The Persistent and Disturbing Trend of Student/Teacher Relationships on Teen Shows
Writers need to find new and healthier storylines
This topic has been on my mind for a really long time. I noticed it with Dawson's Creek but I shrugged it off as a one time discomfort. Then recapping Glee I saw the April Rhodes story and while she's not a teacher, she is an older woman and was depicted (as a sight gag no less) to have had relations with a few underage students. Then I heard about Pretty Little Liars and that student teacher relationship which people actually shipped. Then I saw Life Unexpected and dear god that student/teacher relationship was the worst example I'd ever seen. It doesn't stop there, there's The OC, One Tree Hill, and even recently with Riverdale. It got me thinking...why is this such a common thread and why is it almost always handled so freaking poorly? I can only thank god that Freaks and Geeks was cancelled before Judd Apatow ruined things by making Lindsay have a thing for Mr. Russo.
So, why? Why is this such a persistent trend? I'd personally like to believe it's not some well orchestrated plot to groom our young and impressionable teens into sleeping with adults. But then, why does this seem to pop up so much?
Well, first I think we first have to look at how we got here and I think I have a relatively good hypothesis. So, a lot of younger people develop crushes on their teachers because it's safe, they're authoritative, they appear mature, they're attractive, or whatever and I think that's perfectly natural. Say these kids who had this experience grow up to write for a teen show or a YA book and they think back to their own experiences. They're probably going to think it would be interesting to explore that crush in the safety of fiction. I totally understand that because fiction writing is an excellent tool for exploring thoughts and feelings that you maybe can't or shouldn't in real life but want to work through. They think, hey, I had this crush and a lot of other people had this crush, this would be a relatable story to write. What's the harm in that, right? Well, how about we discuss.
Problem the first: The bulk of our entertainment geared towards youths are written by adults. I don't think these adults are bad for writing about teens, lots do, I do and teens enjoy reading or watching characters their age, everyone does. The problem is that they're writing from an adult perspective so when they think about getting with their teacher, they're thinking about themselves and how much they'd enjoy this and as an adult that's fine but in the context of their story, their character is a teen and a lot of times, I think that gets forgotten. So, what you end up with is more of an adult love story where you almost forget that one character is underage. People can enjoy what they like but where this becomes a problem is the normalization of a relationship like this and worse, the false seed that teens are adults. I know they like to think they are, I sure as hell liked to think I was grown and mature as a teen but hahaha no. I don't think it's a great idea to blur the lines so much because it lets abusers and predators justify their actions. "But they "looked/acted" so mature!"
Problem the second: this is honestly my biggest beef with this storyline and it's that the writers acknowledge that this subject is taboo by virtue of having the teen very aggressively pursue the relationship with the adult. They recognize that if they had the adult pursue the relationship it would be creepy and to remove that, they want to make it clear that the teen actually wants the relationship. This is how most shows deal with this. We saw it with Pacey pursuing Mrs. Jacobs in particular. The problem is that it Infuriatingly paints the teenager as the culprit so the adult can play the victim. Like, oh I know this is wrong but you're just making me soooo weak. It's the exact premise of the song Don't Stand So Close to Me by The Police, which I can barely listen to because it's really gross.
Like, dude, you are their teacher and they are children. I don't care how much they are flirting with you (or how much you are perceiving their conversations with you as flirting) and I don't care about how you think girls experimenting with makeup is all about impressing you. You are the adult and the fact that you are attracted and tempted at all says more about you than it does about the children. The really sucky thing is that by putting the onus on the teen to make your storyline more palatable, you're helping to normalize the relationship to impressionable teens as well as giving an out to predatory teachers when they inevitably get caught. "Hey, they wanted it!"
Problem the third: This one is pretty damn problematic too and it's the fact that in a lot of teen shows/movies the actors portraying the teens are more often than not adults. This makes sense because of child labour laws and the like but is it warping our perceptions of what teens look like? I look back at my high school yearbook pictures and I see a sea of baby faces. None of them look like they should be with adults. Teen shows however? It can trick you. Make you think the relationship isn't that bad, they love each other, they're consenting, the teen is just mature...it's a little weird is what I'm saying. The taboo is weakened and normalized just that little bit because ultimately the writers want you to be entertained and maybe a little into it.
Problem the fourth: Power dynamics. It's all well and good to fantasize about things in our heads but in the real world, there exists a thing called power dynamics where in one person holds power over another person in a relationship. This can be a boss over their employee, a doctor over their patient or a teacher over their student. When someone is in a position of power over us, it can lead us to behave differently towards them than we do to people we view as our equals. It's easy to tell someone who has no power over us "no" but not so easy when they have something over us. A teacher can very easily use their power to manipulate a student, especially one with a crush on them. This is the grossest part for me because while two adults can role play their power fantasies consensually, I really think it's gross and irresponsible to market that same fantasy to teenagers who haven't fully developed yet and might not understand the dynamics that are at play. Especially if they have a crush because they might not see how troublesome the relationship is. When/if they do realize how troublesome it is, how hard would it be for them to get out of it? "I don't like this but I don't want to get bad grades/my parents to find out/everyone in school to make fun of me."
