Saturday, September 12, 2015

To Be Or Not To Be... A Study of Toxic & Healthy TV Relationships

love life new girl dreams hope

What makes us human is our capacity to love -- to give and receive it. When that happens, relationships form. Whether romantic, platonic, paternal, or otherwise, relationships are complex. They're often messy (in a good way) or downright messy (in the cringing kind of way). But... I don't know. I think that's kind of awesome. I think that it's wonderful that love isn't this simple, cut-and-dry formula that always makes sense to us. I like that sometimes we can't help who we fall in love with. I like that love can be redemptive and it can be as simple as watching television in your pajamas with your best friend or as deep as walking down the aisle to marry the person you want to stand beside forever. Love is awesome in real life. And the emotional components from our real lives carry over into the fictional ones that we see depicted on television.

I really enjoy watching television for plot and writing and characterization. But what I also enjoy is watching television to ship. We all (or most of us, at least) freely admit to shipping being at least part of the reason we enjoy (or don't enjoy) a certain television show. Watching love unfold is fun. It's awesome. It's enjoyable to watch the guy get the girl. We hold our breaths when two characters we ship stand close to one another in a scene. We swoon at the love confessions. And we cheer when they finally kiss.

But sometimes, relationships are portrayed as toxic and aren't necessarily acknowledged as such. Lindsay brilliantly talked about that this past week when she discussed the problem with the romanticism we see in television of men aggressively pursuing women and not taking "no" for an answer. The toxicity that I'm going to discuss today is a bit more subtle than that. It's the recognition that certain ships are toxic because the individuals within the pairing actually make each other worse, not better. And while I was thinking about these relationships, I actually found some pretty solid parallelism between Jeff/Britta on Community and Oliver/Laurel on Arrow. So those are the couples we're going to talk about, plus why other ships with these individuals (Jeff/Annie and Oliver/Felicity) are not toxic.

Disclaimer: If you're a fan of either Jeff/Britta or Oliver/Laurel, stop reading. Like, now. I seriously won't be offended in the slightest. What WILL offend me is someone not reading this disclaimer and then arguing with me in the comments about why these ships are awesome just so they can hear themselves talk.

So let's begin!

THE TOXIC: Jeff/Britta (Community)

It's been pretty well-established in Community that Jeff and Britta bring out the worst in each other as characters. In "Anthropology 101," for example, once Britta realizes that she's become popular because she was stood up by Jeff at the Transfer Dance the year prior, she revels in the attention and in making Jeff the villain of the story. To even the score, Jeff decides to act like he's totally in love with Britta so he can regain his social standing. Unfortunately for both of them, the truth comes out about Jeff having kissed Annie after the Transfer Dance and... well, everything gets shot to crap after that.

When another character is horrified that Jeff and Britta would compete over something so petty, Annie replies: "Everything they do is some sick competition." Which... yeah, it's true. Jeff and Britta work best when they're scheming together ("Romantic Expressionism") but they're terrible as a romantic pairing. They're constantly bickering, and not in the way that endears them toward the other characters (Abed's commentary in "Modern Warfare" proves this). Jeff and Britta clash because they're both extremely prideful, jaded, stubborn individuals. And when you put two of those same personalities together, all you get is bitterness and cynicism and friction. Take "Urban Matrimony and the Sandwich Arts," for example. This is an episode in which Jeff and Britta nearly get married (drunkenly) because they're both insecure and extremely fear-driven people. But their pride often prevents them from admitting to their own fears and misgivings. So instead of emotional honestly with Jeff/Britta, we get guarded and emotionally closed-off interactions. (Again, I'm pretty sure that this was also established in "Contemporary Impressionists.") 

