On Thursday, as The New York Times published a report in which five women accused Louis C.K. of sexual misconduct, the distributor of C.K.’s new film, I Love You, Daddy—about a 17-year-old girl dating a 68-year-old man—canceled the premiere event that had been set to take place on Thursday evening. On the same day, The Washington Post published a story in which several different women accused Roy Moore, the GOP nominee in Alabama for a U.S. Senate seat, of sexually pursuing them when he was in his 30s and they were in their teens. The women’s age was central to the horror of the story: Moore, then an assistant district attorney, met one of the women, Leigh Corfman, when she was 14 years old, outside a child custody hearing; he told her mother that he would, essentially, babysit her; her mother accepted. “I thought, how nice for him to want to take care of my little girl,” Nancy Wells told the Post, of Moore’s offer. She is now 71. Moore is now 70.
So: Two stories, both alike in indignity. One involves a man who is in many ways an emblem of (powerful, coastal, progressive) Hollywood. The other involves a conservative politician who has literally toted a gun to a rally. That the two would be so tangled together, though, is not terribly surprising: Both emerged within a culture that claims to see relationships between teenage girls and older men as wrong—Lolita, 62 years later, remains controversial for a reason—but that at the same time, again and again, teasingly romanticizes them. I Love You, Daddy, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and has been dubbed “brazen” and a “cringe comedy” and “a deliberately provocative minefield,” was set to hit American theaters this weekend in all its breezy brazenness—until the accusations against C.K., the person, emerged. The allegations against Moore, similarly, have been met in some corners by horror—resign if true, some have said—but in some others by complacency. Fake news. Moore, actually, is the real victim here. Anyway, Mary was a teenager when she met Joseph, soooooo.
It’s a jumbled set of reactions that is reflective of a culture that is itself extremely jumbled about matters of sex and power and age. In the world that Hollywood and Washington help to shape—the actual world, the world that cannot be breezily dismissed as fake news—sex with a minor is illegal, pure and simple. The crime is classified, rightly, as a form of sexual violence: “statutory rape.”
In the broader sense, though—the more psychic sense, the spaces where “culture” exerts itself—the sexualization of minors, precisely the kind on display in I Love You, Daddy, is repeatedly romanticized. “Daddy” itself, the word, adopting erotic overtones. The American president, making repeated comments about his daughter’s sexual desirability. Billy Ray Cyrus, posing with a 15-year-old Miley in a way that summons the more salacious sense of “daddy.” Hugh Hefner, swathed in silken loungewear, surrounded by women young enough to be his great-granddaughters.
They are suggesting versions of an old trope: that of the (revealingly euphemized) “May-December” pairing. Fred Astaire was commonly coupled with women who were decades his junior—he was 12 years older than Ginger Rogers, 23 years older than Judy Garland, and 30 years older than Audrey Hepburn. Cary Grant was 25 years older than Hepburn when they filmed Charade. And the tradition continues, of course, today. Jay Pritchett, of Modern Family, is in his 60s; Gloria, his wife, is now in her 40s. The two, in the show’s universe, are, per the age-old sitcomic mold, delightfully—unquestionably—deeply in love.
Again and again, in the pop culture that expends its exhaust all around us, May meets December, to romantic results: Professors date students; Richard Gere, 48 in the film, falls for Winona Ryder, 22; Bill, of Kill Bill—a film produced by, yes, Harvey Weinstein—is repeatedly suggested to be a Flirty Old Man. None of this is questioned, within the works, so much as it is presented unto us as a situation that exists on a continuum between “teasingly unusual” and “just how things are.” And rarely are the gender roles reversed. Instead, these works help to normalize a specifically male fantasy of transcendent youth. In the ’90s, Viagra entered not just the American medical marketplace, but also the American culture. The treatment—that almost comically literal rendering of The Matrix’s “blue pill”—was a new answer to an old idea, one that had long been ratified by works of culture: that virility could, almost uniquely, help a man to transcend the physical effects of age. Again and again, in the ancient works but in the modern ones, too, women are presented as vessels of transformation for men: young bodies offered up to the cause of enduring masculinity. Abraham and Hagar, strolling in autumnal Central Park.
Add to this, then, the productions that most directly pair older men with women—girls—who are explicitly underage. Manhattan. American Beauty. (Yes: Kevin Spacey.) Election. Lolita. An Education. Fish Tank. This, too, is a longstanding trope, from the unnamed heroine of Marguerite Duras’s L’Amant to Cathy Ames in East of Eden. And, of course, there’s Dolores Haze—Lolita—in Lolita. Always Lolita. And, now, there’s I Love You, Daddy, which stars Chloë Grace Moretz as a 17-year-old who seems to carry all the freight of the Disney princess gone bad, of Miley and Britney and Selena, of the no-longer-a-girl who is not-yet-a-woman—the girl who, nonetheless, has undergone the womanly rite of passage that is being leered at by older men. On Friday, in regard to the acts of real-world predation that the Times had reported the day before, Louis C.K. issued a long statement. “These stories are true,” he said. The concession was hardly necessary.
What’s perhaps most significant about I Love You, Daddy—what is perhaps most significant about Manhattan and Election and Lolita—is that they cloak themselves, and their April-November pairings, in irony. They aim to be that quintessentially exculpating of things: self-aware. They’re not celebrating men’s sexual relationships with girls, they want to make clear; they are simply, you know, exploring that idea. Election is satire. American Beauty is satire. Lolita is satire. And yet. And yet. There is a teasing quality to so many of these works: a sense of cheeky boundary-pushing, of devil’s advocacy, of “hey, just joking.” (Louis C.K.’s production company is named, because of course it is, Pig Newton.) The films are usually told from the perspectives of their male characters; they generally take it for granted that, were it not for the pesky prudery of Society, these relationships would be seen as part of the natural order of things. It’s the men who are the real victims here. Not yet a woman, okay, but also no longer a girl. Mary was a teenager when she met Joseph.
Here’s another thing that happened on Thursday, though: The Orchard, the distributor for I Love You, Daddy, announced that it would not be releasing the film to the public. At all. The movie will exist, now, it seems, merely as a trailer, and likely as a series of bootlegs, and definitely as a collection of middling reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. The abrupt move—an ode to Manhattan, its tributes made instantly intangible—is perhaps indicative of a new phase of American pop culture. Just as the calls for Roy Moore to end his campaign are perhaps indicative of new norms in American politics. Abusers have long taken refuge in the logic of gray areas, of complacent continuums, of men being men. But women are women. And girls are girls. And there are so many victims, so many #MeToos. “I was a daisy fresh girl and look what you’ve done to me,” Dolores seethes to Humbert. It is the truest moment in the book.