The Idealization of High School Relationships

The quintessential high school relationship. We’ve seen it many times starting in youth, first likely in TV shows showing the ever ‘realistic high school experience’. But it’s a special irony that the shows geared towards pre-tweens show the most realistic and healthy high school relationships, especially when compared to those targeted to a population that is supposedly experiencing the same things as their high school counterparts. Yes, the reason why high school relationships are normalized because they are presented at a very young age. The problem with meet-cutes in Disney & other child-geared media is that it teaches children that they will know when they have found the person they’ll be dating by how attracted they are to them physically. Needless to say, the lack of diversity among love-interest arcs is negligent at best as it is quite unrealistic. However, there are some wonderful exceptions that show friendship before relationship, which are most commonly found in children’s TV shows.

If I take a deep dive back to the late 2000s when my obsession was at its peak, one show sticks out to me the most: H2O Just Add Water. This show was a favorite of mine for a multitude of reasons, stemming from my mermaid obsession and fixation on Australia. In case you haven’t had the pleasure of watching the show, here is a brief plot summary: Cleo, Rikki, and Emma are three 16 year old girls who after being stranded on a remote island during a full moon, develop the ability to transform into mermaids after coming in contact with water and their unique magical powers. The majority of their show revolves around their day-to-day life and how they avoid coming into contact with water but there are some darker season plots such as evil scientists, evil more powerful mermaids, and finally a comet heading to destroy the earth. While the entire premise of the show is fantastical and as I rewatch it I find myself shaking my head at the shoddy plot development, I find that there is one relationship dynamic that seems to stand out in terms of being quite realistically portrayed and having the two parties complement each other quite nicely. I am speaking of course, of Cleo and Lewis, who are arguably the main romance on the show. As said before, Cleo is one of the mermaids and her story arc revolves around finding a sense of her identity. She starts off being quite unhappy with her new appendages and powers, but then slowly grows to accept them and herself more by the end of the first season. Lewis starts off as Cleo’s nerd-like friend who turns into the trio’s closest confidant, since he is the only one in the beginning that knows their mermaid secret. It is intimated for a while that the two like each other, through mild jealousy among other things but their friendship is also quite strong. There is no awkward sexual tension nor emotional turmoil; the two simply have a stable friendship that I believe is not based in their attraction for each other. Eventually, at the end of Season 1 the two do start seeing each other, but most of their early romance is actually not shown on screen. 

Season 2 picks up when the two are boyfriend-girlfriend but with quite a different Lewis. He’s more confident in his position as the trio’s confidant, or more actually protector. By only the second episode, it is painfully obvious that Lewis has become possessive, to Cleo’s detriment. His continued overbearing nature leads Cleo to break up with him in an impulsive fit, just because she cannot deal with his antics anymore. Lewis has been giving her no space, following her to her job, the moonpool, and when she is hanging out with Emma and Rikki. However when she does end things with Lewis, she does so in a calm and collected manner saying “I think it would be better to be alone for a while…without a boyfriend.” The main reason that this breakup is a prime example of a realistic high school relationship is that there was nothing dramatic about this breakup. Most shows feature cheating, lying, insane jealousy, and manipulation which has much more negative effects than just being unrealistic. It sends a message, that if something catastrophic has not happened, it is not a valid reason to break up which is simply not true. Even though she slightly regrets it afterwards, by saying it didn’t make her feel any better, she knows that it was probably for the best since she is dealing with major life changes. I am definitely of the opinion that people should only focus on developing a relationship when they have a relatively stable life. With Cleo this is definitely not the case, her mom has just left her father so her family is struggling to adjust. Plus there is the presence of enhanced magical powers that our mermaid trio has. So all in all, Cleo is definitely not in the headspace to try and repair her relationship with Lewis. In the early stages of their breakup it is apparent that the two still hold strong feelings for one another but mostly avoid each other.

The two eventually get back together at the end of Season 2, as was expected and again the majority of their new relationship happens off screen. In Season 3, we are introduced to a smitten Lewis and Cleo, who have been spending most of their summer together. Their dynamic is a lot more laid back and casual, and Lewis’ previous possessiveness appears to be non-existent. His desire to protect Cleo is still apparent, and the two have a conversation about it in one of the episodes how Lewis needs to start treating Cleo more like an equal which is a great moment for relationship development. However the two do have to face a common and major relationship challenge when Lewis gets offered a research position in the United States. While the timing is dramatically unfortunate as it coincides with Cleo’s father’s wedding, the challenge is quite real: love or career. Cleo in a very realistic twist, is on the side of love and she tells Lewis she doesn’t want him to go. Lewis is understandably quite torn but after getting some well-meaning advice from Cleo’s father on how him and Cleo were great firsts for each other but life is so much bigger and he needs to go live it, he heads off to America. Even though it is a sad ending to be pulled apart by fate, I am happy that this show didn’t show Lewis running back and choosing Cleo. Even when one is in a committed and serious relationship, it is still as vital to make sure that it doesn’t hold you back.

 Even though Cleo and Lewis do display fundamental yet overlooked aspects of high school relationships, H2O hasn’t perfected the art of a realistic high school relationship, they most likely just got lucky here. Other relationships in the show such as Rikki and Zane, and Bella and Will have plenty of drama, lying, and cheating. But couples like Cleo and Lewis do give hope that show writers aren’t completely clueless about the dynamics of high schoolers. But then again, Riverdale is an actual thing so, maybe not.

Best,

-Shreya

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