I have very little tolerance for relationship drama in TV shows. Ninety percent of characters’ problems stem from a lack of communication, and my humble opinion about love triangles is that the answer is always polyamory. One of the things that makes me most uncomfortable, though, when it comes to fictional relationship drama, is inappropriate displays of affection.
What do I mean by inappropriate affection? I’m referring to a situation between two friends or colleagues where one has an unrequited crush on the other, and said crush-er constantly attempts to win the affections of the crush-ee, despite the latter being uninterested/much older/unavailable. It’s not quite a friendzone situation, but it’s based in similar ideas—essentially, the person with the crush believes that they are such a good catch that any of the aforementioned objections should be moot. In constantly forcing their affections on the other person, they’re actually being selfish and disregarding any feelings or opinions the object of said affections might have about the situation. It’s important that shows that engage in this sort of characterization portray it as it is—inappropriate—but unfortunately, that’s not always the case.
Looking back on a darker time, consider Book 1 Legend of Korra. Throughout the season, Korra crushes on Mako hardcore, despite the fact that he’s dating Asami. She even goes so far as to kiss him unexpectedly. This is wildly inappropriate behavior; Korra may have grown up spoiled, but she doesn’t get to have Mako’s affections just because she thinks she’s a better choice than Asami, or because she thinks she likes him more than Asami does. Unfortunately, the narrative never really challenges her behavior. Sure, there’s some awkwardness between her and Asami, and between Korra and Bolin, who’s got an equally powerful crush on Korra in Book 1. But in the end, it’s Korra that Mako confesses his love to in the Book 1 finale. This implies that Korra’s inappropriate overtures were justified. If she hadn’t made a move on Mako, he might still be with Asami, and then where would our heroine get her love interest? The narrative is so insistent on giving Korra the most complete, final, tied-up-with-a-bow happy ending to the season that it never stops to consider whether she deserves everything she’s getting.
Not every show indulges in this complicity, however, and I want to focus on one that’s doing it right. In Gravity Falls, our twelve-year-old co-protagonist Dipper has a desperate kid-crush on Wendy, the teenage clerk at his Great-Uncle Stan’s store. Wendy thinks Dipper is cool, and they become good friends over the course of the show. All the while, though, Dipper’s got an ulterior motive: he wants to go out with Wendy. He bitterly hates Wendy’s boyfriend Robbie while the two of them are together, and looks for any opportunity to demean his character. (Robbie is kind of a jerk, to be fair, so it’s not really hard.) When Wendy and Robbie finally break up, Dipper tries to insinuate himself into the empty boyfriend role before Wendy’s even left the scene of the fight. In the show’s first step toward doing the right thing, though, Wendy berates Dipper for being selfish and thinking of himself when she’s upset.
The narrative continues to send the right message throughout Season 2. In the episode “Into the Bunker”, Dipper is considering finally confessing his feelings to Wendy, but shenanigans interfere. At the end of the episode, he comes clean, and he and Wendy have a serious talk. Wendy tells him gently that she’s flattered but not interested in him as anything more than a friend. The final nail in the crush’s coffin came in the recent episode “Blendin’s Game”, where Dipper and Mabel travel back into the past to figure out why Soos hates his birthday. While there, they bump into a toddler-age Wendy and her best friend, who informs Dipper that toddler-Wendy thinks Dipper is cute.
Dipper is touched but uncomfortable, and informs the girl that she’s way too young for him—to which Mabel quips, “Now you know how she feels, creep.” This hits Dipper hard, and finally forces him to realize how he’s been making Wendy feel the whole time. The show is taking a serious step away from normalizing obsessive, inappropriate affection—not only does the male protagonist not get the girl of his dreams as part and parcel of his role, it isn’t even because he found a more appropriate love interest. He has just backed down out of genuine respect for Wendy’s feelings and remorse that he hasn’t been considering them up to this point.
This is an important lesson to send, and it’s especially notable because it’s happening to a male character. More often than not, guy characters with these sort of crushes are never challenged, and in fact they’re usually validated without question: he’s the main character, so of course he gets the girl. Instead, Gravity Falls has chosen to give us a more nuanced and, well, appropriate take on this trope, challenging the idea that anyone is entitled to anyone else’s affections, and that’s awesome.