A Teacher

There’s really just not much to this movie. It’s short for a feature-length film, and there’s only a minimal story. It has some value as a psychological study, as an examination of human behavior and the dynamics of a relationship, and as such it held my attention tolerably well, but what substance there is here probably could have been conveyed in a 20-30 minute skillfully done short film. I’ll give it a narrow thumbs down for that reason, but I wouldn’t say it’s a bad movie overall. It’s interesting to a degree.

The title character is Diana, a high school English teacher in Texas. She is involved in a clandestine love affair with Eric, a student of hers.

She looks to be about early 30s, though I don’t think her age is specified. Not the kind of super hot teacher of the typical teenage boy’s masturbatory fantasies, but certainly not unattractive. (Really nice rack too, it turns out, when they’re shown bare in the second half of the movie, all too briefly.) He’s a senior, so likely 17 or 18, and seems a conventionally attractive, confident, athletic dude who would be popular to very popular with girls.

(In real life, by the way, there was only a six year age difference between the actor and actress who play these roles, not the fifteen or whatever year age difference—certainly at least ten—that I’m guessing there’s supposed to be between the characters.)

We are not shown how their relationship started. Maybe at the opening of the film the relationship is still in its very early stages or maybe it has been going on for quite a while—it’s not specified. My guess would be that it’s fairly early, but not in the first few days.

We see them together enough to see what their relationship is like, and then how it develops from there, leading to its demise. (I saw some complaints online that you don’t get to see what happens to them in the end. I mostly disagree. We see the relationship blow up, and then we see enough to be able to readily infer at least the initial major consequences of that. I wouldn’t say it leaves you hanging to any extreme extent.)

As a viewer, I experienced plenty of sympathetic anxiety over their situation, especially for the teacher, who has much more at stake if they are ever caught. It’s especially challenging for them since neither of them lives alone; she lives with a roommate, and he still lives with his parents.

She’s very conscious of the risk, and bothered by it. He is more casual about it, though not to the point of being reckless. He’s cooperative about keeping it secret, but you can tell he doesn’t sweat it the way she does. (Which is predictable and understandable on two grounds. One, as mentioned, he has much less at stake. Two, younger people tend to be less responsible, less apt to think ahead, less conscious of the consequences of their actions, etc.)

Their relationship is a passionate one, quite heavy on the sex. We see them do little else together in fact. Part of that no doubt is because of the clandestine nature of the relationship; it’s not like they can go to parties together, go out to restaurants, go to movie theaters, whatever. But even if you can only be with someone alone inside, you’d think you might still watch TV, get high, play a board game, something. But they’re pretty much all over each other every chance they get. (They kind of skip the Netflix part of Netflix and chill, in other words.)

As far as the dynamic between them, there’s little or no sense that the older party is manipulating the younger. Actually it’s a fairly conventional gender dynamic in that the male takes the lead more. He’s the confident, macho, protector type, and she’s content to snuggle up safely in his arms and appreciate his strength.

There’s just little if any reference to the age difference, the authority difference, etc. Watching them together is very close to watching the typical cutesy couple of teenagers or young adults. They’re lovey dovey, they kid around and laugh with each other, they look meaningfully into each other’s eyes a lot, they’re always touching each other, etc. They’re a pretty standard boyfriend and girlfriend, maybe a boyfriend and girlfriend a little closer to his age than hers.

The one way the age difference manifests itself that I saw as the relationship developed is that she is deeper emotionally, or at least more complex emotionally, in both good and bad ways.

She feels more. He’s into her, but she’s into him more, because she’s old enough to be capable of being into someone more. The relationship is a bigger deal emotionally to her; you sense that once he goes on to college or otherwise moves on with his life, he’ll be fine with exploring other options and not committed strictly to, in effect, his high school girlfriend back home. Whereas she’s more apt to panic if she thinks she might be losing him, more apt to break down, more apt to stalk, more apt for her emotions to overwhelm her in general.

Of course, you can’t watch a movie with a story like this and not reflect on the moral ramifications of this kind of relationship in general—a teacher and a student, an adult and a teenager. Or at least I can’t.

By the way, evidently there are not legal issues beyond the moral issues. She is very worried about losing her job, but never says anything about getting in legal trouble with statutory rape. Out of curiosity, I looked up the age of consent in Texas after watching the movie. It’s 17. Since Eric is a high school senior, he is almost certainly at least that old.

Anyway, what do I think of Diana’s relationship with her student, morally? The short answer is I do not disapprove more than modestly.

We’re not talking about an 8 year old here. We’re talking about someone who is old enough that really it’s largely an arbitrary cultural thing as to whether he’d be considered an adult or a child. We tend in this country to have artificially long childhoods and to be unusually prudish about sex in general, which means, in my opinion, we commonly overreact to instances of an adult having sex with someone underage, or in this case someone almost underage. If I may risk saying something wildly unpopular, I think many if not most such cases where the younger party is well into their teens like this are either unobjectionable or only a small fraction as objectionable as currently prevailing dogma holds.

