Content Warning: Discussions of physical/emotional abuse, unhealthy relationship dynamics, and generally toxic behaviour in a kids’ show.
Toxic relationships in fiction are tricky to talk about, because often you run up against the obvious “But it’s not supposed to be a healthy relationship!” argument. There’s nothing inherently bad about portraying an unhealthy relationship in fiction. But there’s something problematic about presenting a clearly toxic relationship as romantic or attainable. Especially in a piece of media aimed primarily at young kids and teenagers, two key demographics most likely to be negatively influenced by seeing unhealthy relationships portrayed as “goals”. Sometimes it’s a mistake, other times it’s a misunderstanding. And sometimes it’s just shitty writing. So what category do Sam and Freddie from iCarly fall into?
In my endless quest to crap all over everything I loved as a kid, I decided to re-examine one of my biggest OTPs. Back in the day, Sam and Freddie were definitely goals. An angry girl and a tech-savvy guy with an intense love-hate relationship? Hilarious and cute. What more could anyone ask for? But as with most stuff that seemed harmless and fun back in the day, it really wasn’t either of those things. In fact, Sam and Freddie’s relationship was so horrendously toxic that I’m surprised people don’t talk about it more post-iCarly. But that sort of makes sense, because most people who grew up watching that show haven’t thought about it since the finale. Or if they have, they only remember the good parts, the stuff that made them laugh. And of course it was a funny show, very vibrant and full of fun little storylines. And more than anything else, everything was overblown for the sake of comedy. It was ridiculous, random, and bursting with Internet culture from a bygone era. The show was never meant to be taken seriously. But at the same time, I can’t help but look at Sam and Freddie’s relationship under a microscope because it was just so glaringly unhealthy. Unhealthy to the point that—in hindsight—it was actually kind of terrifying. The rampant physical abuse—mostly on Sam’s side—and the emotional abuse. Of course it was all a big joke, because violence against men as perpetuated by women in fiction is hardly ever not played for laughs. That’s a problem in its own right. But even ignoring the wider implications of this running “gag”, there’s something deeply uncomfortable about watching those scenes again and seeing just how much of Sam and Freddie’s relationship was legitimate abuse and nothing else. One particular episode stands out: the one where Freddie insults Fred Figglehorn. Yes, that Fred Figglehorn, if anyone even remembers when he was more widely known for his YouTube channel and not for his short-lived rise to TV fame. Just like the first season of iCarly, Fred feels like a relic from a bygone era of Internet culture. In any case, Freddie refuses to apologize for his comment and Sam ends up beating the shit out of him—off-screen–until he agrees to give a false apology. Fred remarks that the two of them are “cute”. Yes, cute. After Sam just beat the crap out of Freddie multiple times for refusing to change his opinion. It’s a rough scene to watch after the nostalgia wears off.
The show wasn’t exactly known for having good takes. There’s literally an episode in which Carly breaks up with a guy for collecting stuffed animals. The show never really had what anyone would call good or sane views on relationships, but that was partially okay because the characters are teenagers. At the same time, the toxic aspects of Sam and Freddie’s relationship are never seriously addressed. It’s all just used as a punchline. Of course Sam being overly violent and angry all the time is a key part of her character. Just like Freddie being a nerd and Carly having a really bad case of Main Character Syndrome, the characters are built to be joke factories. But even knowing that, it’s really hard to understand why anyone would root for Freddie and Sam’s relationship. Because quite frankly, the running joke was never funny in the first place. It’s yet another example of a very old trope being milked for laughs.
Is there anything positive to say about Sam and Freddie’s relationship? Not really. It was unhealthy from start to finish, neither of them learned anything, and character development was pretty much nonexistent in the show. The Schneider-verse was great to experience as a kid, but then you grow up and realize that—as good as the shows were—there was also some really bad stuff that we were all too young to recognize as fucked up. This might be true for a lot of shows, but Sam and Freddie’s relationship is an especially glaring example. Even kids deserve to see good healthy relationships in their media.