Spoilers are ahead. When Kate Wallis (Olivia Holt), a victim of sexual assault and kidnapping by her school’s vice principal Martin Harris (Blake Lee), takes the witness stand in the finale of FX-Hulu’s Cruel Summer, she is handed what is framed as “damning” evidence. The defense slides her a transcript of her online chats, in which she admits that she at first went to her abuser’s home willingly before being locked in his basement, but kept it a secret. “I went to Martin’s looking for safety,” Kate reads aloud. “What would people think if they knew I went there willingly? It would make them question my whole story.”
Even though the documents prove she possibly lied about Jeanette’s (Chiara Aurelia) involvement, there’s no question for viewers in that moment that Kate is still a victim. Even though she walked through Martin’s front door of her own accord, she was put on his doorstep by months of grooming and subtle manipulation. Unlike its Hulu predecessor A Teacher (2020) — as well as countless other TV series that have dealt with teacher-student statutory rape and abusive relationships — Cruel Summer succeeds in reminding fans every step of the way that Kate, as a child, could not consent to any aspect of this abuse.
Both A Teacher and Cruel Summer tried to portray their sensitive central plotline responsibly by including public service announcements before and after each episode, deliberate denouncements of the characters’ behavior in post-episode discussions, and hiring licensed psychologists as consultants in the writer’s room and on set. But on Cruel Summer, we always know who’s really in power, and the show leaves little doubt in viewers’ minds that at its center is a twisted replica of a relationship. And that’s vital when you’re making TV that young people will not only watch, but also even try to emulate.
When examining the pitfalls of FX’s A Teacher, it’s clear how urgent Cruel Summer really is. Despite trying to dismantle the “hot teacher” trope, A Teacher couldn’t quite shake the perception from viewers who found some of the abusive relationship between English teacher Claire (Kate Mara) and high school student Eric Walker (Nick Robinson) “sexy.” Moments like the infamous table sex scene in “Episode 5” (Eric turns 18 in the episode) would momentarily make some viewers forget that they were watching a predatory relationship. The word “conflicted” comes to mind when considering the portrayal of Claire and Eric’s sexual situations.
Conversely, in Cruel Summer, viewers never see explicit sexual situations between 16-year-old Kate and Martin. The camera and script never lets the audience make the gross relationship out to be a fairy-tale moment. The cast and crew of A Teacher tried to remind fans of the power dynamic at play defined by blurred lines. “Morally speaking, when you’re watching the show, you know that it may seem a certain way, and they may look like they belong together,” Mara told Refinery29 in November 2020. “But if you know the reality, then it’s pretty hard to watch it without feeling like you shouldn’t be rooting for them. I think that’s just there. I don’t think that’s anything that we had to do necessarily.”
The payoff was supposed to happen in the very final scene of the A Teacher finale, when Eric confronts Claire years later and details how she completely ruined his life. But it’s too late — in Cruel Summer, we see the damage of Martin’s grooming much earlier in the season. Instead, much of the information about the triggering subject matter is delivered outside the show, and requires a bit more work from the viewer. FX tried to combat any confusion from viewers who were (maybe, upsettingly) rooting for the teacher and student, by creating a satellite web page with resources, PSAs, and information on grooming warning signs.
Freeform’s show doesn’t have a resource page — it doesn’t need one. Instead, it spends most of the show unpacking Kate’s harrowing experience trapped under Martin’s gaze, and later physically in Martin’s basement. We see Martin use classic grooming techniques — manipulation, gaining trust, isolation — on Kate, but in case that’s too subtle, we also are privy to Kate’s conversations with her therapist as the show jumps back and forth between timelines. The therapist literally explains Martin’s strategic moves and manipulations to let Kate (and us) see through the facsimile of a relationship she once believed she had agency in. “He saw your unfulfilled need to confide in someone, then positioned himself as the singular person to fulfill that need,” the therapist, played by Lee Eddy, says. “Groomers pose as saviors. When in reality, they’re predators.”
Even after the big reveal in episode 8, in which we find out that Kate wasn’t kidnapped by Martin and went to his house willingly, there isn’t any sense that the teenager should have to shoulder any blame for what happened to her — this was just the devastating culmination of Martin’s effort to be the only adult that she trusted. The show’s penultimate episode, which depicts their interactions during her kidnapping, doesn’t try to drum up any sort of sexual tension or even show their first kiss: The scenes skip from a platonic first evening when Kate sleeps on a couch to one month later, where a brief, casual kiss between them signals that their relationship has turned sexual. From there, they sleep in the same bed, but there’s no sexual interactions or anything overly intimate — it’s all implied, and it’s enough. This deliberate choice keeps viewers from mistaking this abuse as “cute” or “hot.” Even with so much of the grooming warning signs woven into the show itself, at the end of each episode, Freeform plainly offers a PSA with RAINN’s sexual assault hotline, and like the A Teacher cast, Lee and Holt have said that they hope their portrayal of these characters is responsible and accurate enough to "stop the stigma around this conversation."
There are a few plot points that help drive Cruel Summer’s point further. Kate and Martin’s relationship ends with Kate being locked in a basement, which is an obvious crime, while nothing that blatantly criminal happens to Eric. Because men are most often the perpetrators of abuse, and associated with such predatory behavior due to other on screen portrayals, it’s often times easier for viewers to accept an abuse of power from a man like Martin than a (physically small) woman like Claire.
However, Cruel Summer has the extra burden of trying to do better than its predecessors, who happily played into the “teenage girl student hot for adult man teacher” trope. One of the biggest offenders was fellow Freeform show Pretty Little Liars, in which teacher Ezra (Ian Harding) and 16-year-old Aria (Lucy Hale) are not only made to be one of the most-loved couples on the show, but also end up getting married. Even after the show aired and many called out the show’s glaring statutory rape problem, a cast and creators doubled down on their support of the relationship. Creator I. Marlene King told The Hollywood Reporter in 2014 that “Ezria” are “ like magnets who attract each other” and “soulmates.” Hale even called the relationship “super sexy” in 2017. This blind praise of an inappropriate relationship is damaging to all, but particularly young audiences.
The differences between Cruel Summer and A Teacher are a testament to growth and learning when it comes to portraying such a difficult dynamic — just consider the slight change in wording in the shows’ opening PSAs from “depictions of grooming that may be disturbing” in A Teacher to the strong choice to deem the material “triggering” in Cruel Summer. “I just think it's time that TV and film reflect what's real and the way we should be viewing these types of relationships," Lee said of the show’s effort to de-stigmatize talking about this kind of abuse. Cruel Summer is in no way perfect, but it makes strides — and it’s about time we moved forward from the tropes of the past.
If you or someone you know has experienced sexual violence, you are not alone. Call RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) or chat at online.rainn.org to get free, confidential, anonymous help 24/7.