Every year produces a gay sensation, and you can tell a lot about the preoccupations of the day from the story it tells. The current candidate, on track to be a Best Picture nominee, is Call Me By Your Name, a gushy–or, if you prefer, alluring–tale of lust between a 17-year-old boy and a man in his mid 20s. “It is about the creation of a new man…liberated by pleasure that doesn’t necessarily establish sexual identity,” raved Times critic Manohla Dargis. (To which veteran followers of queer cinema might reply, “Oh, that again!”) More to the point was Dargis’s conclusion about the young man: “He loves, and in loving, he becomes.” Given the current attitude toward adults who hit on teenage girls, that’s a revealing reaction.
One of the most reliable tropes of straight romantic fiction involves a girl “awakened” by an older man. Consider Gigi and its ambiguous anthem “Thank Heaven For Little Girls,” a sly nod to the Colette novel in which Gigi is 15. How to account for the fact that many critics who might wince at this musical homage to post-puberty relish Call Me By Your Name? True, the teen in the gay film is a shade over legal consent, and his paramour is less than a decade older than he. Tweaking their ages makes it easy to ignore the erotic basics of this scenario. You can’t call it pederasty, but you can come mighty close.
I’m not here to condemn these fantasies. I support age of consent laws, and one of the things they stipulate is that when people reach a certain age the state lets them go their way. We’ve decided that, at 17, one is competent to make sexual decisions. But forensic reasoning has little to do with the current push to change the rules about sex. We’re in the process of creating a system of punishment by crowdsourcing, with no attention to legal concepts, so why shouldn’t the age of consent be as mutable as any other standard of abuse? The wave of scandals has swept up a number of men whose sins include dating teens of 17 or older. Often, these deviations from the emerging model of morality are cited when a man is accused of illicit behavior, and his taste for youths is used as evidence that he must be guilty. It is the mark of Satan that proves someone’s pollution.
But there’s profound confusion at the heart of this judgement, and in order to detect it you only have to compare the rhapsodic response to Call Me By Your Name with the scorn directed at a film classic with a very similar plot–except that the relationship at its core is between a man in his 40s and a 17-year-old girl. The key word here is girl. Take the female out of the picture and the meaning changes. Hence, the same critic can rave about a romance between two males of different ages and fret about Woody Allen’s Manhattan.
“I was 18 when I saw Manhattan,” Dargis writes, “and I despised it because I knew that its reveries were built on a lie that few adults, including film critics, seemed willing to acknowledge.” I had a similar reaction to Call Me By Your Name, but Dargis has no such misgivings. As she acknowledges in her essay, none of this is objective. “It’s very personal and it always has been.” That’s a brave statement few critics are willing to make. Yet, the contradiction remains: Why is one sort of age-discordant relationship disturbing while another is delectable?
True, the age difference in Manhattan is greater than in Call Me By Your Name, and, more crucially, the scandals surrounding Allen’s personal life have influenced the reception of his films. About those offenses: Whatever you think of a man who runs off with his wife’s young daughter, the bond between Woody and Soon-Yi has lasted 20 years, longer than many of his critics’ marriages. As for the even more disturbing charge that Allen sexually abused his daughter Dylan when she was a child, though the case was brought to trial the prosecutor dropped it because Dylan was essentially an unreliable witness. This doesn’t prove that Allen was innocent, and Dylan still insists the abuse really happened, but we don’t know for sure. One thing is clear: As a filmmaker, Woody Allen has a thing for relationships between middle-aged men and teens. This predilection has inspired a writer for the Daily Beast to compare him with “a demented serial killer taunting the police with clues of the crimes he’s committed.”
So much for the rich relationship between creativity and psychic obsession. In the current climate, artistic themes can form a clear pattern of criminal intent. This is the same reasoning that has inspired one watchdog group to demand that museums post warning labels on paintings by Balthus because they often involve girls in erotic poses. So far no one has called the Metropolitan Museum an enabler for refusing to comply. Art may remain exempt from moral monitoring, since the unwashed masses aren’t thought to frequent museums, but movies are as susceptible to boycotts as any other corporate enterprise. The crusade to strip entertainment of degrading sexual images as a way of suppressing the culture of rape is particularly fervid when the films in question contain fantasies many people condemn but share. Unconscionable feelings are common in cultural works, and that may be a way to deal with them. Aristotle would probably understand Manhattan‘s lasting appeal. So would Freud.
Why is sex between men and girls disparaged? The answer–that it’s exploitative–is rational but suspect when the same scenario involving two males can be embraced. If the teenager in Call Me By Your Name is empowered by his liaison with an older man, how can such relationships always be damaging? If the reason for rejecting such liaisons is that the adolescent brain isn’t sufficiently developed to give consent, why wouldn’t that be true for males? Are boys less likely to be traumatized by sex with adults than girls are? If they are both emotionally vulnerable, why is it possible to purr over the romance between a man and a boy while recoiling from the heterosexual version? I conclude that the new acceptability of gayness has created an opportunity for heterosexuals to project their desire for young people onto a same-sex romance and then enjoy the hell out of it. What once seemed perverse is now a relief.
This is where it gets really tricky. Because, in examining my own distaste for Call Me By Your Name I have to admit that, in addition to finding its romanticism spurious, there is also jealousy. After all, I’m gay, so why isn’t that handsome older man drawn to me? This feeling coexists with my judgement that sex between teens and adults is usually not a good idea. There’s an instinct to protect young people from abuse, but there’s also envy of the sexuality that radiates from them. Both are operating simultaneously, and perhaps I’m freer to acknowledge the dual nature of my motivations because there’s no victim of sexism in a same-sex scenario. That may be why many women can delight in such films while being repulsed by movies that feature sex between men and girls. The experience of sexism colors our response to our fantasies, making some of them hot and others impossible to accept. But in addition to the emotional reality that sexism creates, might jealousy also exist?
I’m not saying that women are prone to jealousy–I’m saying that humans are. It doesn’t dispel my belief that sex between adults and teens is wrong, but it forces me to understand that being an older man (okay, I’m not older. I’m old) shapes my capacity to decide what’s right. I think we’re all subject to the same combination of concern and bias, and this ambiguity makes it hard to know when it’s okay for a young person to mate with someone older. What is the socially correct age of consent? There’s no answer–just oscillations of outrage and fascination. And that wavering rhythm can have the effect of rendering all sorts of sexual practices incorrect, including what used to be called May-December romances.
I don’t think we should cease to consider the disparities of power that age discordance usually reflects. But social and professional equality can’t be the only basis of permissible sex. If we insist that it is, we’ll be bottling up so much desire that, in the long run, our progressive ethic will be seen as repressive, and it will be replaced by something far more primal. Pop culture–and the profit to be made from transgression–assure that this process will unfold. How can we arrive at an ethic that is reasonable and realistic enough to last? The first step is having a frank discussion about the erotics of power, but the turmoil we’re now caught in inhibits such candor. We’re left with contradictions like those the year’s hot gay film raises. Welcome to the new double standard.
Correction. This article originally had the older man in Call Me By Your Name‘s as being in his “late 20s.” But in the movie, his age is 24. Thanks to Ty Geltmaker for catching that error.