We’ve all seen some iteration of this plot: older person and younger person, doomed love, triumph over adversity, and acceptance. Sometimes, it ends badly, sometimes, it ends in a wedding. It is a problematic, destructive plot device that needs to stop being portrayed as sexy and cool. In some cases, it’s a crime, in others, merely immoral or unethical. However, the May-December romance between young adults and teens being portrayed as hot and dynamic only perpetrates relationship norms that hurt young people.
One of the best instances of this trope being played out is on Pretty Little Liars, with the main characters Aria and Ezra. Their relationship begins when Ezra supposedly does not know Aria is underage, though it is later revealed that he did know. He is also her teacher. While they acknowledge that their age difference is only six years, it is made clear that their relationship must remain a secret, or Ezra could go to jail. The thing is, the show wants you to root for their relationship. The fans loved it, and the creators built on that. Never mind that Ezra had other serious relationships before Aria, and she’s a sixteen year-old-girl. Never mind that he is a college graduate, and in a position of power over her. The show makes their love something you want to root for, and there’s the problem. Ezra could have easily been an excellent villain- their relationship isolates her from her friends and family, because she has to lie about it. Aria comes from an unstable family, with parents mostly tuned out of her life. A strong connection with someone older and stable would be very tempting to someone like that, even with strings attached. Young men and women from broken homes are also more likely to engage in risky sexual and romantic behavior. Aria was an at-risk youth, and she got taken advantage of. The fact that the show validates their relationship by literally having them get married at the end is horrifying. In the books, Ezra is rightfully run out of town in shame when their relationship is exposed.
More recently, season one of Riverdale had its own student-teacher romance. Ms. Grundy, a young music teacher, had a summer fling with the main character, Archie Andrews. Again, Archie is a young person looking for his place in the world, and for validation. It is expressed that Archie “got hot” over the summer working for his dad’s construction crew, and Ms. Grundy is the first person to express interest in his new physique. She also fulfills his need for recognition when she nurtures his musical talent. The writers couldn’t seem to decide how we were supposed to feel about this relationship. Betty, Archie’s childhood friend, thought it was wrong, but when she tried to snoop, she was condemned by her friends. Obviously, breaking into someone’s car is bad, but the show tried to make us feel sympathy for Ms. Grundy by revealing that she had been a victim of domestic abuse. Their scenes together are lit rosily and underscored with romantic music. Here’s the problem: the whole subplot could have been easily made less problematic with some subtle changes. Ms. Grundy, having escaped an abusive situation, is looking for relationships where she can be in control, i.e. minors. Being the adult in the relationship gives her the power, and that could have been made more overt. Ms. Grundy is murdered, so it could be argued that the writers and the show were condemning her predatory behavior, but it was still a bad story-line, and this time, the fans did not approve.
Another instance of this ick factor is in the relationship between Lex Luthor and Lana Lang in Smallville. Unlike the other story lines, I don’t think this one was in any way salvageable. The entirety of it made me want to throw up. There is a significant age difference, Lana is only fifteen when she meets Lex for the first time. He is also a business associate and friend of her aunt’s. At the time of their meeting, Lex was twenty-one. When they begin their relationship, Lana is about nineteen or twenty, as she would have been starting her sophomore year of college. Lana is the poster child for abandonment, and it shows. She seeks out stable, loving relationships with commitment. This wouldn’t be a bad thing, except that in season four she begins a relationship with Jason Teague, a sophomore in college, so between nineteen and twenty. With Lana still in high school, and Jason later getting an assistant coach position at said high school, their relationship was incredibly questionable. Jason picks up and moves to Smallville without consulting Lana, and this puts pressure on their relationship. He also lies to her, manipulates her, and isolates her from her friends. Sound familiar? Lana claims to be a mature adult, but her relationships are actually incredibly volatile, and Lex is no exception. There are multiple points in the season where Lana clearly doesn’t trust Lex, and it’s also clear that she clings to him because of the stability he represents. He has a home, a job, a life. Lex is an adult, and that’s what Lana likes about him. He also loves her, while she doesn’t love him, which gives her a kind of power in the relationship. Lex manipulates Lana, lies to her, and controls her life through a couple different ways. Once she moved into the mansion, it becomes worse. He monitors her comings and goings, puts a camera up in her room without informing her, and even fakes a pregnancy in order to trap Lana into being with him. Lex is in his mid twenties, he’s rich, he’s powerful, and he uses those assets to control his girlfriend. While Lex does not try to separate Lana from Chloe or Lois, his relationship with her is isolating. She can’t confide in her friends, because she knows Lex is manipulating her.
Unhealthy relationship dynamics in TV are interesting, but the mentor-mentee or student-teacher relationship becoming romantic is not. It’s gross, it’s immoral, and it’s creepy. Let’s hope creatives can find some new taboo to write about.