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The End of Student-Teacher Affairs?
When will student-teacher affairs finally stop being romanticized on teen dramas? The time may have finally come.
January marked 23 years since “Dawson’s Creek” debuted with high school sophomore Pacey (Joshua Jackson) pursuing the older Tamara (Leann Hunley)… who was his English teacher. Tamara, while flirtatious, initially resists Pacey’s advances until the last act of the pilot, where he boldly declares, “I’m the best sex you'll never have.” Tamara’s response? “You’re wrong about one thing, Pacey. You’re not a boy.” Well, he IS, in fact, just a boy, but then she kisses him anyway and kisses him hard.
To be clear, Pacey is 15 years old and Tamara is 36. A relationship between them is illegal, but they embark on one nonetheless, with Tamara taking Pacey’s virginity in episode 1.03, “Kiss.” This storyline was presented with a mainly romantic tone, with viewers seemingly supposed to root for the unlikely pairing. The relationship only comes to an end when rumors about their hookup spread around school, leading to a school board hearing where — instead of Tamara taking responsibility — Pacey assures the board there is nothing going on between them and claims he only made up such stories to impress his classmates.
Tamara leaves town afterward, but returns for three episodes of season 2, in which we’re again supposed to feeling stirrings in our heart as she and Pacey long to be together even though they know they can’t. I am not trying to downplay their emotional connection; there is no question their feelings for one another are real (though Pacey, being an adolescent, was definitely manipulated). But it’s mind-boggling that this storyline was deemed okay back then because today it most certainly wouldn’t be.
And “Dawson’s Creek” creator Kevin Williamson knows that. In a Hollywood Reporter interview for the show’s 20th anniversary in 2018, he said that while he “wouldn’t change it because it served its purpose and it was based on a storyline from my own childhood,” if he “was writing the show today, I probably would not have it in the story.”
I can’t help but wonder if our other teen drama showrunners would say the same.
To be fair, “Beverly Hills, 90210” did student-teacher plots in high school with a rather light hand — Brenda (Shannen Doherty) has a fairly innocent crush on one of her teachers in season 1 and, after a rocky start, Andrea (Gabrielle Carteris) seems to have an attraction to English teacher Gil (Mark Kiely) in season 3 and is visibly bummed when, after graduation, she finds out he’s engaged in the season 4 premiere. There’s not much for producers to regret there.
“The O.C.” tackled the topic in season 3, with Taylor (Autumn Reeser) caught having an affair with Dean Hess (Eric Mabius). At the time, Taylor was portrayed as a villain, or at least a nemesis to some of the characters, as was Dean Hess, and Sandy (Peter Gallagher) uses their illicit relationship to blackmail the dean into letting Ryan (Benjamin McKenzie) back into Harbor while Hess himself leaves the school. I imagine creator Josh Schwartz would justify this storyline since the affair was portrayed as inappropriately scandalous, not romantic, and both guilty parties seemed to get their comeuppance.
But there’s no defending the student-teacher relationship that takes place between Brooke (Sophia Bush) and Nick (Rey Valentin) on “One Tree Hill.” They meet through a dating site, Brooke lies about her age, and they have sex in a classroom… all before it’s revealed he’s her new English teacher. (What is it with English teachers?!) Rather than end the relationship once Brooke’s true age is revealed, they decide to keep hooking up in secret. In fact, their dalliances only end not when Nick is suspended for relations with a student, but when Brooke catches him post-hookup with someone else.
The message seemed to be that the problem wasn’t that their relationship was extremely inappropriate but that Nick was unfaithful. Would now-disgraced creator Mark Schwahn — who was later revealed to be sexually harassing several of the “One Tree Hill” actresses, including Bush — really think that’s the lesson to teach viewers today? Well, I guess considering his own perverted behavior, it shouldn’t be surprising that he so badly missed the mark with this storyline.
“Gossip Girl,” meanwhile, depicted student-teacher relationships in mainly romantic ways not once but twice. The first storyline comes in season 2, with Dan (Penn Badgley) growing close to Rachel (Laura Breckenridge), who teaches Shakespeare at Constance. (English again!) The twist here, I suppose, is that Blair (Leighton Meester) frames them for having an affair before they ever actually hook up. What’s more, Rachel only sleeps with Dan after she believes she’s been fired from the school. But… like… still. We’re supposed to be rooting for them to get it on, even though such a hookup is still illegal and Rachel, being an actual adult, should’ve known better.
