TV shows that pursue relationships between young adults and older teachers are unethical and worrying

Rachael Dunphy

Like everyone, I regressed over the last number of years by revisiting some of my favourite films and television shows from my younger years. Although far from perfect, they were a comfort during a strange and stressful time. I didn’t, however, expect to find just how many of these mediums aimed at young people feature relationships between minors and their mentors.

A staple in my pre and early teen years was Pretty Little Liars, which aired on the network ABC Family, now known as Freeform, from 2010 to 2017. The show was known for its’ out of the box perception of many things, with relationships being one. One of their protagonists, Aria Montgomery, meets an older man in the opening episode, who later turns out to be her English teacher. They continue their affair in secret for many months, before eventually coming clean on their relationship, and even marry before the end of the series. 

When I watched the programme in my early years of secondary school, I thought this was what love was, and saw no ethical issues with their relationship. I now know that the characters were 15 and 22 respectively, and ask myself who thought this was okay for a show aired on a family network? Is this what we should be advertising to the next generation?

Hollywood hasn’t escaped this trope either, with Oscar-nominee Notes on a Scandal centering around a high school teacher’s relationship with a fifteen-year-old student. Jennifer Lopez starred in ‘The Boy Next Door’, as a teacher who has a once-off affair with a student; even Reese Witherspoon made a name for herself as a student who was having an affair with her teacher in 1999’s ‘Election’. 

Of course, using films and tv shows as an ethical guideline is never going to be a success, but when the trope is used so often, one would have to question if it is being taken a step too far. 

Teen TV shows such as Gossip Girl, Riverdale, and even less contemporary shows such as Dawson’s Creek all feature a young student having intimate relationships with their teachers. In fact, while researching this topic, I found it difficult to find a tv show aimed at the young adult demographic that didn’t have at least one example of a student/teacher relationship.

Obviously, this happens outside of a screen too, with numerous cases of teachers being seen as taking advantage of their underage students, and of course representation is important, but is the subject being praised for the next generation of young people? Rarely do these relationships garner any repercussions on screen, and both the teachers and minors involved move on with their lives. Education on screen is and will always be important, but a step back is needed before education turns into glorification. 

Rachael Dunphy

Image credit: ABC