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Red Flags on Screen

Knowing that entertainment plays a big part in how we behave and view life, we must acknowledge how that impact is magnified when it comes to teenagers and their views of relationships. Being a teenager myself, I know it’s incredibly hard to understand the full complexities of what it means to be in a relationship, especially since we’re just beginning to form expectations for romance and get a grip on our emotions and hormones. It’s kind of like stumbling in the dark, searching for stability. When we have entertainment repeatedly showing us a particular image of what romance and relationship looks like, we might get pushed in the wrong direction.

Whether the story ends with a happily ever after or a heart-wrenching breakup, romance is shown on big screens for millions of viewers to watch. However, many of the movies targeted to 12-18 year olds, in particular, have a disturbing common theme regarding relationships where there appears to be an unfair power dynamic between lovers in the film. I call this the Cinderella Dynamic, where one partner, who holds a significantly greater amount of power, falls in love with a vulnerable person and brings them out of their misery or gives them more power. Kissing Booth, for example, revolves around a clumsy girl who falls for her best friend's aggressive and popular older brother. The unequal power dynamic is replicated in other teen-focused films like To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, High School Musical, Call Me By Your Name, and Twilight.

When one partner holds the upper hand in a relationship, that leaves the remaining partner vulnerable and at risk for being controlled and manipulated, which unfortunately is shown in many coming-of-age movies. For example, young-adult movies commonly portray a possessive partner. Jealousy can be a normal feeling, especially in new relationships. However, when one partner begins to control or manipulate the other on who they are allowed to spend time with, it becomes overwhelmingly harmful. And because of the unequal power distribution, the vulnerable partner may feel trapped even if they wanted to leave. Movies that romanticize the Cinderella Dynamic teach teens that these types of relationship dynamics are healthy and normal. Repeated exposure to these themes may cause kids to crave and eventually create this dynamic in their own lives.

The Cinderella Dynamic also destructively reinforces sexist gender roles. Since the entertainment industry likes to focus on heterosexual relationships, the Cinderella Dynamic is more commonly seen in straight relationships, but of course, this issue can still apply to same-gender relationships too. Characters in these relationships are given feminine and masculine personalities, in which they perform the expected gender roles. In these roles, the women are vulnerable and dependent on men, while the man is powerful and “saves” the woman by controlling and manipulating her. These standards are as old as time. With that said, teenagers today may pick up on these dynamics, thinking they’re normal, which causes sexist acts to continue and women/feminine people to be constantly in danger of manipulation and control.

I acknowledge that movies use unrealistic standards to amp up the drama and convey their plot intriguingly. Even so, we have to acknowledge the significant ways movies impact us and future generations. Therefore, being aware of the Cinderella Dynamic and other problematic influences in the media can help support teens in how we carry out our real-world relationships.

This blog is part of a series developed through the Teen Talk Writing Internship. The internship was carried out remotely during early 2021 with a group of high school students who have participated in the Teen Talk High School sexual education course. The ultimate goal of the group was to build connections between students as they worked together to exercise their writing and health advocacy skills.

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