Do me a favor. Read the following scenario, and note your reaction, if any.
Woman, in a dull marriage, eats a glorious meal prepared by her son’s best friend. Her sensuous self re-awakens, and she tracks down the young man, and begins a secret love affair.
Now, consider the same scenario, but change the sex of the characters. Make it a husband fooling around with his daughter’s best friend.
Are your reactions to each different? Mine are. And I’m still trying to understand why.
The first scenario comes from the 2009 Italian film I Am Love. It’s a visually beautiful and arresting movie, an over-the-top melodrama lovingly filmed.
Emma (played by Tilda Swinton, herself at one time reportedly involved with a man 18 years younger if the Daily Mail is to be believed) is the film’s primary point-of-view character. Usually, we as audiences are conditioned to cheer for the POV character, even when that person makes decisions we wouldn’t agree with. In this case, as Emma began her adulterous affair with a younger man (her son’s best friend), I never questioned the rightness of her actions. I felt happy for her as she rediscovered joy. Apparently, her point-of-view had become mine, because she didn’t question the rightness of her actions, either. In fact, the affair seemed right.
But as the movie reached its climax, a moment came when her husband, still ignorant of her betrayal, treated her with as kind, generous, and loving a manner as any in the film. This startled me. Quickly retracing their marriage through the film, I realized that both of them lived within a constructed life that forced them into stultifying roles. She had been left her home and changed her name as part of the marriage contract; he had to submit to his father’s will and share the company they’d founded with his son. Each gave part of her or himself and in turn enjoyed great wealth and comfort. Terrible roles, terrible prices to pay. But within those roles, the movie portrayed hm as kind to her, sometimes even tender. I wondered what then had made me accept her affair with a younger man? After all, it was a cruelty to her husband who loved her and to her son. Perhaps it was that she was rebelling not against her husband, but against a whole way of living.
But flipping the coin, I wondered would it have been as easy for me to accept a movie depiction of an affair in which the circumstances were much the same but the point-of-view character was the husband with a younger woman?
Sheri and I talked about this. The husband had the money and the power, she said. If he had an affair, he’d still have the power. That’s one reason we cheer on Emma.
That makes sense, but it doesn’t completely satisfy me. This is more complicated, I think, than rooting for the underdog. This isn’t an unjustly convicted prisoner and his cruel jailer. To its credit, the film muddies the problem. Emma is a heroine as she celebrates life with her younger lover, but by the end you will know that she has betrayed and hurt people who love her.
Thinking about all this makes me wonder about the ways I’ve learned to form opinions about people in particular roles and in particular narratives. An older woman rediscovering herself through a younger man is a heroine; an older man rediscovering himself through a younger woman is silly.
Of course, as with all generalizations, that’s also too simple. Perhaps that’s the point.