Separating "One Tree Hill" From Mark Schwahn
Can you love the creation and hate the creator?
Can you support the art without supporting the artist?
These are questions “One Tree Hill” fans like myself have been reconciling with since 2017, when creator Mark Schwahn was accused of sexual harassment and serial misconduct.
And he wasn’t accused by just anyone. He was accused by his own cast members, including the actress believed to be his muse.
This sad saga in teen drama history began in November of 2017, when Audrey Wauchope, a writer for “One Tree Hill,” posted a Twitter thread in which she detailed how she and writing partner Rachel Specter were sexually harassed by an unnamed showrunner. The claims, simply put, were disgusting, and it was quite simple to figure out they were about “One Tree Hill” and Schwahn, as Wauchope made a point of noting, “I forgot we were staff writers on 2 shows. In the absense [sic] of a name I don't want to implicate the good ones. The men of Cougartown [sic] are aces.”
Her stunning admissions were almost immediately met with support by the three leading actresses of “One Tree Hill” — Hilarie Burton (Peyton), Bethany Joy Lenz (Haley), and Sophia Bush (Brooke). But this was just the tip of the iceberg. What followed was a signed statement in which the trio, joined by 15 other female cast and crew members, formally accused Schwahn of harassment. They wrote in part:
“Mark Schwahn’s behavior over the duration of the filming of ‘One Tree Hill’ was something of an ‘open secret.’ Many of us were, to varying degrees, manipulated psychologically and emotionally. More than one of us is still in treatment for post-traumatic stress. Many of us were put in uncomfortable positions and had to swiftly learn to fight back, sometimes physically, because it was made clear to us that the supervisors in the room were not the protectors they were supposed to be. Many of us were spoken to in ways that ran the spectrum from deeply upsetting, to traumatizing, to downright illegal. And a few of us were put in positions where we felt physically unsafe. More than one woman on our show had her career trajectory threatened.”
The letter detailed how the women banded together to resist Schwahn’s behavior as best they could, and noted, “We understood that a lot of it was orchestrated in ways that kept it out of sight for the studio back home. We also understood that no one was fully unaware.” They further said, “Many of us were told, during filming, that coming forward to talk about this culture would result in our show being canceled and hundreds of lovely, qualified, hard-working, and talented people losing their jobs.” They explained that they previously chose to stay “silent publicly… because we want Tree Hill to remain the place ‘where everything’s better and everything’s safe’ for our fans; some of whom have said that the show quite literally saved their lives.”
Yet that statement, too, only scratched the surface. In an interview with Variety that followed, Burton went into great detail about Schwahn’s sexual misconduct toward her, allegations that were backed up by co-star Danneel Harris (Rachel), who witnessed some of the inappropriate behavior and was also a victim of it herself. The article also featured testimony from another of the show’s writers, Michelle Furtney-Goodman, who had previously served as Schwahn’s assistant before being promoted, and the story even contained unsettling claims from one of the series’ male writers, James Stoteraux.
Amidst all this, Schwahn was suspended from “The Royals,” which he created and ran just like he did “One Tree Hill.” In their own letter, 25 female cast and crew members of “The Royals” said “repeated unwanted sexual harassment” from Schwahn ran rampant during their production too. The first “Royals” cast member to speak out was Alexandra Park, who today is engaged to “One Tree Hill” star James Lafferty (Nathan), who until this point had been friendly enough with Schwahn to direct five episodes of “The Royals.”
Fortunately, Lionsgate TV, which produced “The Royals,” ultimately did the right thing and fired Schwahn (though it took an uncomfortably long time for them to do so). “One Tree Hill” fans, however, were left reeling. How were viewers supposed to reconcile the fact that their favorite show was the brainchild of — I’m going to say it — a monster? How could fans look at certain scenes, and even some storylines, in the same way knowing what they now knew?
Consider this: Schwahn not only harassed Burton behind the scenes of the series, but also wrote himself into the show in a recurring role in which his scene partner was Burton. His character, Max, came off creepy to begin with, and now this context added a whole additional layer of creepiness. These revelations also shed new light on the emotional video Burton posted when it was revealed in 2009 that she was leaving the series under unclear circumstances, but wanted fans to keep watching for the sake of the crew.
With this new benefit of hindsight, one fan tweeted in 2018, “I’ll never stop being angry about the fact that we could have gotten 3 more seasons of Peyton Elizabeth Sawyer if Mark Schwahn hadn’t been such a piece of shit.” Another posted that same year, “i know we stopped flooding our feeds with this since the news first broke but i'm fucking pissed at mark schwahn and hate him so much for tainting something i love so much.”
And when this scandal did first break, a fan wrote, “This makes me so sad & mad. OTH was my favorite show growing up and wanted to believe the culture was the same offscreen as it was onscreen. I will never watch another Mark Schwahn show again. #BurnItDownSis.” Said another, “I feel like I will forever look at so many OTH storylines differently now that I know what kind of person Mark truly is.”
Even this past January, someone tweeted, “you ever randomly remember that mark schwahn was accused of molesting by like 20 women (?) and just suddenly disappeared?” Schwahn has, in fact, disappeared from public life. He has never issued any kind of statement in response to the allegations or his firing from “The Royals” — no denial, no apology — and has never been seen or heard from since. A coward, no doubt, as apparently are his collaborators from the top down: In 2019, Burton revealed, “We still have never received an apology or a phone call from anybody who was in any position of power. No producers, no executives, not one single person has ever reached out to us.”