The whole almost-getting-married-because-of-fear-and-insecurity thing returns again with this pairing in "Basic Story," where Jeff and Britta nearly get married out of desperation -- they thought that there was nothing left, no Greendale, and -- consequently -- no hope for them. So the obvious decision was marriage. But when the door to Borchert's lab opens and it's clear that there is still some semblance of hope left for Greendale, Jeff and Britta (who had been holding hands) immediately drop each others' hands and move away from each other. And I love that moment because it's a wonderful exemplary of the fact that Jeff and Britta DO have a toxic relationship. They only gravitate toward one another, romantically, when they're feeling desperate or hopeless. And that's not a healthy relationship at all.

Not that Jeff and Britta really had a healthy relationship at all in the series. When Community first began, Britta was the conquest for Jeff. Literally, the entirety of the first season was Jeff trying to get into Britta's pants. He did grow to care about Britta though. I will say that what I love about Jeff and Britta's relationship is that they fit so well together when they're helping to make someone else's life miserable. The fun is in watching them clash and butt heads over a project or a topic or a person. But Jeff never really was in love with Britta. He grew to care about her, sure, but he never really was IN love with her. And Britta wasn't in love with him either (facts she essentially stated in "Pascal's Triangle Revisited" when she wrinkled her nose and didn't answer Jeff's question of whether or not she loved him). 

I think that for Jeff, it was the idea of chasing after... something. He just felt alive and exhilarated when Britta was the conquest or when they were sneaking around together in season two behind the study group's backs. Britta was exciting to Jeff, not because he fell in love with her, but because she was a viable option. Now, you look at Annie. Annie was never really a viable option for Jeff for a long time. And when he started to believe that she was, he pulled away. And that's why the revelation in "Paradigms of the Human Memory" hurt. Because he was getting the best of both worlds for him: he was getting to sleep with Britta, but he was getting the emotional intimacy with Annie that he didn't have with Britta.

So, together, Britta and Jeff are just not good for each other because they don't help each other get better. They actually make each other worse and the people around them worse, too. Jeff has a tendency to make fun of Britta; he talks about how she ruins things and he needles her a lot. And Britta's air of superiority clashes all the time with Jeff's ego. It's, again, well-established that Jeff and Britta are both extremely selfish characters and end up making the group worse with their self-appointed leadership. They're a toxic relationship, honestly, and while it's fun to watch them scheme together platonically, they're the kind of romance a shrink would not just side-eye at but have five pages' worth of notes about.

Don't get me wrong, though: I love Jeff and Britta as individual characters, but they're just BAD for each other.

The Healthy: Jeff/Annie (Community)

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Unlike Jeff and Britta, who make each other worse through the series, Jeff and Annie constantly make each other better. They're not without their individual flaws, of course, and as a pairing they're certainly not perfect either. But what happens when Jeff and Annie spend time together is this: they become better. The qualities that make Jeff incompatible with Britta make him compatible with Annie. He's jaded and a bit cynical -- Annie's an optimist. She's tightly-wound and driven, sometimes to the point of delusion or danger -- he's relaxed. They help each other get better, not worse. And you look at what happens to Jeff when Annie isn't around to talk him back -- he often does stupid things, and Annie too.

Let's take, for instance, one of the most criminally underrated Jeff/Annie episodes, "Basic Genealogy" as an example of why these two have a healthy relationship. In this episode, Jeff approaches Annie for advice because he knows that she's the only one in the group who's going to give him what he needs to hear even if he doesn't want to hear it. But what's really funny is that he doesn't NEED to go to Annie for advice... and she knows that. He already knows exactly what she's going to say. But he goes to anyway. Because he wants to be around her. He wants to hear her encourage him to do the right thing and the noble thing, even if that voice inside of his head doesn't want him to.

In "Pascal's Triangle Revisited," Jeff wonders aloud, when he's trying to choose between Slater and Britta, if he wants to be the kind of person Britta makes him feel he is (the kind who screens his mom's phone calls and hits the snooze button) or the guy that Slater makes him feel he is (the guy who makes resolutions and keeps them). But what Jeff doesn't realize in that moment, until he kisses Annie (and maybe not even then) is that he doesn't have to choose between them. Annie is the other option. Annie is the one who makes him feel alive and who also grounds him; that is the kind of relationship he truly wants to have -- the fun with the substance, the love with the little bit of recklessness.

