Ah, young love. Passing notes in class, awkwardly slow dancing at the high school prom, kissing, kicking, screaming, manipulating, controlling, pressuring, mocking- when did this become so normal?
Of course, the real-life answer is never- toxic has never been normal, and it never will be. So why are we being inundated with film and television that seems to disagree?
From blurring the lines on consent to glamourizing mental illness to mistaking jealous, angry behaviour with “passion”, far too many of our favourite shows and movies have hyped up some truly twisted relationships.
Not only that, but far too often these productions are aimed towards a teenage and young adult audience. Think about it: taking a demographic of young, impressionable, insecure minds who are just beginning to navigate sex and relationships, show them abusive, toxic or otherwise unhealthy couples, and present it to them as the pinnacle of romance. The result is a generation that doesn’t truly understand the difference between a healthy relationship and an unhealthy one.
In some cases, it isn’t the intention of the creators (or performers) to portray a relationship as healthy and normal, but it’s the media and audience response anyways. In other cases, it almost feels like the people involved seem to have no understanding of the toxicity they’re portraying.
Here are ten popular on-screen couples we really need to stop hyping, pronto.
- Harley Quinn and The Joker
It should be obvious for literally anyone who has seen the movie, watched the animated series, read the comics, or have even just caught a few of the ads: Harley Quinn and the Joker are not your relationship goals.
We get it. You’re so crazy because you do whacky and spontaneous things like drink alcohol and sneak out of the house and send your boyfriend super long, hardly coherent text ramblings because having “attitude problems” and “being a brat” is cute now. Some might say you’re simply too immature to handle a serious relationship, but you know that the truth is you and your significant other are really just psychos like Harley and Joker and that’s so fun.
Well, you’re objectively wrong. Harley and the Joker aren’t a cute, loving relationship. They’re not “crazy” and wild, they’re toxic and abusive and dangerous.
When you compare yourself to Harley and the Joker because you’ve “found someone as crazy as you are”, you’re reinforcing so many negative connotations about mental illness. First and foremost, you’re implying that Harley and the Joker are equal in their madness- which is not true. Harley Quinn was once a respected doctor who attempted to treat the Joker and ended up falling in love/being manipulated to the point of brainwash. She is seriously damaged, whereas the Joker is notoriously evil for the sake of being evil. He’s a character who just wants to watch the world burn, who wants to cause pain just to see the damage- and that extends to his relationship with Harley. Throughout the comics and series, he physically abuses her, emotionally manipulates her, sees her as inferior rather than an equal, and in one comic, you even discover that he’s murdered a number of “other” Harleys that couldn’t satisfy him.
You’re also reinforcing another falsehood that this generation seems to love- that mental illness is something to want or strive for, and something that could even make a relationship better. The reality is that mental illness is damaging in every aspect, and often puts a strain on relationships both platonic and romantic, and that shouldn’t be ignored.
You can read a more in-depth assessment and reflection of their relationship here.
- Ezra and Aria- Pretty Little Liars
Pretty Little Liars, for me, falls strictly into the category of guilty pleasure. None of the much-hyped twists have been impressive, the writing is clearly done by a team that thinks they know how millennials talk, and sometimes the show itself is so bad I can’t tell if the actors are any good, or have just been cheated by a poor script. But the real disaster of PLL is the fact they try so hard to tackle every “teen” issue around, from cyberbullying to sex to eating disorders to coming out, but far too often, they shoot for clickbait-creating bits for shock value rather than an honest, poignant story.
Aria and Ezra are probably the worst, and longest-running, version of this. They got so caught up in creating a love-that-cannot-be, they forgot it was a love that shouldn’t be. Ezra is Aria’s teacher. Based on the timeline of the series, there’s no way Aria is any older than fifteen or sixteen, and Ezra has to be least 25, based on the education you need to become a teacher.
This is where all the Ezria shippers chip in with the excuses. He didn’t realize she was still in high school before the connection was made. They tried so hard to avoid falling for each other. He isn’t her teacher for the entirety of the show. She’s clearly more mature than the average high schooler. Their connection is real.
None of this matters. It was irresponsible of the showrunners to even create this relationship. The last thing we need is to validate young, impressionable minds that “love-that-cannot-be” relationships are romantic, edgy and worth the risk. Have her fall in love with a jock whose considered too popular for her, or a friend’s sibling. Not someone that it’s literally illegal to date.
You might think it’s harmless on the account that everything that happens between them is consensual- but think about the message that sends young viewers. It validates the idea that laws concerning consent are outdated and restrictive, not an accurate reflection of the ability of young people to consent. It validates the concept that just because a relationship isn’t what some would consider consensual, it’s not romantic or sexy. That logic can be applied to the boy at the party who pushes you just a little too far or the time you felt a little weird after because we kept going even though you were wasted, or anything else. If you spread the idea that consent laws are made to be broken in the name of love, that mentality can leak its way into the mind of the people watching.
Also, for those saying “but that showrunners are following the books!”, Aria and Ezra not only don’t last in the books, but he ends up getting arrested. So there.
