We need to stop romanticizing unhealthy power dynamics in relationships

When I was a teenager, I was enamoured by the idea of forbidden love. I saw it everywhere—from songs and books to movies and TV shows.

This forbidden love often fell into one trope: a heterosexual relationship where a young woman became smitten with a charismatic older man who happened to be in a position of power over her. I saw it with Aria and Ezra in Pretty Little Liars, Meredith and Derek in Grey’s Anatomy, and Serena and both her high school teacher and professor in Gossip Girl.  

While watching these TV shows, I was tricked into thinking relationships with unhealthy power dynamics were not only okay, but extremely attractive. I lusted over the male love interests, believing romance had no boundaries—including professional experience or age.

Unhealthy power dynamics were dipped in steamy make-out scenes, powdered with witty dialogue, and packaged in a romantic mold appealing to vulnerable teenage girls.

Seeing high school students consistently sexualized also tricked me into thinking I needed to look and act a certain way, even though the actors playing the teenage characters were often in their 20s. The casting also normalized intimate scenes between vulnerable women and older men, because the actors were closer in age than their characters. 

Age differences in romantic relationships aren’t necessarily a bad thing. In most of my relationships, I’ve been younger than my partners. However, a six-year age gap at 21 is completely different from the same gap at 15. 

And this age gap becomes problematic if the relationship is between one individual in a position of power and another other below them.

The “Lolita”trope hasn’t disappeared, it’s just become normalized.

I wish I could tell my younger self that consent becomes complicated when power is involved. I wish I could tell my younger self that “love” doesn’t have to be toxic and forbidden to be exciting.

Sometimes, I still can’t tell whether an interaction is healthy. In some situations, I feel pressured to disregard red flags because I’ve been conditioned to think unhealthy power dynamics are normal.

When it comes to media marketed towards impressionable young people, creators need to be cognizant of the impact they have on the next generation. Girls in particular need to know when they’re being sexualized and taken advantage of.

Power often exempts people from accountability for their actions, while damaging media allows this phenomenon to be perpetuated.

In reality, Ezra should’ve been fired, Serena should have been protected, and Meredith and Derek’s relationship—though one of my favourite on-screen couples—played on the fact that she was an intern and he was an attending supervisor.

We need to stop romanticizing unhealthy power dynamics because they allow teenagers to have distorted ideas of what love looks like. More importantly, they make young people vulnerable to harmful relationships.

Alysha is a fourth-year English student and The Journal’s Lifestyle Editor.

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