There is something blissful about T.V. marketed towards teenage girls. The ridiculous storylines, outrageous fashion choices, and the 25-year olds that play sophomores in high school make for an enjoyable viewing experience.
Before entering my critique, I wholeheartedly admit I’m a fan of most of the shows I discuss in this article. More specifically, I have fawned over the characters who fall into the “bad boy” category — anyone who knows me knows I have proudly proclaimed myself as Team Jess Mariano.
Perhaps my adoration for the absurdity of teen T.V. and their heartthrobs has allowed me to come to this realization: there is a real problem with how relationships are depicted in teen tv shows.
If you talk to a girl aged 14 and up, there is a likelihood that their favourite part of their show is the romantic lead. I cannot count the lunches spent in high school discussing our favourite Chuck Bass moments from Gossip Girl, or the number of times I overheard friends discuss how hot Jacob Elordi’s Nate is in Euphoria. With reflection, if any of these male characters were real-life boys my friends were dating, I would tell them to run in the opposite direction.
It feels like the warning signs and red flags are all quite obvious, but for those who aren’t familiar with the genre, let’s break them down. My personal favourites include the aforementioned Chuck Bass, who is introduced to the world of Gossip Girl by, yes, attempting to assault two of the female leads. Of course, the audience becomes charmed by his bad-boy ways – his frequent mentions of prostitutes, his alcohol and drug abuse, his derogatory way of speaking.
Chuck and Blair are the epitome of a bad-ass couple… despite the fact that he almost sells her for a hotel at one point.
Similar troupes of bad boys with secret hearts of gold are not hard to find in other shows, along with other forms of inappropriate relationships. Pretty Little Liars features Aria and Ezra, the latter of whom is her teacher. Another prominent example from the world of teen media is the obsessive nature of Bella and Edward’s relationship in Twilight, in which the two threaten their own lives out of the sheer idea of not being together. Their infatuation may seem cute to its target audience, but rewatching the film, it is an incredibly toxic portrayal of what a teenage relationship should look like.
To any 15-year-olds out there: if your boyfriend runs away to Italy – don’t put yourself in danger in hopes of getting him back. He is no Edward Cullen, nor should you want him to be.
Teen T.V show creators often romanticize toxic bad boys, allowing 14-year-old girls to obsess over couples that in real life would require therapy or an intervention. At the end of the day, it’s just T.V. It’s fiction.
But it is also naive to pretend that the media you consume in your formative years don’t fundamentally impact the way you view things in life. As a teenager, I remember desperately wanting to be like my favourite protagonist, would I not think that she was perfectly correct to forgive her scheming, aggressive, and law-breaking boyfriend?
And yes, while I would not tolerate my boyfriend attempting to exchange me for a hotel, who is to say that the constant fighting, manipulation, and scheming I watched when I was 15 didn’t ingrain in me that relationships are supposed to be complicated and dramatic. While your brain is still developing, and you are at the cusp of experiencing romance for the first time in your life, you are bombarded with storylines about how it IS possible to change the bad boy delinquent if you just wait it out long enough. He’ll come around…right?
The argument against romanticizing bad boys is particularly important, as toxic relationships remain a sort of taboo subject. No one wants to discuss how many women have found themselves stuck in toxic relationships. Oftentimes, it is not until after the relationship is done that an individual can recognize the gaslighting and emotional abuse that occurred within it.
There is still a lot of misunderstanding surrounding toxic relationships, with many still boiling the issue down to just “break up with them.” Psychologists have addressed just how complex unhealthy relationships can be—and most of this complexity stems down to the attraction we unknowingly have to emotionally unavailable men. Dr. Helen Fisher notes that the attraction to men who hurt us, as often depicted in some of our favourite teen shows, is often the result of our brain generating associations between a schedule of “rewards” and pleasure. This intermittent reinforcement, which differs from a consistent reinforcement schedule, triggers dopamine release in our brain. These reward circuits thus cause us to take risks and tolerate obstacles all for that dopamine release – a pattern that Fisher recognizes in cocaine addicts.
The addictive aspects of unpredictable men should not be surprising— the whole “I just can’t quit you” troupe is an active part of our television shows as characters cycle through breaking up and getting back together. And intermittent reinforcement is a classic trait of a teen heartthrob. It hurts me to write this, but Jess Mariano leaving Rory without providing any notice, just to reappear episodes later and begging her to run away with him, is the perfect example of an individual who runs on his own unpredictable schedule. Rory, like many young girls in real life, is left second-guessing everything about her relationship.
Actor Penn Badgley, known for playing the somehow charming yet incredibly terrifying stalker in Netflix’s You, displayed his shock at how young girls react to the borderline scary male characters. His tweets from 2019 express his shock at how young women can adore a literal psychopath: “you’re [as in, the fans of the show] supposed to see past my face TO the crazy shit.” It should be extra concerning when even those in the industry see that there is something utterly absurd about how these male characters are depicted on tv.
While this accusation may seem like an extreme jump, it is fair to recognize the more serious consequences this trend can have down the line. Forbes reports that 80% of Americans have experienced emotional abuse, proving just how prevalent this issue is. Said abuse is often the result of a progression of behaviours and manipulation – behaviours that young women often spend months justifying to their friends. As girls obsess over the bad boys from their Netflix accounts, they might begin to think that being disrespected is all worth it in the name of love.
If we are teaching teenage girls that true love manifests itself in unhealthy ways, how are they expected to find healthy relationships?
I am not going to pretend I now have disdain for these characters. I don’t blame young women who have spent countless hours fawning over a fictional character, but truthfully, the attention should be put on the adult writers who romanticize toxic traits.
Perhaps the executives of CW should write about healthy and honest relationships, instead of teaching us that our ideal man will probably treat us like shit—but don’t worry, he’ll get a redemption arc in season five and all gaslighting will be forgotten.