CFC: Media and the Naughty Taboo Relationship

From Mav: A lot of times our episode ideas come from one of us seeing something and then just wanting to talk about it with each other to formulate a stronger idea for ourselves. But in order to get there — at least for me — I still have to have a vague sort of sense of where I am going with something so that I know what I even want to talk about. A lot of times I’ll see an article or a TV show or something and I’ll just sit on it for a while until I have a take. I’ve had a browser tab open to this Entertainment Weekly article since it was published back in February. The author, Samantha Highfill, argues that she is tired of “near incest” plots in TV shows. She specifically doesn’t mean actual incest plots (she dismisses Game of Thrones out of hand). She’s talking about shows like Riverdale which had Jughead and Betty dating and then their parents also dating. The implication being that it is “sort of like incest but not exactly because this could be my step-brother one day but isn’t and HAWT!!! RIGHT?!?!?” Highfill doesn’t like it. She made similar complaints about Gossip Girl, The OC, and even The Flash. Honestly, I thought she was being unfairly reductive. I get that she doesn’t like it, but I didn’t feel like it was enough of a thing to where “everyone is bothered by this”. Still, I couldn’t help shaking that “maybe there’s a show in talking about Naughty Taboo Relationship kink or something… so I kept the tab around.

Then a week ago, a friend of mine asked me an odd question. “Does the movie Clueless count as step-sibling porn?” and that brought me right back to this. For those who don’t know, step-sibling porn is pornography where the plot is basically “these two characters are related by marriage of their parents… so they’re not REALLY related… but it still feels a little naught… HAWT!!! RIGHT?!?!?” step-family porn is super popular right now… especially step-mom porn (when a person hooks up with their horny step mother).

Or at least it’s super popular if Pornhub’s regular public data reports are to be believed. Stop looking at me like that, I just know shit! Anyway, lack of hardcore sex aside, to my friend’s point, I think Clueless is still doing much the same thing. It is trading on the fact that Cher and Josh’s relationship “feels a little naughty” even though they’re not ACTUALLY doing anything wrong. And I would argue that the same is true of the source novel, Emma, where Knightley/Josh is Emma/Cher’s brother-in-law’s brother. Not exactly a real relative… but close enough to make the reader go “Ooooooooh! HAWT!!! RIGHT?!?!” or at least that’s the thinking.

The thing is, in most of these cases, the “HAWT!!! RIGHT?!?!” is intentionally artificial. They want to be safe. How do we explore the incest taboo without going all Game of Thrones? Make them completely unrelated by blood and unquestionable. The thing is, relationships like Betty/Jughead or Cher/Josh wouldn’t actually bother me in real life at all. And I don’t think they’d bother most of us. They were just teenagers who started dating. They weren’t raised as actual siblings. In fact, I’m way more weirded out by people who date their friends they’ve known since they were an infant. Like, it’s a far weirder to me if you’re 18 (or 48… whatever) and dating your mom’s best friend’s kid that you’ve known since you were 2. But to each their own.

Honestly, today, I think probably more people are going to be weirded out by the age difference between Cher and Josh in Clueless, because she’s in high school and he’s in college. But, they’re not actually that far apart. She’s supposed to be 16 and he’s a college freshman so he’s 18 or 19. I hear a LOT of people these days trying to argue that pedophilic (seriously… SOOO many memes) but realistically, it’s just not. I understand why it might bother you… especially as the parent of the 16yo. But it’s just not the same, and I think that an important part of literature and media is allowing us to safely explore these taboos.

This leads me to another thing I’ve noticed recently. I saw a couple different YouTube videos that dealt with age gap relationships. They made some interesting points, but they made some weird jumps that I found odd. In one they talked about one of my favorite films, Crazy, Stupid, Love. In the film there is a subplot (this is like the C or D plot… not the main narrative… go see the movie it’s good) where a couple’s 17yo babysitter is crushing on the 47yo husband. The couple’s 14yo son is crushing on the babysitter. 17yo babysitter rebuffs the 14yo boy and 47yo man rebuffs 17yo babystitter. The babysitter takes a nude photo of herself to send to the husband in an attempt to seduce him. Hinjinks ensue. In the end, the 17yo gives her nude to the 14yo and basically tells him “this doesn’t change anything, but you’re a sweet kid and until you find a girl who loves you back. This will get you through high school.” As much as I love the movie, I have some problems with this scene. But problem is not “how can this 17yo adult woman give this photo to a minor?” which is the take one of the videos made.

I should note that the video was British and the presumptions of age of maturity are a little different, but that sort underscores my point. The lack of universal understanding here is why these videos are important. I note this because the other video pointed out that when R. Kelly produced Aaliyah’s album Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number and married the then 15yo when he was 27 “no one really had a problem with it back then”. Which is fundamentally NOT true and they just didn’t ask anyone who remember this story from the 1990s. But I do think that there is usefulness in exploring this concept with films like The Graduate, Licorice Pizza, French Dispatch, Harold and Maude, Shiva Baby, and pretty much everything Woody Allen has ever done.

