The 2021 teen drama series, Cruel Summer revolves around two strong female protagonists Kate Wallis and Jeanette Turner. While Kate fits into the bubbly popular girl image, Jeanette is portrayed as an ugly duckling waiting to blossom. The conflict between these two characters is the heart of ‘Cruel Summer’. The storyline of this series mimics typical teen dramas such as “Gossip Girl” or “Pretty Little Liars”, but as you keep watching the show, it takes a sinister turn.
In many ways “Cruel Summer” rights the wrongs of these teen dramas from the early 00s, you will understand why as you read on.
(Warning: You are entering the spoiler zone)
The Theme of Grooming
“Cruel Summer” starts in a similar way as the popular series “Pretty Little Liars” where the high school popular girl disappears and the entire town starts to look for her, eventually giving up on the cause as time passes. The disappearance of Kate Wallis, however, has a darker undertone as when she is found, it is revealed that she was kidnapped by her high school vice principal Martin Haris. This kidnapping seems quite realistic, as Martin had easy access to Kate and gains her trust to lure her on multiple occasions.
Martin Haris looks eerily similar to Ezra Fitz from Pretty Little Liars, and he also in a way “dates” Kate Wallis, before holding her captive. Earlier, audiences accepted Ezra’s, a school teacher’s romance with his student, Aria, but now they have started realising that this so-called relationship between an adult in a position of power and a child is actually “Grooming”.
Grooming happens when an adult starts building a connection with a child (below the age of 18) with an intention to manipulate and abuse them emotionally, physically or even sexually.
Throughout the series, it is clearly established that Martin sees Kate as someone vulnerable, she shares a lot of things with him casually about her family problems and he uses that to his advantage. The way he connects with her seems normal on the surface but after knowing that Martin kidnapped Kate later, we understand that his efforts to get to know her were strategic.
He makes Kate rely on him emotionally, again in a natural non-confrontational way, making himself seem like a trustworthy adult. Kate trusts him so much that she walks into his home looking for a place to stay after she runs away from her family and ends up disappearing for a long time. He did not even kidnap Kate as people may have assumed, he tricked her and held her captive.
After referring to the warning signs of grooming on rainn.org, I have tried to relate them with what was shown throughout the series:
1. Selecting the Victim: As I mentioned before, though Kate was popular she did not have real friends or anyone in her family who knew the “real her”, Martin made her feel seen by taking an open-minded approach towards her.
2. Victim Isolation or Getting Access to them: Whenever Martin is having deep conversations with Kate, it is always them alone, Kate’s friends didn’t know that they talked and her parents did not see him as a threat, intact, Kate’s mom welcome’s him into the town. Martin definitely had easy access to Kate. In terms of Isolation, he literally holds Kate captive by making her believe they are in love and for them to be together legally she couldn’t leave the house until she turns 18. When Kate decides that she wants to go back to her family, he tells her how Jeanette has taken over her life and how no one missed her, making her lose hope. He eventually locks her up in the basement when she realises he has been manipulating her.
3. Gaining the Victim’s Trust: Martin is shown as a great listener and a wise man who has practical advice for Kate, this makes Kate trust him and she shares her thoughts and secrets openly with him instead of talking to her friends or family who in her mind always shut her down.
4. The Abuser Normalising Their Behaviour: Martin treats his relationship with Kate as a normal romantic relationship when he clearly knows he could get fired if he is involved with a student. He manipulates her to stay inside the house and scares her that she might lose him if she steps out of the house, all the while making her believe that it was her choice to stay with him in the first place.
In conclusion, while the show is imperfect and focuses more on the whole Jeanette vs Kate storyline, they did educate the viewers on grooming quite accurately.