Toxic Media Graphic

Be careful what you watch — the media you consume could be more damaging than you think. 

“Friends” was my favorite TV show for the longest time, I have enjoyed binge-watching “Gossip Girl,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Jane the Virgin” and pretty much any other typical romance/drama show that’s been on the air.

As I have grown, though, I realized what shows are actually portraying to their audience — normalized toxic behaviors within relationships. College students need to talk about this issue and identify where we have begun to replicate these behaviors.

In the book Media Psychology under “Prosocial Effects of Media,” David Giles, professor of media psychology at the University of Winchester, argues that media can have an influential role on human’s behavior and our essential wiring as intellectual beings whether positive or negative. Further, an interesting study by Julia R. Lippman, a research fellow at the University of Michigan, investigates the media’s portrayal of the belief of stalking. The results report that the romanticized pursuit — or stalking — leads viewers to believe that it was a less serious crime overall. The work from Giles and Lippman provides evidence for the media influence among the viewer’s mind enabling these behaviors in real-life relationships.

For example, “Jane the Virgin” depicts unhealthy attitudes toward sex, communication and dating. When Michael and Rafael, the protagonist’s love interest, found out that Jane, the protagonist, was waiting until marriage to have sex, Michael was patient and understanding whereas Rafael distanced himself and turned to alcohol once he heard the news. More examples include Rafael pressuring Jane into divorcing her husband for his own benefit and isolating Jane from her son.

As teenagers and college students watch this show, they are vulnerable to these behaviors and begin to see them as the standard in relationships. In the end, Jane chooses Rafael, which, I believe, her character was manipulated into choosing due to his behavior toward her throughout the show. Rafael’s behavior insinuates people should apologize for their feelings and what they want in relationships, stripping away the vulnerable party’s agency and control.

In “Grey’s Anatomy,” we are introduced to Owen Hunt, Amelia Shepherd and Teddy Altman, also involved in a love triangle. Owen, formerly married to Amelia and in love with Teddy, strings both women along in his indecisiveness to choose who he loves the most. Owen constantly goes back and forth between these women. Owen’s lack of awareness for these women’s worth creates a toxic environment as the women are treated as disposable.

Creating TV characters who choose to be with emotionally manipulative/abusive/toxic people influences viewers to view these behaviors as romance — thus, normalizing the behaviors of real people. Relating back to Lippman’s study, we can lower our standards of a healthy relationship when exposed to examples of toxic behaviors in the media.  

A new study on Divergent Cognitive Construal Levels by Dartmouth suggests that we tend to focus on the solidified facts in media and do not analyze the information for ourselves. This helps explain why some viewers do not see a problem with the toxic relationship since the character participating in the relationship continue to normalize their behaviors. If Jane chooses Rafael and Amelia is continually strung along by Owen, we are vulnerable to take the characters decisions at face value rather than question if there is emotional manipulation occurring in their relationship.

Instead of rooting for toxic couples, let’s push for healthy relationships. Let’s encourage TV show writers to identify these toxic traits and promote loving relationships to viewers.

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(5) comments


I agree with Lena92. The problematic behavior is Teddy's. Amelia left Owen the moment he stopped treating her right and got herself a man who treats her like a queen. Teddy was far too ready to believe Owen the umpteenth time he gave her the same old, tired speech. How long before he tries to jump into Amelia’s bed again?


That’s my biggest problem with Owen, he so desperate for some type of love that he just goes back and forth between these women until his mind changes. However, Lena has given me another layer to think about when judging Owen. Typical Greys Anatomy [beam] thanks for joining the conversation.


I agree that Grey’s Anatomy has an alarming fondness for glorifying abusive relationships, but I have quite the opposite take on the Amelia/Owen/Teddy fiasco. I’ve done my dissertation on the way addiction is portrayed in the media, so I’ve paid special attention to Amelia’s arc, both on Private Practice and in Grey’s Anatomy, where her story has been linked to Owen’s since the very beginning. Both Caterina Scorsone and Kevin McKidd offered masterful performances in their representation of addiction and PTSD. When their characters got together, we were presented with the very refreshing and empowering picture of two people struggling with mental illness who were able to understand and support each other because they saw their own internal battle mirrored in their partner. They both had more than their fair share of loss and trauma and that made them stronger, individually and as a couple. They fell in love, they got married and were happily planning to start a family when Amelia, who had lost a child due to a genetic condition, suffered a panic attack while taking a pregnancy test. It was a very realistic, raw way to show how trauma works. The next logical step – particularly for a medical drama – should have been addressing the trauma and resolving it. Everything changed under Krista Vernoff’s direction and it’s hard to understand who benefited from her artistic choices. For reasons best known to herself, Ms Vernoff believed that the death of a beloved baby was not enough to justify Amelia’s breakdown and she needed a brain tumor that conveniently turned her crazy as soon as Teddy came back. From that moment, nothing made sense. Suddenly, Owen – who had spent years reading Amelia like an open book – didn’t know who she was anymore because he married a tumor and we were supposed to believe that the real Amelia had a totally different personality. Then Teddy’s entire arc with her husband Henry was deleted and we were supposed to believe that she never stopped loving Owen, that she never grew up and moved on and formed a functioning relationship with a man who loved her back. No, Owen has always been the only one for her. Then Owen’s whole background was re-written and we’re supposed to believe he’s always been in love with Teddy, but was rejecting her because he mistrusted joy due to and extremely-hard-to-buy childhood trauma. Amelia was never strung along by Owen, she was honest about her feelings for him, but she left him free to make his choice regarding Teddy, over and over again, with no hard feelings or guilt trips. Every time Owen picked Amelia, even when Teddy came back pregnant with his child, and it was hardly a choice that made him unhappy. That’s the toxic message the show is sending. That a man who for years and years has mistreated and humiliated and used as an ego booster a woman who was sincerely in love with him, was really trying to punish himself by picking smarter, younger, prettier girls… all because of the tremendous trauma inflicted upon him by a science bee competition, aged 10. And Teddy is ready to throw herself at him yet again, without even having listened to his ridiculous explanation. Seriously?


Thank you for joining my conversation! I love the opposing view you have given me and my article does provide a simplified version of what is actually happening. In my extended opinion, Owen is not the only one at fault — we can definitely put fault on Teddy as well. However, mostly because of the inconsistent writing, I do believe Owen attempting to maintain a healthy relationship and rational decisions making is impossible and getting treatment for his PTSD is essential to. I think a much less complicated couple would have been Olivia and Fitz from Scandal! But we’ll see what happens in the next two seasons! It could change the whole conversation. [beam]


Thanks to you for your reply, I really appreciate it! [smile] First, is your extended article going to be available online? I’d really love to read it. I totally agree with you, it’s one of the things that annoyed me the most about Grey’s Anatomy, the way they completely ignored Owen’s PTSD: by the end of season 13 he was spacing out and was barely able to focus and Amelia had called an expert for him… but then it was totally dropped, as if it’s something that would go away on its own and it’s really not. The other thing I can’t intellectually accept is the resolution to Owen’s supposed ‘problem’, though, because it doesn’t make any sense to me. I can’t believe that he was rejecting happiness due to an early trauma, so that’s why he treated Teddy so poorly. It’s not what we witnessed happening, even recently. If Owen was afraid of joy, why did he decided to adopt a child to fulfill his desire of fatherhood? Becoming Leo’s father obviously gave him a lot of happiness and he never backed off from that. It seems just an easy way to bring a hasty resolution to Owen’s story, without addressing with any depth the real issues in all his relationships.

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