Now, again, I'm not saying that Jeff/Annie is a perfect pairing by any means. Even when the series ended, Jeff and Annie still had a long way to go -- and grow -- as individuals and as a pairing. But what I see with Jeff/Annie that I don't see with Britta is this sense of love and grace and arguing and resolving and humility. Jeff's always willing to admit when he's wrong to Annie, and he realizes his mistakes rather quickly. And Annie, conversely, is willing to stand up for herself to Jeff -- to use her voice to tell him what she deserves ("Asian Population Studies"). There is always genuine love and selflessness when it comes to Jeff and Annie. But one of the major reasons why I think they're healthy and Jeff/Britta is not?

Jeff began the series as a man who did whatever it took to get into Britta's pants. He lied. He schemed. He manipulated. And he eventually got what he wanted. Jeff and Britta's relationship was always about taking from each other to get whatever they wanted or thought they needed. Fast-forward about five years and you see Jeff willingly letting Annie go in "Emotional Consequences of Broadcast Television." He, selfishly, WANTS her to stay. He wants to be able to forget about how he feels for her. But he can't. So instead of telling her that he needs her to stay, he lets her go to Washington, D.C. While Jeff began the series as a man who did whatever it took to get a girl, Jeff Winger ended the series as a man who -- because of love -- did whatever it took to make sure Annie was happy.

THE TOXIC: Oliver/Laurel (Arrow)

I never really bought into the Oliver/Laurel romance for the same reason I never bought into the Jeff/Britta romance -- they're clashing and clanging forces, both strong and both stubborn and both entirely wrong for each other because of it. When we begin Arrow, the Oliver Queen we meet pre-island is terrible. I mean, he really is. And even on the island, Oliver begins his journey as kind of a horribly selfish person. He's been cheating on Laurel with HER SISTER for a while and took her on vacation while Laurel remained completely unaware. If that's not enough for you to realize that these two are clearly wrong for one another, don't worry: I have more evidence. (But honestly, if you can get past the whole "cheating with your long-time girlfriend who is supposedly the love of your life with her own sister" thing then... uh, kudos to you I guess?)

(And lest you think I believe Oliver/Sara was healthy, you're kindly mistaken too. I love Sara Lance as a character and I think she's amazing, but I never rooted for her romance with Oliver. Those two were extremely dark clouds and forces, forged together by a past Oliver was trying to recreate but couldn't. He clearly felt things for her before the island, but afterwards -- after all they had been through separately -- Sara knew that they could never return to the relationship they once had. Need I remind you: THE TOXIC RELATIONSHIP THEY ONCE HAD. Oliver and Sara harnessed the darkness and the pain in one another but didn't turn that pain into anything better or brighter; they just let it bond them like a tightly wound cord.)

I think that, for Oliver at least, there was always just this idea of Laurel being "the one" that was so alluring to him because she was in front of him the whole time. Do I think Oliver cared about Laurel? It's hard to say, given his actions, but I have to believe that Oliver did -- at some point -- really and genuinely care about Laurel. But it's Oliver's selfishness and his ego that ended up getting in their way, eventually. He liked the idea of Laurel and a love with her more than I think he wanted an actual relationship with her.

Oliver and Laurel tend to, honestly, bring out the worst in each other. They're very stubborn and we see, quite often in Laurel, that she's very headstrong. And that's amazing when she's being a lawyer -- she needs to be tough and resilient. Honestly though, it's always been Laurel's personality to be more guarded, more hardened because of the evil she sees in the world on a daily basis. I like Laurel. I really do. I think that the writing has done her a disservice throughout the series, but I GET Laurel. I relate to her more than I do Sara (pre-island). Before Sara's presumed death upon the boat, Laurel was kind of always the character who took care of other people before herself. And Sara was the energetic, bubbly, vivacious younger sibling who Laurel constantly wanted to protect... but also kind of wanted approval from, too. I can relate. I'm an older sister and I think my baby sister (who's seven years younger than me) is amazing and cool and sweet. I want to protect her, but I also want her to love me. 

