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The Toxicity of Teen TV: How Teen TV Dramas Normalize Unhealthy Relationships

I’m not going to lie: I love teen dramas. There is something so satisfying about laying down on my bed with a pint of Ben and Jerry’s and watching a sensationalist version of life. Despite the fact that it’s my guilty pleasure, there is something a bit nauseating about going online and seeing people tag these couples as “relationship goals.” The term “relationship goals” itself sets people up to fail. What are the chances of finding some amazing-looking person who conveniently lives next door and is smart, rich, a star athlete, star musician, and perfect? If you figure out how to find this perfect person, then please tell me.

Teen television has a lot of relationships that are fifty shades of unhealthy. The fact that these characters are finding their “great love” when they are sixteen adds another layer of discomfort. Just picture who you and all of your friends were in love with at sixteen…yeah, not so cute now.

Television shapes culture, and by accepting and appreciating some of these harmful tropes, we are playing into these dark parts of society. There are a plethora of reasons why these relationships are toxic and give awful impressions of what relationship goals should be. Once you begin to see how woefully misguided these couples are, they might become your NOTP, so you can feel free to  binge-watch after that.

Normalization of teen-adult relationships

If you have that inner craving for shows that include teenage gangs, murder, a gargoyle king (yeah, I’m pretty confused about that too), and of course the old group from the Archie comics, then you’ve probably stumbled across Riverdale. In Riverdale, town musician, football player, and attractive ginger Archie Andrews has a summer fling with his music teacher, Ms. Grundy. Grundy and 15-year-old Archie get together, but it is statutory rape. Instead of defining their relationship as illegal, the show’s writers define it as a “forbidden romance.” What makes this relationship even worse is that the show seems to forget that this happened. Once daddy Fred Andrews runs Ms. Grundy out of town, the whole situation is almost never acknowledged again. Riverdale, a show which spends entire episodes dealing with mental illness and slut-shaming, never made it a point to discuss the fact that Ms. Grundy was a predator who preyed on multiple teenage boys. Instead, she is romanticized as someone Archie “cares” about.

Another example of teen-adult relationships is the one between teenaged Aria and her high school English teacher, Ezra on Pretty Little Liars. The showrunners consistently normalized it by calling them “star-crossed lovers.” They wanted fans to ship Aria and Ezra together because it was forbidden for them to be in a relationship, ignoring the fact that Ezra was a teacher, Aria was his student, and their relationship was illegal. By the fourth season, their first hookup becomes really creepy as the viewers learn that Ezra pursued Aria despite knowing that she was a high school girl for the sole purpose of using her for information for his book. Nevertheless, they remain together and get married, which not only promotes illegal relationships but also manipulating people for self-gain.

Objectification of women

I don’t know what is supposed to be “sexy” about belittling women and dehumanizing them in these teen TV shows, but it is done so often that it is no longer surprising to see. In Gossip Girl, the best TV show ever filmed on Columbia’s campus (even if they used Columbia to represent Yale), Chuck, the male romantic lead, literally trades Blair, the female romantic lead and his girlfriend, for a hotel. She becomes a pawn in his games and a toy for him and his uncle to play with. Chuck and Blair are considered to be one of the best TV romances of all time, but this behavior cannot be overlooked. The fact that Blair takes Chuck back is worrisome, and it sends the message that objectifying women is acceptable.

Dawson’s Creek is another example of this as Dawson, the antihero protagonist who consistently unable to have a healthy relationship, gives Joey, his childhood best friend to Pacey, his other best friend. It doesn’t matter who Joey wants to be with because apparently, all someone needs is Dawson’s permission. The only positive thing about this scene is that it produced the greatest image of all time.

Joey is Dawson’s property. They break up for the first time because the only thing in her life is Dawson. When she tells him that she lost her virginity, he looks at it as if the other man had stolen from him. While Joey gains more agency as the show begins to center on which man she will choose, the idea that Joey is Dawson’s property is still firmly believed by a lot of fans. This shows many of the shortcomings of Dawson’s Creek before Joey began gaining autonomy from Dawson.

The “obsessive guy gets the girl” trope

Once again referencing the cultural staple that is Gossip Girl, Dan, the underdog protagonist who was Gossip Girl gets everything he strived for in the end. He started the website to write himself into it-girl Serena Van der Woodsen’s world so that she would love him, and despite the fact that he revealed all her secrets and stalked her for years, she marries him in the end. Dan Humphrey consistently proved himself to be toxic and obsessive, but he still manages to get the girl in the end, which sends the wrong message to teenage and young adult fans.

In The Royals (RIP to a fantastic show) Princess Eleanor is blackmailed and emotionally manipulated by her bodyguard, Jasper, who is confusingly a British actor pretending to be an American pretending to be British. Jasper tells Eleanor that he videotaped them having sex, but they somehow end up becoming  the best looking couple on television. No matter how beautiful they look together or how much Jasper changes throughout the show, the beginning of their relationship was extremely toxic, and that should not be forgotten.

