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This week saw the season and series finales of ABC Family's Pretty Little Liars and HBO's Big Love, respectively. There's not a small amount of moral ambiguity on either show, but there is one glaring story line that has been handled curiously on these and other dramas, including the now defunct Life Unexpected on the CW: the phenomenon of sexual relationships between underage girls and their high school teachers.
Big Love is hardly a family show, unless you happen to be a polygamist family in search of something familiar, but the story line with Cara Lynn and her math teacher and tutor, Mr. Ivy was disturbing in its veritas. The plot line was very much like your average courtship: girl meets boy, girl flirts with boy, girl meets boy's parents, girl loses her virginity to boy. Except, the boy was in his 40s and the girl was 15. Cara Lynn is a character who had a fairly awful childhood, but her relationship with Mr. Ivy was treated more as an escape than a predatory dynamic. The viewer was almost, maybe rooting for these two. Dr. Belisa Vranrich, Clinical Psychologist, explains that this type of relationship is dangerous, especially in certain circumstances, "I think that whether this is their first sexual experience is important. This is an age where research shows that young women are particularly sensitive about what others think about them and they are more susceptible to
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The psychologist also points to a study by the Guttmacher Institute that found, "that 60 percent of girls who had sex before age 15 were coerced by males who, on average, were six years their senior."
Pretty Little Liars handles the "hot for teacher" theme in a more palatable way, in that the characters in question are only the aforementioned six years apart. But, it is a series on ABC Family, targeted at teens, which makes the idea of it all the more queasy in theory.
Pretty little Aria is dating her handsome English teacher, Ezra Fitz. The answer to the whole "are they or aren't they actually having sex" is kept somewhat vague, but there are sleepovers involved with a high school girl.
Pretty Little Liars is a totally entertaining show, it has pretty people and murder and mystery and so many creepy text messages. In essence, a teacher and student hanging out seems far less disturbing than someone videotaping and stalking teenage girls. Is it really so dangerous to make a student-teacher relationship appear healthy? "Yes," Clinical Psychiatrist and author of Just Listen: Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone, Dr. Goulston, says, "Sadly, the reality may be that some of those authority figures are not truly evil, but have the same emotional level of immaturity of the young girl. But nevertheless, the young girl is just as likely to feel violated. She will likely develop a distrust of authority figures and be distrustful of the motives of anyone who wants to have a relationship with her."
I spoke with Ian Harding who plays Ezra Fitz on the show and asked him about how he approached the role creatively, and how he feels about playing a character who could be viewed an unethical.
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"My first thought process was 'it's a TV show, so it's not real' and it's maybe how I justify what's taboo," the actor explains, "...what I thought was so interesting is that these two people are soul mates and they discovered each other and it can't be rationalized... In terms of morally questionable, Ezra has racked his brains, but ultimately I think he's one of those people, and Aria is one of those people that needs to follow their gut because they're both intelligent and aware of the consequences."Dr. Belisa counters, "If they are indeed in love, waiting until she is legal and they are not in a teacher-student situation any more is the best idea." Well, what would that do to move a plot along?
To quote the ever genius Cher in Clueless, "there's no point in taking it out of shows that need it for entertainment value." In all seriousness, there is a line between art and reality. Do shows like Pretty Little Liars have a responsibility to show the ramifications of an unethical, and possibly dangerous and illegal scenario? I honestly don't think so, but the hope would be that parents know what their children are watching and teenage girls don't mistake their high school English teachers for a probable prom date.
Photo: Pretty Little Liars
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