Bad Form: Sexual Abuse and Ambiguity on "A Teacher"

February 9, 2021   •   By Anna Krauthamer

Content Warning: sexual abuse


UNTIL THE FINAL SCENE of A Teacher, there’s a case to be made that we’re still in the dark about what the series thinks about itself.  A Teacher is FX on Hulu’s recent miniseries about a high school teacher who has an affair with her 17-year-old male student. You’d think a show with that premise would be clear about its take on the subject; that is, whether or not the affair constitutes abuse, and how destructive the affair is for Eric, its adolescent participant. But A Teacher frequently seems torn. It’s as uneasy about narratively defining itself as a story about abuse as it is eager to discursively let us know that it’s a story about abuse. Each episode begins with a content warning that goes out of its way to name the show’s trauma, but, after that title card, each episode dwells in ambiguity and ambivalence. It’s not really until that final scene that the show takes a stand that’s as unambiguous as its content warnings themselves. 


It’s this rigid oscillation between the show’s eagerness to disavow its content and uneasiness about defining it that’s translated into lukewarm reviews. Critics have mostly conveyed a sense that the show is mediocre in its aesthetics and confused in its ethics. A Teacher is, for Rolling Stone’s Alan Sepinwall, largely  “superficial and generic”; for The New York Times‘ Mike Hale a “conventional melodrama”; and for the New Yorker‘s Doreen St. Felix, “emotionally vacant.” A Teacher’s bad form reflects its own fraught relationship with ambiguity. The show finds all sorts of ambiguities in its story of sexual trauma, but its insistence that there’s no possibility after trauma, no available future, is the one thing that’s perfectly clear.


Let’s start at the beginning, though. Clare (Kate Mara) is the new English teacher — it’s always an English teacher! — at school. Eric (Nick Robertson) is a popular senior, an athlete, and an all-around nice and sensitive guy. The show indicates this through his family life (he’s raised by a single mother who adores him, and saddled with two younger brothers whose care comes easily to him) and his working-class background (he washes dishes at the diner where he and Clare meet). Meanwhile, Clare’s characterization is at once cipher, villain, and trauma victim (a dead mother, an alcoholic father). She’s married to clueless but decent Matt (Ashley Zuckerman) but, unlike him, is ambivalent about having a baby. Clare and Eric’s flirtation begins when Clare offers to provide Eric free SAT tutoring, and escalates when Eric kisses her after English class one day. Clare is angry and horrified; she goes through ethical motions that may indeed be deeply felt to her, telling Eric that he can never do that again and that she won’t be tutoring him anymore. Soon after, though, at the school dance she’s chaperoning, she leads him out of the gym and into her car. Clare makes sure to ask him for his consent before she fucks him.


Diegetically, within each episode, some level of ambiguity remains. It’s not much — the case to be made that the series rests in ambiguity on the whole is pretty weak. Character typology and tropes tend to render Eric sympathetic, vulnerable to corruption, and Clare an enigma at best and a selfish, deluded lost cause at worst. This flatness serves to tame what ambiguity lingers in each episode. A moment where Clare is lost in thought, her mind opaque to the viewer, is countered by one in which she cruelly snaps at her husband; Eric, intriguingly and disturbingly, initiates aggressive sex with Clare after her husband makes him jealous, but his sadistic response is never granted future significance. The series neuters its own narrative possibility to emphasize Clare’s unequivocal ethical failure and its destructive consequences, by extension, for Eric.


To similar ends, A Teacher also incorporates extradiegetic means that foreclose ambiguity: those strange content warnings that appear before and after each 30-minute episode. Aestheticized with all lower-case font, the first disclaimer cautions viewers that disturbing content, including grooming, will follow, and the second reminds viewers that if they’ve been groomed, help is available. These warnings circumvent the perils of depicting abuse onscreen, specifically its ambiguities and ambivalences, its ostensible status as something less extreme (and definite) as outright assault, and finally, abuse’s tricky narrative double vision — how its fictional object might continuously register what’s happening to him differently than the viewers who watch it happening. The warnings, in other words, make things easier by telling us how to read.