In The Vampire Diaries, another fine franchise, brothers Damon and Stefan Salvatore are in love with Katherine Pierce, the vampire who turned them into vampires. Damon spends centuries trying to save her, while Stefan stalks townie Elena Gilbert, who magically looks just like Katherine. Both brothers stalk Elena and she dates both of them, despite their risky and obsessive behavior. By idealizing the Salvatore brothers’ relationships with Elena, it sends people the message that one should want to be watched over constantly and loved because they look like another girl.

It’s always one-sided

In smash hit One Tree Hill, wrong-side-of-the-tracks Lucas Scott was obsessed with cheerleader Peyton. Like any good start to a relationship, she never noticed him. He still continued this odd infatuation with Peyton, even though he is in a relationship with her best friend, Brooke.

Teen Wolf takes a similar approach with sidekick Stiles, who had a completely one-sided relationship with popular girl Lydia for around ten years. He openly loved her, and she ignored him. Later in the series, she only begins to tolerate him when it is beneficial for her to be with her best friend, Allison. Relationships should not be based on one person’s idolization of the other and the idolized person eventually falling in love with them. That sets up an unhealthy power dynamic in  a relationship: they will never be equals.

Cheating is normalized and no one suffers the consequences

No one does cheating better (or worse) than Gilmore Girls. Rory, the budding journalist daughter, manages to ruin every relationship she’s in with some sort of cheating incident. While her first boyfriend, Dean was overly jealous, Rory cheats on him and kisses Jess, who becomes her second boyfriend. Later on, she sleeps with a married Dean, breaks up his marriage, and appears to feel little or no remorse for it. Dean made a choice to cheat, but Rory knew he was married and still consented, knowing it would hurt his wife, Lindsey. While she never cheats on Jess, she cheats with him, which begins a precedent of an unhealthy relationship: once a cheater, always a cheater. Rory cheats on her next boyfriend, Logan, with Jess as well. In the series revival, Rory cheats on her boyfriend, Paul with Logan consistently, even though Logan is engaged to someone else. Logan as just as much to blame as Rory, this pattern of behavior is unacceptable and should not be romanticized. The behavior of all the characters in Gilmore Girls promotes the idea that cheating means nothing, since Rory ends up unscathed and never faces any consequences for her actions.

Real flaws are ignored throughout the series

Who can forget when in The Vampire Diaries, Damon pretty much vampire date raped Caroline for a while by compelling her, feeding off her, and having sex with her in her compelled state?  Apparently, the characters can, since everyone seems to forget that this ever happened, and Damon dates Elena and befriends the rest of her and Caroline’s group. Even Caroline becomes his friend and his awful actions in the early seasons are never spoken of again.

Gossip Girl has a similar plot, as Chuck Bass attempts to rape two girls within the first half of season one. The character of Chuck quickly lost many of his overtly predatory qualities throughout the early episodes, but still, no one acknowledges that he attempted to rape multiple girls. He keeps all his friends, even though he attempted to rape one of them, and even gets a girlfriend.

Both Damon and Chuck become male romantic heroes, and their pasts as manipulative abusers are ignored and erased. Striving for men like them gives off the impression that people should forgive and forget after enduring such trauma.

Women compromise their futures for men who aren’t worth it

Relationships are about compromise, but it is always upsetting to see someone give up their entire life for their significant other while their partner does not do the same. Gilmore Girls has the perfect example of that with Rory’s best friend, Lane. Lane begins the show as someone who wanted to break away from the life of her religious antique shop owning mother. After Dave, the correct man for Lane leaves the show (still a tragedy), Lane ends up with his friend Zack, the singer in her band, and this is just disappointing on so many levels. Zack is rash, horrifyingly dumb, and is overall a terrible boyfriend. Lane and Zack get married at an extremely young age and she immediately gets pregnant. She takes care of their twins at home while Zack is allowed to continue pursuing his music career, and he often leaves her alone while he is on tour. In the end, the character who everyone was rooting for in the beginning to forge her own path became a mirror of her mother. Lane gave up everything for Zack, but he did not do the same for her. The Lane-Zack relationship is one with all give and no take for Lane, which is unhealthy. Both people in a relationship need autonomy and a say, but Lane ends up with neither.

Teens sacrifice their dreams for people who probably won’t matter in the future

While this one is not a TV show, it has been bothering me for around a decade. In the highly underrated High School Musical 3, Troy, once again the sports and musical aficionado, gives up his dream and big shot basketball ambitions to be closer to Gabriella. He sacrifices his lifelong dream for his high school girlfriend. While Troy and Gabriella are OTP, that was a terrible decision for him to make. Realistically, what are the chances of them lasting? Not very high. Teens should not be taught to sacrifice their dreams for people who probably won’t be a part of their long-term future.

Teen dramas can and have to do better.

Elizabeth Karpen

Columbia Barnard '22

Lizzie Karpen is a junior at Barnard College, the most fuego of women’s colleges, studying Political Science and English with a concentration in Film. To argue with her very unpopular opinions, send her a message at [email protected] or @lizziekarpen on Instagram and Twitter.
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