*content note for sexual harassment, sexual abuse
As a parent and teacher of teens, I find myself watching a lot of television targeting that age demographic.
(okay, okay, I’d probably watch teen shows even if I weren’t a parent and teacher)
The most recent teen-targeted show I’ve been consuming is CW’s Riverdale (available in weekly serial on Canadian Netflix) (also, there are spoilers ahead, so tread carefully). The show is a very noir take on Archie Andrews and the gang: sex, murder, intrigue, weirdness. It’s like V.C. Andrews and Dashiell Hammett made a pubescent Twin Peaks baby.
(wait, that might actually be the original Twin Peaks, now that I think about it…)
While there are many things I enjoy about the show (Veronica and Jughead are so perfectly cast, for example), there are also some really troubling pieces as well. The most disappointing of these is the treatment of Archie’s “relationship” with Ms. Grundy. For those who are familiar with the comics and have not yet seen the show, let me give you some background info: Ms. Grundy is young in this universe, and is the cautious doe-like “non-threatening white woman” type. She initiates a sexual relationship with Archie, her student, and he is completely enraptured with her.
Here’s where we take a hard stop. Every relationship between a teacher and their student is exploitative. I’m not going to get into the ethics of how this can/cannot be done respectfully in a post-secondary context. As adults, I’ll step back while you sort that one out for yourselves (though, to be clear, if a person responsible for your academic success is pursuing you for sex, at the very least be wary).
Archie is played as a 16-year-old boy, “wooed” by a teacher in her late 20s. On the part of Ms. Grundy, this is unethical, illegal, and, if she taught in the province of Ontario, worthy of permanent revocation of her teaching certification. This is not a relationship based on shared interest and attraction. It is, however, a very common trope we see in TV shows targeting youth. On Dawson’s Creek, Pacey Witter, a Grade 9 student, had his first sexual encounter with Ms. Jacobs. Pretty Little Liars‘ Aria has a long-term “relationship” with English teacher Ezra Fitz. While all three of these shows do (eventually) address the exploitative and abusive nature of the teacher-student dynamic, they never manage to totally shake the idea that this is somehow sexy or desirable (and possibly more so because of its taboo).
Let’s be clear here: it is entirely probable that if you interviewed these three fictional teenaged characters, they would tell you their interactions were 100% consensual, and that they were exercising their own autonomy in choosing to engage with these teachers. That’s fine and good. I accept that adolescent desire is complex.
Teachers know better. Or ought to, anyway. It’s our responsibility to shut that shit down. By law, teachers serve an in loco parentis role in students’ lives. Teachers fill the role of parent while students are at school. Let me write that again.
Teachers fill the role of parent while students are at school.
We wouldn’t hesitate to call a sexual “relationship” between a parent and their teenaged child sexual abuse. And yet we see Archie’s father, when confronted with this information, basically shrug it off in a very Dylan McKay way, and the situation disappears, never to be brought up again.
This topic is resonating pretty loudly for me right now. Recently, I took on a one-day occasional teaching job. At the end of one of my classes, a student waited until the room was empty, and approached me, asking for my number. Confused, I was sure I must have misunderstood what he’d said. I said, “What?” I may have smiled in shock, I can’t know for sure. He repeated, under his breath, within a foot from me, his request for my phone number. This child, the same age as my son, was hitting on me, in my workplace. My guard was down: when I’m teaching, it’s (until that point) been one of the few environments in which I don’t steel myself against the threat of sexual harassment. While I maintain firm boundaries with my students, I do make myself somewhat emotionally vulnerable in my classroom as part of build relationships with my students. I was not ready for this. I said no, giggling a bit nervously, and wished him a good rest of his day, feeling the panic building in my throat.
That thing I said further up, about recognizing teenage desire is complicated? This is no less true as I sit here detailing the fear and frustration I felt in this moment. As someone who has experienced sexual violence, who has experienced decades of street harassment, who has experienced sexual harassment as a teen by a teacher, and whose history is sadly shared by too many of us, I did not experience this as a compliment. Someone invaded my place of work and sexualized me in a space where it is known (or, as laws often say, reasonably ought to be known) it is completely inappropriate for a sexual pick-up attempt. If I hadn’t been so shocked by his question, I would have had this conversation in the moment with him, but quite honestly, I was so far into fight-or-flight by that time that I just needed to remove myself from the space as non-confrontationally as I could.
We need to talk a lot more about how common popular culture tropes influence what we normalize. Yes, we have the freedom to express all kinds of (non-hateful) things. But with that freedom comes a responsibility to ensure we unpack what we create, to reduce the harm our expression may cause.