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A Teacher joins a recent group of television series and films invested in working through the same cluster of questions that arise in portraying sexual violence onscreen after #MeToo. How to probe complexity and convey ethical dimension through sexual violence’s many forms and contexts are profound issues of representation that resist easy solutions. And they often manifest through the problems of uncertainty, ambiguity, and possibility — both narrative and interpretive. We can think about two of the most recent series to tackle rape as their main subject matter, Unbelievable and I May Destroy You, through their approaches to these problems. Unbelievable is based on the true story of Marie Adler, whose rape was dismissed as fabricated by the police officers to whom she reported it; the show follows two female detectives who successfully track down the serial rapist who’d assaulted Marie and many other women. As a fictionalized version of real events, Unbelievable seemingly side-steps these problems.  It’s allowed to feel on the nose (PSA-y in a way that usually disagrees with our tastebuds) and aesthetically uncomplicated because its primary mission is to relay its source material as adeptly as possible. Meanwhile, I May Destroy You, as I’ve written about elsewhere, lingers productively in uncertainty, ultimately affording its protagonist, Arabella, a crucial mode of relating to her own trauma. I’d like to think especially of I May Destroy You and A Teacher as opposite archetypes that grapple very differently with using (or not using) ambiguity to represent trauma, with the stakes of these representations extending beyond predictable plots and flat characters.


Because what meaningful objection is there to A Teacher’s clarity about abuse, really, aside from an aesthetic one? An aesthetic disposition that prefers difficulty, murkiness, and ambivalence, perhaps simply for their own sakes, would recoil at the final bluntness and extradiegetic framing of the show. Does that aesthetic disposition truly have a place here, in this context, in creating and responding to representations of assault and abuse? The moment when Clare and Eric have sex for the first time, in the car, might beg to differ. In that moment, the series dramatizes — and spatializes — the kind of double vision that characterizes a behavior like grooming. Questions of scope, perspective, and context intermingle. Within the confines of the car, whose size serves alternatively to claustrophobically accentuate the temporary social remove at which Clare and Eric exist, and to make the sex hotter, Eric’s consent appears valid. Widen the lens, and as more context pours in the more complicated his “yes” becomes. Isn’t it fortunate, then, that the content warning appears onscreen immediately following the sex scene? However overdetermined, however singular a reading the warning promotes, surely its lack of ambiguity is an unequivocal good that might help those in need, or correct anyone who’s misread what we’ve just seen. Might the warnings even work together with the content they straddle to make some larger remark about the limits of diegesis itself?


As I’ve suggested, the above is a pattern for A Teacher. Moments of romance, good sex, emotional vulnerability — moments that risk looking a lot like love — are preceded or followed by other moments whose dominant function seems to be to mitigate anything romantic or ambiguous, which for A Teacher are often synonyms. Eric is watching his brothers one night, when Clare tells him to come to her right now. He leaves his siblings with a blasé teenage girl from next door, and after getting home from sex with Clare, learns from his angry mother that one of the brothers burned his hand while Eric was gone. The hurt, neglected child signals not only that what’s happening between Eric and Clare is condemnable, but that Clare is acting upon Eric, causing him to seem to his mother not who he used to be. There is little interpretive possibility here. But worse is how interpretive possibility correlates, in A Teacher, to the possibility withheld from Eric long after the affair ends — and not only Eric, but his real-world referents. 


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Those content warnings make a level of dramatic irony unavoidable when watching A Teacher. We know something Eric does not. We know he is being groomed, abused, and hurt. He doesn’t know this, and proceeds as such. Structurally, this formula loosely resembles that of classical tragedy, in which the protagonist hurtles toward certain fate while the audience knowingly watches. 


The difference (well, a difference) between tragedy and A Teacher, though, is how exactly that fate becomes treated as certain. Hubris notwithstanding, part of what makes a text feel tragic is the sense, suspended alongside the knowledge that tragedy awaits, that things could have been different. Tragedy is, in other words, inseparable from that which didn’t happen but could have. Or differently put, it’s inseparable from possibility. A Teacher doesn’t traffic much in possibility, and its finale forecloses what little there may have been. By possibility, I don’t only mean what could have happened, but what might still.


