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10 Toxic Relationships in Teen TV and YA Books

Wood nymph hippie goddess in human form Shailene Woodley is making the press rounds for the imminent release of her potential blockbuster, Divergent, and in an interview with Teen Vogue, the 22-year-old ripped into the blockbuster hit Twilight. “Twilight, I’m sorry, is about a very unhealthy, toxic relationship,” Woodley complains. “She falls in love with this guy and the second he leaves her, her life is over and she’s going to kill herself! What message are we sending to young people? That is not going to help this world evolve.”

That’s true, Woodley, but here’s the thing: unhealthy relationships are the lifeblood of YA books and teen dramas. There are whole shows dedicated to the forever-love between a teen girl and her English teacher. Feminist classics like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Veronica Mars have strong female leads who turn to mush around the bad-boy vampires and rich kids. Attempted rape, stalking, and emotional abuse is painted as dreamy if it’s just coming from a dreamboat who needs redemption and rilly likes you, too. Even the original Mr. Romance himself, Pride and Prejudice‘s Mr. Darcy, has been described as “a character who is the epitome of the dominant patriarchal male” in The Guardian. To pay tribute, we’re counting down the unhealthiest romances in teen lit and TV.

Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley in The Spectacular Now

10. The Spectacular Now: Aimee and Sutter

In James Ponsoldt’s excellent 2013 adaptation of Tim Tharp’s fantastic book, popular kid Sutter Keely is trouble. He’s the life of the party, always making a scene, and he is an alcoholic. When he strikes up a friendship with pretty and shy Aimee Finecky, Aimee goes along with the party, developing drinking problems of her own. It comes to a point with a car crash — in the book, it evolves the way life does, and the movie is vaguer, with a lady or the tiger potential happy ending implied. That said, this film doesn’t glorify the main character’s problems, painting them as romantic-with-flaws; those problems are problems, and they affect the relationship.

James van der Beek crying in Dawson's Creek.

9. Dawson’s Creek: Dawson and Joey, Dawson and anyone, Dawson as a reflection of the show

On the classic early WB teen show, Dawson was a total creep. He had a best friend, the too-tall girl from the wrong side of the creek, Joey Potter, and he was creepily obsessed with her virginity and her love life, culminating in the Season 3 episode where Dawson fights over Joey with Pacey and “gives her up” to him and then makes that wonderful, wonderful, cry-face. The show was also quite invested in painting the other part of the quartet, Jen Lindley, as a damaged slut from New York, so damaged that she died young from vague sexually- active-young-woman disease. But Jen will have the last laugh, of course, as her portrayer, future Oscar winner Michelle Williams, is easily the most successful alumna of the creek.

Veronica Mars LoVe

8. Veronica Mars: Veronica and Logan

Hello marshmallows! While you wait to see your favorite blonde teenage detective appear in theaters tonight with the Kickstarted Veronica Mars: The Movie, let’s discuss the true love of Veronica Mars and rich-kid bad boy Logan Echolls. One of the classic cases of a show writing for the actor with charisma, Veronica Mars sent its lead character into the hands of tortured rich boy Logan, who called their love “epic.” Logan was abusive, mean, and cruel to Veronica, a popular-girl-turned-crime-fighting-outcast. Logan threw wild parties and took careless actions that led to Veronica’s rape. He was violent in general, willing to punch and fight people over Veronica’s love. It was the idea of a bad boy — whose badness can be explained, his father was abusive and a murderer — that turns good just for you; and Logan proved, again and again, that he didn’t have the character to live up to the show’s idealized portrait of him.

Paige and Emily in Pretty Little Liars

7. Pretty Little Liars, Paige and Emily

“[Paige] is dating Emily now and once tried to drown her.” — Marlene King, Pretty Little Liars showrunner

Dan and Serena on Gossip Girl

6. Gossip Girl: Dan and Serena

Like Pretty Little Liars, Gossip Girl was a show based on the idea that the leads are constantly being watched, stalked, and gossiped about, and in this show it was through the gossip blog Gossip Girl. The finale revealed that the Gossip Girl was “Lonely Boy” Dan Humphrey, the outsider from Brooklyn. The Upper East Siders take a moment to review this shocking news, as Gossip Girl had, at some points, ruined their lives in various ways — ever wise Blair Waldorf counsels hating Dan forever — and then Lonely Boy and untouchable Upper East Side goddess Serena van der Woodsen get married. Because all along, Gossip Girl “was a love letter to us.” Ew!

hush hush

5. Terrible Twilight knockoffs

They are too numerous to count, the many, many books that have taken Bella and Edward’s stalking disguised as destiny as the basis for true love forever plots. But let’s look at YA novel Hush, Hush by Becca Fitzpatrick, a book with problems too numerous to count, that inspired a sharp post on “Bad Romance (YA and Rape Culture)” from Livejournal user Bookshop, aka Aja Romano, a writer for The Daily Dot. The whole post is worth a read, but here’s a taste:

Hush, Hush is extremely self-aware; it knows that its hero is stalking and sexually harassing its heroine. Its heroine complains of harassment loudly and repeatedly, but the text expects us to assume that her repeated no means “yes” — the text wants us not to take no for an answer. The author, Becca Fitzpatrick, as well as the society that produced Becca Fitzpatrick, both want the heroine of this book to have her “no” rejected over and over, until her resistance is worn down and she gives up and gives in and starts to love the thing that’s attacking her and trying to kill her. The social arc of Nora’s womanhood demands that she shut up and submit to her sexual subjugation. For god’s sakes, the freaking title of the book is BE QUIET.