As far as I’m concerned, the very fact that they are together—voluntarily, and for a sustained period, not as some one-time thing where the younger person was drunk or improperly influenced by a stronger-willed manipulative adult or whatever—indicates that in some important respect they’re equals, that they’re each at a stage in their lives where they’re getting certain needs met through being together. If you wag a finger and say, “But they should be with people their own age!” the obvious response is that that happens not to be what they want. They want to be with each other, and that provides at least a very strong prima facie reason to be OK with their being so.

I don’t care about an age difference any more than I care about a class difference, race difference, IQ difference, or anything else.

Could Eric be hurt? Is he vulnerable due to his age? Of course. But there are a thousand choices he could make at this stage of his life that have some downside. We can’t protect all teenagers from all such choices. He could be hurt as a result of a relationship where he’s boffing some 16 year old cheerleader he met in his History class too. Sex, love, relationships, break-ups, etc. are tricky things, emotionally treacherous things at times, especially when you’re young enough that it’s all still new to you.

Sooner or later you have to have the experiences to learn about such things and get better at them, to learn to handle their low points. In the case of someone his age, should this be later rather than sooner? Would he be better off if his experience commenced when he was at least somewhat older? I don’t know. I doubt it. Like I say, I think we tend to treat people as children dubiously long. But even if we stipulate that he’d be better off waiting to have sex until he’s 21, or waiting until he’s married, or whatever your preferred line of demarcation is, I think that would apply roughly equally across the board regardless of the age of his partner. His decision to have sex with his teacher would be criticizable in that case, but so would his hypothetical decision to have sex with the cheerleader.

I had my first girlfriend when I was 17. She was 22. Yeah, it was a rollercoaster ride. I had my heart broken, I experienced considerable pain, and I’m sure I made some poor choices along the way. But that’s life. That’s how you learn, that’s how you grow. You date certain people, you fall in love with certain people, you have sex with certain people, and maybe in retrospect you can see some things to regret or to wish you had handled differently. But that doesn’t mean these areas of life need moral or legal regulations to protect us from making questionable choices or potentially having regrets.

Not to mention the obvious fact that of the two, if anything she’s the more emotionally unstable and vulnerable, in spite of being substantially older. You can’t look only at age in deciding who is putting themselves at emotional risk by participating in a relationship, sexual or otherwise, and therefore who might be doing something blameworthy in encouraging that person into the relationship.

I don’t think that either one has much of a beef against the other that society needs to police, but if either of them does you can make at least as good a case for her being the one who is being hurt here.

A related issue is whether their genders matter. Is this case relevantly different from one of a 30ish male high school teacher and a high school senior female?

Such cases tend to be perceived differently, whether they should be or not. I think the majority of viewers would see Diana in this movie as a clear villain and want her to lose her job, but if instead the teacher were male and the student female then they would want the teacher drawn and quartered, boiled in oil, or worse.

I think that has changed somewhat over the years, with the gap in the reactions shrinking but not going away entirely. There has been a push to lessen the inconsistency or hypocrisy of treating the two types of cases differently. I would think the law by now treats the cases the same in all states—I’m just guessing, though; I really don’t know that—and public opinion is moving in that same direction.

It’s a little tricky, though, in my opinion. It’s one of those cases where social attitudes alter reality, making it problematic to treat cases the way you would if they hadn’t done so.

It’s loosely analogous to say, what is just and unjust in a divorce ruling. I believe judges at least sometimes take into account social reality when rendering a decision in a divorce proceeding. For example, let’s say both spouses have equal education, job skills, etc. Does it follow that they can reasonably be expected to earn about the same amount of money after they split up? Well, that should be the case, but insofar as society is still sexist about such things to any significant degree, we would expect that the ex-wife would make somewhat less money. So if a judge has to approximate future income in deciding questions of alimony or whatever, it’s relevant to take into account the imperfections and injustices of our society and to not treat the two parties—with their equal education and equal employment qualifications—equally. Of course we should be working to end any such gender-based income inequality, but in the meantime I think it is justified to take into account its existence.

So if we live in a society—which I would say we do—where females even more than males are infantilized about sex and their ability to make choices about it, where society sends the (self-fulfilling prophecy) message more clearly to young females than to young males that they will be damaged by giving in sexually too readily to someone older, then the consequences are likely to be unequal. Granted, those differences in consequences are artificial in a sense (although there’s at least one difference that’s not artificial: the fact that only one of the two sexes can get pregnant), but artificial things (e.g., artificial teeth, artificial flowers, artificial turf) are still real.

In that sense, it’s justified to treat the cases differently, because—on average, obviously not in every case—a young female is more vulnerable than a young male to being damaged by this kind of youthful sexual experience with a much older person.

I mean, I’d rather see girls not socialized differently from boys when it comes to sex, not treated like they’re more fragile, more easily manipulated by someone older, whatever, and as I noted I think attitudes are indeed moving somewhat in that direction, but until that change is complete there will be a gender difference that renders the male teacher/female student and the female teacher/male student cases relevantly different, and that in turn justifies reacting differently to them.

Though given my attitude about such things, in my case it means I find the former objectionable to no more than a tiny extent, and the latter objectionable to no more than a tiny, tiny, tiny extent.