Not Quite “Grown-Ish”Power Dynamics Complicate Onscreen Lesbian Student-Teacher Relationships

Emily Arlook as Nomi, left, and Katherine Moennig as Professor Hewson on Grown-ish (Photo credit: Freeform)

When I learned about the student-professor relationship on Season 2 of Grown-ish between Nomi (Emily Arlook), an openly bisexual recurring character, and Professor Hewson (Katherine Moennig), a lesbian professor of gender studies, I had hopes that Grown-ish would tap into a conversation that I’ve long wanted to see reflected in pop culture: one that critiques the complicated power dynamics of student-teacher relationships between two women. Especially given the fact that Grown-ish appears on a mainstream network, it would be notable for this show to dig into the nuances of age differences in queer relationships. I hoped that the storyline would produce a very real conversation about power imbalances and how the lack of community and romantic possibilities feed into the responses of queer youth.

Pop culture depictions and considerations of age differences in queer romance have definitely expanded in recent years. Thanks in part to the success of movies like Carol (2015) and Call Me By Your Name (2017) whose central dramas focus on love affairs between queer characters with significant age differences, we’ve been forced to contend with the impact that queerness has on the classic expectations of mainstream couplings. All the while, one of the murkiest couplings—that of attraction and sex between students and teachers—continues to appear onscreen. Queer or straight, student-teacher relationships on TV tend to be portrayed as either chaotic (as in Dear White People’s first season, in which a male college student sleeps with his lesbian-identified, engaged professor) or absolutely dangerous and terrifying (like the Pretty Little Liars plot wherein a 15-year-old dates her high-school English teacher). Such depictions have long and rightly been subject to critiques, but the conflict and wish-fulfillment that these specific relationships offer to episodic shows make them a television staple.

One such trope is the stereotype of the feminist, lesbian professor who dates her younger female students. In addition to Grown-ish (now in its second season), OWN’s Queen Sugar delves into the nuance and complexity of these relationships in their fourth season. Since these shows attract a broad range of viewers from various genders, ages, and sexualities, there’s the opportunity for a wider, genuine conversation about how age differences impact queer female relationships—and to address the sometimes-true stereotype of feminist professors as beacons of queerness who attract young, inexperienced queer women like moths. What makes the discourse around these relationships more complex, of course, is that embracing the fact of their representation in mainstream pop culture means downplaying their inherently predatory nature. When you’re desperate for representation, it can be hard to be truly critical. But TV’s most recent depictions are changing that.

Grown-ish, as an ensemble sitcom about college life, caters to a primarily young-adult audience. But though it airs on Freeform—the channel formerly known as ABC Family, whose target demographic is between the ages of 14 and 34—it doesn’t necessarily share the same audience with its soapy network predecessor Pretty Little Liars, and that’s underscored by the way each show has handled their student-teacher storylines. PLL went so far as to present the relationship between high-school teacher Ezra Fitz (Ian Harding) and his 15-year-old student Aria Montgomery (Lucy Hale) as the epitome of true love. All of Aria’s friends supported it. Her parents’ predictable disapproval was played off as a “parents-just-don’t-understand” moment, rather than a true condemnation of an objectively concerning power imbalance.

 

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While the specific timeline gets murky, for four seasons and 95 episodes, Fitz let Aria believe that he hadn’t known who she was—or how old she was—when they first met and slept together. His eventual admission that he’d originally known that she was 15 (because he’d been spying on her friend, no less) disrupted Aria’s agency and narrative. Her fellow Liars mostly focused on the fact that he lied to her. For both Aria and viewers, that lie transformed Fitz, rendering what was presented as an inappropriate but star-crossed affair more predatory and creepy than should ever be excusable. Thankfully, the cultural conversation has moved forward since 2014. Riverdale (2017) actually ended their student-teacher relationship in the first season and regularly had the fellow students denounce the relationship. That felt like an unexpected step forward.

But student-teacher lesbian relationships on the small screen are just beginning to face a similar level of both attention and criticism as those between heterosexual couples. Well-developed queer teen characters are still rare in mainstream teen shows, and therefore these difficult conversations, which unfortunately impacts their real-world counterparts. The lack of representation and healthy relationship models leave real-world queer teens wanting, particularly in regards to community and spaces where they can grow. Given the ways that what we see onscreen impacts our self esteem, experiences, and helps us prepare for relationships, when queer relationships are missing onscreen, queer teens are less prepared than their straight counterparts. A 2011 study found that LGBTQ people said that TV characters influenced their “self-realization, coming-out process, and comfort with their identity.”