Twilight

4. Twilight: Edward and Bella

What’s hotter than a guy coming into your bedroom at night and watching you sleep just so he can “watch over you”? Is it when the guy gets weird and possessive and tells you that you’re the one, “you’re like my heroin?” Edward, the vampire hero of this novel, is supposed to be the most romantic and swoony guy of all time, but really he’s possessive, creepy, and stalker-y. He dictates who she can and can’t be friends with. He has his family follow her. At times, Bella says that she’s scared of him. Romance!

Blair and Chuck in Gossip Girl

3. Gossip Girl: Blair and Chuck

Chuck was introduced in the pilot as a character who attempts to rape not one, but two characters, and from there, he grew into a hero of sorts, at least regarding his romance with the show’s most likable character, Blair. Their relationship was described as volatile by the creators, but in truth it was emotionally abusive and abusive abusive, with Chuck hurting Blair after she says she’s marrying someone else. And let’s not forget, in the biggest ew, Chuck manipulates Blair into sleeping with his uncle so that he could get a hotel. But their first makeout was a hot assignation in the back of a limo, so it’s all good, right?

Buffy and Spike in Buffy the Vampire Slayer

2. Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Buffy and Spike

When Buffy fell in love with tortured vampire Angel, eventually losing her virginity to this romantic hero, it was fine. Angel turned super-evil and it was an awesome metaphor for the ways that some dudes really can love ‘em and leave ‘em. But Angel left for his own spin-off and Buffy was left boyfriendless (for those of us who want to pretend Riley never existed, anyway) until she fell into a tortured relationship with bad-boy vampire Spike, the big bad of Season 2 and a sneering Sid Vicious-like punk. Their relationship was problematic, to say the least. It started as meaningless sex when a depressed Buffy came back from the dead, and Spike was abusive and controlling, trying to rape Buffy in the episode “Seeing Red,” failing, calling her a bitch, and then leaving Sunnydale in order to “protect” her.

Ezra and Aria Pretty Little Liars

1. Pretty Little Liars: Ezra and Aria, or “Ezria”

When you are a 16-year-old girl who meets a guy at a bar, makes out with him in the bathroom, and then finds out that he’s your new high school English teacher… well, obviously, it’s true love. “Ezria,” the combination of high school teacher Ezra Fitz and pretty, short liar Aria Montgomery (“the artsy one”) has been called a true love story, “part of the DNA of the show” by creator Marlene King, even though it started out an illegal student/teacher thing, progressed into the idea that Ezra could be “A,” a possible murderer, on top of possibly being the mysterious character that’s been stalking and harassing the liars for years. Although just how evil Ezra will end up being isn’t clear yet, the show recently forced audiences to see this relationship for what it is: deeply unhealthy, and unquestionably harmful to Aria.

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5 comments
nalothe
nalothe

I wholeheartedly agree with all of these, except the Buffy and Spike pairing. Spike had no moral compass, having no soul, and Buffy was incredibly manipulative with him. Their relationship is never portrayed as positive for either one of them, and Buffy does realize that she's just using him to make herself feel "alive" again after coming back from the dead. Spike has been in love with her (at least as in love as a vampire with no soul can be) for multiple seasons at that point, something which Buffy knows about and uses to her advantage.  Spike acknowledges that his behavior in "Seeing Red" was wrong, which is pretty respectable for a soulless monster, and leaves to make himself a better person, someone that won't hurt people (anybody, not just specifically Buffy) due to his lack of control. 


When he returns, there's a huge shift in their dynamic. They're never portrayed as officially sexually active again, and they actually do have some of the most touching dialogue in the entire series. I always felt that the Buffy and Spike pairing, while my favorite on the show, was less about them and their relationship than on Spike's overall anti-hero character arc. I've always thought Buffy treated Spike worse more frequently than he did to her. Spike may have crossed the line with physical abuse, but Buffy was very emotionally abusive.


I totally agree with the other commenters that Angel/Buffy was much more creepy and controlling.

ladycat713
ladycat713

Angel left but kept coming back to make sure she was still hooked on him, he was overbearing and making sure she was as controlled by him as Dru was. He was the one with the protection fetish (even though if he really wanted to protect her he would have looked for a way to anchor his soul. Something he didn't look into even after he was handed the knowledge that it was possible by Spike.  

Buffy was the one who was cruel and abusive . A writer admitted that the so called attempted rape was something that she had done to her boyfriend that had left her and didn't realize how it came off when a male was doing the same thing until she saw it. The calling her a bitch was long before he left Sunnydale. He left to punish himself even though according to Buffy and the Scoobies belief system he wasn't capable of feeling guilt.

MenelaosKyparissis
MenelaosKyparissis

I honestly found Buffy/Angel even more cringe-inducing and disturbing than her relationship with Spike, which really is saying something. Regarding "Veronica Mars", I can't help but wonder how much better everything would've been if they'd only cast Jason Dohring to play Duncan in the first place. Like you said, this was a classic case of an actor's charisma overshadowing the (very) troubling aspects of his character's personality.

lucy32
lucy32

@ladycat713  I agree.  Buffy and Spike's relationship was never portrayed as healthy and good until after he got his soul back.  Meanwhile, not one bats an eye at the fact that Angel was super controlling and never let her make her own decisions.  He also slept with her when she was 17 and he was over 100, so, hello statutory rapist!  He's actually super creepy.

ladycat713
ladycat713

@MenelaosKyparissis The Buffy/Angel ship was responsible for Twilight since it was made from Bangel fanfic. Thus it was also the cause of all the Twilight knockoffs and 50 Shades of Grey (a Twilight fanfc that was published).

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