February 2017: Riseponding to power imbalances in relationships and their representation

Romeo and Juliet, depicted above, represent one of the most famous, and perhaps also controversial Shakespearian pairings. Photo courtesy of The Daily Mail.

Riseponds is a monthly series where a group of Risen members are picked, not based on viewpoints, but solely through a "first come first serve" basis to speak on a topic that they're passionate or apathetic about. The randomness serves so readers can gain different viewpoints from different individuals with contrasting experiences. This month, we’ve explored how we feel about power imbalances in relationships and how they are represented in media, looking at age gaps, power play and the influence of race.


We’ve seen outrage and concern from many following the recent announcement of Amma Assante’s latest project “Where Hands Touch”, a film starring Amandla Stenberg and George MacKay.  Besides seeming to use the mass genocide of Jewish people as a backdrop, many, including myself, have found the premise of a romance between a Hitler Youth member who is the son of a Nazi Official and a biracial girl to be unsettling - it seems apparent that a relationship where one person could have the other and their family murdered so easily could not possibly exist without a dangerous power imbalance. This dynamic is seen similarly throughout history - white person with enslaved person, colonialist with colonised - we say love transcends boundaries, and conquers all, but is it possible this ‘love’ was in no way coerced? To say it isn’t possible is to disempower people of colour and say that they are not capable of resistance, and ignore the relationships that have defied society’s harshest rules. But not only does fear make navigating these relationships dangerous, but no one escapes the ideology of oppression. In these relationships, it seems, one person will have been taught that the other is superior to them, and their needs more important, and they are the most desirable of people - this isn’t coercion on the part of one person, but on the part of society - to me, it still seems coerced. However, I see framing all of these relationships as coerced is a slippery slope. After all, being taught that one person is superior to another and has needs that are more important to theirs is the foundation and history of heterosexual relationships in Western culture. Women are pressured in that way in every straight relationship - this is the same argument used to advocate for lesbian separatism.

So my conclusion? I don’t have one. Just a lot of questions I don’t know how to answer.


“Age is just a number” is a phrase thrown out a lot in response to age-gap relationships, but the weight that number holds - whether it’s 18, 25 or 45 - needs to be examined. Your age affords you a level of maturity and responsibility; if you are a person who is substantially older in a romantic relationship, you encounter the world in a different way to your partner. Often, you have more freedom: you can get a job, you may have your own place, have the freedom to stay out later and access to more places than your partner. But most importantly, you have influence over them in a way that they do not have over you. All too easily, this influence, or imbalance, translates into abuse.
This isn’t to say that all age-gap relationships are doomed to fail, but there is a very big difference between a 21-year-old dating a 25-year-old, and a 17-year-old dating a 25-year-old. When Tyga was called out by Amber Rose for dating Kylie, 17 at the time, there was a rush to excuse it by the Kardashian family and their fans: “Kylie is mature for her age”, “Kylie doesn’t look 17”, “it’s not illegal”. This was more recently cemented by resurfaced comments from Milo Yiannopoulos, which implied that attraction to 13-year-olds wasn’t paedophilia as they have reached puberty and have functioning sex organs. Between the ages of 12 and 18, we go through a lot of personal growth - even looking back at myself a couple years ago when I was 16, I was a completely different person, not just physically but mentally. Being romantically involved with an older person, who has gone through all this before and holds a social position of authority, is precarious - as said before, all too easily they can attempt to mould you into who they want you to be, and not allow you room to construct who you are. As teenagers, we need that space to form our own ideals and aspirations, as while we can be intelligent and informed, we are still impressionable - regardless of how our bodies look or what we have experienced.

So if you wonder why a 27-year-old wants to date you, the better question might be: why won’t people their own age date them?


Control, dominance, submission, inequality, and drastic differences come to mind when I think of power imbalance. Age as its own issue, does play a major role within power imbalances in relationships. However, one of the major trends that is fueling this issue; is the world of BDSM, and it’s the least talked about from a societal issue point of view. While consensual, a lot of these acts incorporate a certain extent of superiority and inferiority between partners. Our lives in the bedroom are undoubtedly different from our mental health needs, communication skills, and emotions behind our relationships. But in contrast, more often than not, these aspects are affecting our perceptions of relationships. With the follow-up of Fifty Shades of Grey still in theaters, a lot of influence towards a “kinky” life is becoming more candid and open, especially within teenagers. Sexual positivity is a beautiful thing but when movies represent unhealthy, manipulative, abusive partners as the forefront as an example for developing kids with relationships still a new concept, it does appear worrisome. While these thrilling, consensual activities can grow relationships closer and more intimate, we have to ask ourselves if we are two equals loving one another or two separates with strict, set roles that are affecting our romances in the wrong ways.


Certain periods in our lives dictate when certain age-gaps in relationships are appropriate. For example, a fourteen year old would never date a seven year old, but in old or even middle age, one can find relationships between a forty-eight and a fifty-five year old, seventy-six and eighty-three year old and the like. I like to think of it this way sometimes. In Romeo and Juliet, Juliet, about 13, and Romeo, about 17 fall in love and begin a relationship. In modern society’s eyes, we see this as totally out of place, as many see it as a middle schooler dating an upperclassman in high school, right? If this same five year age gap were to occur between the two characters in their fifties or sixties, no one would bat an eye. At the end of the day, I feel that stages of our lives and maturity define the acceptance of an age-gapped relationship. When two individuals feel that they’re on the same level maturity wise or life-path wise, a relationship between two fairly different ages can thrive. When two very different people end up together, perhaps a freshman and a senior in high school, a twenty-three year old just starting their first nine-to-five job with a forty-three year old with two kids, then the gap just seems like too much of a stretch. Mutual growth isn’t there, and although some may be able to overcome the vast cultural differences sure to be present, this can be a harsh barrier to face as the relationship develops. As long as the gap is not too large, and both individuals feel comfortable and happy in their position, I feel these types of gapped relationships can thrive, but in other scenarios the same possibility just seems too small, for too much effort.  


Power imbalances are always troubling, especially when seen within relationships. The most common seen today is age gaps within relationships. As someone who is still a teen (and a minor), who is still growing physically and emotionally, in the midst of forming opinions and defining relationships, I cannot fathom myself, or anyone near my age, dating another who has already experienced life and matured, even if there’s only a few years in difference. Although these situations may not be common, they are awfully normalized and endorsed by the media today. Relationships such as Aria and Ezra in Pretty Little Liars, Archie and Miss Grundy in Riverdale as well as Lux and Mr. Daniels in Life Unexpected are popular examples of this popular trope. These TV shows do nothing but idealize the troubling nature and reality of these relationships. As age gaps on TV or in film are rarely truly represented and it’s common to cast actors in their mid 20s all the way to their late 30s as teens, it’s easier to picture these relationships. Teacher and student relationships on TV and film rarely reflect the actual ages of said characters, but whether or not they do, it is never alright to make these relationships seem more like sexy forbidden love instead of predatory and disquieting. Relationships like these create huge power imbalances that are discarded in the name of romance, and for what? Teens are in the midst of growing into themselves, and relationships with an adult isn’t the best way in order to do so.