An oral history of the Dawson crying GIF and its outsized legacy
Zac Freeland/VoxAn oral history of the Dawson crying GIF and its outsized legacy. You’ve seen the clip: James Van Der Beek dissolving into exquisitely artificial tears, his lustrous blond hair blowing in the creekside breeze as his face crumples like a discarded gum wrapper. It’s the reaction gif of absurd sorrow, of tragedy so overwrought as to be funny. It’s dawsoncrying.gif.
Crying Dawson ruled the internet comment sections of the late ’00s and early ’10s. It’s “on the Mount Rushmore of GIFs,” says TV critic Sarah D. Bunting. It was, for a while, the sight that greeted you if you navigated to a broken URL on the Huffington Post. Van Der Beek himself recreated the GIF in 2011 for Funny or Die and gave it a second life. Anyone who’s been even remotely online in the past decade or so knows it.
But Crying Dawson has a secret history — one that most people who saw the GIF would never know.
Dawson wept in the season three finale of the angsty teen soap Dawson’s Creek, one of the most ubiquitous shows of its era. The episode, “True Love,” aired on May 24, 2000, and his fateful tears were the culmination of a long and tortured story arc.
Dawson’s had been a pop cultural flashpoint from the time it debuted in 1998. It was all 15-year-olds speaking like thesauruses and the looming threat that someone might, at any moment, have sex. 10 Things I Hate About You would immortalize it as being the show where “those Dawson’s River kids” are always “climbing in and out of each other’s beds,” while its beautiful teen cast frolicked through the pages of the J. Crew catalog and its theme song raced across the Billboard charts. It was achingly of its moment.
By the time its third season began airing in the fall of 1999, to the extent that Dawson’s Creek had a mythology, it was the story of Dawson’s love affair with his best friend Joey, played by Katie Holmes. But Joey would soon fall for Dawson’s other best friend, Pacey (Joshua Jackson).
And Dawson would, ultimately, tell Joey to go to Pacey. And then he would cry and cry and cry, and pop culture history would be made.
But Dawson’s decision to send Joey to Pacey was not inevitable. The entire love triangle of Dawson, Joey, and Pacey was a glorified accident, the call of a group of young and raw writers, mostly in their 20s and mostly working their first TV jobs, as they tried desperately to create order out of chaos and shape one of the flagship shows of the young and hungry WB network. When their choice paid off, it would launch the careers of some of the most influential writers in television today.
And as the writers’ room was crafting Dawson’s tears, an entire ecosystem of pop culture observers was building up around it. The TV recap site Television Without Pity began as a Dawson’s Creek hate-watching site and grew from there to become a website that broke ground for the way we continue to talk about TV more than two decades later. And it was on the forums of Television Without Pity that the first and earliest GIFs of Dawson crying would pass from computer to computer.
To find out exactly how Dawson came to cry and why that moment has had such a long afterlife, I decided to talk with the writers who made him do it and with the TV recappers who would make the moment loop in GIF form across our screens forever after. Here’s our cast of recurring characters.
“True Love” was written by four writers — all still working in the TV industry — and I talked to each of them. The first, Greg Berlanti, was the showrunner for Dawson’s Creek when “True Love” aired. He would leave the series after its fourth season to create Everwood. Eventually, he would become the executive producer in charge of the TV shows of DC Comics, and he would serve as executive producer on Brothers & Sisters, Political Animals, Riverdale, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, and You. In 2018, he directed Love, Simon.
The second, Tom Kapinos, would take over as Dawson’s Creek showrunner after Berlanti departed. He would go on to create Californication and Lucifer.
The third, Gina Fattore, would eventually become a co-executive producer on Dawson’s Creek and is remembered by fans for writing many of the pivotal Joey-Pacey love scenes. She would go on to write for Dare Me, Better Things, UnREAL, Masters of Sex, Parenthood, Californication, and Gilmore Girls.
And the fourth, Jeffrey Stepakoff, would also become a co-executive producer on Dawson’s Creek. Before he joined Dawson’s, he worked on shows like The Wonder Years, and afterward, he wrote and developed Disney’s Tarzan and Brother Bear. In 2007, he wrote Billion-Dollar Kiss: The Kiss That Saved Dawson’s Creek and Other Adventures in TV Writing. He’s currently the head of the Atlanta-based Georgia Film Academy, which provides training for Georgians to work in the entertainment arts industry.
Meanwhile, watching and recapping every episode of Dawson’s Creek were Television Without Pity cofounders Tara Ariano and Sarah D. Bunting. Their website would become the
May 2, 2021 - VOX
Zac Freeland/VoxAn oral history of the Dawson crying GIF and its outsized legacy. You’ve seen the clip: James Van Der Beek dissolving into exquisitely artificial tears, his lustrous blond hair blowing in the creekside breeze as his face crumples like a discarded gum wrapper. It’s the reaction gif of absurd sorrow, of tragedy so overwrought as to be funny. It’s dawsoncrying.gif. Crying Dawson ruled the internet comment sections of the late ’00s and early ’10s. It’s “on the Mount Rushmore of GIFs,”..