Let's really drive home the point about power dynamics and vulnerability, shall we? Take the show, Life Unexpected. It aired for 2 seasons on the CW network and it centered on a young girl who tracks down her biological parents so that they would sign away their rights so she could be emancipated and not have to live in foster homes anymore. Instead of awarding her this, the judge decides to put her back in the care of her bio parents and much drama ensues. It's actually a pretty good show that I enjoyed but the problem storyline reared its ugly head in the second season. How they chose to skirt around the adult guilt in this scenario was to have him think she was older since he meets her in a bar (her dad owned a bar that she sometimes helped him prep for in off hours). It's quickly revealed to him that she is in high school when he is introduced as the new teacher at her school. So, now they both know each others' ages and the teacher tries to back off but she isn't having that. We are thrust into the narrative that she is relentlessly pursuing this relationship because they had a "connection". It's presented as "unrequited love" he loves her but has to stay away and all that dramatic crap but then...it gets really fucking dark.
Here's the thing, a big storyline this same season is dealing with Lux's PTSD from being in the foster care system her whole life. It's alluded to that she's dealt with abuse but suddenly we're thrown this big curveball that the last family she lived with, the father molested her or maybe more.
The teacher (and the show) finally acknowledges how fucked up the relationship between Lux and Eric, her teacher, is but only after spending a whole season romanticizing the shit out of it. To say that it leaves a bad taste in the viewers mouth is an understatement and I wish that the show intended this to be the case. I really wish that because then I could give it some props but they never touched on it and it leads me to think that they threw in the bit about the teacher acknowledging his shitty behaviour because of fan complaint because let me tell you, a lot of fans were uncomfortable with this depiction. The show was like "she's wise beyond her years so it's cool to pair her with a young and hot teacher." While the fans were screaming "SHE IS A VULNERABLE CHILD WITH ABANDONMENT ISSUES BROUGHT UP IN THE FOSTER CARE SYSTEM!!!! SHE CANNOT CONSENT TO THIS! THIS IS REALLY FUCKED UP THAT YOU'RE MAKING THIS SEXY! PLS, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, STAAAAHP!!!" So, they acknowledge it in the least satisfying way ever. The parents are upset (rightly so) but their reaction is to ask him nicely to move out of town and he obliges but NOOO!!! Call the cops! He took advantage of your very vulnerable daughter who suffered from PTSD and learning disabilities from the abuse she suffered. This is not ok.
Problem the fifth: Lack of fucking consequences. Because television and movies are trying chiefly to entertain and titillate us, they want to go into the taboo relationships but they don't necessarily want to deal in the messy fall out that a relationship like this would cause to the teen. So, often times, the relationship is presented as a "good" or "positive" thing for the kid. Worse, the teacher almost always gets away with their crimes or at least are painted as tragic for having to step away from their "doomed" love. NO. Garbage.
Let me ask you, how would you react if you found out your son/daughter's teacher had been kissing them or sleeping with them when you thought your kid was safe in school? The person you entrusted to look after and educate your child was taking advantage of them. My guess is, you wouldn't be super chill and you would definitely get the police involved. I don't think I've ever seen this done on tv shows. Police are never called in. At most, the teacher may leave in disgrace but to go teach at another school. With more children. And everyone keeps their indiscretion a secret...for the teen's sake. Or worse...most shows seem to want the viewer to be mad at the teen for "putting the teacher in that situation" to begin with. Like it's not the teacher's fault at all and I hate it. Is this the message we want to be sending to kids? Worse, is this the message you want adults who are in charge of children to absorb? I think the only show that sort of came close to exploring how gross student/teacher dynamics are is the episode Mars Vs Mars where a teacher is accused of raping a student. It's problematic but I think it eventually comes out that the teacher really was a skeevy pervert but he's not arrested. At most, he loses his job.
You want to know something really funny to me? Do you want to know the best depiction of a student/teacher relationship I've seen on a teen show is? It's Teacher's Pet from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I know, I know, it's largely lauded as being one of the worst episodes of the whole series, it's always ranked incredibly low on people's lists but goddamn it, it actually got it right. Here we have a sexy/hot teacher who the boys fantasize about. She knows she's hot, she knows the guys like her and she takes full advantage of that fact, luring vulnerable boys to her home so that she can then, in true Buffy fashion, turn into a praying mantis monster, have sex with them and then rip their heads off to implant her eggs. Is it a good episode? I don't actually mind it much but tastes may vary. Does it have a good message behind it? HELL FUCKING YES! It's literally the only teen show I've seen that outright depicts the teacher as the fucking predator in this scenario, serving as a warning to teens to watch out for creepy adults who show an interest in you. You know, lest they be giant fucking praying mantis monsters who want to tear your head off and plant their eggs in you. Know what happened to her? Buffy kills her because she's a monster. Now, I'm not advocating for that in real life but for real, this is a direct and final consequence for an evil teacher's predatory actions. I can't ask for anything more.
I want to leave you off with a final point. I am not trying to pearl clutch here and I don't believe that anything is a direct 1:1 ratio where you watch one thing and go and emulate it. I think we can all agree that a fully grown adult taking advantage of a child or teenager is not only illegal but morally gross. I don't think there is a big Hollywood conspiracy to condition kids to romanticize sleeping with their teachers. I just think it's interesting to look at why this trope keeps popping up and how it might be helping to normalize this scenario for people. As I said before, I think it's ok for consenting adults to play with this dynamic if that's their prerogative but I think we do need to re-examine how we are portraying these relationships to an impressionable audience and what messages we are sending them for the sake of cheap titillation and entertainment.
Let's try to really think about how we are presenting this scenario to young people. Let's try to do better for them and not desensitize them to a very real danger.