The challenges of May-December romance
We hear an awful lot about “cougars” but these days I’m just as likely to ogle Gandalf as I am Legolas. So I confess to having a little streak of gerontophilia, though this tendency didn’t kick in until I was old enough to qualify as somebody else’s predatory feline.
Issues surrounding disparate ages and sex are extraordinarily charged, even if all involved parties have reached the age of legal consent. We’re used to pondering the older man-younger woman “thang” with mixed feelings of envy and resentment, and of course corresponding partnerships formed among same sex partners may also be viewed with suspicion.
Adult lovers of disparate ages invariably conjure scenarios involving lust, predation, exploitation, and/or Oedipal complexes, none of which are necessarily the case. We feel completely justified in scrutinizing and questioning the motivations of people involved in “May-December” relationships, inevitably pathologizing them. For the younger adult, the motivation must be money or security or an Oedipal element. For the older, we assume the motivation is an unseemly lust for younger bodies, the result of a mid-life crisis, or a blatant disregard of social standards. And so on. That two adults, no matter how far apart in age, may simply find each other attractive and desirable just does not seem to collectively compute.
Colette, the author of Cheri and The Last of Cheri, died at the dawning of our present graceless era. After surviving two grim marriages, at the age of fifty-two, Colette met Maurice Goudeket, age thirty-five. At the beginning of their affair she described him as “a rotter and a this and a that and even a chic type with a skin of satin.” And then she admitted, “that’s how deep in it I am...” However deep in she was, she may not have guessed that with Maurice she was in for thirty years of prosperous love, lasting until her death.
In the 2009 movie of Cheri, the role of Lea, the aging courtesan, is played by Michelle Pfieffer. Cheri is Lea’s very young lover. Lea dotes on Cheri, but he is equally smitten.
Here’s Cheri, in the book, frankly celebrating Lea’s charms: “Old boy, there’s never been a skin like hers... Take one look at that cabochon sapphire of yours, and then hide it away forever, because no light can turn the blue of her eyes to grey!”
Pfieffer is charming but the movie is a superficial treatment of Colette’s complex and nuanced story. In the movie, Lea lacks the surgical self-assessment that the literary Lea turns upon herself in the middle of her own sensual bliss.
Lea regrets: “...I should have made a man of you, and not thought only of the pleasures of your body, and my own happiness... Forgive me, Cheri - I’ve loved you as if we were both destined to die within the same hour. Because I was born twenty-four years before you, I was doomed...”
The most complex portions of this romance, which are contained in the sequel, The Last of Cheri, are compressed into a few sentences at the end of the film. It’s a pity, because Cheri is a story of two people who have been so caught up in their own sensual pleasure as well as blinded by their social roles (aging courtesan dallying with a young gigolo), that they misunderstand the profound nature of their connection until it is too late.
On the basis of these two works of fiction and her last real-life love, some might claim Colette as a precursor to the modern cougar, a recognizable “type” that is - as Dawn Marie Ellison of “Cougar and the Cub™” puts it - “...more than Botox®, Boob-Jobs & Bimbos.” (Ellison has carefully trademarked “Cougar and the Cub™” as a book title as well as a “members only club” that offers dance parties and dating advice workshops such as "Polishing Her Cougarlicious Skin" and "Mastering His Cub Etiquette".)
However, Colette also knew what it was like to play the much younger lover at least twice in her life. As a country girl of nineteen, Colette married “Monsieur Willy,” a thirty-seven year old Parisian journalist and man about town. Colette would later describe her husband as “bulbous,” with a marked resemblance to Queen Victoria. (Older men contemplating the bliss of alphamegamia might do well to steer clear of young, aspiring writers.) After her divorce from M. Willy, Colette then enjoyed the careful attention of the “mannish” Marquise de Belbeuf, known in her circle as “Missy.”
Later in life, as Colette found herself the much older lover of a chic, satin-skinned man, she may have tortured herself in private moments with ruthless scrutiny, fearing to look ridiculous by taking the relationship seriously, just as Lea did with Cheri. I can only hope that years of unrelenting happiness with M. Goudeket finally calmed her fears. It is interesting, though, that Colette wrote The Last of Cheri - a bleak book! - during her happy years with Goudeket!
Colette is just one of many authors who’ve worked this theme, either through fiction or the self-help genre. Returning to our present graceless era, we encounter an abundant array of books, intergenerational dating websites, list serves, gatherings and other resources. And of course these are not limited to heterosexual or vanilla relationships.
The Younger Lover’s Perspective
I've been curious about how the younger adults feel towards their older partners. I wanted to know how they view their sexual desire for mature lovers. Do they view “the age thing” as an asset or a detriment? The answer is, it all depends. Some people are generous with praise, others are not. Here are snippets from various websites and forums.
From a gay man: “I am predominantly attracted to older men sexually, but I have in my mind's eye a future with someone closer to my age. I feel these attitudes are very much at odds. I cannot see myself not being fired up sexually with a partner. I don't want to be looking outside of my relationship for hot sex. I want it to be part of my relationship... I am