- Sandy and Danny- Grease
Back in elementary school, my favourite thing to do was telling my mom I was watching VeggieTales when really I was sorting through our then-extensive collection of VHS movies and watching them all. There were misses (The Blair Witch Project was a bad choice for a nine-year-old), but Grease wasn’t one of them. I loved that movie so much I’ve been both Sandy and Danny for Halloween before.
But even my nine-year-old self could recognize that there was something that just wasn’t right about their relationship. Specifically the ending. I just couldn’t understand why their big reconciliation had to occur under the circumstances that Sandy had to don a skintight black leather outfit, smoke a cigarette and prove herself to really be a bad girl underneath. Wasn’t Danny attracted to who she was a person? Why would she give up her values just to impress a boy?
After refusing to conform to what the Pink Ladies wanted her to be, and after standing her ground and leaving the drive-in after he won’t stop acting like a prick, Sandy decides to change everything about herself to preserve a relationship he hasn’t given anything for?
I’ve talked to some friends about it, and a couple have suggested the ending sequence is supposed to represent sacrifice and compromise- she’s willing to break away from her uptight, good-girl self, and now expects him to compromise as well. The only thing is, he doesn’t compromise. He doesn’t even formally apologize in that final sequence.
Sandy and Danny might have been cute- but the fact she’s the one expected to change and beg for her man back is reflective of the times.
- Jay and Daisy- The Great Gatsby
Pretty fringe dressers and opulent parties and fireworks and flappers- the 2013 film version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic bothered me for the very reason why the book is still remembered to this day. The Great Gatsby offers a scathing criticism of the life of the wealthy- the excess and the emptiness. The film, however, seemed to celebrate these very things, dedicating a lot of time to showing off the spectacular parties and revving up the costuming, the special effects, and everything that could be seen as excess to the storyline. It’s soundtrack features Jay-Z and Lana Del Rey for God’s sakes, two artists famous for their materialization.
But still, this film reawakened all the ignorant teenagers who love the idea of a love-that-cannot-be relationship but haven’t actually read the book. Daisy and Jay are not your relationship goals. Daisy is vain, selfish, materialistic- she is described as some who “smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into [her] money or vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept [her] together”. Ultimately, she chooses a life of opulence and wealth over love.
But Jay isn’t exactly healthy either. He’s obsessive at best, a stalker at worst. He dedicates his entire life into making money so he can produce spectacular parties so he can win back his lost love. He sits on his dock for hours staring out at her house across the water. That’s not love. That’s obsession, plain and simple. The Great Gatsby is an amazing book for a lot of reasons- but because of any enviable love story, that’s for sure.
- Piper and Alex- Orange is the New Black
While it’s now just kind of accepted that Piper is the worst, there’s still some cuteness to the Piper and Alex love story. They’re adorable together, they came back to one another after years, and when you watch their flashback episodes you can how and why everything in their relationship happened the way it did. Also, Alex was the exciting alternative to the super boring Larry. Remember Larry?
Unfortunately, however, their relationship is all kinds of messed up. On more than one occasion, they’ve stabbed each other in the back in a major way- Alex ratted out Piper, which is the reason she’s in prison altogether, and after Piper is finally released, Piper is responsible for putting her back in prison. That’s not exactly a healthy, happy relationship. There’s also cheating galore- Piper cheats on her fiancée with Alex, but is somehow outraged when Larry does the same to her, but then Piper cheats on Alex with Stella. Piper’s nobody’s favourite character, but we often ignore the fact she’s almost chronically unfaithful as well.
Plus, I’ll just come right out and say it- they’re original post-college relationship was all sorts of weird and unhealthy. Alex did pressure Piper into her brief involvement in the drug ring, and Piper was in the right to leave a dangerous situation, even though the showrunners try to make Alex more sympathetic by having her mother die around this time. If you ever end up dating a criminal in an international drug ring, and want to leave for your own safety, don’t stay just because they’re going through emotional turmoil- please.
- Edward and Bella- Twilight
As ashamed as I am, I can’t lie about my past. I was a Twi-Hard. I read the books. I owned a Team Jacob shirt, but often considered myself Team Edward. I owned the New Moon soundtrack- and that wasn’t even the best soundtrack of the franchise.
It wasn’t until years later I realized what a number this series- and the many wannabes I consumed in the years after it- had done on me.
I realized I had mistaken self-loathing for romantic and deep. I had seen Bella’s damsel-in-distress shtick as healthy and normal for a girl in love.
There’s so much going on in that relationship, but here are some of the highlights:
– Bella is literally willing to sacrifice her entire life for Edward. She is willing to move away from her home and never see her friends and family again so she can join him in immortality
– None of Bella’s key characteristics are there to make her a multi-dimensional character. They exist to simply further the plot (her clumsiness get her into a lot of trouble, she’s deeply impulsive even though we’re constantly being told that she’s smart) or to make her a good fit for Edward (her skittishness allows more his controlling nature to work).
