Be it the French First Lady or the fictional Mrs Robinson, a May-December love story in reverse is almost never acceptable. We try to decode why
Emmanuel Macron (right) and wife Brigitte Trogneux acknowledge the audience at an event in Paris in April. Pic/AFP
She's been called a Menopausal Barbie and France's First Grandmother, he's been passed off as gay as it's inconceivable for many how a straight 39-year-old Emmanuel Macron would be married to 64-year-old Brigitte Trogneux. In a different continent, another president is 24 years older than his wife Melania, but critics are yet to look past Donald Trump's mop of blonde-orange hair, and logic-defying views. Why?
Age does matter… for women
"We are still very ageist as a society, all over the world. While an older woman is called a cougar, there is no such term for an older man," says Shrishti Arya, producer of romance TV series Kehta Hai Dil Jee Le Zara (2014) in which Sangeeta Ghosh's Saanchi was seven years older than Ruslaan Mumtaz's Dhruv, and that formed the main conflict. Eventually, the couple not only married but also became happy parents. Of course, as per desi heroine pre-requisites, Saanchi, while refreshingly cheerful and mature, was painted in pure white strokes of a physically and morally beautiful beti, unmarried at 34 mainly due to familial responsibilities. Trogneux on the other hand, was married when she first met the 15-year-old Macron at the age of 40. Easier to blame her.
Ageism also comes from our conditioning, according to clinical psychologist and cognitive behaviour therapist Laura Vaz. In earlier times, it was pragmatic for the man to be older since he was the bread-winner, and the woman was second fiddle. She needed an older spouse to 'look up to'. That has changed with women demanding dignity for their roles as homemakers and fighting for equal rights at work… "but the cultural belief has stuck," she says.
The Graduate created a social revolution in cinema in the late 1960s
The cougar on celluloid
Popular culture doesn't make things easier. Starting from the ageing actress obsessed with a younger opportunistic man in Sunset Boulevard (1950) to the iconic seductress, Mrs Robinson, who lures the apparently hapless Ben in The Graduate (1967), to our own BA Pass (2012) with its poster featuring the much-married heroine sporting a bra and horrors, smoking, while a teenage boy lounges in her bed — the older woman is usually seen as a sexual predator. As clinical psychotherapist Alaokika Bharwani puts it, "If the man is over 10 years younger, it's assumed that it must be a sexual relationship. 'Companionship' is never taken into account, and it's sad because no one speaks of her desperation for an emotional connect." Vaz talks of how this narrow mindset leads to assumptions around the relationship. "That's how stories get created that something must be wrong with the man; maybe, he's looking for a mother figure, or perhaps she pays his bills," she says.
What does she want?
Bharwani gives a more realistic idea of what an older woman possibly seeks in her relationships. "A woman above 40 is mostly financially stable and doesn't 'need' a man to provide for her. She's perhaps been married, has children, and is emotionally mature. She mostly wants companionship to feel invigorated, which doesn't come her way from men her age. So, she enjoys the playfulness of a younger man," she says. As for the younger man, being with an older woman is often relieving since she is past the age of unreal romantic expectations, and doesn't want him to 'complete' her. He can be himself.
But relationships are difficult to sustain especially if the age difference is between his 20s and her 30s. As Vaz points out from the cases she has dealt with, usually in a May-December relationship, it is the man who leaves and the woman ends up feeling hurt and used. Vaz adds that there could be an element of unpleasantness peculiar to this sort of relationship. "If the man isn't as financially stable, and she sort of takes care of him, the woman seldom has a problem but the man could feel emasculated," says Bharwani, adding that the biggest undoing for such couples is judgement.
Vaz cites the example of a couple where the woman was 64 years, while the man was 31. In therapy, she made it clear that they had to decide if they were in it for the long haul. "He was as old as her son, and people would look down on them, isolate them and yet not leave them in peace. I said this was what they were getting into. My sessions would help them get stronger, but they had to know that the dice would be stacked against them." Despite being in love, the couple broke up.
Meanwhile, since their coming out as a May-weds-December couple, the Macrons have faced criticism head-on; that he was elected as President is also a positive sign. Back home too, Vaz and Bharwani feel millennials are less judgemental and accepting of such relationships without going into debunked Freudian explanations. Both feel that we are becoming a more civilised society.
Here's to love and companionship for older women without the unfair labels. Or maybe create a male counterpart. Trump effect, anyone?
Dimple Kapadia in Dil Chahta Hai played Tara opposite her younger lover, Sid, portrayed by Akshaye Khanna
THE VERDICT IN BOLLYWOOD
Dimple Kapadia's alcoholic architect in Dil Chahta Hai (2001) was one of the few graceful and empathetic portrayals of a single older woman in Hindi cinema. However, she stays away from the young man in love with her despite an obvious connect, and also amiably dies in the climax to avoid any further possibilities. Her turn as the titular Leela (2002), however, made her the woman the young hero loses his virginity to. While his mother kicks Leela out of her life, the character while made to feel guilty, retained her dignity.
Astitva Ek Prem Kahani where Simran and Abhimanyu were a couple
ON THE TELLY
Back in 2002, Ajai Sinha produced Astitva Ek Prem Kahani, which revolved around an older successful gynaecologist and the charming younger photographer who falls for her. While the show, which lasted four years, dealt well with emotional maturity and insecurities, the age conflict gave way to the biggest fear of a May-December marriage — the husband having an affair with a younger woman.
Pahredaar Piya Ki, a soon-to-be-aired show has an intriguing promo featuring a young woman performing a karwa chauth ritual for a little boy.
Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa wrote of his real-life romance and eventual marriage with an aunt in Aunt Julia and The Scriptwriter. He's 17, she's over 30 and while the whole family is against this union, refreshingly enough, Julia is never painted as a predator but just someone he falls in love with.
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