Pippa Sterk, LFFF Coordinator and Programmer, is a London-based writer from the Netherlands. She has an MA in Sociology from Goldsmiths and a BA in Film Studies from Sussex University. She writes articles about media and activism, with a particular focus on LGBT+ film, and she is currently working on her first novel.
With the Oscars in sight, a lot of the buzz (especially within feminist circles) has yet again circled around the topic of diversity in film: are this year’s awards more progressive than last year’s, or less? Are the Oscars being more inclusive or are they being tokenistic? What do awards mean nowadays anyway? One such article was published in the Guardian on Valentine’s Day, analyzing the backlash against a seemingly more diverse nominations list. In it, the author Charles Bramesco makes several interesting arguments, but there was one in particular that I couldn’t help but disagree with.
While Bramesco discusses the film Call Me By Your Name (2017, Guadagnino) and its backlash only briefly, he raises several points that, in my opinion, are part of a narrative that is dangerously common in discussions around consent and age in the context of LGBT film. First of all CMBYN’s section is started off with the sentence:
“Some highly specific – read hyper-conservative – circles have seized on Luca Guadagnino’s swooning romance Call Me By Your Name as a new cause for watchdog alarm.”
Using this as a starting point is already killing the debate – either we agree that CMBYN is an entirely morally flawless film, or we are “hyper-conservative”. I understand the knee-jerk response to the argument of “what about the children”, as it has been baselessly used to vilify harmless acts since the dawn of time. But just because this argument has been used as a form of conservative oppression, does not mean that we, as LGBT people, should refuse to enter this debate at all.
In fact in my experience, it has been exactly young LGBT people who have voiced concern over the normalization of immense age gaps in couples, both in fiction as well as in real life. And with good concern: it is exactly young LGBT people who are most vulnerable, especially if they grow up in an environment where their sexuality or gender identity is not accepted. The idea that (young) LGBT people who have this worry are actually complacent in their own oppression, is not only ludicrous but also insulting to the intelligence and self-awareness of those making this argument. It is exactly the dichotomy that places one either in the camp of the good, sexually liberated intellectuals, or the bad homophobic Bible thumpers, that allows for dangerous sexual practices within liberal/left-wing spaces to go unchecked and undiscussed.
One further argument that the writer makes is that Call Me By Your Name cannot reasonably be called pedophilic because Italy’s legal system, which places the age of consent at 14. I find it laughable to use this as an argument against an ethical issue – Does a 40-year-old man eagerly counting down the days until the girl he wants to fuck turns 18 make him any less of a pedophile, even if in legal terms he is in the clear? Even if it doesn’t make him technically a pedophile in the strictest sense of the word, does it make him any less of a creep? What if the man is 60? What if the girl he fancies is 14, but they’re both in Italy at the time? At some point we have to let go of legality as a measure for what we consider to be right or wrong.
Aside from the easily-countered reasoning that laws have anything to do with morality (if that was the case, we would have to argue that were this film made about 60 years ago, it would have automatically been immoral in most of the Western world), there is the fact that the whole film doesn’t just eroticize Elio and Oliver as characters, but specifically as characters with a relatively big age gap. At every turn, there is a reminder of not just how much the two differ in literal, numerical age, but also in emotional maturity.
Elio’s youth and inexperience in relationships is constantly emphasized, from his colourful, child-like clothing, to the way he awkwardly brags about almost getting with a girl, to the way he mimics Oliver or plays music when trying to annoy and outsmart him. Furthermore, in the many topless scenes that the two male actors have, there is a very clear contrast between Timothée Chalamet’s pale, skinny torso, and Armie Hammer’s more mature body, which I assume was a deliberate choice on the director’s part. In addition, there is the fact that Chalamet and Hammer have an age gap of nearly a decade, as opposed to the seven years between their characters. Indeed, it would be difficult to argue that it is not exactly the difference in maturity that is being eroticized in the characters as well as the physical embodiments of Elio and Oliver.
Furthermore, there is a distinct lack of care from Oliver towards Elio, that strikes me as highly irresponsible to romanticize: the Oliver is revealed to have had a relationship with a woman all along, a fact which obviously hurts Elio, and both Elio and Oliver continue courting women during their relationship with each other, seemingly to make each other jealous or to vent their feelings for each other onto a third party.
As a side note, there is another argument to be made about how women being used as props diegetically almost always ends up with them being props extradiegetically as well, and that definitely seems to happen in CMBYN: while Elio, Oliver, and Elio’s father all have distinct career paths and interests, the women seem to have neither, much less do they have a personality of their own. They all show up at exactly the right time to forgive, console, support, or fuck one of the men, and then they disappear again – carry on.
Most significantly for me were the following lines of dialogue during a love scene between the two characters:
Elio: “You’re fucking hurting me.”
Oliver: “Then don’t fight.”
This, combined with the image of Elio visibly recoiling at Oliver’s touch in the volleyball scene, seems to portray a relationship where Oliver is a much stronger physical presence than Elio, partly again to do with his bodily as well as mental maturity. And yet, this relationship between the characters is seen as romantic, or even (and perhaps this is more heart-breaking than anything) nostalgic as well as aspirational.
Quoting right-wing favorites James Woods and Armond White as the only contrary voices in the article, Bramesco argues that calling CMBYN pedophilic “[is] a flimsy argument, considering the mutual respect and tenderness undergirding Elio and Oliver’s love”. Yes, Elio is shown to initiate affection as well, and yes the two are shown to care for each other, but that is because the person who wrote that Elio initiates affection is the same person who later decides that that ends up fine. Because this is a fiction, and in a fiction a writer can simply decide that there are very few emotional consequences to a relationship like this, because the writer can just refuse to write any consequences. This does not go for real life.
When people are worried about the impact that this may have on normalizing age gaps in (particularly same-sex) relationships, people are not just criticizing this narrative as if it was real, they are criticizing it as a narrative. Particularly a narrative that might well be enacted by impressionable LGBT viewers who are longing for their own love story (gay loneliness is real), which might end up being not so fine.
Of course, the argument could be made that this is exactly the point that the film is making, given that (spoiler alert) the two characters do not end up together. But considering the fact that the film is mainly marketed as a love story (albeit occasionally typified as an impossible love story), rather than a study in toxic emotional relationships, I doubt that this was either the intention of the film, or the main way that audiences are going to read this text.
I am not arguing that all of the criticism for CMBYN is free from homophobia, nor am I arguing that the conservative, homophobic logic used to dismiss gay films is not a real concern, of course it is. I am also more than willing to concede that it is in itself a feature of homophobia that films like Call Me By Your Name are held to a higher standard than films with a heterosexual romance. There are dozens if not hundreds of examples of straight films where there is an immense age gap, obviously particularly between significantly younger women and significantly older men. However, replicating this age gap in an LGBT context does not automatically make this gap progressive, nor does it make criticism of this replication regressive.
As we have seen with the recent influx of accusations of famous Hollywood men, even an industry that is so often considered overly left-wing and overly ‘politically correct’, has people who abuse their power, and it often is exactly the invocation of this alleged moral superiority that allows people to get away with terribly destructive behavior. It is time that we reject the old dichotomy that forces us to look over flaws in ‘progressive’ circles lest we be grouped in with bigots and homophobes. It is time to allow for a nuanced exploration of the portrayal of sexual practices, and that starts by looking at our own communities.