– Even though it’s his own brashness that exposed Bella’s knowledge of vampires to the Volturi, thus giving them no choice but to transition her, Edward still “refuses” to do so unless Bella agrees to marry him
– Bella’s post-breakup behaviour in New Moon is consistent with PTSD symptoms, from night terrors to delusions to using reckless behaviour to fill a void
– The fact that Edward tries to pressure Bella into an abortion- at one point trying to use force, to which Rosalie protects her- is abusive. Yes, he’s trying to avoid her dying, but ultimately, it’s her body and her choice, and there is an alternative (turn her into a vampire before the injuries of childbirth can kill her).
– He asks Jacob to procreate with her without even talking to Bella about this, as though he doesn’t need her consent, and as though he can make these choices for her, and we’re supposed to see this as selfless, sweet behaviour
– The series constantly compares love to addiction
– It shows love as existing within a vacuum. Bella and Edward just happen to love each other, before even knowing each other well. It shows love as this entity that just exists one day, rather than a process. They don’t fall for each other’s personalities or actions- love is like a flu they just happened to catch.
– Jacob falling in love with an infant is creepy and gross.
- Christian and Ana- Fifty Shades of Grey
This relationship was based on Edward and Bella- but it’s even worse. Christian Grey is an unapologetic stalker, finding out where Ana works and following her there. Signing a sexual contract is in every way abusive- it’s implying that consent can be a fixed, one-time agreement, rather than something fluid and changing at all times. He pressures her into things she doesn’t want to do- and some would even say one of their encounters counts as rape. In one of the later books, she gets pregnant, and he tries to pressure her into having an abortion- but this time, her life isn’t even at risk. He’s just deeply immature and self-loathing, and decides to make reproductive choices for his girlfriend as a result.
The author tries to excuse his behaviour by revealing he was forced to have sex by an older woman as a young teen- implying that if abusers have a dark backstory, the abuse is somehow invalid. All round, this series is poorly written, and doesn’t reflect a healthy relationship or an accurate depiction of BDSM.
- Elena and Damon- Vampire Dairies
I can already hear the fandom telling me I “don’t understand”- and I probably don’t understand all of it. I started watching Vampire Dairies when it first came out mid-Twilight-hype. After two or three seasons, my vampire obsession had faded and the plot became too convoluted. So I haven’t watched every episode- but what’s important to note is that I’ve watched enough to notice one key finding: Damon is an abuser, plain and simple.
I stopped watching a little after Stefan and Elena broke up and I always just assumed that she would end up with Damon for a while in classic love triangle manner, but then get back with Stefan in the end. But, now that Nina Doberv has bowed out of her role before the end of the series, that obviously didn’t happen. Dalena were endgame.
From what I’ve watched, this is horrifying. Damon kills several innocent people just for the sake of it. Both he and Stefan are heartbroken over the loss of Katherine- but Damon is obsessive. He commits several murders to get her back. But even worse than this is the fact that he rapes Caroline. Early in the first season, he compels Elena’s best friend (a process in which a vampire can pretty much make a human do anything they want), including to have sex, and she has the bruises afterwards to prove it.
I don’t care if he “gets better” as the series goes on. I don’t care if Elena changes him for the better. I don’t care about his sad back story. Elena ends up dating someone whose on record as a murderer, a rapist and a manipulator (not that Stefan didn’t also go on a few massacres).
Can we not create a series about vampires doing their best to be human and humane without viewing horrific crimes against humanity as casual and forgivable slip ups? Please?
- Ross and Rachel- Friends
If you want to ship a Friends couple, choose Chandler and Monica- those two are adorable.
Ross and Rachel, not so much.
But mostly Ross, though. Ross is a self-centered, arrogant jerk who thinks he’s better than everyone else because he’s an academic and his friends are just happier, often more successful people who are more content with their work and personal lives. But the worst thing about Ross is the fact that he acts like he owns Rachel. He’s constantly treating her like an object, acting like she can’t move on when they aren’t together, or holding her past relationships against her when they are dating, even though he has two failed marriages behind him.
And the whole thing about pretending they had gotten their marriage annulled when they hadn’t???? Horrible, disgusting, abusive behaviour.
Chandler + Monica= relationship goals. Ross + Rachel= literally how you hope your life doesn’t turn out.
- Romeo and Juliet
R +J are the OG toxic-but-romanticized lovebirds. Lusty teenagers love to compare their relationship to Romeo and Juliet- even though at this point, there’s no excuse for anyone to not know their story.
Romeo and Juliet are deeply impulsive and brash characters who could have avoided literally every point of conflict in this play. They probably weren’t even in love- this play takes place over just three days, and Romeo is a hormonal teen insistent he’s in love with a girl named Rosaline just seconds before meeting Juliet, and Juliet has been convinced by everyone in her life that she should already been married, and as every woman did in that time period, she fears becoming a spinster and failing to fulfill the “duties” of a woman. They’re much more likely motivated by hormonal lust and personal expectations that any true connection. Oh, and they’re immaturity and impulsiveness leads to six people dying. So, no, they aren’t really comparable to your current situation where your parents don’t like your boyfriend because he has poor dinner table manners and helped you sneak out of the house that one time.