I’ll Watch Anything With a Toxic Mentor/Mentee Dynamic

I’ll Watch Anything is an Autostraddle TV Team series in which we tell you what type of movies and TV shows we’ll watch, no matter what. This week, Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is here to explain why she’ll watch anything featuring a toxic mentorship relationship, especially between two women with an age gap.


Though wildly different in genre, premise, and structure, four of my favorite television shows — UnREALHacksDamages, and Dare Me — have something in common: They all feature a woman in a position of power taking a mentorship role in the life of a younger woman in their field of expertise. In all four instances, that mentorship isn’t uplifting or sweet or feminist; it’s toxic as fuck.

In the case of UnREAL — the short-lived scripted series about the horrors of working in unscripted television that has a near-perfect first season — Shiri Appleby’s Rachel Goldberg is constantly manipulated and pushed to the edge by her power-hungry and ruthless boss Quinn, played by Constance Zimmer. They work on a Bachelor-like show, but their behind-the-scenes power struggle and sabotage are way more juicy than reality dating show fodder.

Hacks is a comedy-drama, and the dynamic between legendary comedian Deborah Vance (played by legendary comedic actress Jean Smart) and the down-on-her-luck young comedy writer Ava (Hannah Einbinder) is indeed equal parts comedy and drama, the two constantly punching up each other’s jokes and treating each other like punching bags. They’re more alike than they’d ever admit, and they sometimes bring out the good in each other but also repeatedly bring out the bad.

I inhaled all the first four seasons of Damages in my college dorm room, arrested by the bleak legal thriller due in large part to the poisonous relationship between Patty Hewes (Glenn Close) and her protégée-turned-nemesis Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne). I suppose now is when I must admit that, at the risk of sounding like I’m glamorizing these kinds of fucked-up work relationships, I do find them erotic. This push and pull, the control they’re always fighting for. It’s hard not to read a kink dynamic into it. Even in its unhealthiest forms, I’ve always found obsession one of the most intoxicating human forces. An obsession with obsession, if you will.

And then there’s Dare Me, the show I’m always trying to get people to watch, even if it was cancelled after just one season. Here, the relationship is not between a boss and an employee but rather a high school cheerleading coach and a cheerleader on her squad. Queerleader Addy (Herizen Guardiola) admires Coach Colette French (Willa Fitzgerald), and Colette wields that admiration like a weapon, her manipulations of Addy escalating over the course of the season.

All of these relationships are difficult to categorize. They’re never friends. The more powerful women aren’t maternal. They aren’t as simple as boss/employee or even mentor/mentee when you really break them down. These are people who want to undo each other.

While I definitely gravitate toward toxic mentorships between two women for obvious (gay) reasons, I do also find myself drawn to watching these kinds of relationships play out in other contexts, too. Shows like Breaking Bad (Walt/Jesse) and Succession (Tom/Greg) that feature a fucked-up relationship between and older and younger man. Even shows like Mad Men (Don/Peggy) and House M.D. (House/Cameron) where a man takes a younger or less experienced woman in the field under their wing. I’m rewatching The Vampire Diaries right now and am struck by how compelled (pun intended, iykyk) I am by the very reluctant and fraught mentorship dynamic between Klaus and Stefan in season three. Shows like The Good Wife and The Good Fight have several complicated mentorship dynamics in various gender combinations. These don’t scratch the same itch as my top four of UnREALHacksDamages, and Dare Me, but I still like to unpack these power-imbalanced relationships and look at the ways details like gender and class impact them.

The thing I’m not saying, I suppose, is that I had a mentor once, or at least thought I did. She was older, not much, but she was more experienced. I try not to throw a word like “toxic” around too much when it comes to my own life, because I think it’s the kind of word that has become overused to the point of a dulled meaning (but I do think the above examples are all easy to label toxic and in some cases are actually abusive, I mean, some of them involve MURDER). But whatever our dynamic was, it wasn’t great. It wasn’t healthy. And there was no real recourse to ever heal from that. We don’t talk anymore, and it’s like we never did. I remember, once, confessing to her my feelings for a friend over brunch. She told me I had to come clean about my crush to that friend. Otherwise, she asserted, I was being creepy. I was so early on in my queerness that I didn’t even have language for the “predatory lesbian” stereotype, but it was so easy for her to convince me there was something wrong with me, those messages long internalized.

I think these situations and relationships are common, and I think it’s difficult to talk about them. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’m seeking catharsis in the stories I consume about fucked-up mentor/mentee relationships, but watching extreme versions play out on television does perversely satisfy. I’m supposed to want to see women uplifting other women, but I’ve never been very good at doing what I’m supposed to do.

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Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is the managing editor of Autostraddle and a lesbian writer of essays, short stories, and pop culture criticism living in Orlando. She is the assistant managing editor of TriQuarterly, and her short stories appear or are forthcoming in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, Joyland, Catapult, The Offing, and more. Some of her pop culture writing can be found at The A.V. Club, Vulture, The Cut, and others. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram and learn more about her work on her website.

Kayla has written 816 articles for us.

14 Comments

  1. It’s so great how they made one perfect season of UnReal and then the show ended before it could do anything weird and/or racist! They definitely didn’t make any more seasons of that show!

  2. Kayla, I want you to know that all your shouting about Dare Me did in fact convince me to start watching it last week. I loved the book so it’s been on my watch list forever but you’re the reason I actually clicked play. I’m about halfway through and it’s great so far!

  3. I am also forever trying to get people to watch Dare Me. It’s my number one suggestion for what to watch if you like Yellowjackets as well. It’s not at all similar in plot, but has a lot of similar themes. If you are into complex, often toxic (gay) relationships between girls and women, and the brutality of teenage life.

  4. You might want to give Gypsy a go (it’s on Netflix). Not a mentor/mentee relationship exactly but has those themes that we like i.e. skewed power dynamic, push-pull, manipulation, toxic relationships, age gap, and also gorgeous phenomenal actresses.

  5. As an avid viewer of the continually expanding Teen Girls Do Crime genre, I am also always yelling about Dare Me! It’s so validating to hear that there are at least a handful of other humans who agree that it absolutely fucking rules. Every time I watch, it gets gayer.

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