The Problem of Student/Teacher Relationships in Teen Shows, Or: Please, Just Stop
On Thursday night, The CW launched Riverdale, its adaptation of the Archie comics. Much has been made over the seemingly odd choice of tone for the series, which places the Archietypical (sorry, couldn’t resist) characters of Archie, Betty, Veronica, and Jughead into the middle of a murder mystery. It’s Teen Twin Peaks, or Murder Gossip Girl, or Pretty Little Riverdale—but whatever it is, it’s a departure from the cheery tone that most people associate with the Archie brand.
There are, of course, pros and cons with this. Certainly, the tonal shift made people pay attention, generating a fair amount of, “Wait—what now?!” conversations in advance of the show’s debut. And while I wasn’t particularly convinced by the pilot episode that there was much benefit to the change, plenty of TV critics have responded well to upcoming episodes, which might suggest that the show settles into its perspective over time. But, as my friend Akilah and I discussed while the first episode aired, the existence of this version of Riverdale effectively precludes a (near) future adaptation that focuses on the lightness of the series instead of finding its “hidden” darkness.
My biggest problem with the darker, grittier version of the Archie world that we see in Riverdale, though, is its lazy rehashing of an all-too-familiar plot. Early in the first episode, we find out that over the summer, Archie had an affair with Miss Grundy, the music teacher at his school. Or, put more accurately: the teenage Archie is a victim of (repeated, it seems) statutory rape perpetrated by an authority figure he is supposed to be able to trust. Now, it’s too early to know precisely how the Riverdale writers intend to handle this plotline, but honestly, I’m not sure how much it matters. When my first thought upon seeing a plot development is, “Ugh, this again,” it doesn’t tend to bode well for what’s to come.
Riverdale is far from the first offender on this subject. In my quick crowdsourcing of student/teacher “relationship” storylines tonight, it didn’t take long to develop a pretty solid list of shows in which teachers, TAs, or professors “date” their students: Riverdale, Veronica Mars, Life Unexpected, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Jane the Virgin, Gilmore Girls, Friday Night Lights, Friends, Pretty Little Liars, Glee, Gossip Girl, The Vampire Diaries, and Dawson’s Creek.* This is not an exhaustive list, either—just what emerged in about five minutes of brainstorming. (Thanks, Mary, Akilah, Rafael, Rebekah, and Alyssa for the help!) If we focus in just on shows that 1) feature teen characters and 2) have the relationship occur within the high school setting, it’s still a decent list—Riverdale, Veronica Mars, Life Unexpected, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Pretty Little Liars, and Dawson’s Creek.**
*The fact that One Tree Hill isn’t on this list boggles my mind. Unless I just completely blocked out a storyline? Which is possible. I mean, Clay forgot he had a kid, so. Stranger things, and all that.
**Glee skirts the line, but I’m going to give it a pass.
I can’t speak extensively to Dawson’s Creek (that is a very large hole in my pop culture knowledge, I’ll admit), but I’ve seen the other shows on the short list. And while they do all take slightly different approaches to dealing with the trope, there are a few recurring trends to be found. In Pretty Little Liars and Life Unexpected, the couple meets outside of school, prior to the formation of their student/teacher relationship, which affords each of them some measure of plausible deniability. In Life Unexpected, Veronica Mars, and Dawson’s Creek, the teacher either loses or resigns from their job as a consequence of people finding out about the situation. I stopped watching Pretty Little Liars fairly early on, but I’m assuming that both of the characters have been blackmailed and/or murdered multiple times over by now as a result of the affair.
And then there’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where the teacher is literally a preying mantis. (Misspelling intentional, because puns.)
My point here is that Riverdale—and any other show looking to wander down this path—is walking in some well-worn footprints. Whatever a show might gain from including a student/teacher relationship, it isn’t novelty. Moreover, all of the shows on this list prove that executing this storyline effectively and in a way that treats it with the gravity it deserves is quite a challenge. Most of the shows do acknowledge that the situation is, at the very least, legally and ethically questionable, but this is often outweighed by the way in which the characters believe that their “love” should matter most of all. Life Unexpected perhaps gets the closest to making the story arc work: when Lux’s parents discover that she has been dating her teacher, they immediately, directly, and frequently call out the situation as wrong. The teacher, too, comes to recognize his own complicity in abusing his authority—which might be idealistic and improbable, but is also key to driving home the fact that their relationship is not to be admired. The show allows Lux to grieve the relationship, as she would, but no one else indulges the fantasy that the relationship was healthy.
If Riverdale aims to pursue a similar path, then perhaps there’s hope yet. But I don’t have much faith, because the relationship between Archie and Miss Grundy seems to have been dreamt up as part of the “edgy” transformation of the city of Riverdale. It’s understandable, that a show might go to a “forbidden” relationship to help amp up the soapiness of its plot—a character wanting something or someone they can’t have is a reliable way to create drama. But there’s a difference between forbidden and gross, and the show would do well to remember that.
There’s another layer here that I think is worth exploring, though, and that’s the way in which the casting of these shows influences our understanding of these dynamics. In general, I’m not one to complain overly much about the trend to cast adults as teenagers. Between child labor laws and rules about education, I don’t blame producers for eschewing minors when they can. But here’s the thing: doing so absolutely changes our experience of watching the show. For example, the actor who plays Archie, KJ Apa, is 19. He might still be young, but he doesn’t look like a child, either. So when you put him in a relationship with a teacher, the visual may not immediately ping as wrong. We see two adults on screen, and on some level, we recognize them as such. (This effect is only increased by the fact that he is surrounded by actors in their twenties playing as teens, and that the show makes a point of regularly remarking on the fact that “Archie got hot.”) It’s easier to accept that the relationship happened, because what we see doesn’t inherently startle us.
Except in the show, Archie is a sophomore. And his “relationship” with Miss Grundy happened over the summer, which means he was just coming off his freshman year of high school. A woman likely at least in her mid-twenties, who is in a direct position of authority, takes advantage of a fourteen or fifteen year old boy. If we were to see the casting actually reflect this dynamic, I suspect forbidden wouldn’t be the first word that came to mind. We might choose immoral, or abusive, or—yes—gross instead.
I’m not implying that age alone is the issue here, for the record. It wouldn’t be better if Archie were a senior, and I get just as frustrated with stories about TAs and professors dating undergrads. But the tendency to cast adults as teenagers can and does obfuscate the power dynamics at work in such teacher/student relationships. As such, the burden falls more heavily on the shows that employ this kind of storyline to actively critique it. That could mean, for instance, engaging with predatory behavior and grooming practices rather than pretending that both teacher and student are equally innocent. Or, more realistically, it could simply mean making sure that the shows call out the inappropriateness of the behavior in a convincing manner, and that they don’t frame the relationship as a Taylor Swift-style love story in which the couple are facing unfair judgment at every turn. But it should not mean depicting such a dynamic as either acceptable or desirable. If teen shows are going to insist on telling this story, then they need to do it well.
Or they could just stop telling this story, and find other sources of drama instead. To be honest, I wouldn’t mind that option at all.