Because of Laurel's tough, driven, resilient nature, though, it makes it necessary for her to be in healthy relationships with people who harness the optimism and light within her. And then we have Oliver Queen, who is the exact opposite of what Laurel needs. Oliver is jaded. He's darkened. He's broken and hardened all at the same time. He has gone through much more and much darker things than anybody can ever realize. And he, too, doesn't need somebody who is going to grate against that darkness and pain with their own set of darkness.

Basically what I'm saying is that both of these characters need a Felicity, whether literally (in the case of Oliver) or metaphorically (in the case of Laurel). Laurel needs somebody who will be able to harness all of her pain and help her deal with it. I think that too often, Oliver and Laurel are toxic because they just clash -- that darkness within each of them makes them both angrier. But if we're being honest here, it's not just their individual darknesses that make them unfit to be together: it's their history. 

Can you sense the bitterness and hostility and resentment that the two of them have pent up toward each other still? I was talking to Jen about this earlier, and she noted that she feels like there's a part of Oliver -- subconscious, perhaps -- that believes Laurel pressured him, years ago, to move in together. Is it rational anger? No. But anger doesn't have to be. Similarly, Laurel is still harboring some deep-seated resentment toward Oliver still for a lot of things (you know, cheating on her and constantly deceiving her and all). But I think that Laurel resents the way that Oliver treats her currently, too.

See, the darkness that Laurel and Oliver face? Each of their default responses is to become angry. They harbor the darkness and the sadness and the pain and they allow it to make them angrier. I don't know, necessarily, that the anger between Oliver and Laurel has been resolved -- that their resentment  has been solved. And I actually think that's good. I like the friction between them. I love the scene above from "Canaries" where Laurel tells Oliver off. (Mostly because I love seeing Oliver occasionally smacked down by women -- Thea, Felicity, Laurel -- whenever he's being terrible and not allowing them to make their own decisions as independent and strong women.)

I like these scenes a lot because they're powerful and they're important for the characters, but they're also pretty indicative of WHY Oliver and Laurel don't work as a romantic pairing. Again: great scenes because we get the chance to see the layers of pain that these character have (especially Laurel, because we're often accustomed to seeing Oliver's darkness). We get to see Laurel's dark, biting cynicism on display throughout them. But just... pretty clear evidence as to why Laurel and Oliver don't work romantically.

Furthermore -- as if you needed a furthermore -- Laurel's greatest love story in this show has always been the one between her and her sister and Oliver's part in their relationship is nothing short of toxic. "Canaries" was an episode a lot of people disliked, but I loved it. And I loved it because it exemplified to me WHY Laurel does the things that she does. She's always trying to be Sara. She looks at her baby sister much like I look at mine: I see her faults, but not clearly. I see them as if I'm looking through a foggy mirror. And because of all the pain that Oliver caused directly or indirectly in Laurel's relationship with Sara, I think a part of the now-vigilante is broken and wounded. She's strong and tough and stubborn... but she's also trying to fill the void left by Sara. And she'll never be able to do that. She shouldn't try to do that. She shouldn't idealize her sister because then she's putting herself down in the process. I love the relationship between Laurel and Sara so much. Everything Laurel does is for Sara in some way, shape, or form. Theirs is the greatest love story of all the Lance clan.

So yes, Oliver and Laurel are toxic. You won't change my mind on this one, folks.

