Throughout television and cinematic history, student-teacher relationships have always played a role in the kind of romantic pairings we’ve watched unfold onscreen. Since the days of Dawson’s Creek, The O.C., and One Tree Hill, people can remember watching student-teacher relationships being depicted for entertainment. However, recent shows like Pretty Little Liars, Riverdale, MTV’S Scream, and Gossip Girl have raised a whole new generation of teenagers to bear witness multiple cases of forbidden/illegal relationships with their own eyes. These certain portrayals have varied among show and movie, but without a doubt have been prominent at one point or another in all of our lives.
On one hand, there are the depictions that show the disturbing side to them – the ones that show the manipulation or predatory nature of the adults in the picture that are taking advantage of children. And on the other, there are the relationships that are thrown in front of us like they’re the epitome of all that is romantic and beautiful in the world, highlighting the love with bright neon lights. But what exactly do these certain portrayals mean and what message do they send out to those watching?
Take Pretty Little Liars, for instance – a show that has a main demographic of teenage girls watching. Throughout the entire run of it, we have Aria, a 16-year-old girl, engaging in a secret relationship with her English teacher, Ezra Fitz. While the show makes a note that the relationship is forbidden by portraying how the couple often tries to stay away from each other and keep it a secret, overall the clear message that is sent to viewers is that the two are in love with each other and are a couple that should be rooted for.
With all their attempts to romanticize the pair, not a single second of screentime ever seems to be dedicated to the fact that no matter what the couple feels for each other, in any court of law system Ezra is guilty of statutory rape. In one sense, we can all turn a blind eye to this on the basis that what we watching is simply an act of fiction and not real, but on the other, we have to remember this is a show being targeted towards girls the same age as Aria’s character – the very same demographic that are the most likely to be taken advantage of in similar situations. For most who watched this show around ages as young as even 10 or 11, the main reaction to this relationship was “Oh my God, they’re so cute!” or “Ezra is so hot!”, because let’s face it, how were any of us supposed to know any better?
What was a situation of a teenage girl being taken advantage of was shown in a light that was supposed to make its audience admire the events taking place.
In any case of an adult entering a relationship with a minor, it doesn’t matter how pure their intentions or how consenting both parties are – the behavior is still predatory, illegal, and wrong. Shows like Pretty Little Liars that spend time convincing young girls that a relationship like that is romantic, promotes harmful views to minors who can’t tell when they are being taken advantage of due to being so invested in the idea that the concept is healthy and something that should be strived for.
Other shows have taken more realistic approaches with such portrayals, making sure to include consequences or reveal the ulterior motives of the adult. With Riverdale‘s recent storyline of Archie with Miss Grundy, viewers were able to see that while Archie was swept up in the idea that Miss Grundy cared for him, her behavior throughout their short term lived relationship could be seen doing otherwise. She was constantly manipulating him and using guilt and victim blaming to make sure he would never tell anyone about them, even though she knew she was in the wrong for her actions and should be punished. The clearest and most realistic example of a student-teacher relationship that we get to see on this show is when we watch Miss Grundy eyeing a group of high schoolers after ending her relationship with Archie, showing that rather than just accidentally falling for a student as a one-time thing, she seems to have a thing for teenage boys. This approach lets its viewers know that while we’ve been watching the relationship from Archie’s eyes and seeing all the good parts, we’ve been blinded to the truth – that Miss Grundy is a predator. More often with student-teacher relationships, the minor in the situation is oblivious to the fact that they are being taken advantage of and are convinced the adult in the picture sees them as an equal, which is usually far from the actual case.
Regardless of portrayal, it’s clear that inappropriate student-teacher relationships are nowhere out of the ordinary for TV viewing, and perhaps never will be. But why exactly is that? Perhaps it’s because forbidden romances excite viewers and keep interest – or maybe it’s simply for the drama they can create to make more storylines. But one thing seems for certain: they won’t be going away anytime soon.
Specific productions that are targeted towards the youth have a responsibility to make sure that while they take whatever creative path they wish, they aren’t sending out messages to young viewers that certain illegal situations are okay. Now more than ever the media is shaping the way we behave by having a huge influence in our lives, and it’s important that they are aware of this responsibility and try to use it in any way possible to instill values that prevent the encouragement of activities that pose harm their viewers.