Salacious headlines involving teachers who prey on students have segued into the storylines of plenty of movies and television series over the years. But with FX’s “A Teacher,” creator Hannah Fidell wanted to go beyond the sensational clickbait and thoroughly explore the damaging consequences of teacher-student sexual abuse.
Fidell, who created, wrote, directed and executive produced the 10-part half-hour FX limited series, also set out to explore society’s fixation with the “hot teacher” fantasy, which in turn has created a double standard in the evaluation of sex crimes involving female teachers.
Since laws on consent vary from state to state, there is no universal way to discuss such predatory relationships. The series, however, aims to create conversations around the topic by turning the spotlight to this type of sexual abuse and how power dynamics and gender play into the question of consent.
To accomplish her goals for “A Teacher,” Fidell immediately knew that the story’s teacher had to be female and the victim male.
“There is an obsession with the female teacher-male student relationship, and I found myself wondering a lot about why this is the case,” explains Fidell. “The fact that this is ever celebrated is shocking because it’s so clearly an abuse of power and wrong. Women aren’t traditionally viewed as being able to be predators even though they clearly can be.”
In the series, Kate Mara plays Claire Wilson, a 30-something teacher at a suburban Texas high school who is grooming a 17-year-old student, Eric Walker, played by Nick Robinson.
By writing Claire as an intelligent, frustrated, yet poised woman, as opposed to a monstrous abuser, Fidell allows the audience to initially sympathize with the teacher.
“There are things (about Claire) that I think everybody can connect with,” says Mara. “She is lost and feels alone and unsatisfied.” Eric’s attraction to Claire further makes the teacher’s actions initially feel questionable rather than predatory, which was Fidell’s intention.
“(The show) was very much structured in a way that the audience is complicit,” explains the director.
In the show’s first three episodes, Fidell reveals the perplexities surrounding how the abuse of power works, spotlighting the many, but often subtle, instances of grooming. The second half of the series focuses on the psychological wreckage that this type of abuse inflicts from a male survivor’s perspective.
By structuring the series this way, Fidell holds a mirror up to the audience and reminds viewers that “clearly what is happening on the screen between teacher and student is wrong and should not be fetishized because it has real, lasting consequences,” she says.
In exploring Eric’s shame and confusion over whether he’s a victim or “a legend,” the show reveals how male victims of sexual assault internalize the trauma differently than females, in part because society often views male predators as monsters, while female abusers are seen as titillating.
“People don’t see the boys as victims necessarily,” says Robinson. “There is a bit of a culture of fist bumps and high-fives (when it comes to this type of abuse).”
The idea of exposing the fetishization of female teachers in cases of sexual misconduct is a topic Fidell has been exploring for the better part of a decade. In 2013, she made her directorial feature film debut at the Sundance Film Festival with a 75-minute independent drama about teacher-student abuse also called “A Teacher.” But, while the film and the FX series share a title, they tell two different stories.
“A low-budget independent film comes with a lot of limitations as to what the scope (of the story) can be,” Fidell says. “So, I knew, with the budget (of that film) I could only focus on one particular moment in the relationship and on one character. What was so exciting in being able to do it as a TV show was being able to have that time to really explore the how and why and the effects and consequences on both characters.”
Mara adds that as the series’ star and an executive producer, there was a desire to “creatively start from scratch.” That meant developing different facets of the story and expanding Claire and Eric’s character arcs.
“To me, it was really about trying to understand what leads (Claire) to make the decision to sleep with her student,” says Fidell. “Claire feels so much like she could be one of us — and, to me, that is the most terrifying thing.”
Mara adds that while Claire’s actions are morally reprehensible, she never felt hate toward her character.
“I definitely had compassion for Claire for different reasons,” Mara explains. “I had to find things that I was sympathetic to, but I also find it much more interesting when I’m playing characters who would make decisions and choices that I don’t agree with. I was very interested in the lies that she was telling herself to justify her behavior.”
“A Teacher” marks Mara’s first time serving as an executive producer on a television series, and one that has proven to be a success, as earlier this year it became the most watched FX show on Hulu.
“It was a real learning experience,” she says. “I loved the casting of it all and being there for all of those (creative) conversations. Being able to see all of the dailies was really eye-opening.”
While the #MeToo movement brought conversations about sexual misconduct to the forefront, it mainly focused on female survivors from the start. By placing a male at the center of a woman’s predation, Fidell is not only opening viewers eyes and minds, but also expanding the conversation around sexual assault.
“I think it’s important to show that anyone can be a victim — male or female,” says Fidell. “And that sexual abuse or predatory behavior comes in a multitude of forms that at times can be hard to see what it is until it’s too late.”