Most of A Teacher’s timeline happens during Eric’s senior year in high school, and the immediate rise and fall of the affair. The affair ends when Clare tells her friend and fellow teacher at the high school she’s sleeping with Eric, and the teacher turns her in. Clare gets fired, her husband divorces her, and she’s incarcerated for six months. At the time this happens, Eric still loves her, and blames himself for what’s happened to Clare. A handful of episodes track the two individually in the years immediately after the affair. And the finale flashes forward 10 years, at which point Eric sees things differently. Eric, returning to his hometown for his high school reunion, has been working as a leader of wilderness trips for troubled adolescents.  Unlike his friends that he meets again at the reunion, he’s neither achieved financial success nor taken steps into the future through having children of his own. After the reunion, he ends up going back to the hotel room of the girl he’d dated in high school before Clare, but he has a hard time getting into it. He halfheartedly kisses her and puts his hand around her neck, but then pulls away again. Eric, it turns out, can’t quite master his past.


This is, finally, confirmed later in the finale. He and Clare run into each other at the supermarket that weekend, and she asks him if he’ll have lunch with her. Eric agrees, but leaves the lunch after five minutes, telling Clare angrily and painedly that he’s had to live with the affair and its trauma his whole life and she should have to, too. He interprets for us, in other words, everything that has come before and led to this moment: how Clare’s seduction of him so long ago created a ripple effect that brought him to where he is now. Immediately after Eric tells Clare that the affair has ruined his life, the series ends, cuts to black.


If this declaration, especially its status as the show’s concluding remark, feels overwrought, it’s because it has the quality of those warnings, extradiegetic — like Eric has briefly transformed into a mouthpiece for someone else — and overdetermined. He might as well say those lines directly into the camera. Beyond ambiguity, though, and its accompanying formal skillfulness, what else is foreclosed in how Eric overdetermines himself? What exactly is wrong with such a singular reading if it’s true that, had Eric known more 10 years ago, he might have warded away so much loss in the form of what could have been? It’s because of the way that one trauma’s relation to a later one — and so on and so on — might come to look more like rivulets than an originary, determining ocean. Perhaps, an event — for Eric, the affair — opens only into the shape of the next event, bleeding into and forming future experiences, with weight that’s heavy but maybe, just maybe, not all-consuming and overpowering, at least not as hopelessly as A Teacher sees the affair’s stain on everything that’s come later for Eric. 


It’s in A Teacher’s bleak vision, when a character’s early trauma strikes such a clean line to the form his future will take, that we realize we don’t really need to have kept following the whole story at all. Everything that’s going to happen has already happened, and always would have. Haven’t we all started and closed books that inadvertently convey to us, somewhere around the early point of their stories’ beginnings, the plot’s pointlessness despite whatever may be its drama? Isn’t that the real reason, when we strip it all down, that we’ve forgotten about those books — forgotten, of course, because we stopped reading them? 


This is the most pertinent consequence to the question I posed earlier, about the real stakes of ambiguity’s relationship to the representation of trauma. Even if the relationship between ambiguity and possible futures isn’t always so obvious, it’s still present in the way a show’s representational mode ends up translating to things like character complexity, the options available to a plot’s direction, the vision afforded not only to trauma’s destruction but to the many ways in which that destruction need not remain fixed. Because, of course, it’s also not the case that ambiguity has significance only as “purely” aesthetic, as a value that inflects form but not content. The aesthetic, interpretative, and thus ethical valences of ambiguity include its affordance as the reader’s free choice (via Sartre); as allowing the many rewards that accompany working through difficulty (for modernism, to start); as what contributes toward a cautiously hopeful alternative to paranoid overdetermination (for Eve Sedgwick); as what, in the perpetual writerly strangeness it presents to its reader, constitutes the refusal to accept some reality as natural and permanent, but (for Barthes) instead vulnerable to revision. 


