Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Unfair Age Gaps? CSAAM April 2012

Last Thursday, in between running around The Reluctant Detective events (Kiran was in town), I caught the second show of the Paper Faces version of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd. Dana was performing so there was no way I would have missed it anyway but I'm glad I went. It was an extremely well crafted production, well thought out, well directed, well executed. One of the most gruesome parts of an anyway gruesome musical was the sub-plot centred around Judge Turpin. The Judge, who adopted Todd's baby daughter after getting rid of both the parents, is now in love with his sixteen year-old ward.

What caught my attention was that this attraction is presented as creepy and possibly morally incestuous. However, this is an age difference that is constantly celebrated in our songs, in the romance novels we devour in large quantities. In older books that we consider classics, Daddy Long Legs, for example (a book of which I am personally very fond) or in new ones like Twilight, we willingly accept girls as young as 16 or so marrying men old enough to be their uncle (Daddy Long Legs) or great grandfathers (Twilight *cough*). Often the men are in positions of authority over their wards -- is the creepy situation depicted in Sweeney Todd then so very different from those in my Harlequin period romances?

I argued with myself that there is one vital difference: Judge Turpin in Todd is shown to be forcing his ward and Todd's daughter Joanna to marry him, a definite abuse of authority and seniority such as in Lolita, whereas in the romance novels the attraction is usually depicted first from the teenaged girl's side, with the older man often in conflict between his morals and his feelings. But the bottomline is, what if it were my daughter? Or even a cousin or a niece or a friend? In such a case I would be extremely uncomfortable with the May-December difference. The age gap would bother me less than the age of the girl (or the boy, if the genders were reversed) because honestly, I don't think at 16 very many of us really know what we are getting into when we embark upon a physical and emotional relationship with a person of so much more experience than us. Sometimes it works out but at all times it's a worrisome thing. And sadly, I think I would always hold it against the older partner for not waiting a few years, giving the other person time to experience the world and come back to him/her.

It's an odd thing to say given that all of us can think of grandparents who were married before 16 and probably had children too but if you think about it, our grandparents married entire joint families. Children who enter into such skewed relationships usually do so against popular opinion and frequently have nowhere to go if things go wrong.

I hesitate to term this CSA but if it isn't, it's certainly paving the way for potential abuse. What can you or I do? Not much, to be sure. We can present the desirability of waiting and if that doesn't work, well, we can always hope for the best and keep all lines of communication open no matter what.


sandhya said...

Absolutely agree with you, Sue. No matter what the child thinks and feels, (a 16 yr old IS a child) it is the moral responsibility of the older person to avoid such things. It is certainly child abuse, IMO.

dipali said...

In those days marriages were effectively taking place at puberty for girls, often to ailing/ older men who may been married before. It was definitely very unfair to these young girls, particularly if they were widowed early and had to live out all their lives as worse than second class citizens, let alone the creepy sexual part of it. And yet, even today, powerful men seem to have this very strong penchant for much younger women:(

Dea-chan said...

I think what was making it creepy was that he raised the child like a daughter, and then tried to marry her. I think it's the incest more than the May-December aspect of it that is creepy.

Cee Kay said...

I agree with Dea-Chan - it is the aspect that he raised her and then tried to marry which is creepy rather than the age difference.

Now, about the age difference - 16 is way too young. I don't care that our grandmothers married that young - there is a good reason those times have passed. I haven't read any romance novels where the heroine is 16, marrying or in love with someone older but I find that a very uncomfortable story line. I wouldn't mind, say, a 20 year age difference between a woman in her late 20s and an older man she is romantically involved with. Any younger than that, and I would seriously doubt the girl's ability to make a rational decision. Maybe I am old-fashioned. So yes, an older man with a 16 year old girl? I would definitely classify it as child abuse.

" I think I would always hold it against the older partner for not waiting a few years, giving the other person time to experience the world and come back to him/her." Agree with you. Hell, I would JUDGE the older person for not waiting.

Mala said...

Quite thought provoking. I loved Daddy Long Legs though. I guess what made it less creepy was that he kept his identity secret ? As in, she didn't know that the charming young man was actually her benefactor.

Anonymous said...

Agree that raising the girl and then marrying her is the creepy part - not the age diference itself. Which was why the Woody Allen thing also feels wrong.

(Though 16 is very young today, I can think of a couple of real-life romances with the bride of about that age: Heyer - Spanish Bride and Mrs. Mike - the story of Katherine Flannigan).

As far as Daddy Long Legs - I find it less creepy - Pendleton only plans to support Judy financially through college - but falls for the girl - actually her not knowing who he is does creep me out a bit. While reading I can accept the romance, but in the cold light of day - um. :)


Rashi said...

It IS creepy. I remember feeling shocked about a similar sub-plot while reading Bleak House - though thankfully it doesn't end in marriage.

Sue said...

Sandhya -- Tricky waters.

Dipali -- I can live with older men falling for younger women so long as the women are consenting adults.

Dea-chan -- Wouldn't that be true for all guardian-ward relationships? Yet we read of so many in romance novels and don't turn a hair. I've read books with heroines in their teens falling for their guardians.

Cee Kay -- I think we're both thinking as parents/older siblings on this one. What would merely worry me in a friend would outrage me as a parent, it appears.

Mala, M -- It's all a matter of perspective. He did try to keep her away from young men her own age while making excuses to visit her under his real name. It didn't bother me when I read the novel. It would bother me if that were my daughter.

Rashi -- And then there are times when I wonder if I'm being too hyper. Such tricky waters.