The Healthy: Oliver/Felicity (Arrow)

Conversely, Oliver has a healthy relationship with another member of the team -- Felicity. Why do Oliver and Felicity work well as a romantic pairing, you ask? Because Felicity is not cynical. She's not jaded. She's optimistic, full of hope, and bubbly. She's the kind of woman who constantly pushes Oliver to become better, to fight for what he knows to be true even when he doesn't want to. SHE is the one who -- bit by bit -- has helped to chip away at the darkness in his soul. She has faith in him, and honestly... not many people do. If you think about it, so many people look at Oliver and he knows what they see. He knows that they see a former murderer, someone who shot others point-blank with arrows to rid the city of crime. He knows that Laurel can't look at him without seeing the young man who cheated on her and doomed Sara to the League. He knows that other people constantly see the bad things that he's done, but all Felicity sees upon looking at him is the good that is left within his soul.

How uplifting is that, people? How amazing is it that Oliver has this woman in his life? How affirming and important do you think she is to him? She's his everything -- his cheerleader, his partner, his best friend, his lover, his forever home. Oliver and Felicity's relationship is healthy because though both have baggage, they lay it at each others' feat gently and honestly and humbly, rather than throwing it in each others' faces. Felicity is not perfect in their relationship and neither is Oliver. Sometimes he gets angry. But she holds her own against him and challenges him at every sarcastic snap. She's more than willing to walk away from him in order for him to remember how she deserves to be treated. Felicity Megan Smoak is not above walking out on the man she loves if she is not being heard or respected. It's healthy for these two to work out their differences together, of course, which they always do (even if it takes time apart before they can).

Felicity has her own demons, of course, but she deals with them differently than Oliver and Laurel do. Oliver and Laurel's defense is to get angry and do rash things; Felicity is the kind of person who will become withdrawn or cry (which, for the record, is an extremely healthy way to process your emotions so HUSH, people who complained about Felicity crying in season three. I sincerely doubt any of you complain vehemently when Oliver yells at people because that's HIS emotional response. Sheesh. ANYWAY, #WhyWeNeedFeminism).

I think that it's this balance that truly causes Oliver and Felicity's relationship to work. They respect each other on every level -- they respect one another's boundaries, whether emotional or physical. And when they deal with their problems or partner together, Oliver and Felicity genuinely become better people. Slowly, Oliver loosens the belief he's held fast to that he's too far gone. Felicity (as Barry beautifully pointed out and the writers continue to allude to) is his light. She's the one who makes him crack smiles and jokes. When he's around her, he's suddenly freed from the weight of guilt and pain both that has been done to him and that he's inflicted on others. That doesn't erase mistakes, of course (I definitely don't mean to assume that Oliver's relationship with Felicity undoes all the crappy stuff he did to Laurel and others in the past). But it sets him on a firm foundation for the future. Similarly, Felicity becomes bolder and stronger and learns her value through seeing herself through Oliver's eyes. He shows her how much she is valued not just to the team, but to him ("you're my partner"). He often messes up, but he really does try and treat Felicity as his equal and not elevate himself as the leader.

Together, Oliver and Felicity make both themselves AND the world a better place.

The Parallelism and Conclusion

As you might be able to tell, these two toxic couples and the two  healthy ones have a lot in common. Both Jeff and Oliver are jaded. So are Laurel and Britta, while also being headstrong, stubborn, and determined (and actually, I think they would make pretty hilarious and wonderful BFFs, you guys). Felicity and Annie are bright, optimistic, bubbly, and still strong. We see that Felicity and Annie both have dark paths -- Felicity with her hacker past and boyfriend; Annie's past includes a drug addiction, stint in rehab, and being cut off by pretty much all of her family both financially and otherwise. These four women are all strong. They're all deserving of love and of acceptance. (And the men, too.)

But the difference is in how the women (and men listed) approach their problems: in the pilot episode of Community (someone correct me if it was a later episode, I can't quite recall), Britta tells Jeff that a lifetime of disappointment and experience has basically given her "douche-ray vision." And while that's a funny line, it's also pretty much an indicator of how Britta sees the world.