Really, I think this is a callback to the controversy over something like Nabokov’s Lolita. We talked about this a bit back when we did our episode about Cuties and similar films. Much of this, I think is our anxiety around child sexuality. And by child here, I mean “below the age of majority in the locale that you’re in.” We question relationships between 14yos and 17yos FAR more than we do between 18yos and 21yos. In fact, I think we’re far more accepting of a 40yo with a 20yo than we are of a 20yo with a 16yo. Similarly, I don’t think anyone would think twice about a story where a 35yo woman sleeps with her step-brother after their 60yo parents marry. No one would care because somehow that doesn’t really trigger our “OMG!!! HAWT!!! RIGHT?!?!?!” sensors.

Or at least, that’s what I thinking… What do you think? I think these issues are worth exploring. What are your thoughts? Do the “taboo kinks” that are common tropes of media mean something? Are they overblown? Do you wish they’d go away? Let us know in the comments.

From Monica: I love long form storytelling precisely because it exists as a space that caters to exploring interpersonal relationships. All of my favorite shows may have plots about rich people or superheroes or murders, but the truth is I really don’t like any of that stuff. My earliest formative memories of watching television are of daytime soap operas. What I’m here for is messy relationship drama. When Mav suggested we dedicate an entire episode to “I’m dating my step sibling” I remembered that in Gossip Girl, Chuck and Serena are step-siblings and also basically the only relationship pairing that didn’t occur between the series’ main protagonists probably because Serena was too busy being in love with Dan, who is also her step-brother by a different marriage. Or I remembered the amount that in 2010 Pretty Little Liars really bent over backwards to make us want sixteen-year-old Aria to date her thirty-something English teacher because they got together before they knew the “reserved for second date only” details, like ages and professions. I didn’t do the PornHub search, but I’d be willing to bet teacher-student porn is also a top genre (note from Mav: #25 for the year 2021). I’m inclined to hypothesize that the reasons these taboos exist on television is precisely because parents don’t want their kids doing the PornHub search either (note from Mav: Hey, like I said… I just know shit!). Putting these relationships on primetime becomes a safer, supervised, guided tour through sexuality. 

So did HBO’s Gossip Girl reboot fail because there’s no step-sibling hookup? It seems more likely that it’s because none of the sex on the new Gossip Girl is fun. The teacher-student tryst is clearly framed as predatory and the polyamorous triad originates from a couple that’s rather terrible at respecting boundaries. All of these sexual explorations feel rather judgmental rather than a place to understand kink as a type of fantasy. Gossip Girl’s attempts to rebrand the series as socially conscious or moral entirely miss the point that we didn’t actually ever want to feel bad for Serena or Blair or Chuck or even Brooklyn Dan who was never really that poor. We delighted that they were rich, terrible people whose problems weren’t fixed by money because it made us as viewers realize all of our problems can’t be fixed with money either. Betty and Jughead can date and have sex in their secret bunker because no one names their kid Jughead. Frankly, taboo sex is a lot easier to put on TV when we’ve established that there are other fantasies also being depicted. Gossip Girl 2.0 fails because it tries too hard to give off an aura of reality. 

And yet…all of this talk of teen soap operas and HBO reboots led me to realize we really need to talk about Baby Drake. Aka Jimmy Brooks. Aka Degrassi. Because I have a confession: I have seen every single episode of Degrassi ever. The original 80s series. Every episode of Degrassi: Next Gen. The Netflix soft reboot. All of them. Every teen pregnancy and abortion and STD scare and gay coming-out story and relationship abuse and panic attack and yes, step-sibling relationship. The Canadian teen soap opera was introduced to American audiences via programming on the Nickelodeon satellite channel Noggin/The N, which broadcast preschool programming during the day and older teen programming in the evening, under the premise of being a more educational-based programming option than Nickelodeon’s usual channel. Which is….a lot to unpack, but the gist is that Degrassi was intended to depict teenage struggles regarding sexuality and mental health realistically, and from a place where someone struggling with a similar topic might learn how to approach the conversation with others. Rather than hiding sex in between storylines of teen detectives, the sex just is the storyline. Except, unlike Gossip Girl 2.0, there’s less shame and less taboo. Degrassi seemed to approach these storylines with more compassion and more permission to make mistakes. As a result many episodes, especially those regarding abortion, were censored. Degrassi taught me what bisexual meant because it was the only space as a teenager in which I saw multiple LGBTQ+ characters depicted. It was also the only way I learned about how STDs were transmitted because I attended a school with abstinence-only education. Growing up, it was easy for me to find taboo sex content on TV. But it wasn’t actually easy for me to learn about sex. After school I would come home and watch The O.C. and wonder why I couldn’t have a pool house with a hot boyfriend who only wears white tank tops living inside (seriously, that one probably hits the top of the 2006 PornHub search chart), but Degrassi is the only show I can think of that ever taught me anything about sex. While our conversations regarding fantasy-taboo sex are important, I often notice that these storylines tend to dilute relationships down to heteronormative relationship ideals to the point that dating your teacher no longer seems that kinky at all. We need both fantasy sex and realistic sex if we’re going to have healthy discussions or expectations regarding sexuality.

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