whether in love, work, or life she embodied integrity, complication and most importantly what happens when women find kindness within themselves for other women.
Williams has moved on from the series to earn four Academy Award nominations (and counting) for her extraordinary film work. She's now using her clout to be the face of Hollywood's feminist revolution, but she's been doing that work for decades. It started 20 years ago with Jen Lindley, a girl in a sundress and a cardigan who tried to change the world despite the raw deal she was given. It feels fitting that Williams' first pivotal role in Hollywood would be a woman who was told by the world that she's one thing but emerged as so much more.
Dawson's Creek is available to stream on Hulu.