Guest Blog by Anna Viney - Why healthy relationships on screen matter
Picture this. A friend of yours, let’s call them Sally, gets into a new relationship. You like Sally so of course you are happy, though a little grossed out, when she tells you how deep and true their love is, a love for the ages if you will.
We need to talk
Alarm bells start to ring as Sally tells you how her new partner is so protective of her, he sometimes follows her without her knowledge to keep her safe. You meet him and he doesn’t really leave her side and it becomes clear he doesn’t like you or any of her friends.
In fact, one of the group lets you know that she already knows him and he took advantage of her while she was under the influence which, let’s call a spade a spade, is sexual assault. If this isn’t horrifying enough, by the end of the night he has murdered a bunch of people including Sally’s brother and ok this last paragraph is fast becoming a recap of The Vampire Diaries, so I’ll stop here.
I’m going to make an assumption that at some point, hopefully close to the beginning of this saga, you would be seeing signs of abuse and telling Sally to run fast and far away. Well not in the land of TV and film. Especially TV and film aimed at young people.
Twilight, Riverdale, The Originals, Gossip Girl, Pretty Little Liars, The Vampire Diaries and Buffy the Vampire Slayer have all been proponents of relationships that are actually abusive. They are often between a teenage girl and a much older man, in some cases literally hundreds of years older.
Minus Twilight, I actually am a big fan of the above, but re-watching them as I got older meant having to balance that love with a dislike and concern for how relationships were portrayed throughout their respective runs.
As a teenager, I bought into these relationships hook, line and sinker. I shipped before I knew shipping was a thing and it formed, to some extent, what I thought I wanted in a relationship. I wanted an Angel or a Damon, someone that cared so much it was all-encompassing.
Thankfully I grew out of it, but I still feel so fondly towards these shows that I recently decided to do a massive re-watch and I couldn’t believe the amount of abusive behaviour on show that I used to perceive as love.
I do it because I love you
The Vampire Diaries series ends with Elena and Damon together after years of her trying to decide between him and his brother, but Damon is violent, possessive and controlling. He is a literal mass murderer whose victims include many people close to Elena including her own brother though, spoiler, he does come back to life. There is also a very murky storyline where Damon uses compulsion (a magical tool that allows vampires on the show to make people do things against their will) on the character of Caroline. During that time, he feeds off her and has sex with her which I, along with a lot of other fans, see as sexual assault.
This can also be seen in Buffy when she gets involved with Spike who over the seasons has developed an unhealthy obsession with her. He will not take no for an answer until he eventually attempts to rape her. If she were anyone else but the slayer, he probably would have succeeded. We never truly see Spike feel the repercussions of this because it happened when he had no soul and after this he goes and gets his restored. It’s the vampiric equivalent of I’d had too much to drink or I couldn’t resist because her skirt was too short. There are a litany of real life excuses some people employ to disbelieve and shame sexual assault and abuse survivors.
We see the guilt of all of Spike’s transgressions weighing on him and making him unstable, but the attempted rape itself is never deeply explored nor is the impact this had on Buffy and how she copes with the trauma. It isn’t even the end of their relationship.
Edward and Jacob from Twilight fight over Bella, want to control her movements and who she can see. She distances herself from friends and family until she literally wants to die for him. This went on to inspire Fifty Shades of Grey where the main character Christian, who is a clear narcissist, does the exact same thing to Ana. She makes him the centre of her world at the detriment to outside relationships constantly trying to find ways to soothe his tortured soul at the expense of herself. He may never outright ask her to, but the implications of his actions and behaviour in relation to her are plain to see. In both of these stories the men are rewarded, they get the girl, they get a family. And even worse, it’s explained as if somehow their treatment of these women is out of their control, a product of their own pain which makes it ok. Spoiler alert - it’s not.
It was only in 2015 that emotional abuse, or coercive control as it is fast becoming known, became a crime that you can be sentenced to jail for in the UK. Just last month, Sally Challen, won a landmark appeal which negated her charges and granted her a retrial for the murder of her husband. The grounds for this were that she was suffering from two mental disorders at the time and that she had suffered from decades of coercive behaviour. They started their relationship when she was only 15, him 22.
As more and more research comes out and more people come forward with their own experiences, we are forming a clearer picture of what is healthy in relationships and what is straight up abuse. Gaslighting, controlling behaviour, constant put-downs, extreme mood swings, relationship inequality are all signs of coercive control and many of them are present in the relationship examples mentioned above. The difference is this is not called emotional abuse, it is called true love. Not just by the main characters, but by those around them which further validates it and makes it ok. Once again, it is not and never should be ok.
