As someone with the privilege of living in a first-world country, I get strange looks when it comes up in conversation that neither I nor anyone in my family has a Netflix account. That’s hardly surprising, since Netflix had a revenue of twenty billion U.S. dollars in 2019, not to mention that Netflix is only one of countless streaming services bringing us access to TV shows and movies more conveniently than ever before. It’s astonishing to recall that “moving pictures” is still a new art form to society, considering the dominance of the entertainment industry in our culture.
We have been wondering about the influence of movies and TV shows for as long as they’ve been around, with most research focusing on their potential negative effects. After decades of studies linking televised violence to increased aggressive behaviour in children, or smoking in movies with adolescents’ perception of smoking, it would be difficult to maintain that TV shows and movies do not affect our development. Rationally, it checks out: youth have fewer “real life” experiences and must draw on fictional sources to form their impressions of society.
Studies have found that teenagers have a more positive outlook on smoking after seeing it in a movie.
Unfortunately, what we see on TV isn’t exactly curated to educate the younger generations. After all, where’s the fun in watching fictional characters consistently make smart decisions and live peaceful lives? For the sake of dramatization or comedy, our screens typically tell the stories of less-than-stellar role models.
When TV Normalizes Toxic Relationships
Amongst other detrimental habits that youth might pick up from their favourite shows, downplaying toxic relationships is a particularly dangerous one. One might say that “It’s a story, it’s not meant to be real!” Yet this ignores the point altogether. We don’t find it unusual for children to be afraid of cartoon monsters on TV because we understand that they lack the tools to separate fiction from reality. In the same vein, audiences that are bombarded with idealized, unhealthy relationships may not recognize them as such. This makes it harder for people to spot the signs in their own relationships.
The following are a few fictional relationships from movies and TV shows that I myself have enjoyed without fully perceiving how problematic they can be. Although toxic relationships come in all forms, I focus on the romantic ones, since I find that toxicity is often forgiven for the sake of “true love.”
Grease may be a wonderful classic for musical fans, yet a feminist might find it quite lacking. The second song, only minutes into the film, sets the tone of the story as the protagonists sing about their shared summer romance. While Sandy remembers solely the sweeter aspects of the encounter, Danny depicts Sandy as a sex object as a means of boasting to his friends. Danny never ends up treating her properly; although Sandy interprets a gift from him as a sign of respect, he demonstrates otherwise by pawing at her moments later. The final touch to his nonexistent redemption arc? Sandy decides to abandon her “good girl” reputation to retain Danny’s interest, and the two reconcile as soon as he sees her new style.
Danny enjoying Sandy’s greaser outfit (Image source: Rotten Tomatoes)
Olivia Newton-John, the actress who played Sandy, has defended the movie against recent backlash by insisting that “It’s a story from the Fifties where things were different.” And perhaps we should be remembering the story in its dated context, as well as the immaturity expected from two high school students. This hardly means that we should forgive the recurring misogyny. Adults watching Grease might find themselves appreciating the homage to fleeting first love, but younger viewers might focus on the implied happily-ever-after, and conclude that some sacrifice of one’s personality is necessary to sustain a relationship.
Rachel and Ross must be one of the most infamous will-they-won’t-they couples, and their chemistry and long history are compelling reasons to root for them. Yet somehow, they never seem to bring out the better qualities in each other. Rachel could not let Ross be happy in a relationship that wasn’t with her, going so far as to sabotage a couple of them throughout the show. Ross’ insecurity shows up as neediness, as he expects Rachel to sacrifice other aspects of her life for him, and doesn’t trust her to be faithful.
Having this discussion beforehand would have saved everyone a lot of heartache… (Image source: MirchiPlay)
This leads them to their ultimate point of dissension: the break. The issue was not whether it had occurred at all, but what each party defined as a break. After Rachel instigates the break, neither of them attempt to clarify what being “on a break” means in their case, and if it is any different than being “broken up.” They approach the situation with two different ideas on how to spend their time apart, which was guaranteed to cause conflict. The couple returns to the topic several times later, but since Ross’ iconic line, “WE WERE ON A BREAK!” is used for comedy, they never manage to communicate well enough to put it behind them.
This young adult vampire romance series was, by all standards, widely successful in both book and movie form, but has amassed a reputation for exemplifying an atrociously unhealthy relationship. Even as a sixth-grader, I found many aspects of Bella and Edward’s relationship “creepy,” but it wouldn’t occur to me to call them toxic until much later. For both characters, it seems to be obsession at first sight, a theme that never dies down throughout the series. Bella has little personality outside of her feelings for Edward. Once she falls into his world, she has no life outside of his. She becomes nothing more than half of a couple. Edward is irrationally jealous any time Bella talks to her werewolf friend, Jacob, watches Bella sleep and attempts to limit her independence.
Though they barely know each other, Edward climbs through Bella’s window without her knowledge to watch her sleep. (Image source: Fanpop)
In the Twilight universe, vampires are completely incapable of falling out of love. While such a detail makes for great world-building, the non-vampire audiences should not find this relatable, and the lack of choice detracts from the romance. The series is targeted towards adolescents, yet such a population might not know better than to see “love” as an effortless, immutable state of being.
It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way
How can screenwriters do right by their younger audiences? While a character’s flaws are crucial to keep the story engaging, they don’t have to be toxic. We deserve to see characters who learn to communicate better, who resolve their jealousy issues, who understand when they are giving too much to the other person and at the very minimum, respect each other!
If that is too much to ask, then a character who realizes the error in their ways and repents is significantly more admirable, even if the damage would be irreparable in a real situation. In Grease, Danny could have admired Sandy’s dramatic makeover, but then expressed that he liked her for who she was. Rachel and Ross would be a much stronger couple if they could revisit the “break” situation just once without raising their voices, and make an effort to understand each other. I might have rooted for Edward and Bella if they had hobbies or interests other than their addictive caricature of love for one another, and were capable of spending any time apart.
Audiences love characters who acknowledge their flaws!
I have no right to claim that I can do better than these characters, because I haven’t actually been in their shoes. We all respond to situations differently, and it’s hard for anyone to understand the nuances of a relationship except for the people in the relationship, who have their own blind spots. This is why the ultimate remedy for toxic fictional relationships is conversation. The discussion of fictional problems provides ample opportunity to cover subjects that are usually difficult to broach. Only then is it possible to suspend one’s disbelief, just as one does with a story about vampires. So don’t hesitate to debrief with someone while the credits are playing or while the next episode is loading. Who knows? You could be stopping a real toxic relationship before it gains traction.