lena dunham patrick wilson

Life is but a dream?

Last week the Girls-watching people of the world went crazy over the episode, appropriately title, “One Man’s Trash.” The issue that many took with the particular episode, both men and women, was how impossible a sexual union between Lena Dunham’s character, Hannah, and Patrick Wilson’s, Joshua, would be in the real world. Although Wilson’s real-life partner came out in defense of what we saw, remarking that she was a size 10 and a “muffin-top,” some are still daring to call foul on the episode. Whatever helps you sleep at night, you guys. Let’s move on.

However, there was another aspect of the episode that caused less of a raucous – the age difference. While the age gap between the actors is 13 years, between the characters on the show it was 18 years. Not completely unheard of, but definitely not something one would characterize as conventional.

In response to that age difference, Hugo Schwyzer wrote a piece for Jezebel entitled, “Age Is Never Just A Number: How Girls Got Older Men/Younger Women Right.” The entire post is riddled with culture stereotype of the older man/younger woman relationship, and how both parties, as well as how the outside world, perceive the union:

Each gets to live out one of our most enduring cultural fantasies. Mercifully, each realizes just how implausible that fantasy is to sustain, and how awkward and eventually painful it would be to try. Hannah and Joshua figure out fast that age is never just a number. In real life, it often takes a good deal longer to come to that same wise conclusion.

I did not agree with his take at all, and as I watched the tweets and comments on Facebook regarding this (I’m friends with a lot of feminists, OK?), I realized I was not alone. Schwyzer may think Girls got that whole age difference thing right, and that’s his opinion, however a two-night fling with an older man is hardly the basis for discerning the “right” or “wrong” of a situation.

As one who has been in a relationship with an older man – I was 21 and he was 32 – I did not see any parallels in what Schwyzer was suggesting. I was not, in anyway, attracted to the age difference, and he, although younger than Wilson’s character, didn’t see my age as some sort of a prize he won at a carnival. He did not teach me some otherworldly aspects about sex, the stereotype that often comes with dating an older man, nor did I “school” him on my generation.

We bonded over music, drank too much coffee, wandered the streets of Boston and were equals. The reason for the demise was because I was moving from the area; nothing more, nothing less, and far from complicated. We’ve kept in touch, and he’s still someone I know and respect. But maybe that just means I got the older man/younger woman thing wrong; I tend to do that with lots of things.

I asked a few women I know how the older man/younger woman relationships, in which they’d been affected their life, if at all, and their take on this supposed imbalance. Both anonymously, and with their names attached, you’ll find that maybe Schwyzer’s thoughts on the matter are not completely “right” (since this a word that’s being tossed around here.)

Lena Chen as been in a relationship with her older partner for five years. Although the age difference is “only” seven years, they are not in the same decade of ages. As she explains, “Age is just a proxy,” and that the age of her partner wasn’t relevant:

Truth is, I have a lot of friends, and work with writers and artists who are younger and older than me. I’ve mentored 18-year-olds and gotten advice from people my parents’ age. If age doesn’t prevent me from being friends with someone, why should it prevent me from dating them? I think any relationship’s success really comes down to making sure that you have the same life goals and priorities.

Is it possible that some people are attracted to others purely because of a perceived power/experience differential? Sure, but that’s misperception, poor communication and questionable intentions at work, not just a function of age.

Rachel Kramer Bussel lost her virginity at 17 to a man who was 31 years old. It’s a huge age difference, but more so because of her age, as opposed to the actual gap, as she points out:

When Hugo Schwyzer writes about Girls’ Josh, “what he offers is what we often teach young women they ought to hope for from older men: a tenderness and an expertise missing in their callow peers,” I’d say he’s largely speaking about perhaps a utopian vision than how things work in real life. By all means, date older (or younger!), but I think not only does the age gap matter, the actual ages matter. Someone in their thirties is going to be able handle dating up by 15 or 20 years much more maturely than someone in their teens or twenties.

Granted these few cases are between women in their late teens/early 20’s and men in their early 30’s, so maybe we’re off. Maybe we need that gap of have an entire decade or two (20’s vs. 40’s), in between in order for us to have experienced the ultimate dysfunction of which Schwyzer’s post suggests.

Lastly, there was one bit of input that kept coming up over and over again in regards to the true motive behind this idea – Schwyzer’s past. More than a few women, who chose to remain anonymous, mentioned the fact that Schwyzer has admitted to sleeping with his students back in the day:

“I’m convinced this piece was more about guilt, as most of his ‘me’ posts are, for his past, then anything to do with the actual age disparity.”
“He wants to seem as though he’s discussing OTHER men, but… he isn’t; he’s talking about himself.”

It is a good point. There is no doubt that the teacher/student union makes for a huge imbalance in power that far outweighs one of the same age difference between two people outside of that scenario. So, honestly, to cast that upon all older men/younger women relationships is not just inaccurate, but wrong.


Photo: HBO