Too often, women’s roles in media are reduced to sexual fantasies. Depictions of fantasy women are problematic for a multitude of reasons, one being that fantasies don’t acknowledge the complexities of girlhood or their potential as humans, a box that has proven to be fatal to girls and women time and time again. In all media, and especially music videos, we are constantly bombarded with hyper-sexualized depictions of women, especially Black women. Media is shaped by culture! We blame teenage girls for expressing any hint of sexuality, yet they are taught time and time again that that’s what society values and that’s how mature women present themselves. If we do not shift our cultural values, our media will not change, and we are stuck in an endless cycle of power-based violence. Cultural values depicted by media are extremely influential on male-identified adolescents, too, teaching them that toxic masculinity and gender-based oppression are the norm. Without the experience or education to know better, adolescents only have media and their peers for daily examples of romantic partnership outside of their homes. And many young people do not have healthy relationships modeled for them at home. This, coupled with the fact that their brains are still in the process of developing, makes what they learn through media and social interactions so impactful. If a teen surrounds themselves with people who verbalize how aggression and control are romantic, they are much more likely to look for and accept those behaviors in their own relationships. And we see this all the time in media – “aggressive and controlling behaviors means they like me!”


Disclaimer: Click on the hyperlinks to get the full experience!

TRIGGER WARNING [TW] – Hyperlinks to videos about Euphoria and You may be triggering. Please take care of yourself and avoid those links if you need to.

For example, Euphoria is a very popular show with young people (I mean, who doesn’t love Zendaya?), but its main characters have some very troublesome relationships. In this show, viewers see Nate and Maddy [TW – violence, sexually aggressive language], high school juniors and an on-and-off-again couple, play manipulative games with each other, resulting in Nate beating another guy to a bloody pulp for being with Maddy during one of their breakups. Maddy thought it was hot and they got back together, and then we see Nate abuse Maddy over and over again [TW – Domestic violence]. Many viewers still express support for them online, romanticizing the abuse. This concept (control=love) spills out into our everyday lives, making it easy to convince ourselves that “smaller things,” like monitoring your location every day or making decisions about your social life, seem not just acceptable, but normal. Personal sacrifice as love is also often represented in entertainment. In The Vampire Diaries, another immensely popular show, the main character, Elena, sacrifices her own morals and boundaries time and time again to justify staying with Damon, creating a cycle of toxicity and disregarded boundaries. You know who everyone’s favorite couple is though? Elena and Damon. Because hurt and sacrifice is portrayed as romantic, as if true love means unconditional love. No one is teaching young people what sacrifices are appropriate and which ones cross a line; we just say “love takes compromise; love takes sacrifice; love should be unconditional” and expect them to just know what’s unacceptable (infidelity, physical and sexual violence/coercion, name-calling, constant silent treatment, etc.) in the face of so many bad examples throughout media. The romanticization of sacrifice, boundary pushing, and control can only diminish when we demand better examples of young love on the screen.

It is no secret that the film and TV industry sees relationship turmoil as good TV, and unfortunately it often is, but coupled with the constant portrayal of the love story and honeymoon phase, teens are missing concrete examples of healthy, long-term couples. They’re not seeing the hours of downtime and the mundane side of love, that love can be comfortable and happy, that there doesn’t need to be daily highs and lows. But that doesn’t make good TV. In Ginny and Georgia, a Netflix show about a mother and teen daughter duo, the one healthy teen relationship showcased in that show was merely a steppingstone for Ginny to get to the guy she actually wanted (Marcus), who she cheated on the first boy (Hunter) with. The writers spent minimal time developing the healthy relationship; it was always clear who they wanted us to root for, despite Marcus and Ginny’s problematic tendencies. Writers do this toxic love triangle all the time; it is in a LOT of shows we see. This one trope is not the problem, in fact, media itself is not the problem; the problem lies in the accumulation of bad examples, and the absence of good ones, and how those examples negatively affect people in their formative years.

In a show called You [TW – Stalking], a man (Joe) finds woman after woman to secretly stalk and eventually becomes their boyfriend, until the violence accumulates to murder. The audience sees stalking being justified through Joe’s thoughts [TW- Stalking, violence], and the audience actually sympathizes with him at different points throughout the show knowing we shouldn’t. Since the start of the show, there has been an outpouring of love for the actor AND character, despite his [character’s] dishonest nature, controlling tactics, inability to take responsibility for his actions and, of course, violence against women and others. In other media, stalking has been portrayed as funny and harmless(clip from Looney Tunes). The ability to normalize and justify stalking behaviors is so dangerous to young people when roughly HALF of ALL TEENS have been stalked or harassed. Social media has also created a casual use for the word stalking, for example, “I stalked his Insta last night to find out where he goes to school,” or “I wanted to see if they have a partner, so I stalked their socials.”  The casual misuse of the word stalking and other important aspects of teen dating violence that are misrepresented in media all play a part in maintaining ideas of power-based oppression that carries them into adulthood: career, parenting, marriage, social interactions, etc. Biases created by these ideologies have been fatal for many, so preventing and intervening before youth learn harmful ideologies and carry them into adulthood is absolutely essential.


So, what are some things can we do to combat what young people are consuming in the media?

      • For starters, TALK TO THEM! Pay attention to what is popular and seek out information on it. Address abusive language and behaviors when you see it but be realistic about its occurrence. Too often adults are unrealistic about the mature experiences of young people and dismiss their experiences entirely (for example, “abstinence only”, “puppy love”), leaving them to figure it out on their own and be influenced by others.
      • Challenge language that normalizes abuse and harassment! Stop using the word stalking nonchalantly and make sure other people know the importance as well; don’t let teens think it’s ok to call people names; and be clear about what’s unacceptable when you talk about sacrifice and hardships in love.
      • Seek out media that represents healthy teen love (for your teen’s age group) and have movie nights or watch a TV series together! This helps the parent/guardian understand what kind of media their teen is being offered and gives them an opportunity to combat harmful sentiments. Additionally, watching a movie or TV show together can help open up conversations about safe intimacy, break ups, body confidence, privacy, consent, and other aspects of young love.

This list isn’t exhaustive, so listen to your teen – their likes and dislikes – and connect with them on their level without judgement. Everyone appreciates being heard and valued in any relationship; setting these standards starts at home.


Ariana Speagle, ICADV Prevention Specialist