The only form of justice seems to be that Schwahn has not had one new project in Hollywood in the three years since his rightful downfall. Disturbingly, though, when I pointed out last month that the @RealOneTreeHill Twitter account, which was the official account for the show, had started tweeting again and that it was unclear who was running it, the person blocked me rather than reveal their identity.
Meanwhile, plenty of fans have continued to watch and rewatch “One Tree Hill,” with some even clamoring for a reboot or sequel series, perhaps not quite grasping that Schwahn would profit off it even if he wasn’t directly involved. When a Twitter user told longtime fan turned television writer Carina Adly MacKenzie that she should be the writer of a reboot, she didn’t mince words in her response.
Lenz also addressed this very issue in a podcast with castmate Jana Kramer (Alex) last year, saying, “The problem is that the creator of the show makes money on any incarnation of the show afterwards, and, of course, that’s its own issue. So, I think that would be the big thing standing in the way, unless he was willing to donate it all or something.”
Now back to my original questions: Can you love the creation and hate the creator? Can you support the art without supporting the artist?
The “One Tree Hill” fandom, of course, is not the first audience to have to contemplate such matters. The strange case of Michael Jackson is possibly the foremost example, with accusations of molestation dogging his career before and after his death. As more and more has emerged about Jackson’s alleged behavior over the years, there are one-time fans who can no longer tolerate listening to his music, yet there also remains a fervent fanbase ready to do battle on the late icon’s behalf.
Meanwhile, moviegoers and actors themselves have taken sides in the ongoing controversy surrounding Woody Allen, who was accused of sexual abuse by his own daughter. This matter dates back literally decades, though it’s only in recent years that Allen has become persona non grata in some Hollywood circles. But earlier this year, the filmmaker — who has always denied the claims against him — went as far as calling stars “silly” for expressing regret over having worked with him. As this New York Times piece examines, cinephiles have been left to argue whether Allen’s classic movies like Annie Hall can be enjoyed for what they are or whether his entire oeuvre should be discounted due to his reported misdeeds.
Most recently, J.K. Rowling’s transphobic comments… and her doubling and tripling down on them… have forced people who grew up with the Harry Potter series to decide whether this author is someone they still want to support. With childhood and even adult identities so wrapped up in the groundbreaking novels and films, fans have been trying to reimagine the Potter world without her. Wrote The New York Times, “Among the fans who vehemently reject Ms. Rowling’s views, the discussion is on how to distance or separate themselves from the author who created a fantasy world that animates their lives on a daily basis.” Isn’t that the very issue we “One Tree Hill” fans, many of whom still rewatch the series on a daily basis, face too?
For me personally, every time a Jackson song comes on the radio, I feel an urge to change the station. But I also can’t not listen every time I hear “Man in the Mirror,” one of my favorite songs of all time. I never cared for Allen’s work to begin with, but now I couldn’t bear to watch any movie of his on moral grounds. And yet I still consume every bit of Harry Potter content I can. In other words, these issues are complicated, hardly black and white, and have effects that likely vary person to person. The only thing that seems crystal clear is that these aren’t scandals of the past, but issues that are part of an ongoing inflection point as we continue to dissect pop culture in all its best and worst forms.
Just as debates about Jackson and Allen have persisted for years, the consequences of Schwahn’s behavior linger. Bush made new revelations about his mistreatment of her in 2018 and again earlier this year. Burton also spoke about the situation while promoting her memoir in April, confessing she wrestles with guilt for not coming forward sooner. “I didn’t say anything for a decade. And as a result of that, people were abused after me,” she told People. She also, however, acknowledged the positive relationship that remains between her, the show’s cast, and the fans.
“[My son] knows something bad went down on that set and he asks me, ‘Why do you still do conventions for it? Why do you still talk about it?’ But I am making a decision as an adult to focus on the good, to focus on the fan base and the crew and the fact that I got to learn my craft every day.”
But while the vast majority of the show’s male cast members have expressed solidarity with their female co-stars, some fans have questioned whether they, too, are complicit and should be held accountable. “[A]re we not going to discuss how james lafferty continued to work for mark schwahn, whose serial abuse was an ‘open secret’ and was so manipulative that a female OTH cast member sought therapy for PTSD,” one person tweeted last year.
The comment was sparked by a Vice article in which Lafferty and co-star Stephen Colletti (Chase) spoke about being typecast after being on “One Tree Hill” for so long. The story promoted their self-produced series, “Everyone Is Doing Great,” which was partially financed by fans through an Indiegogo campaign, and positioned “One Tree Hill” as a burden they had to overcome. The aforementioned fan pointed out in response:
“experiencing ‘real consequences is this industry’ because you stayed on a show for nine years is bullshit. lafferty directed 5 episodes in 3 years of the royals under mark schwahn while his former female cast members lived with the ACTUAL consequences of schwahn’s serial abuse… fuck this whole article. profiting off of OTH fans while you were complicit in the destruction of the lives of the female cast/crew is evil.”
Of course, for all we know, Lafferty purposely chose to direct episodes of “The Royals” so he could be an on-set protector, not an accomplice. The reality is none of us were on the set of either show, which makes passing judgment all the more harder. What isn’t in doubt, though, is that we should believe women.
As I thought about all this, I actually found myself struggling with the title of this essay: “Separating ‘One Tree Hill’ From Mark Schwahn.” Should we be separating the show from him or him from the show? This might seem like just a matter of semantics, but I think it gets to the heart of the issue. Are we taking “One Tree Hill” away from Schwahn or Schwahn away from “One Tree Hill”?
Across 187 episodes, he created our favorite characters, our favorite love stories.
He also abused our favorite people.
Do we love “One Tree Hill” because of him or do we love the show in spite of him?
I don’t know the answer.
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