With ‘A Teacher,’ TV confronts a taboo head-on. But some are asking, ‘How dare you?’
Two beautiful young people snuggle under bedsheets, kiss by a fire pit and take in the sunset on a Texas ranch, all to the electronic thrum of an LCD Soundsystem jam. It’s a montage befitting a beguiling romance, gauzy with the glow of a new courtship.
But the sentiment oozing from the trailer for “A Teacher” is meant to end the instant viewers start watching the FX on Hulu series, which depicts the ruinous relationship between a thirtysomething high-school teacher (Kate Mara) and her teenage student (Nick Robinson). Even before the first scene, a content warning flashes on-screen advising viewer discretion.
“This series contains sexual situations as well as depictions of grooming that may be disturbing.”
That wording was developed by RAINN, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, which partnered with the series to help impart the gravity of the relationship it portrays. But straddling the line between illicit and criminal has been difficult for “A Teacher,” which premiered last month. In the post-#MeToo era, creator Hannah Fidell felt it was imperative that her show convey the psychological damage a sexually abusive relationship typically portends. But that choice has divided critics, some of whom feel she took it too far — “after-school-special fearmongering,” per the New Yorker — and those who think the show feels more like a “tragic love story in emo-prairie style” (the New York Times).
“I like not making it easy for the audience. I like the idea of having them be, like: ‘Ew, why am I feeling this way?’” said Fidell, joking that a “PhD thesis” could be written on the gender divide in the critical response.
“A Teacher” was born out of Fidell’s 2013 movie of the same name, which debuted to a warm reception at the Sundance Film Festival that year. But the picture ended just as the relationship between the instructor and her pupil was exposed, and producer Michael Costigan saw potential in a television series that could explore the fallout. So he helped Fidell strike a deal with HBO, where she attempted to develop the show for a few years. Ultimately, creative differences led her to take back the TV rights and re-imagine the series — this time with Mara attached as its star.
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The time gave Fidell the space she needed to process her own trauma, which had inspired her to make the movie to begin with. As a young woman, she said, she was raped by a longtime friend, and the film was her way of exploring how he’d justified his behavior to himself. But with the series, she wanted to delve into “the way your friends treat you, the way you blame yourself, the way the law handles it — or doesn’t” after sexual assault.
Because of the #MeToo reckoning that began in fall 2017, Fidell also felt viewers were ready to explore the experience of survivors with more nuance.
“I don’t think I really could have been able to tell the story without the cultural deluge,” she said. “I think audiences wouldn’t necessarily want to see such a clear picture of what abuse can do to someone. Maybe they’d be more interested in the titillating side of it instead of exploring really serious consequences — that highbrow-lowbrow I think we’re able to do.”
In the writers room, Fidell encouraged her staff to discuss “what happens post-#MeToo,” leading discussions about whether or not victims and abusers should wear “scarlet letters.” She also brought in therapists who ran support groups for male victims of childhood sexual trauma, seeking their notes on scripts. The most vital piece of information the consultants offered, Fidell said, was that it can take men a decade, on average, to view themselves as victims.
Robinson, the 25-year-old cast as the high-school student, worked with one of the specialists to gain a deeper understanding of male survivors.
“There is this societal narrative of masculinity, that you should just pull yourself up by your bootstraps and deal with it,” said the actor, best known for his role in the coming-out story “Love, Simon.” “And there can be an attitude like, ‘You got laid. What’s the big deal?’ That’s toxic and really counterproductive to the healing of these survivors — especially when they’re having these very conflicted feelings inside and their peers are telling them they should be celebrated.”
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In the three years since allegations about former movie mogul Harvey Weinstein’s predation began to surface, the majority of survivors who have publicly come forward have been female. There have been only a handful of high-profile male accusers in other cases — Anthony Rapp, Terry Crews, Brendan Fraser — because “many male victims still don’t feel comfortable coming forward and having a public conversation when people have a difficult time believing the assault is real,” said Heather Drevna, RAINN’s vice president of communication.
But one in 53 males under age 18 experiences sexual abuse or assault at the hands of an adult, according to the Journal of Adolescent Health. The idea that a woman is the one perpetrating sexual violence in “A Teacher” has been challenging for some viewers to accept, said Mara.
“People keep saying, ‘How dare you play a character like this?,’ because the idea of the female as an abuser is a taboo subject,” said the 37-year-old, who also served as an executive producer on the series. “I don’t think people would be asking me that if I was the male star of a show having an affair with a woman.”
Both Mara and her costar acknowledged the tonal difficulties of the show. When he first read the script, Robinson said, there were no trigger warnings, leaving the relationship appear “more ambiguous than the show has turned out to be.”
“There is a level of ambiguity still in the marketing, and the show does do a bit of a bait-and-switch,” he added. “I was worried when we were making it that people would watch it and be like, ‘What’s the big deal?’ Maybe they will think that. If you only watched the first three episodes, you’d walk away thinking this was great for everybody. But I think because of the way FX had framed the show — and the fact that the back half of the season gets really dark — there’s a pretty good argument to be made that this is abusive and traumatic for all parties involved.”
The actor, once known for romantic comedies, has taken on darker roles of late — including as a potentially dangerous version of himself in HBO’s “The Undoing.”
“We had to find a way to make them seem compatible enough to believe that they would be in a relationship regardless of the obvious moral and legal issues,” added Mara. “If you don’t have chemistry between them, it doesn’t work. But it’s not that because they have chemistry, it’s OK that she made this choice.”
Including trigger warnings from the outset of the show is “counterintuitive from a Hollywood perspective,” said RAINN’s Drevna, referring to spoiler culture. But because many of the series’ earlier scenes don’t deal with “what people would think of as sexual violence,” she said, the organization recommended the title cards so that viewers could learn to recognize signs of grooming.
Grooming, Drevna said, is primarily defined by manipulation — a set of behaviors that a perpetrator uses to gain access to a potential victim. Those victims are carefully selected and isolated, so that the secret nature of the relationship becomes essential to its existence. It’s a tactic that gained some attention in the wake of child sex-trafficking charges filed against financier and convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein (whose jail-cell death in 2019 has been ruled a suicide), said Drevna, though “A Teacher” is one of the first pieces of entertainment to explore it in depth.
“This is a real phenomenon happening with frequency that no one’s really tracking,” said Fidell. “I think at the end of the day it can be looked at as an advocacy piece, so I hope it gets a real national debate going about how to prevent this from happening. We didn’t want people to get lost in the love story, because this is a tragedy. This is like a Shakespearean tragedy.”
When: Any time
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under age 17)
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