Romanticizing Toxic Relationships in Popular Young Adult Television

Oct 4, 2019

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. #DVAM is a time to highlight the realities of sexual violence in an intimate partner relationship. The CDC defines Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) as “physical, sexual, or psychological harm by a current or former partner or spouse.” Sexual violence can occur in all types of intimate relationships regardless of gender identities or sexual orientation. Sexual assault and Intimate Partner Violence have severe economic impacts for survivors. The cost can range from $87,000 to $240,776 per rape. IPV occurs across the lifespan, in all settings, and among all socioeconomic, religious, and cultural groups. According to the Center for Disease Control, among adult victims of rape, physical violence, or stalking, 22% of women & 15% of men experienced IPV between ages 11 to 17. We know that can be a very vulnerable age group and multiple factors contribute to the prevalence of IPV in this population. One of those reasons being popular culture and the romanticizing toxic relationships in popular young adult television. This timely opinion editorial below from NCCASA’s newest Intern, Gabrielle Neyman, sheds light on this issue

One in three adolescents in the U.S. is a victim of physical, sexual, emotional, or verbal abuse from a dating partner, a figure that far exceeds rates of other types of youth violence. The warning factors that teens are advised to look for are extreme jealousy, possessiveness, bad temper, and controlling behavior, among other factors. For advocates within the sexual assault and domestic violence fields, these are warning signs that are recognized for the negative traits that they are. But what happens when these same warning signs are normalized and even romanticized in popular television consumed by young adults?

Chuck Bass is “relationship goals”. Anyone who has watched Gossip Girl is familiar with this upper-east side character. He is the on and off again love interest of Blair Waldorf. Gossip Girl is one of the top television shows consumed by young adults on Netflix and Blair and Chuck are a couple that fans root for. He is physically violent, possessive, sexually violent, verbally abusive, and emotionally abusive. However, the resounding agreement and normalization of these behaviors with young viewers comes down to the argument that he behaves this way because “he really loves her”.

This is where television has the capability to groom young viewers that possessive, controlling, and jealous behaviors are signs of true love. Intimate partner abuse is typically not an isolated incident. The violence often occurs alongside other forms of abusive behavior. For instance, most women who are physically assaulted by an intimate partner have been sexually assaulted by that same partner. Gossip Girl is not the only culprit in creating this mindset. We see these same warning signs in popular relationships in widely consumed shows, such as, Orange is the New Black, Riverdale, Pretty Little Liars, The Society, Empire, The Vampire Diaries, and 13 Reasons Why.

13 Reasons Why is a teen drama series that displays real-life issues experienced by young adults, including sexual violence. A study funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and published online in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that one in ten teens said they had coerced another person into some form of sexual activity and that of those who coerced another person, high consumption of media was prevalent. Sexual coercion is when someone makes you feel obligated to say yes to sexual activity by using guilt, pressure, drugs/alcohol, or force. These numbers may seem high but when you take into consideration the television young adults consume, this behavior is a learned response. In 13 Reasons Why, some male characters use coercion to be sexually active with other teen characters. Chloe Winter, a teen female on the show is in a relationship with Bryce Walker, a manipulative male teen. Chloe, like many young women, feels the pressure to be loyal to him and do what he wants sexually despite her refusal of consent. Chloe does not realize until later that she has been sexually assaulted this entire time and that her relationship with Bryce does not equate to consent. Though 13 Reasons Why paints these interactions in a negative light, it is more common to see coercion normalized on television as a means of flirting or necessary, to move to the next level with an intimate partner. This plays out in rape crisis centers across the state. Survivors can name the physical abuse they experience but don’t always immediately report sexual victimization if the abuse was at the hands of an intimate partner.

So, what can we do? Asking people to stop consuming these shows would be impossible. I recognize the toxic relationship behavior on Gossip Girl, but it doesn’t keep me from binging all six seasons on a rainy weekend. Where we charge forward on this issue is by educating young adults that what they have been inundated with in popular television isn’t healthy and definitely isn’t “relationship goals.” Next time you see hashtags about popular tv couples on Twitter, you can provide an analysis that Jughead’s bad temper and controlling nature over Betty, on the show Riverdale, actually isn’t cute at all and is a warning sign for an unhealthy relationship. There is also a lot to be said for keeping the dialogue open when it comes to acknowledging the full scope of intimate partner violence, the relationship that someone has, does not make it okay for them to sexually assault you. Bodily autonomy is still needed and should not be compromised regardless of the relationship status. When the audience is youth, pop culture is an exceptionally effective way to educate on these realities and bridge this gap. As advocates, specifically advocates who work in dual service agencies, it is extremely important to take this into consideration.

Written By Gabrielle Neyman, NCCASA Communications Intern