Content Warning: grooming, abuse, child abuse, manipulation
A push-back to Hollywood’s frequent romanticization of the student-teacher relationship, “A Teacher” presents a cautionary tale that accentuates the abuse and trauma that arise from these illicit affairs. Previously a film directed by Hannah Fidell, the FX on Hulu mini-series narrates the story of Claire Wilson (Kate Mara), a high school English teacher, and Eric Walker (Nick Robinson), a high school senior, whose lives become intertwined after they enter a relationship with one another. Rather simplistic in its plot and characterization, the show is still able to effectively communicate Claire’s ability to subtly groom, abuse and manipulate Eric.
The show begins with a brief examination of the lives of both Claire and Eric before they meet. Starting a new job at the local high school as an AP English teacher, Claire is unfulfilled with her life — particularly with her slightly immature husband — and secretly seeks cheap thrills. Eric is a popular and athletic senior who is introduced to the audience by first leading a rambunctious chant with the rest of the senior class, and then speaking to a counselor who informs him that he must raise his SAT score in order to receive a scholarship to his top college, University of Texas.
Claire is the talk of the school, especially in Eric’s friend group, due to her youthful and attractive appearance. Later, Eric and his friends decide to sit with Claire at the diner after school; after the rest of Eric’s friends leave, the two are left alone. Their conversation eventually leads to Claire offering to tutor Eric in SAT prep, and she drives him home while they bond over their love for Frank Ocean’s music. At the end of the night, Claire sexually fantasizes about Eric. The show continues to focus on their budding relationship, but does not shy away from displaying the power imbalance that causes the audience to feel discomfort and confusion.
As Claire and Eric spend more time alone in inappropriate situations, one can find themselves both strangely rooting for and loathing this couple. We see Eric happy when he is with Claire, but we can also clearly see the scenes in which she has a great deal of power and authority over him, often initiating sex. We see the couple through Eric’s eyes, and if he is seemingly comfortable, the audience can enter into a purgatory in which the relationship’s morality can be blurry. At times, the relationship can seem rather romantic, and I personally caught myself having to remind myself that what I was watching was indeed abuse.
However, the signs of grooming — which describes the process in which the offender lures the victim into sexual abuse — are there regardless of whether Eric or the audience can obviously see them or not.
Claire gains Eric’s trust by driving him home and helping him with one of his biggest goals: raising his SAT score. Due to Eric’s low-income status and lack of access to the same academic resources as his peers, Claire is also the only tutor he can have. She fosters dependency. While not explicitly stated, it is clear that Eric feels like he is indebted to Claire, especially with these “special favors” she only gives to him.
She begs Eric to keep certain secrets, especially one that involves asking her police officer brother to not give Eric a citation for underage drinking despite all of the other minors at the party receiving one. She also isolates him from his friends for his 18th birthday by whisking him to a cabin on a faraway farm. All of these are incredibly common signs of grooming and should be looked for in all cases in which a minor is interacting with an adult.
Claire initiates situations that would be extremely inappropriate between a student and a teacher: When a groomer does this, it’s to make the victim desensitized to overt sexual activity. After an argument with her husband, Claire decides to give Eric a tour of the University of Texas at Austin. At UT-Austin, Eric refuses an offer by his older college friend to go to a frat party, to which Claire interrupts him and accepts the offer — again putting Eric in an inappropriate situation. This makes Eric more apt to see Claire as a peer rather than a person with authority over him.
The sexual relationship between the two characters is depicted as romantic as a relationship in this situation can be. However, there are moments when one can see Eric’s confusion and insecurity break through his mask. Those moments are when it is most apparent that he is the victim in an abusive relationship and not just in a forbidden love affair with a married woman. I believe that this is not just because the audience is watching the relationship through Eric’s eyes, but also because of how we perceive Eric’s identity and his desire to want to be in the relationship.
Often, abuse is thought to appear a certain way, with certain images of the victim and perpetrator. Imagining an abusive student-teacher relationship will often foster images of forceful sexual encounters with a female victim and creepy male perpetrator who offers better grades for sexual favors. Our mind does not conjure images of predators that are fairly young and attractive, nor do we imagine victims to be so “willing” to be in the relationship.
We must remember, though, that any student-teacher romantic relationship — especially one between a minor and an adult — is inherently abusive and lacking real consent. Predators like Claire use manipulation and grooming techniques to coerce the victim into entering the relationship, and the isolation techniques that they use often turn victims away from receiving much-needed guidance from their trusted loved ones. Grooming can often serve to make the victim feel complicit in the behavior, which is why when viewing the story through Eric’s eyes, we may have sympathy for the relationship and feel as if he is willing.
Also, just because it is a male minor that is initiating the relationship, it does not make the female preparator any less guilty of committing a crime. Any responsible and non-predatory adult should completely refuse any minor that tries to start a relationship with them.
It is important to note that male victims are overlooked by movements that serve victims of rape and sexual assault. Out of seven studies, one determined that women were the offender in as many as 43% of cases of educator sexual misconduct; the studies also found that 23% to 46% of the victims were male.
Despite these jarring numbers, male victims of female predators in positions of authority are often treated as if they were equal participants. Some are even praised for being able to have sexual relations with an older woman. While no one praises Eric for his relationship, it is not yet been treated as harshly as a situation with a female victim and a male perpetrator. Claire has still not been arrested and her husband is still willing to work things out with her.
In a climate that so easily disregards the stories of male victims and portrays student-teacher relationships as normal, “A Teacher” is incredibly necessary. It shows the uncomfortable and complex reality of these relationships, which are marred by enough grooming and manipulation that the victim is treated as a willing partner.