You are a woman with a man inside watching a woman. You are your own voyeur.” -Margaret Atwood
Pretty Little Liars was a wildly popular teen show that first aired in 2010, and had every teen and tween girl at the time hooked, including me. The show is based upon a book series and the show is about four girls being stalked and tormented after the death of their best friend. If unaware, someone may believe that the show would have been something relatively harmless for young girls.
But there is one element of this show that was and is incredibly problematic, and occurs in the first episode. One of the girls, Aria, makes out with some random dude in a bar, and this dude happens to be her teacher. Ignoring the fact that a 16 year old was hanging out in a bar for some reason, Aria gets into a relationship with this teacher and the show acts as if it is a healthy and normal relationship. In the following seasons, the other girls are also in inappropriate relationships with much older men and it’s never presented as what it is, predatory.
“Who cares, it’s just a TV show, it’s not real life,” you may be saying. But not only is this mindset dismissive, it’s harmful. Recently, the YouTuber Mike Mic’s made a recap series of the show and it has sparked a dialogue on social media about why the show was seemingly obsessed with age gaps in relationships between young girls and fully grown men. After thinking on it, I thought, “Surely this is the only instance of this trope being used excessively right?”
However, the more I thought about it, this trope is not oddly specific or uncommon at all. From fantasy novels like Twilight or anything Sarah J Maas has ever written, to the last three books I have attempted to read this trope is everywhere.
Stories that center these relationships are numerous, but what is the point of the inclusion? Why must the male love interest in stories be ancient in comparison to a freshly 18 year old? I don’t necessarily have answers, but I have some theories behind why this is the case.
Catering to the Internal Male Gaze
All of my examples of media with this trope are written or produced by women. This may be perplexing because this phenomenon sounds like it would come from a couple of creepy men, not necessarily women. Margaret Atwood explained the reason behind this well with her quote at the top of this article. Being born as a woman means you are conditioned to cater to a man’s desires or perceived desires. Rejection of their desires, is only contributing to what they desire, simply acting not like other women is also a male fantasy.
So when women write relationships like this, how are they contributing to a fantasy? A young impressionable girl, that is very limited in experience, who needs an older, wiser man to show her the ropes. In instances like Twilight, where the male love interest is a 100 years older, there is a theme that he was waiting for this young girl, which is a bizarre idea in my opinion. No woman ever could satisfy a need, except for this one, who just happens to be incredibly young? Women writing this, probably want to be that one exception and being at the mercy of an older man for guidance and protection are probably benefits.
Now I’m not saying that catering to the male gaze is the only reason why these stories get written. I don’t pretend to know all the intricacies of why these authors write these stories, but their motivations should be questioned. Did the vampire love interest have to be 100? Why is your female protagonist presented as naive and her youth repeatedly emphasized?
These stories are not the most problematic pieces of media in existence, not by a long shot. But denying the fact that they contribute to real life relationships where young women are preyed upon by older men is dangerous. Media is not a how-to-guide, but when young people are exposed to ideas that are not portrayed as explicitly wrong, they will think they can partake in that behavior.
So the next time you consume a piece of media, examine why certain plots are the way they are. Why is the female protagonist dating an older man? Why does no one object to the relationship? And why on earth was Marlene King obsessed with having teenage girls date older men instead of figuring out who their stalker was?