“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.