Portrayals of relationships between older women and younger men have showed up in pop culture time and again, from The Graduate to American Pie. But it seems like more have been cropping up lately. Alissa Nutting’s novel Tampa, published in July, is about a 26-year-old woman who builds her entire life as a teacher around her attraction to 14-year-old boys. The Lifeguard, which opened in theaters last weekend, stars Kristen Bell as a 29-year-old who returns to her hometown and has an affair with a teenager. And this week sees the theatrical release of Adore, starring Robin Wright and Naomi Watts as two best friends who fall for each other’s 18-year-old sons, and A Teacher, the story of a young woman’s undoing as her relationship with one of her high-school students comes to an end.
While these works vary from one another greatly, taken together they show how society tends to treat these kinds of relationships: as not all that big a deal.
The differing attitudes towards woman/boy relationships versus man/girl ones was, until recently, codified by the government. It wasn’t until the year 2000 that all 50 states had gender-neutral statutory rape laws. Until then, laws tended to punish the woman participant less harshly or not at all, even if she was the perpetrator. According to Carolyn E. Cocca, the author of Jailbait: The Politics of Statutory Rape Laws in the United States, the role of women sex offenders is routinely downplayed. In a 2002 article in which she reviews the language used to describe statutory rapists Mary Kay LeTourneau, Stephen Simmons, and Sean O'Neill, Cocca found that:
…while much of the discourse still categorizes statutory rape with a male victim as abuse, the "older woman" perpetrator is more often described as a manipulative or mentally ill seductress while the "older man" perpetrator is usually likened to an abusive predator.
[…] Such language maintains the boundaries of traditional gender roles: the older woman is constructed as an almost sympathetic aberration of her gender who tries to obtain love by seducing a young male, while the older man is seen simply as a sexual aggressor and is therefore more universally excoriated for his behavior.
This attitude also seeps into pop culture and its depictions of statutory rape. In the latest season of AMC’s Mad Men, a teenage Don Draper loses his virginity to an older woman—and, as Abigail Rine noted in The Atlantic, totally against his will. “To my surprise and dismay, I found that the vast majority of responses (including The Atlantic’s) glossed over the encounter, benignly describing Dick as ‘losing his virginity’ or having his virginity ‘taken’ by Aimee,” Rine wrote.
Just as in Mad Men, The Lifeguard skips over issues of consent and instead indulges stereotypes about male libido. In the film, Leigh London (Kristen Bell) is going on 30 when she realizes her life as a journalist in New York isn’t what she wanted. She moves back in with her parents in Connecticut, where she works as a lifeguard and begins a relationship with 16-year-old Jason (David Lambert). The film depicts their affair as being virtually free of negative consequences or any kind of lasting damage. Though their relationship is found out—by Mel, Leigh’s friend and assistant principal of Jason’s high school—Jason and his father “refuse to name names” to the school, and charges can’t be pressed against Leigh. Jason’s father is thoroughly unbothered by the whole ordeal. “Look, Jas has been through enough in his life already. Real problems, you get me?” he tells Mel. “This thing with the lifeguard… things happen. You keep moving or die, you understand?” He doesn’t get why Mel apologizes for not realizing the affair was happening—“Sorry for what? That my son got laid?” At the end of the film, Leigh returns to New York, intent on covering education for the New York Times, her time with Jason and his friend having seemingly solved her mid-life crisis.
It’s not hard to imagine the furor that would erupt over the film if the genders were switched. The plot sounds like feminists’ worst nightmare: Manic Pixie Dream Girl mashed with rape apology. Unlike in Draper’s case, Jason’s statutory rape by Leigh seems to just be statutory. Again and again, Jason declares that it was consensual. Though Jason did make most of the advances, Leigh’s authority—as an older woman, lifeguard, reporter, and mother figure—constantly reminds the viewer that they aren’t on equal footing.
Adore similarly depicts relationships between the older women and younger men as having no ill effect for the males. The film follows best friends Roz (Robin Wright) and Lil (Naomi Watts) from their childhoods as next door neighbors living on the Australian coast, through middle- and old-age. Both women have children at precisely the same time, and, 18 years later, they begin affairs with each other’s sons. In the novel on which the film is based, Doris Lessing’s The Grandmothers, the shift from viewing Roz and Lil as second mothers to romantic partners is shown as causing emotional distress for Ian and Tom. The movie, though, leaves that out. The only downside of the relationships develops as the men get older and either cheat on their wives (in Tom’s case) or carelessly ruin relationships by revealing their secret (in Ian’s case). Adore also cleanly skirts the issue of statutory rape, as the older women’s relationships with each other’s sons begins when the boys are precisely 18 (though they are 17 in the novel).
So, while The Lifeguard, Adore, and A Teacher represent relationships between older women and younger men in a variety of ways, none of them show the women to be predatory, sex-craved, or unsympathetic. The novel Tampa, however, thoroughly succeeds in depicting a predatory and immoral woman—though it succeeds at little else. By her own admission, Nutting’s goal in writing Tampa was to show a completely different breed of woman who has sex with underage boys—not someone looking for love, not someone insecure, and not someone who simply had a lapse of judgment. But Tampa's main character is so inhuman and monstrous—probably actually a sociopath—that it’s impossible to think of her as a real person. Rather than make the possibility of a predatory woman more believable, and as common-seeming as a predatory man, Nutting has actually crafted a character so monstrous as to be unrecognizable. Though the project was a worthwhile corrective, the end result reads more like a horror story than eye-opening social commentary.
The takeaway: While society seems to have acknowledged that females can be the perpetrators of sex crimes, women are far off from being judged as harshly as men. You don’t have to look far to find reasons this attitude has developed—men are far more likely to domestically abuse and rape than their female counterparts, and an estimated one in five girls are the victims of child sexual abuse, while the number drops to one in 20 for boys. But though most sex crimes are perpetrated by men, that doesn’t mean that when women do commit sex crimes, their motivations must necessarily differ. For now, though, it seems pop culture still believes consent isn't an issue if the rapist is an attractive, older woman.