Why Do TV Shows Glorify Teacher/Student Relationships?

It’s hardly uncommon these days to watch a student and their teacher engage in a forbidden romance.

By Keelia Clarkson3 min read
aria-ezra-pll-season-1 Why Do TV Shows Glorify Teacher/Student Relationships?

You know the drill: a young, attractive high school student begins attending a new school, making her the “new girl.” Maybe she’s just moved back to her hometown, or her parent’s career ripped her away from her previous life. As she walks down the halls, it’s clear that she’s different from her peers – more mature. The other girls aren’t like her, and the guys aren’t of any interest to her.

Then, she walks into her English class and spots him: her ridiculously cute (read: unrealistic) young teacher, and the spark between them is undeniable. The audience is instantly intrigued – will they or won’t they? What would happen if they got caught? Why weren’t there any cute teachers when we were in high school? What if it’s true love, and they’re soul mates?

We’ve Been Here Before

Audiences have seen something like this happen countless times now, most notably on shows like Pretty Little Liars (Aria & Mr. Fitz), Riverdale (Archie & Miss Grundy), and Gossip Girl (Dan & Miss Carr) – though there are others. The dynamic of student/teacher romances has become somewhat common in shows geared towards young audiences.

The obvious intent in showing these relationships is to entice the audience – to make them root for a relationship that they know technically isn’t right. But it’s easy to get caught up in the “magic” of the forbidden, of being let in on a secret, and find ourselves excited to watch this taboo romance play out, especially when the stakes are so high.

But what are the drawbacks of depicting such a relationship?

It’s Predatory

We’re all well-aware that TV shows aren’t totally based in reality (hello, wardrobe from Emily in Paris), but even so, the glorification of a teacher/student romance crosses over into a different territory – this is a relationship that, if it occurred in real life, would be called abusive and predatory, and see someone sent to jail.

This is with good reason, too. We don’t think of an age difference of eight years to be outrageous in an adult relationship, but when a 16 year old and a 24 year old who’s her teacher (a generously young age for a teacher) are involved, this changes. The difference in power and influence is enough, but also, a 16 year old and a 24 year old are in incredibly different life stages, as well as levels of maturity and brain development.

In fact, the rational part of the human brain, the prefrontal cortex, where emotional regulation, being able to consider long-term consequences, self-knowledge, and the sense of morality happen, won’t be fully developed until about age 25. The teenage brain still relies on the amygdala – the emotional and survival-geared part of the brain – to make decisions.

Why We Don’t See How Predatory It Is

If most people were to witness what a student/teacher relationship looks like in reality, they’d be horrified. But TV has a special way of making everything shiny and wonderful. From the clothes, to the hair and makeup, to the romances, life looks entirely different on a TV screen than through our own eyes.

But it’s not just that – TV shows centered around high schoolers seldom feature someone who’s actually in high school. Instead, these actors will typically be in their twenties – young enough to pass for a very mature 16, but old enough that when we see them with a character that’s supposed to be their teacher, it doesn’t look all that strange to us. Because in real life, the age difference between the actors isn’t actually inappropriate. 

We’re Asking Teens To Grow Up Too Quickly

A quick glance at any entertainment marketed towards teens and young adults shows that they’re expected to grow up – and fast. Audiences watch as teenagers are depicted to have entire sex lives akin to full-grown adults, handle themselves with the confidence and poise of a 30-year-old woman, or exhibit full-fledged addictions to drugs or alcohol, none of which really represents the average teen.

Along with this, we tell teens that, despite their legal status as a minor, they’re old enough and mature enough to engage in a relationship with someone at least 10 years older than them, and depicting it so often that it seems almost normal.

This sends teens a crystal clear message: even though you’re legally not an adult, you’re expected to start acting like one. Innocence is a thing of the past. Embrace all that is “adult” and don’t act your age.

The idea of acting beyond our age can easily hurt teens, leading them to believe their innocence or lack of life experience to be a flaw, instead of indicative of and appropriate for their stage in life.

Closing Thoughts

Seeing student/teacher romances play out, as common as it’s becoming, still depicts a relationship that, in real life, would be considered predatory. As thrilling as it seems on a TV show, this is just another way that entertainment doesn’t line up with reality.

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