This last point is especially relevant to narratives about rape and other forms of sexual violence that have surfaced after #MeToo’s sheer force rose and then quieted. Unbelievable, committed as it is to providing a narrative that above all else tells us to believe women, contains the sense of its own constraints. In the series finale, Marie meets with a high-powered attorney who helps her receive a large settlement from the police department that failed her. The attorney remarks that what happened to her never should have; nobody, he notes, is ever questioned when they report a car hijacking or burglary. I’m glad the series is committed to articulating this important message, but I question how often prosecutors like him vocalize truisms about rape so sincerely, just like I question how often detectives as compassionate as the ones played by universally beloved actors Toni Collette and Merritt Wever appear, other than as the characters that materialize when true crime becomes fiction. It’s as if Unbelievable’s narrative is ossified in time, destined to rehearse the truisms #MeToo dispersed yet restrained from examining any such axiom in all its complexities and unpredictabilities.


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So it seems clear to me that overdetermination, and its consequent interpretative singularity preclude a multiplicity of possibilities, for someone, some character or even some person, in terms of the as-of-now unrealized but still somehow real, potential forms of what could have been and what could still be. And yet, I hesitate. A friend and I recently discussed A Teacher, and our discussion about the show gave way to a discussion about how to move through life when the possibility of trauma always awaits. “Let’s get fucked up,” she said to me, wildly embracing the benefits of allowing, through the suggestion of a movement through life unconstrained by bad faith, at least the possibilities of risk, chaos, and pain. But I don’t really want to get fucked up. I tend to live quite cautiously, even suspiciously. I’m not claiming that my way of living is more virtuous than hers. I don’t think it is. It’s only that it’s hard for me to get behind her thinking for no other reason than my own memories, which far precede A Teacher‘s opening message in instructing me on how to look, and for what. Even though this stands incompatibly with my preference for representations of trauma that are complicated, I also like when life is made simple for me. I tend to appreciate warnings, if and when they come.


I wish it were so easy to argue that watching a fictional instance of rape or abuse or violence’s endless other variations is better when enunciated by anything other than too-clear text that tries to translate, with uncultured clarity, that the onscreen horror has gravity in the fact of its anonymous referents. But there’s a simplistic yet forceful appeal to Unbelievable in, say, the long awaited moment when the detective, who’d almost a decade prior fined Marie for fabricating a false rape report, approaches her with caution and hesitation, this time to tell her he knows now all those years ago that he was very wrong. That moment is both the one we wait anxiously for, throughout eight episodes, and nonetheless the one we did always know was going to come. It’s simple, sad, and somehow pleasurable, to digest. I like watching it over and over. But what does it actually afford beyond the moving fiction of a moment that, even to the real Marie, rarely ends up coming? What future could be suggested through such sheer fantasy?


I May Destroy You, though, concludes with its protagonist Arabella having to give up on the possibility — the fantasy — that she, or anyone else, might succeed in finding the stranger who raped her in that series’ first episode. In the last episode of Michaela Coel’s visionary miniseries, Arabella imaginatively experiments with the various scenarios that might have transpired had she met her attacker once more. She forms mental possibilities that she’ll never actually embody. In the paths not taken, the things that could have happened except for the fact that they didn’t, Arabella murders her rapist, or comes to understand him, or imagines a life in which they meet only to fall in love. And after conjuring them in painstaking detail, Arabella then watches those possibilities, impossible as they are, evaporate. 


I May Destroy You’s concluding moments have a strange silence to them. We don’t know what precisely it means to Arabella that she never got to and never will, for example, attack or talk to or arrest her rapist. We only know that she knows she won’t. The show’s very last moment finds Arabella, who’s a writer, about to give a reading of her new book, but the episode ends before she begins to read aloud. Because we’re not exactly sure of what’s come right before (how Arabella interprets everything, in the moment she realizes what could have been as being merely fiction) or what will come next (what Arabella has written, what she will now read), this final moment feels de-narrativized, or, tentatively stripped from time. As opposed to existing only in a longer causal chain — which abuse narratives, understandably and importantly, often fervently want to depict — the suggestion of a more moment-to-moment existence emerges. Such an existence is precarious; one moment could be ecstatic and the next perilous, whether because you’re remembering the past or because of what’s happening in its present. But it’s also a mode of reorganizing causes without erasing them, and of remaking narratives while still telling them. 


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