You see, Britta and Laurel have seen so much of the world and it's only allowed them to believe that the world is bad. Whereas, Felicity and Annie look at the world and see bad things, but they ultimately believe that the world is good. Those are the women that Oliver and Jeff need. Laurel and Britta are awesome characters -- they're not BAD women, even though both (and Annie for that matter) have gotten some bad writing over the years. Just because Jeff/Britta and Oliver/Laurel are toxic doesn't automatically mean that there's a problem with either of those women, inherently. It's simply that their personality traits and the traits that they need to GROW cannot exist within the relationships they've had with each of those men. 

And ultimately, the goal of a great television show is to parallel or at least depict shades of our own lives. If we believe that to be true, shouldn't we root for healthy relationships and not toxic ones?


  1. Agreeeeeeed. As expected. Also, I never thought of comparing these two shows before you announced your post so this was a pretty interesting read.

    And ultimately, the goal of a great television show is to parallel or at least depict shades of our own lives. If we believe that to be true, shouldn't we root for healthy relationships and not toxic ones?

    I actually blame TV for fans seeing the appeal of the more destructive relationships in the first place. Just using Community as a default example, here: Jeff and Annie have a give-and-take with each other that comes off as too ideal and perfect to people who want to see something different from television relationships (lookin' at you, Dan Harmon) while the dysfunctional mess that results from Jeff and Britta getting together is, in their opinion, a breath of fresh air. They get sick of seeing harmonious (or potentially harmonious) and happy relationships play out on screen, so they're more drawn to the different, the cynical, and the destructive.

    But there's a reason why the give-and-take relationship seems to happen more on TV, and that's because it's what, you know, actually works in real life. A couple like Jeff and Britta - who are constantly fighting or belittling each other, and seem to react to showing respect for one another like it's an unbelievably painful, impossible chore - can only make sense within the very specific and very limited framework of "different and weird way to write romance on TV".

  2. Olicity saved S1 of Arrow for me. If wasn't for them I'd quit with this show because I couldn't stand Laurel or Lauriver! They were and are really toxic for each other but what make me really sick is when fandom compare Laurel and Oliver from Arrow with the couple from comic books! They are NOT the same! It's ridiculous! The story is different and the chemistry and interaction between the actors is crucial and in Arrow the couple don't work, it's toxic! Ok, they are awesome together in the comics (weird for me because I can't agree with Oliver's behavior but it's not the subject here) but we are NOT in the comics, we are in TV! When they put pictures from comics to ilustrate the couple I want to scream! It is NOT comics, it is TV show!
    And in Arrow TV show Felicity and Oliver are perfect for each other since their first look in 1x03! Their relationship was organic and have been built step by step since them!

  3. And ultimately, the goal of a great television show is to parallel or at least depict shades of our own lives. If we believe that to be true, shouldn't we root for healthy relationships and not toxic ones?

    Unfortunately toxic relationship make for better drama/entertainment, healthy ones make for better real life. That means TV is always going to bias towards toxicity.

    I like Jeff and Britta a lot, as friends and sparring partners - but you’re right, as lovers they’re toxic and it’s especially unfair that the weight of the toxicity was borne by Britta. At the start of the show she was pretty much Jeff’s equal, able to match him snark for snark and see through his schemes (the “douche ray vision” line comes the second episode and it’s in the context of her warning Jeff she’s not going to allow him to exploit the other members of the study group - he had just charmed a set of study notes out of Annie - just because they don’t see what he’s like past the superficial charm and look up to him), whereas by the end of the show she’s permanently high on pot, effectively homeless and resigned to everybody using her name as a synonym for failure.

    Incidentally, where would you put Troy/Britta on this spectrum? I know they didn’t last long but that definitely felt like a healthy relationship to me, and Troy certainly had the potential to do for Britta what Annie did for Jeff (though don’t get me started on how the writers thought a 12 year age gap between Jeff and Annie was a deal breaker, but 10 years between Britta and Troy wasn’t even worth mentioning in passing…).

    On the Arrow pairings, nothing to add - you nailed it.