The show goes down this path again in season 4, though the setting is now college and Serena (Blake Lively), who is of age by this point, briefly dates a guest professor. But this relatively brief storyline was really constructed to set up another: Serena reveals that while she was at boarding school, she grew close to her English teacher, Ben (David Call), but he refused to sleep with her. Still, Ben was imprisoned for statutory rape and we learn it was because Serena’s mother falsified her signature on an affidavit that untruthfully claimed Ben and the underage Serena slept together.
Serena, wanting to right this wrong, tries to help Ben get back on his feet when he’s released from prison… and they actually do embark on a relationship at this point. Yes, such a romance isn’t illegal anymore, but it still feels icky, and things end because Ben understandably can’t get past how her family messed up his life. It seemed we were not only supposed to feel badly for Ben (which is fair), but also feel badly that he and Serena couldn’t make it work when — even though they didn’t cross the ultimate line while she was in high school — they still had a rather inappropriate start. Would Schwartz do these storylines in the same way today? We may get our answer when the “Gossip Girl” spinoff finally debuts later this year.
It’s hard to believe, but “90210” is the only one of the six teen dramas that didn’t attempt to depict a true student-teacher romance. Instead, the show managed to pull off a pretty significant (and pretty serious) plot twist: After Naomi (AnnaLynne McCord) falsely accuses Blaze adviser Mr. Cannon (Hal Ozsan) of sexual harassment in a misguided attempt at revenge for him being hard on her, he rapes her in the season 2 finale, menacingly telling her, “Who’s gonna believe you? You’re the girl who cried wolf.” In season 3, it’s eventually exposed that he’s wanted for sex crimes in England and — I am leaving out a lot of details for the sake brevity — he’s ultimately hauled away by the cops. At no point is any part of this romanticized.
As I look back on all of these storylines, a few thoughts come to mind: While I wasn’t a fan of any of these couplings, what does it say about me that my favorite relationship on “Pretty Little Liars” was Aria and Ezra, who were also student and teacher? Would fans not have rooted for some of these pairings if the characters were actually portrayed by age-appropriate actors? It’s hard to visually grasp how wrong these relationships are when the stars depicting them are 20-somethings and older, not actual teens with all the physical youthfulness that implies. (Though Pacey did actually look quite young next to Tamara.)
But is the tide finally turning? When “A Teacher” was released on Hulu last year, a number of critics praised the miniseries for attempting to realistically portray the psychology behind student-teacher affairs and the consequences of such illicit relationships. Though I personally haven’t seen the show (I don’t have Hulu, unfortunately), from all that I’ve read about it, it seems like it did the exact opposite of many of the teen dramas.
Wrote famed critic Richard Roeper in the Chicago Sun-Times, “This isn’t the story of a teenage romance — it’s a chronicle of an unethical, illegal, predatory, criminal act on the part of a teacher who is grooming her student and taking advantage of him, with no real concern for the immediate and lifelong consequences of her actions.” Each episode also came with an advisory warning.
It shouldn’t be glossed over that “A Teacher” was made in the post-#MeToo era and all of the shows highlighted above aired well before it. Hollywood’s reckoning in recent years when it comes to sexual misconduct behind the scenes, the prevalence of intimacy coordinators on set, increased emphasis being put on responsible storytelling — I want to believe it’ll all make a difference.
I’m not saying we’ll never see a student-teacher affair again, or that shows won’t ever try to make such a thing sexy or romantic. But I think the teen dramas of the 1990s and 2000s were made in a very different time and a lot of lessons have been learned since then and in the last few years in particular.
I can’t blame anyone who watches “Dawson’s Creek” for the first time today for cringing at the Pacey-Tamara storyline. It was wrong in 1998, even though people obviously felt differently about it at the time, and it’s still wrong in 2021. But I think it would be done differently today — if it was even done at all.
Please note: Though I normally include videos of relevant clips in these essays, I purposely decided to leave them out this time. I don’t think we need to give these scenes any more views given their inappropriateness.
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