Real-world queer students need guidance and often haven’t gotten the level of support and the specific mental and emotional challenges that these college professors can offer them: in come these amazing, feminist, queer professors, and the idea of do I want to be you, or be with you becomes a very serious question. While it’s important to talk about the agency of these young people, it’s just as important to establish that the balance can never be fair due to the inherent power dynamic—queer young people finding themselves via relationships with their older, powerful professors is not an ideal, even if it has been normalized through on-screen representation.

Grown-ish’s Nomi lives the life that most queer TV and film characters live: one in which she’s surrounded by straight characters. On campus, if not at home, Nomi is out as bisexual. (She comes out to her parents in the second season’s last episodes.) She spends the majority of her time hooking up with straight-identified girls, much to the chagrin of her roommates. As her friends and roommates would tell it, Nomi’s a womanizer and a misogynist (one of Nomi’s friends asks, “Can a woman be a misogynist?”). Nomi can’t articulate why that analysis isn’t accurate until Season 2, when she and the rest of the core group attend a gender-studies class taught by Paige Hewson. (Fans of The L Word could agree on the sly humor of Hewson being played by Katherine Moenning, whose legendarily promiscuous Shane McCutcheon was the first to admit that she ran through women like water.) It’s Professor Hewson who adds nuance to the topic of lesbian misogyny and who encourages Nomi to explore what underlies her attraction to women who are largely unavailable to her. Reassuring Nomi that she went through a similar phase herself, Hewson says, “For me, it was about safety, [because] there was no chance of anything ever getting serious.” Excited, Nomi agrees. “Yes. No, exactly. There’s no relationships. There’s no feelings. No bringing them back at Thanksgiving and be like, ‘Hey, Mom and Dad, here’s my new girlfriend.’”

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As the words leave her mouth, it all finally clicks. And though this storyline could easily have been contained in a single episode, it drives the arc of Nomi’s character for the entirety of the season. She grows from someone who intentionally avoids romantic connection with women to someone who is ready to open herself up—to her parents, to herself, and to her first real relationship. Soon she’s exploring queer community on campus, from questionable art and spoken-word events to Roxane Gay readings to dissecting other works of feminist literature. But there’s a hitch: Nomi can’t share the details of her relationship with Hewson with her friends, or actually show them the growth that has come with it. And her secret is all the more painful and isolating because the confidence in her burgeoning queer identity is so tied to her romantic relationship with the professor.

When Nomi eventually does disclose her relationship to her friends, I cheered at the prospect of this group doing what they do best. Grown-ish is a show whose narrative centers vivid, multi-layered discussions, often in a topic-of-the-week format about a facet of identity—mental health in the Black community, for instance, or the challenge of being a college-aged woman who isn’t comfortable with hookup culture. But Nomi’s lack of queer community hinders the possibility for deeper conversation. During a girls’ self-care weekend, her friends learn of and question her relationship, but for the most part, her friends joke and clown her for dating their gender studies teacher and compare Nomi’s relationship with their own relationships. The group’s commitment to being non-judgmental leads them to ultimately agree that Nomi and Professor Hewson are consenting adults.

Her friends respect Nomi’s agency, but this 19-year-old is not on the same level as this 30-plus professor. Most, if not all, of the power in this relationship goes to the professor, to the person with power, knowledge, and an extra decade of lived experiences, who’s shepherding someone who is falling into a relationship for the first time, someone who is discovering deep feminist lit and finding language that allows her to unpack her baggage. For Nomi, yes, this is her brilliant teacher, but this is also the first named, recurring queer woman that she’s talking to in the entire span of the show—the first to understand her bisexuality and her history of womanizing in context. Their relationship has gone far beyond appropriate queer mentorship.

Her friends could have spoken up as true voices of caution to discourage Nomi’s relationship and implore her to find someone more suitable and emotionally available than the teacher who keeps their relationship a secret. They could have offered support in Nomi’s exploration of queer culture on campus or in seeking out an age-appropriate relationship like their own. These peer conversations offer a sounding board to both the characters and the real-world audiences who might not have close friends to turn to. Thankfully Grown-ish shows the downsides of these imbalanced relationships in real time, which offers a visceral window of experience. That said, if Nomi, as a queer audience surrogate, would’ve been explicitly told to leave, then it could have made the point even more abundantly clear.

