Dear Teen TV Shows: Can We Please Stop Glorifying Toxic Men?

A reflection on some of the biggest shows, characters and relationships that shaped this generation of young women and a call for healthier depictions of love and boundaries.

Characters like Joe Goldberg in “You” and Nate Jacobs in “Euphoria” are great examples of toxic and manipulative men that young girls continue to idealize because they are conventionally attractive. These characters normalize problematic behaviors in TV shows marketed towards teenages who then see these relationships as common and worth seeking. (Illustration by Chandler Littleford)

Content warning: this article contains themes of sexual assault, and emotional and physical abuse.

When the teen mystery sensation “Pretty Little Liars” first aired on ABC Family in the fall of 2010, I was nine years old. My older sister was almost 13 and since she was watching it, of course, so was I. I was aware that the show’s themes were a bit too complex for me, but it felt cool to watch something that all the girls in middle and high school were raving about. In the first season of the show, I watched as Aria Montgomery, a 16 year old girl, fell in love with her 22 year old English teacher, Ezra. Even when it was revealed that Ezra had also dated Aria’s best friend, Alison (when she was 15!), and intentionally pursued Aria in order to write a book about her life, fans were still rooting for so-called “Ezria.” By the time the series ended in 2017, Aria and Ezra were happily married and had adopted a child together: fulfilling the fantasies of viewers who bought into this undeniably unacceptable relationship. But why? Why would so many young women, including myself at one point, glorify objectively pedophilic behavior from a grown man and support the ups-and-downs of an extremely toxic relationship?

Before “Pretty Little Liars,” the same generation of teenagers was swept up in the ultra-rich, fast-paced NYC lifestyle of Chuck Bass and Blair Waldorf on the CW’s “Gossip Girl.” In the pilot episode, which premiered in 2007, Chuck Bass attempts to rape 15 year old Jenny Humphrey at a rooftop party in Manhattan. In the third season’s finale, writers decided it would be a good idea to have them sleep together as a throwaway plot point, not realizing, or I suppose not caring, what kind of message that could send to victims of sexual assault. 

Throughout the six season run, Chuck manipulates, berates, verbally and physically abuses the “love of his life.” During season three, Chuck sells a night with Blair to his equally creepy Uncle Jack in order to gain ownership of a new hotel. In the fourth season, when Blair tells him she’s engaged to another man, Chuck declares, “You can never marry anyone else, you’re mine!” before forcing himself on her and punching the glass wall behind them, cutting her face in the process. In an interview with E! after the episode aired in 2011, executive producer, Josh Safran, was asked if this scene verged on abuse.

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“They have a volatile relationship, they always have, but I do not believe — or I should say we do not believe — that it is abuse when it’s the two of them,” Safran said. “Chuck does not try to hurt Blair. He punches the glass because he has rage, but he has never, and will never, hurt Blair … she is scared for Chuck — and what he might do to himself, but she is never afraid of what he might do to her.”

The implications of these toxic and offensive storylines isn’t just that young girls begin to idealize problematic fictional characters, but they begin to understand this as the status quo. That this behavior is normal. That an older man expressing interest in a teenager is anything other than predatory. That if an abuser or a serial manipulator is conventionally attractive and they tell you they “love you,” that relationship is worth fighting for. It’s not, and we shouldn’t be urged to feel otherwise by producers like Safran. 

This mindset also affects the way young women watch shows that comment on this exact topic. Season two of the 2019 hit Netflix series “You,” focuses on Joe Goldberg as he flees from New York to Los Angeles after killing his ex-girlfriend. He meets a new love interest, aptly named “Love,” and begins the obsessive spiral all over again, making her the third woman (that we know of) for him to stalk and assume possession over. 

When season two aired last winter, it was clear that several young women missed the point of the show and the cultural criticism it was trying to provide. User @nobia_parker tweeted, “Said this already but @PennBadgley is breaking my heart once again as Joe. What is it about him? </3.” Badgley responded “A: He is a murderer.” 

Badgley expressed in an interview with the New York Times in 2019 that, “it tends to be men who are more horrified by Joe. I’ll go out on a limb and wonder if that is because it’s less of a novel idea to women.” Badgley also explained how the aforementioned show “Gossip Girl,” for which he starred as Dan Humphrey, perpetuated the idea of the damaged and manipulative attractive white man being forever forgivable.

“If anyone other than a young white man were to behave like these characters behave, nobody’s having it,” Badgley said. “He’s the very special white man who somehow thinks that he’s an outsider … It would all be so comical, if it wasn’t also the generating impulse for so much prejudice which can get translated into violence.”

While it’s refreshing to see an actor handle a role like this with a deeper level of understanding and care for its implications, others are not so aware and frequently romanticize the volatile characters they play. “Euphoria,” the HBO and A24 television show that won three Emmy Awards this past week, tackles important topics like drug addiction, mental health, LGBTQ+ issues and domestic violence. While Sam Levinson, the show’s creator, has been very clear that he is not by any means glorifying these subjects or people, it seems as though Jacob Elordi isn’t as in tune with who his character, Nate Jacobs, is meant to be. 

Elordi plays Nate, a high school football player who has physically abused and manipulated his girlfriend, beat up and threatened to kill any man she shows interest in, catfished another girl on a dating app and threatened to leak her nudes if she didn’t reciprocate his feelings, and openly admitted to continually luring his ex back into a toxic relationship in order for her to “fix” him. 

In an interview with GQ in July, Elordi said “I don’t think they made Nate too evil … No, I think he has the perfect balance of terrible things happening to him and he reacts accordingly to the things that happen in his life … I kind of feel like, obviously, he doesn’t have much of a moral conscience, but I think his evil actions are sort of justified by sort of what happens to him. I don’t really think he’s a villain either.”

At what point are we going to draw the line on what a villain is? What abuse is? When are we going to stop relentlessly defending objectively horrible behavior because a man is traditionally attractive? When are we going to stop feeding the narrative to young women that if a man hurts you, it secretly means he likes you? That if he restricts you, or outright says he owns you, you should feel flattered by his possessiveness? That if he tells you you’re all he lives for, that he “needs you” to heal, that he will hurt you or himself if you leave, you should stay and nurse him back to health? 

I’m infuriated by how my younger self would have probably bought into Elordi’s character description and romanticized Nate Jacobs or, at the very least, wanted to help him. I’m exhausted with seeing the same tropes over and over again and being expected to cheer for outright predatory relationships and characters. I’m sad that so many young victims have to watch as the people who resemble their abusers get glorified, defended and forgiven. As a message to every show with a young female demographic: I’ve seen enough violence against women on my screen to last a lifetime, so either start understanding when a character is objectively irredeemable or don’t bother introducing them at all.

A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Sept. 28, 2020, e-print edition. Email Samaa Khullar at [email protected]

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