Updated: Sep 1, 2022
TW// love, heartbreak, age disparity
I recently became obsessed with Timothée Chalamet. I’ve been called WMW…
I started with The King and then watched Call Me by Your Name. I tweeted about watching (and loving) CMBYN and (some) people's’ immediate response was about the age difference between the two main characters – immediately dismissing it. To be brief, it is a story about a family in Italy who is visited every summer by a grad student who helps the father archive archeology shit. This particular summer the family is visited by Oliver, 23, and we watch as the family’s teenage son Elio, 17, and Oliver fall in love. The story is brilliant (originally a book) and beautifully captured on film.
I find quite often that twitter is not the place for nuanced discourse and although I have already spoken (briefly) on my thoughts about age disparity, I figured I could speak more in-depth within the context of this film. Besides the discussion of age, the underlying theme of (great) parenting was also very present and something that felt worth exploring both in the context of the age discussion and generally, around trauma.
Let’s start with age.
We tend to generalize age disparities as being “creepy,” “weird” or “inappropriate” no matter the context and rightly so – there are so many instances of age being used as a basis for exploitation. Instances of older people manipulating younger folks into intimacy which often leaves residual effects that go on to disrupt how the younger person engages love, sex, and self-worth.
Sometimes though, that is not the case.
This is not me making a case for dating/sex when there is a large age gap, rather acknowledging the reality: sometimes people are in relationships where there is an age gap and sometimes it is not exploitative, traumatic or harmful. More specifically, no more exploitative, traumatic or harmful than relationships between people of similar age. And because we are extremely knee-jerk about “protecting children,” these conversations typically end in reducing and neglecting people's’ lived experiences. Two truths, or multiple truths, can exist all at once, which is to say: exploitation on the basis of age does exist AND both innocuous and wonderful experiences between people in different age groups exist, as well.
We do people a disservice by assuming we can tell their stories better than they can and by creating trauma where it otherwise doesn’t exist. We also diminish the complexities of people's’ experiences when we tell them they ‘should’ not experience joy where, perhaps, harm also existed.
What would be more productive in terms of pushing conversations around exploitation further would be to actually engage these discussions with nuance and care rather than sweeping generalizations. People’s lives are complicated and messy – by telling people their stories are wrong or traumatic, we aren’t empowering them, we are assuming we know better than them. And there is a stark difference between offering information and allowing people to make sense of how it may or may not apply rather than telling someone our truth is THEE truth.
This applies more specifically to this story with the knowledge that Elio is 17; when we hear teenagers speak we often position ourselves in a way that assumes we know what is better for them than they do. We overestimate our wisdom and importance as adults when we believe we know what is best for someone younger than us and deny them the ability to be autonomous, to explore, to learn, to make mistakes, etc. And the reality is, for the most part, we don’t actually know better. In fact, it is quite obvious that the arbitrary shift into adulthood does not serve to make use beings who immediately make healthy and wise decisions. We all continue to make questionable decisions until we die – that is the condition of being human. We know for a fact that age doesn’t make you smarter, or more emotionally intelligent, because we all know someone in their 40’s and 50’s doing incredibly thoughtless shit. Telling adolescents we know what is good for them and positioning ourselves as superior solely because of age is bullshit.
The reactive thing to do while reading this is to say something akin to, “what’s next? Letting people marry horses?” when queer folks discuss(ed) marriage equality. Let me be clear: I am not suggesting that children be exploited. I assume most of you understand the point I’m making but feel it necessary to state explicitly what I mean in case people want to put words in my mouth.
This is about allowing people, including teenagers, to make autonomous decisions, to know what is good for them and to tell their own stories. Generally, and more specifically around sex and sexuality. Particularly in communities where finding joy and intimacy is so rare.
To add another layer, power dynamics exist in all relationships. All of us are constantly navigating ethics and power in every relationship we encounter – to choose age and label it inherently problematic is both dishonest and inaccurate. Elio and Oliver explore and experience intimacy and vulnerability beyond what most of us, as adults, will ever encounter in our lives. Both emotional and physical intimacy that is so deeply mirrored by Elio’s family structure.
Which brings me to my next point.
Trauma isn’t about the event itself, it is about how we experience, process and recover from it. Elio’s mother and father are incredibly present throughout this film. Their family’s obvious connectedness, readiness for platonic intimacy and clear expressions of love, vulnerability and support are ever-present. They do an amazing job of giving Elio space to explore his sexuality while periodically checking-in with him and reminding him they are there, if need be. There are constant examples of healthy communication and intimacy within the family structure that allows and informs Elio’s experiences with sensuality and romance, the freedom to dive head first with the reminder that he has a support system to fall back on in case things go wrong.
Elio and Oliver eventually have to part ways when Oliver has to leave at the end of the summer. It’s heartbreaking. This is the trauma of the story. Heartbreak. Elio’s father does an incredible job of making space for Elio to heal – he offers his own vulnerability (he tells a story about a missed love affair and being envious of Elio’s joy) and he reminds Elio it’s okay to feel, that emotions are complex. He tells him, “right now, there's sorrow and pain. Don't kill it and with it the joy you've felt.” He goes on to ask Elio if he has spoken out of turn, reminding Elio that the creation and maintenance of their safe space is a two-way street. That he highly prioritizes his son’s vulnerability.
Part of healing from trauma is the support you get thereafter. This moment, with his father is so pivotal. Not only because he is affirming his son’s relationship with Oliver, he is also providing a space for Elio to be whole. To cry and grieve and celebrate and put the pieces back together. This is crucial – if Elio’s father moved from the assumption their relationship was exploitative on the basis of age, he would’ve been diminishing his son’s experience, ignoring his needs and creating wounds where there were none. This would have broken the safe space between them and gaslit Elio into further suffering. Healing looks much different when you have no one to fall back on or support you. Luckily for Elio, that was not the case.
The closing scene of the movie is Elio crying in front of the fireplace while his family sets the dinner table behind him. It is a masterpiece. In this moment Elio is completely in his own world, grieving this heartbreak as his family moves about in the background. He cries until he smiles, an obvious depiction of finding solace after all. We’re watching him process in real time. And what is key here, to me, is he is able to have this independent moment amongst his family in a safe space. Imagine your family feeling so safe that you are able to have a completely cathartic moment to yourself, right in front of them, knowing there is no judgment. Or even that no one will encourage you to stop crying because “everything will be okay.” It ends with Elio’s mother softly calling his name, bringing him back to reality which also serves an indirect reminder she is present with him. That she sees him.
CMBYN is so layered and could be (and I’m sure has been) written about on many levels however, it felt important to me to write about both our knee-jerk reactions to age disparity and the nuances that exit within them AND parenting and how important family is in raising well-adjusted humans who have the skills to navigate things on their own knowing they have a support system if things go wrong.