A few weeks ago, I spent some time talking to my younger cousins who are just entering middle school. We began discussing tv shows that we had watched and shared some recommendations. This got me reflecting upon some of the more popular TV shows amongst young teenagers, and I was taken aback by how many of these shows romanticize toxic relationships.
Why do we romanticize toxic relationships?
Toxic relationships are defined as relationships that are unsupportive, and emotionally and/or physically harms those involved. As much as we like to be rational and tell ourselves that certain characters have an unhealthy relationship, these shows still have a large audience and fan base. Why is that? To begin, let’s look at the psychological workings behind a tv show.
It is no surprise that directors and producers choose actors/actresses who are considered ‘appealing’ or ‘beautiful’ by society’s standards. Having actors/actresses who are attractive makes it easier for viewers to build empathy for them and to view the show with more interest. A study by Muller and colleagues (2013) provides insight into how people are more likely to display a higher level of empathy for those who are attractive compared to those who are unattractive. TV shows use this to their advantage by casting an attractive actor to play a character whose actions are not always morally justified. No matter how crazy the character’s actions may be, viewers will be more willing to forgive him/her.
Another important aspect of why these toxic relationships are romanticized is the audience such shows are directed at. These shows are aimed towards young teenagers, typically around the age of 14. At this age, most teenagers have never been in a real relationship and are just starting to date. Hence, shows that portray dramatic relationships are more accepted by teenagers due to their own lack of experience. What’s more frightening is that young teenagers, being more easily influenced, may adopt these ‘on-screen’ relationships as the ideal.
What the “bad boy” character teaches young women?
When we think of a rom-com film or TV show, we can easily name one that includes the typical ‘bad boy’. In most popular romantic shows, viewers are presented with the ‘bad boy’ character. This is trademarked as someone who is attractive, mysterious, moody, and has some sort of habit or hobby that is unhealthy, dangerous, or illegal. As mentioned before, people become more empathetic towards good looking characters, thus making their actions appealing instead of concerning.
But what does this mean for the viewers watching?
The dramatization of exaggerated stereotypes of a certain gender’s role in a relationship can subconsciously alter young teens self-image. The ‘bad boy’ is shown as someone who has an addiction or sad history that they are unable to move past, and the girl is typically shown as someone who ‘fixes’ the boy. This is a very misleading ideology to instill in young men and women’s minds as it is not anyone’s job to ‘fix’ the other in a relationship. Yes, people can willingly change themselves, but no one should believe that they can convert someone into the image of their belief/values. Furthermore, the popularization of ‘bad boy’ characters teaches young women that they must tolerate unsupportive and unhealthy behaviors from their significant other. It is not romantic to be in a relationship with someone who places the responsibility of their happiness on you. Neither is it romantic when you constantly must clean up your partner’s messes.
Sometimes it is harder to find why certain relationships are toxic due to the beautiful cinematography and previous knowledge that the two principal characters end up together. But looking at what TV shows portray as ‘romantic’ gestures explains a lot. In the act of ‘pursuing’ a girl, male characters are often shown to closely follow her around discreetly-to the point that it becomes creepy. An example that instantly pops into my mind is Edward Cullen from the Twilight Series. Edward sneaks into Bella’s room (the girl he is infatuated with) at night to watch her sleep – without her knowledge. He was obsessed with her to the point that he crossed the line and invaded her privacy. However, people choose to look at this as a gesture of love as he is good looking and mysterious, but, in reality, his behaviour was ‘stalker-like’. Not only did he completely disrespect her boundaries, but he also sneaked into someone’s room which is illegal.
Another ‘romantic’ gesture that gets looked past is manipulation. This is often seen as characters purposefully creating situations for the other person to fall in love with him/her. Take for example Damon and Elena from The Vampire Diaries. Damon tricks Elena into becoming a vampire and falling in love with him. He even resorts to attempting mind control to force her into kissing him. In Gossip Girl, Chuck and Blair are idolized as a romantic couple, but both have gone out of their way to sabotage the other as they ruin any new relationship the other starts with someone new. In a messy ‘on-again-off-again’ relationship, the two are constantly making each other unhappy.
With more media coverage on people’s opinions about TV shows and movies, it is easier to spot toxic relationships that are presented on screen. By no means should fictional characters be made the ideal for anything as real life is drastically different. So, when you find yourself idolizing a couple on TV, step back and ask yourself if the characters’ actions are moral and legal in real life. Catch the red flags before you start romanticising something that is made-up.