It is a grotesque and criminal form of sexual predation and abuse. It’s a high school fantasy. This is sensational sensational fodder. It’s a pop culture trope.
Both in society and in pop culture, the teacher-student affair has unfortunately become ubiquitous, alternately bastardized in the “hot for teachers” celebrations of machismo and exploited – even fetishized – in media-circus scandals that extract salacious details for clicks and odds. However, the reality of the situation for the humans involved is lost in all of this, whose lives are affected long after the case is over, media interest wanes, and the whirlpools of judgment begin to evaporate.
“We wanted it to be difficult for people,” says Kate Mara, who stars and produces a new series that tries to turn around the way we’ve been conditioned to accept stories about teacher-student relationships. “We wanted people to feel in conflict. But at the end of the day you watch the show and you see the consequences of this type of sexual assault and the power dynamics at play. “
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In A teacher, the new FX limited series on Hulu coming out Tuesday with its first three episodes, Mara (Card castle, Pose) plays Claire, a 30-something teacher who is starting at a new school in Austin. Nick Robinson (Love, Simon, Jurassic world) is Eric, an elder on the verge of turning 18 who first begins to shyly talk to the attractive new teacher about a friend’s challenge, and then sincerely asks for help in tutoring him on SATs so that he can enter the school of his dreams.
Tutoring turns into friendship that turns into flirtation. Claire saves him from trouble one evening. They go together another weekend on campus. Eric reads what he thinks are signs and finally kisses her. She pushes him away with a growl for his impropriety. But later at the homecoming, she drives him to his car, tells him to sit in the back seat, and initiates sex.
What follows is such a case that it could play out in a romance novel. It is illegal and must be kept secret. She’s the adult and he’s the minor, so she’s firm on the rules and limits. But the passion and sex are so great that she uses her position of control to break her own rules.
As the series alternates between perspectives, you see how each person justifies their participation in the relationship. Just when you are carried away with them for the honeymoon phase, the anvil falls.
There is a sudden change halfway through. The case is made public. Claire’s life is ruined. Eric is first hailed as “the man” – he pocketed the hot teacher! – but, as the timeline quickly moves forward, you see how he became a zoo exhibit, and then, ultimately, irreparably damaged by the abuse he took for happiness as a teenager. Claire struggles with her “mistake”, but struggles to understand the real weight of it as she tries, after her release from prison, to start her life over in a fog of bitterness and shame.
“The media and our culture have made these sensationalist stories into the headlines and bait,” says Robinson. “While researching for the series, I was really shocked to see how often something like this happens, and then how quickly it gets forgotten and not covered again.”
First showrunner Hannah Fidell translated the FX series to Hulu from her 2013 independent film. She has partnered with RAINN, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, and psychologists specializing in sexual assault to ensure that the series was accurate in its description of the long-term toll that an experience like this would bring for the victim, as well as, in a rare example when it comes to TV dramatizations, the realities of ‘grooming’, the manipulative behavior used to coerce the young victim.
But a key participant in A teacher is the public, which becomes somewhat complicit in the affair. In the first few episodes, Claire hardly seems to be a predator. Their relationship seems organic. Since it seems that they are falling in love, you are looking for things to be right. You may even faint a bit. Sex scenes might turn you on, as sex scenes tend to do. But through it all, you are plagued with guilt; your head knows that what you are looking at is an unethical and illegal act.
As Vanity FairSonia Saraiya wrote in her review, the series “toys with the viewer’s embarrassment, or on the contrary, their voyeurism” in these scenes. As the narrative progresses and the consequences for Eric’s well-being begin to manifest, audiences are forced to wonder how our own biases about cases like this have been shaped and distorted by the media, the culture and our own inherent biases – and, generally speaking, what responsibility we may even have in these horrific incidents.
“I think the shows that make people uncomfortable or are difficult topics are really the ones that should be done,” says Mara, explaining that you have to witness these moments of apparent joy in order to understand why these people who otherwise seemed rational – barely the characters we’ve seen in Lifetime and in the made-for-TV movies – were willing to take the risk.
You also have to see it to understand how confused, broken, and benefited Eric feels as he struggles to look back and digest the reality of what really happened, versus how he felt then.
After the first time Eric and Claire make love, he looks at himself in the mirror and proudly shouts: “I’m the fucking bitch!” When their affair becomes public and even after Claire is sent to jail, his friends hail him for getting what they think is the ultimate high school male fantasy. By the time he enters college, Eric’s fraternal brothers treat him like a legend. But the more that happens, the more tortured and withdrawn Eric becomes.
“While researching for the series, I was really shocked to see how often something like this happens and then how quickly it gets forgotten and not covered again.“
It was important to make it clear how prevalent this crass’ 80s raunch-com trope is still, says Robinson, because it shows “how compelling and sometimes overwhelming this view is for the abuse survivor.”
“There are a lot of people who tell Eric he’s the man, and he uses it as social currency when he gets to college,” he continues. “But he’s struggling with his feelings about the relationship. It’s like, ‘I should just be happy. Wasn’t that awesome? This is what all his friends tell him when in fact he is in real pain and struggling inside. He feels like he has been manipulated, lied to or used. And these feelings are usually not associated with virility or masculinity. “
Mara says, “We had to recognize this fantasy, because obviously there is a reason why it exists. But then, of course, I think the show is ultimately a much more realistic take on what’s going on.
In the wake of the #MeToo movement and even, perhaps, the recent death of Mary Kay Letourneau – perhaps the most infamous teacher to ever have been in an affair with her student, and whose story inspired countless movies and TV shows, all on a spectrum of sensationalism and problematic – the way these relationships are viewed is changing.
This A teacher spanning several years after the case allows the series to engage in that shifting discourse and perspective as it progresses.
And for Robinson, the 25-year-old star may be best known for her roles in Love, Simon and Jurassic world, that meant one last chance to play a high school student – albeit this time around in what could be the most mature role of his career.
“I gave an ultimatum, like, I’m not going to go back to school,” he laughs. “But when I read the script, I thought the material and the story were worth it. It’s a different version of that character and that experience that I’ve certainly never played before.Now, however, he’s definitely done. “I’m a little too old at this point to play a high school student, but I’m glad I had this last race. Now I think I have officially graduated.
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