Last week’s release of Todd Haynes’ film May December coincides with the publication of a rare magazine interview with Brigitte Macron. The film is based on the true story of a woman who began a relationship with her husband when she was 34 and he 12. Emmanuel Macron was 15 when he was seduced by his drama teacher Brigitte, 40. In both, we are invited to consider one of society’s enduring taboos: a relationship between an older woman and an adolescent boy.
The way in which these transgressive relationships are portrayed in popular culture is neither conclusive nor straightforward. Zoë Heller’s Notes on a Scandal was one of the first examinations of the female teacher/male pupil relationship, after new laws in the UK made such liaisons illegal. The novel and the subsequent film captured the levels of deception and manipulation to which the teacher is prepared to go in order to possess the 15-year-old, with the boy seemingly complicit as their “affair” spirals hedonistically out of control. What the audience is not shown is what happens when the authorities intervene and the relationship falls apart.
The recent American TV series A Teacher follows an illicit relationship between a woman in her early 30s and her 17-year-old student. We see how she abuses her position and the consequences. The ending is rushed and oversimplified, but at least we get a glimpse into the lifelong impact on the boy, sympathising with him as he struggles to grow into the man he wants to be.
These age-gap relationships are more usually presented to us the other way around: older man abuses his position of trust to begin a relationship with an adolescent girl. There are far fewer references, cultural or otherwise, to older women and their relationships with adolescent boys. And when there are, it feels as though new and uncertain ground is being explored.
As a victim of such a relationship, which was legal at the time, I can vouch for teenage vulnerability, and am living proof of the pernicious and lifelong effects of manipulation and power imbalance. This is not to say that teenagers are wholly innocent. Teenage boys possess levels of confidence that propel them to take risks. Indeed, scientists have proved that adolescent minds are susceptible to risk-taking. I argue that it’s precisely this lack of development that makes them easy prey. No matter how persuasive an adolescent, he is still a child. And, if that child is still in education under the age of 18, then a relationship with his teacher is illegal, and has been since 2001.
The distress surrounding the abuse of power by an older man towards an adolescent girl, with all its ramifications – not least a threat of pregnancy, is horrific. By comparison, a boy may not appear to have much to lose, but the long-term impact can be equally damaging. Every day I am reminded of what I lost 30 years ago, what I didn’t do, experience, or experiment with. In my case, there was no intervention, but, as in the Macrons’ case, interventions don’t always work.
The Macrons are unusual because they are still together, and apparently blissfully content. Is that because Brigitte allowed Emmanuel to spread his wings, and waited a decade before marrying him? Despite their protestations, we will never really know what happened there. Perhaps it is all clean and above board, but the fact remains that she was his teacher and he was her adolescent pupil.
Joe Gibson is a pseudonym. Seventeen: A Coming of Age Story by Joe Gibson is out now