The lesson being taught here, often to teenagers, is that abusive behaviour is actually just a way of showing love and that it is possible to change someone, no matter the behaviour they exhibit, if you just love them enough and persevere. It is a dangerous and damaging lesson and from the other side it is giving a model of behaviour to people on how to show love in unhealthy ways.
The ‘Rom-Com effect’ is a real thing. If someone says no to your advances, it is not only acceptable but desirable for you to keep trying. Chase them down in that airport, declare your love in public, do not take that no for an answer because ‘romance’.
Who were your TV role models?
I get that these shows are fantasies and some people may think this dynamic is overdramatic in shows already filled with vampires and werewolves, but I know that TV and film helped to shape me to an extent. I am not blaming it for my decisions in any way, shape or form, however I do think it would have been great to have role models (and most of my role models at that age were based in TV and film) who didn’t accept this kind of behaviour in their lives and I hope that in the future young people will have that in the media they consume.
Now I am not saying that these types of relationships should never be explored in film and television, I just think more thought needs to go into how they are portrayed because often that portrayal is desirable. Being obsessive or controlling is considered romantic and young minds watching this take it onboard because they deeply invest in these characters. You only have to take to social media to see the lengths fans will go to when defending their favourite pair. Take a look at the Twitter accounts of The Vampire Diaries creator, Julie Plec, or The Originals writer, Carina Adly Mackenzie, in relation to the ship Klaroline and you can see just how invested people get with these fictional characters.
So far, I have concentrated on fantasy shows, but this is happening elsewhere. Look at Gossip Girl, people still hold Chuck and Blair as some kind of ultimate couple and they did get their happy ending, but you only have to watch the first few episodes to see Chuck attempting to rape two female characters. It is even implied this is something he has done before, but it is never dealt with. Instead he is developed into a major love interest as part of a pairing that still make it onto TV favourite couple’s lists. The Ezra and Aria pairing in Pretty Little Liars is another ongoing fan favourite and don’t get me started on the uneven power dynamics and downright creepiness in that relationship.
More recently, Riverdale shows one of its main characters, Archie, having an affair with his music teacher in season 1. This is a TV trope going back years, Dawson’s Creek and as mentioned above, Pretty Little Liars come to mind, but once again it is often portrayed as cool and desirable from the point of view of the student.
In Riverdale, Archie and his teacher Miss Grundy are having sex (initiated by her) and while it does end when the affair is discovered, there is never an explicit conversation that calls her out for being a sexual predator who took advantage of someone younger who she has power over. It is only in season 2 that a main character calls out her behaviour and it was so incredibly cathartic I actually yelled out ‘FINALLY’ in my living room.
Times are changing
We are living in a time of change with the Me Too and Time’s Up movements. Hollywood and the rest of the world are finally opening their minds up to just how important representation can be and how what we see on screen can inform our thoughts and opinions. This means it’s really important to be sure we are writing interesting and challenging stories that, yes, can bring attention to bad behaviour and complex characters, but that are also responsibly written especially if aimed at young people.
It can be done, take a look at the CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, created by Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna, for some ground-breaking mental health representation and complex character development. HBO’s Big Little Lies also did some incredibly realistic and layered work showing abuse in a relationship.
Older and wiser
I only began to notice these unhealthy patterns as I got older and gained more life experience and so I believe as we age and grow we need to make sure we are reaching back to the younger generation and changing these tropes so the characters they invest in are worth it and we don’t become complicit in allowing bad behaviour to go unnoticed or worse lauded.
So let’s demand more from our characters. Let’s stop rewarding bad and abusive behaviour in our TV, film and books. Let’s have less ‘romantic’ stalking, less ‘romantic’ age gaps and for the love of everything, let’s have less time spent on guys who watch girls sleeping through their bedroom windows (I’m looking at you Edward from Twilight), it is not romantic, it is not love, it is just plain creepy.
Seeing healthy and well-rounded relationships on-screen matters too and when I say healthy and well-rounded, I don’t mean perfect. Think of David and Patrick in Schitt’s Creek, Bailey and Warren from Grey’s Anatomy, Alex and Maggie in Supergirl, Darryl and White Josh in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Adena and Kat in The Bold Type, Randall and Beth in This Is Us, Waverly and Haught in Wynonna Earp and Ben and Leslie in Parks and Recreation. These relationships have layers, they have flaws, some don’t even go the distance, but they are not unhealthy. They are complex, they are real, they are both happy and sad, the people in them grow and communicate and they don’t lose any entertainment value along the way
Anna is a content writer, journalist and therapist. She writes about a broad range of topics including film, TV and pop culture as well as feminism, mental health and wellbeing. Follow Anna on Instagram and Twitter for funny anecdotes and insightful stories.