A quick Google of ‘toxic relationships on TV’ will reveal a myriad of top 10 style lists about the public’s most loved unhealthy relationships, from Noah’s classic emotional manipulation of Allie in The Notebook, to the endlessly cringey Leonard and Penny from The Big Bang Theory (whose primary audience seems to be those semi-misogynistic 14-year-old boys at school who think they’re better than you because they play Magic: The Gathering). Recently, period dramas The Great and Bridgerton have hit headlines, not only because of their steamy sex scenes but also because of the toxic romances at the heart of the plot. People are now asking questions: is watching unhealthy relationships glorified on screen changing our perception of romance and, if it is, will screenwriters and directors take the action necessary to negate any harms?
Wrapping toxic relationships in hot, glamourous, usually rich, celebrity packages stops us realising what they really are – emotional and sometimes physical abuse. The effects of this can carry over into our real romantic lives. Often, the target audience of the worst offending shows is teenage girls. The ever-ridiculous but wholly addictive Riverdale is nearly entirely watched by young women who are still in their formative years when it comes to learning about relationships. By watching teenage relationships filled with bad communication, raging arguments, cheating and, you know, the classic Riverdale murders coming at a dime a dozen, expectations of love can be warped. Patterns of behaviour can emerge at this age that will persist well into the future, such as ignoring obvious red flags from their partner or thinking that emotional manipulation and abuse are completely normal things to endure.
Sure, it’s a good plot point, keeping an emotionally invested audience caught up in tendrils of toxicity and conflict, but it’s undoubtedly doing more harm than good by altering people’s perception of what romantic love is supposed to look like. Often, audiences are vulnerable and have little real-world experience, so creating a fictional relationship where attractive and successful characters engage in toxic behaviour, but somehow still end up happily together when all the other story lines are wrapped up, such as Daphne and Simon in regency romance Bridgerton, can normalise and romanticise toxicity. In the age of streaming, when multiple seasons of shows are available (and devoured) instantly, separating the sensationalised fiction from what a typical relationship should look like is increasingly difficult.
Do I think anything will change? No, probably not – at least not a change big enough for us to consciously recognise. Toxic relationships have been featured in literature and entertainment since the arts were invented; see Zeus and Hera, Rebecca and Max de Winter, alongside every single character in Titus Andronicus. A happy, stable relationship isn’t dramatic enough to capture and retain audiences, whereas the conflict of a turbulent relationship couple can.
The answer, I think, is not in censorship but in increased education. Providing warnings of toxic relationship portrayal just as those for adult language or flashing lights is a good place to start, in addition to increased numbers of healthy, loving relationships to act as the foil to Peter and Catherine, Daphne and Simon, or Veronica and Archie.
Image: Dawn via Flickr