Dear TV Writers, Please Stop Romanticizing Abusive Relationships
Art by Kirsten Hemrich
My nickname in my friend group is “the emotional toilet.” Not really the most glamorous of nicknames. Essentially it refers to my tendency to become someone for the people in my life (mostly men) to vent to and drop their emotional baggage on without expecting the favor to be returned. I’ve always prided myself on being a good listener and trying to help people solve their issues. Being needed can be addicting sometimes, but there’s a fine line between helping someone and trying to “fix” them. It’s an issue that I am aware of and working on, but I wonder, how did I get here? There’s a theory that you are what you consume, and growing up, I’m realizing, I consumed a lot of toxic literature and media. The list could probably go on for pages (The Clique, Twilight, Pretty Little Liars, Alphas, Divergent, The Vampire Academy, Fifty Shades of Grey, Degrassi, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Uglies, etc.) but I am going to focus on two TV shows that defined that time period for me: Gossip Girl and The Vampire Diaries.
If you’re not familiar with the hit 2007 show Gossip Girl, it follows a group of privileged teenagers in a Manhattan prep school as they navigate love, heartbreak, and scandal while in the public eye. It’s heartwarming that even the rich and the beautiful can have problems too. The list of things that are wrong with this show could inspire an article in itself, but I want to focus on Chuck Bass. This is not a hot take by any means, but it deserves to be restated that Chuck Bass is an entitled, manipulative, emotionally abusive, and altogether vile monster. Not that any character on that show could be considered a saint, but the fact that by the end of the show we are supposed to root for Chuck and Blair’s happily ever after makes my skin crawl. Let’s not forget that in the first episode of Gossip Girl, Chuck Bass tries to not once, but twice, coerce girls into sex through blackmail. The girls that he sleeps with seem to be sorted into two categories, “conquests” and “victims,” unless of course you are Blair (aka the only girl who can change him). Simply put, Chuck Bass is a rapist. He feels entitled to the bodies of the women around him and threatens to ruin their lives if they stand up to him.
However, when I was younger I would watch these scenes and see his anger as passion, and admire the way he was willing to fight for his relationship. I cannot imagine how many other little girls romanticized and normalized this behavior.
The show attempts to give him a character arc of sorts, explaining away his “womanizing” actions by showing his never-ending search for approval from a cruel father. It might come as shocking, but having a tough childhood (how tough can life be for a billion dollar trust-fund kid) does not give you the right to be a wretched human being. The relationship between Chuck and Blair (affectionately referred to as “Chair” by fans of the show) has been heralded as one for the ages, with many gushing a decade later about finding a love like theirs. Everyone wants to be like Blair, the girl that could turn a bad boy good, but of course only good for her. What’s glossed over is how at every turn, Chuck manipulated Blair into loving him. He’s used secrets to control her, to publicly humiliate her when he feels that she's pulling away, to constantly play mind games with her, and although he never lays a hand her, his violent tendencies are troubling to see played out on screen. These are textbook signs of emotional abuse and a toxic relationship. However, when I was younger I would watch these scenes and see his anger as passion, and admire the way he was willing to fight for his relationship. I cannot imagine how many other little girls romanticized and normalized this behavior, because if it was good enough for Blair Waldorf (Queen B of the Upper East Side) it must be good enough for them.
Switching from the Upper East Side to the streets of Mystical Falls, we have The Vampire Diaries. This could be a controversial opinion, but I was a die-hard #Delena fan (sorry to all the Stefan lovers out there). For those of you who may not know what this means, #Delena stands for the relationship between Elena Gilbert and Damon Salvatore, or rather a seventeen-year-old girl and a two hundred-year-old vampire. Throughout the premise of the show, the fate of the entire world is constantly placed on Elena’s shoulders. Every season involves a new supernatural matter of life or death, apocalyptic circumstances, and literal creatures from hell. However, on top of having to fix all of that, Elena’s most important job is to fix the soul of Damon Salvatore. Yup, you got that right. A seventeen-year-old orphan girl struggling to protect her brother, save the world, and survive the halls of high school is expected to be the saving grace of a two-hundred-year-old murderous vampire. The plot line is tolerable given that Damon is stuck in the body of a very attractive man with a six-pack, and the actress who plays Elena is actually in her twenties (don’t even get me started on Hollywood’s perpetuation of the idea that high school girls are meant to look like full adult women), but if you really start thinking about the age gap it becomes quite creepy to watch.
They were stories of teenage girls who were expected to fix and save the “bad boys” in their lives, and whenever these girls tried to leave they were emotionally manipulated at every turn.
Looking back to the way in which Damon is introduced, he starts off with murdering two people in cold blood. This is tolerable given the fact that he is a vampire, but he goes on to “compel” (mentally control) Elena’s best friend, Caroline, feeds on her blood, and then sleeps with her. Forcing someone to have sex with you is the definition of rape. It is not crazy to assume that Damon has done this to hundreds of other girls during his bicentennial lifetime. Damon quickly forms a weird attachment to Elena and starts trying to protect her at any cost, whether that be turning her into a vampire against her will or threatening to kill her best friends. Just typical lovey dovey things. Towards the end of the first season, Damon pulls Elena aside and thanks her because “somewhere along the way you decided I was worth saving.” I would like to reiterate that it should never be the job for one person in a relationship to “save” the other one, especially not in the context of this age gap.
Growing up I watched these two shows religiously. I was a sucker for the drama and the scandal, but what always kept me coming back was the love stories. Looking back I realize these were not love stories, but stories of abusive relationships. They were stories of teenage girls who were expected to fix and save the “bad boys” in their lives, and whenever these girls tried to leave they were emotionally manipulated at every turn.
So why do so many want this kind of relationship? Why do we idolize these abusive relationships? It all comes down to the fantasy of being made to feel special. Abusers are fantastic at making their victims feel like they are the best thing in this world, the only one who can change them, the exception to the rule. Once they have their victims convinced that they are the most special person on the planet, the abuse typically starts to creep in. It is a matter of control, making their partner feel like they cannot live without them. Not only is this media portrayal harmful to young girls, but young boys also absorb this toxic masculinity mindset. The narrative that girls want bad boys, and nice guys finish last is not helpful to anyone. Abusive relationships are not healthy and need to stop being perpetuated and romanticized by the media. It can be really hard to identify signs of emotional abuse, but we do not need the bright lights of Hollywood blurring the lines even more.
October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month. If you fear that you or someone you know may be suffering from an abusive relationship follow this link for resources or call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233 or TTY 1−800−787−3224.