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Why have teenage relationships with older people become a new film aesthetic?

Written By Aké Kibona

As a newer generation, we praise films that have brilliant acting and writing and are aesthetically pleasing to watch. We will often endure a film simply because it looks pretty on screen, even if the film’s concept is controversial and problematic. I felt that two films that really enhanced this idea for me were ‘Licorice Pizza’, which came out in 2021 and then the critically acclaimed and widely loved ‘Call me by Your Name’ released in 2017. Both of these films highlight the problem I will articulate later on since they have relationships with one person under 18 and another who is much older.

‘Licorice Pizza’ is a BAFTA-winning film released in 2021 that depicts a relationship between a 25-year-old woman, Alana, and a 15-year-old schoolboy, Gary. Yes, a 15-year-old schoolboy, Gary. Throughout the film, viewers see their relationship troubles and dependence on each other. More importantly, the film shows Gary’s desire to please Alana and the extent he will go to position himself in the best light. The film's videography is stunning and utilises bright colours and the 1970s aesthetic to create a highly artistic movie. However, halfway through the film, I was hit with the awareness that Alana is ten years older than Gary and uses a fake allure of childishness to lure him in. I also realised that the high pace and the mix of colours in the film would distract the audience from the clear manipulation. On one side, I wanted to appreciate the film for its video beauty, but at the same time, I can’t ignore the issue occurring in the film. After talking to many about the film, it seems that this issue was one they were able to brush over because of how aesthetic the film was and its incredible direction.

‘Call me by Your Name’ was originally a book by André Aciman but was adapted into a film in 2017, which starred Armie Hammer and Timothée Chalamet. Even though Armie Hammer is a hot name in Hollywood currently, we must still discuss his character in this film. This Academy award-winning film is set in 1983 Italy and tells the story of 17-year-Eliot’s relationship with his father’s 24-year-old research assistant, Oliver. The film aims to depict Eliot’s sexual awakening during the summer of ’83. Similar to ‘Licorice Pizza’, this film also has an aesthetic feel, with the videography perfectly conveying an Italian summer of romance. I think the film did more to amplify the problems in modern-day films than normalising homosexual relationships. I believe that since Timothée Chalamet is such a hot name in media and has become a teenage heartthrob people are more willing to accept the concepts of the films he’s in, even if they are problematic.

Even though both films are highly rated and have won many awards in various categories, they both are problematic in the nature in which they present damaging relationships. There is often a pattern in the relationship they present. The main focus of both films is the relationship between an older person and an under-aged child. These films manage to get away with glamorising certain relationships, which would be illegal under modern law. The primary way they can do so is because they’re set pre-21st century when such laws hadn’t been put in place yet. Therefore, even if the relationships weren’t respected, nothing was illegal. The era in which the films are set majorly helps people gloss over the looming age difference in both the relationships. As well as this, both films are highly aesthetic, which further helps in glamorising these relationships. As an audience, we are more accepting of watching problematic concepts on screen if they’re pretty. We love fantasising over colour palettes, locations, and beautiful people –these two movies tick all those boxes. With highly aesthetic filming, scenic spots, and a beautiful world-class cast, they can divert our attention from the toxic foundation of the relationships within the film.

Even though both relationships of such kind aren’t healthy in any nature, I want to draw particular attention to a common theme found within films with such connections. Movies that depict and romanticise these relationships usually do so with same-sex couples and relationships where the woman is older. It seems that when the guy is the oldest, filmmakers approach it by presenting him as predatory or dangerous and rarely glamourise it similarly. We wouldn’t be able to find a Richard Curtis film where the guy is the oldest. This is primarily because we’re constantly highlighting the danger of older men to young girls as a society. This approach to films can be seen in ‘Labyrinth (1986)’, ‘Lolita (1962)’, ‘Fish Tank (2008)’. In these films the man is older, but everyone in the audience feels uncomfortable and comfortably walks out after watching it, saying, “The main guy was a bit weird”. However, the same response cannot be seen when the woman is the oldest in the relationship. In these films, the relationships are seen to be raunchy, idealistic, and satisfying to the wildest dreams. When thinking of this, I can only think of the term milf that’s gained popularity in society. Even though this term is sometimes fun to use, it does aid in emphasising that every boy or girl wants to secure an older woman to increase their status among their friends. My friends and I have often joked about getting with a milf. Even though I’ve been subject to using the term lightly, I can only imagine that it does help strengthen the patriarchy. In a society where young schoolgirls are sexualised for Halloween costumes, we’ve introduced a term where older women are also sexualised. Therefore, no women are safe from sexualisation, old or young, and this objectification becomes the centre of our lives as women within society and our films. However, it is more than just women being subjected to this; movies also romanticise same-sex relationships where one is much older than the other. The relationships are romanticised and become a template for young queer relationships. ‘Call me by your name’ is only one film that highlights this. Armie Hammer’s character is not presented as a predator but a sensei of sorts that guides Eliot’s sexual awakening. This idea of adults guiding a sexual awakening can also be seen in ‘Blue is the warmest colour’, where a school girl gets into a relationship with an aspiring older artist.

The films might be aesthetically pleasing, but they cause a more significant issue within society because they form an impression on young boys and young gays that there’s no requirement to question age gaps within your relationship. It also enhances the sexualisation of older women in the media whilst doing nothing for the sexualisation of younger girls. It perpetuates the idea that LGBTQ+ relationships are predatory in nature and that the only way that one can understand their sexuality is by guidance by an older person, which could be harmful to a young person’s emotional mindset.

I am not claiming that these films are bad; they are indeed well-written, and everything about their production can be praised. However, I do want us to keep aware that underaged relationships on screen cannot be the template for young relationships and we shouldn’t romanticise them the way we do. Even though they might be shot beautifully, we can’t view them as idealistic, and we shouldn’t aim to repeat them in our lives.

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