Despite our excitement and enthusiasm about seeing brilliant lesbian professors represented onscreen, they aren’t immune to critique, and they shouldn’t be. Even they can abuse their power.

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In contrast to Grown-ish, Queen Sugar, as a drama that speaks primarily to women between the ages of 25 and 54, particularly Black women, offers a more grounded, lived-in look at the impact of a formative queer relationship between a student and their teacher. Nova Bordelon (Rutina Wesley) spends the majority of the show’s fourth season on the book tour for her new memoir, which exposes her family’s secret trauma as a way to both honor and deepen the conversations about the pain and resilience of Black people. She reconnects with multiple exes along the way, including her previous college literature professor, Octavia Laurent (Cree Summer). It’s been more than a decade since their relationship, but the women’s chemistry burns through every scene they share.

Laurent taunts and challenges Nova the moment that they’re in the same space. (She pops out of her seat during the audience discussion portion of a tour stop to question Nova’s intentions and ability to speak on Black trauma.) What they offer each other isn’t the same as what Nomi and Professor Hewson have. These two are charged, offering each other a challenge. In one scene, Nova notices, while watching one of Laurent’s graduate discussions, that another young woman who is a near mirror image of younger herself seems just as taken with Laurent as she used to be. She brings up how Laurent clearly has a type, but even that feels more like an inside joke than a callout of cyclical behaviors. (Laurent later insists that she has never “crossed that line” with a student again, but ultimately, it isn’t okay that Laurent could have a pattern of running through college students as romantic partners.)

This student-teacher reunion plays out in a two-episode arc that uses Nova’s book tour as a vehicle to illustrate a manipulative power dynamic. Laurent invites herself along on the tour, and he two passionately reconnect after Laurent expresses anguish at being left out of Nova’s memoir, having been relegated to a small nameless mention in Nova’s college years. Nova reassures Laurent, “You were my first in so many meaningful ways. I’ll always remember that.” Laurent is soon leveraging her renewed proximity to Nova to try and get her own new work published. In a short amount of time, Queen Sugar masterfully demonstrates how the teacher-student pairing’s inherent imbalance of power and opportunity shifts from praise to demonization in an instant.

Laurent may lead with a soft smile and a whispered, reverent, “I thought you would be my greatest legacy,” but her legacy will always matter more than Nova’s own autonomous life and work. For all of her talk of love and the strength of Black women, Laurent still wants Nova to be the student. She brings up the “emotional labor” that she put into grooming Nova as though the younger woman should be grateful for it, and she tears Nova down as soon as she sees her standing up for herself: “You do know I made you, right?,” she sneers. “I found you. Saw you. Spit-shined you until I got the backwood stink off your thinking.”

Even as an adult, Nova is still the student bowing out as Laurent flexes her strength. She leaves, swiftly extricating herself and kissing Laurent on the cheek in thanks for the work that she put in for girls like Nova: girls who grew up with unclear boundaries and who entered relationships with automatic, implied exits—girls not unlike Grown-ish’s Nomi. Nova realizes that she’s merely a token to Laurent, rather than an equal. Both Grown-ish and Queen Sugar conclude their queer teacher-student storylines with the younger women leaving their formative, problematic relationships (rather than the professors discouraging and disbanding them based on the unhealthy dynamics), and both shows attempt to connect with and illustrate to their audiences what healthy relationships do— and don’t—look like.

TV writing rooms need to go beyond simply denouncing the unhealthy power dynamics of these relationships within the actual text of their shows. They need to utilize their platforms to demonstrate the meaningful, non-romantic and non-sexual ways that teachers can enrich the lives of their students, whether their characters are queer women like Nomi and Professor Hewson, or straight people like Aria and Fitz in Pretty Little Liars. It’s on teachers and professors to uplift their students without getting into a relationship with such a major power imbalance: We have a responsibility to do better, and interrogate these imbalances and denounce them before people are hurt. Despite our excitement and enthusiasm about seeing brilliant lesbian professors represented onscreen, they aren’t immune to critique, and they shouldn’t be. Even they can abuse their power.

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by Kirby Marshall-Collins
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Aspiring Disney villain, currently an LA-based writer/director who quotes “The Good Place” too much