Written by Mx. Chelsey Morgan
As a society, we’ve wrapped our head around the impact of product placement, subliminal messaging and fake news. We’ve accepted that ads can create cravings and that music can influence a generation but, when it comes to the shows we grew up watching and the romances that divided our fandoms, we continuously categorize them as mindless entertainment. Consequently, we disregard the habits we can still absorb through our screens.
So, with that said, what was your first introduction to the obsessive world of tv romance? I’m not ashamed to say that, for me, it was Freeform’s “Pretty Little Liars”.
If the last decade of pop culture memes hasn’t already spoiled these shows for you, here’s your spoiler alert. (Though, let’s be honest. If you haven’t seen PLL or Gossip Girl yet, your luck was bound to run out sometime in the last 10 years.)
But, looking back, I was distorting my view of a world I knew nothing about.
I remember being hooked on this show before I heard it’s eerie theme. At the time, I just thought I was getting a look into the adult world of sex and relationships. But, looking back, I was distorting my view of a world I knew nothing about.
Episode 1 introduced Allison’s character-defining line and the theme of every teen show I’d ever watch: ‘Friends share secrets. That’s what keeps us close.’ One line was all it took to reinforce the foundation of my relationship to sexuality. There are some things we just don’t talk about.
Further increasing the impact, the pilot romanticized three examples of coercive and dangerous power dynamics before the first commercial break. Beginning with the grooming of a 16 year old Aria Fitz by her 20-something year old English teacher. Then, moving on to the 17 year old Spencer Hastings and her sexually charged interactions with her sister’s mid-30s boyfriend. Ending with a subplot centered around Aria’s father, a college professor having an affair with his student. All of this, in less than 5 minutes, taught my 13 year old neurodivergent brain that grooming minors was not just normal but that it was sexy, and that older, powerful white men were the romantic and sexual ideal.
After binging Pretty Little Liars, I found myself searching for stories of forbidden romance and star-crossed lovers. The natural next step was a show that became a cultural phenomenon for my generation, The CW’s “Gossip Girl”.
From them, I learned that no matter how physically, emotionally and financially abusive my partner was, pain, manipulation, avoidant attachment, extortion and possessiveness were what was truly worth fighting for.
I could write for days on the harmful lessons I learned during those 6 short seasons. So, in an effort to save time, here are the highlights. The show featured two primary relationships. The first was between Dan, the artsy writer from a low income background and Serena, the starlit from the Upper East Side. From their complex on-again, off again relationship, I learned that no matter how many times they invade my privacy, devalue my struggles or ignore my boundaries, “good intention” is what counts. Then there was Chuck and Blair, a so-called power couple ready to take on the world. From them, I learned that no matter how physically, emotionally and financially abusive my partner was, pain, manipulation, avoidant attachment, extortion and possessiveness were what was truly worth fighting for.
As much as I’d love to claim that I’ve always been able to separate fiction from reality, I’d be naïve to say that I didn’t set my relationship boundaries according to Blair Waldorf. ‘Three words, eight letters. Say it and I’m yours’. That was the boundary. No matter what the stakes, a single declaration of love and I’d be willing to take the abuse. After all, that’s what I was taught to do.
Years later, when it came time for a whirlwind romance of my own, verbal abuse and emotional manipulation sounded like melodrama and declarations of love. Screaming in the street and tears running down my face felt as natural as kissing in the rain. Secrets. Lies. Shattered glass on the floor. I learned that it all had its place amongst the dancing in the street and public displays of affection. What I didn’t learn was that a slap in the face was always a preview of what was to come. That coming home to the word “Liar” written on every mirror, every piece of paper and all over every inch of their beer stained body wasn’t the climactic scene of an emotional thriller. It was an image I’d never get out of my head. Gossip Girl was wrong.
Behind the screens, the culture of coercion, power imbalance and manipulation mimics those perpetuated on screen. It’s prevalence has been reflected in the #MeToo Movement, started in 2006 by sexual harassment survivor Tarana Burke. Since the start of that movement, countless media professionals have stood up and shared their story, sparking the creation of a new role in Hollywood, the Intimacy Coordinator, whose job is to protect the autonomy of the actors during these scenes of intimacy, ensuring that their boundaries are respected. However, the work can’t stop there.
Though I can’t fix every toxic protagonist or warn every viewer that this “shouldn’t be tried at home”, I can urge you to recognize the influence your entertainment has on you.
In pursuing certification as a sex educator and an intimacy coordinator, I’ve made the conscious choice to see the impact that the media’s romanticism of toxicity and abusive relationships have had on me. I saw myself as an individual with power over my mental health and the health of my relationships, finally unlearning justifications of manipulation and exploitation. Through my work, I have the chance to spread that message. Though I can’t fix every toxic protagonist or warn every viewer that this “shouldn’t be tried at home”, I can urge you to recognize the influence your entertainment has on you. As consumers, we have the power to restructure the narrative, to lessen the power our media has over our reality. I challenge you to advocate for your autonomy, for your pleasure, for your boundaries and for your consent and to begin the work of becoming a counsious, sex-postive consumer of media. Because in the end, there is no abuse nor control nor shame that could ever be worth those three little words.
About The Author
Mx. Chelsey Morgan (pronouns: they / them) is an Afro-Latinx, pansexual, polyamorous, and non-binary sex educator, writer and media maker. They practice trauma-informed, holistic sex education with focuses on Mental Health Awareness, BDSM and Kink, LGBTQ+ populations, Non-monogamy and Media Literacy. Their career goal is to curate accurate, consensual, and inclusive representations of sexuality in the media. For more information, visit their website at www.mxcmorgan.com.
Follow on IG: @mxcmorgan