The Problem With “Call Me By Your Name”
or We Need To Protect LGBTQ Kids And Teenagers
This week, the trailer for the film adaptation of “Call Me By Your Name” hit the Internet, while the movie started showing at Sundance. Both the trailer and the movie were welcomed with praise and excitement by most of the public, but my reaction can’t be other than worry and fear. Fear for the kids who will stumble upon this movie, along with the multitude of similar material that already exists, and think that the predatory and manipulative relationship portrayed in it is, as the critics have been describing it, a “sexy, passionate summer romance”.
“Call Me By Your Name” is a film about the “forbidden” romance between a closeted seventeen year old boy and a twenty-four year old man. Based on the book of the same name, the movie portrays a relationship in which the older adult clearly knows that what he’s doing is wrong, yet he still starts a romantic and sexual relationship with a high-school aged teenager. The story ends with Oliver (the older man) married to a woman while Elio (the younger man, who was a teenager at the time of their “affair”) is still heavily affected by their relationship a decade and a half later.
It doesn’t seem, from his interviews, that André Aciman intended to write the story of a predatory adult manipulating a kid, but that’s the story told. The fact that the author of the book is a straight man only complicates any possible analysis, and raises the question of if, maybe, the choice to portray a teenager “falling” for a man seven year older was caused by the prejudiced idea that LGBTQ people are predatory; or by straight men’s own tendency to prey on inexperienced teenagers and see nothing wrong with it.
Aciman says in an interview: “Those seven years, they do matter. The person you are at 17 and the person you are even at 16: totally different; and from 17 to 24 there’s a substantial difference. And I like that difference. You do need a relationship in which one has all the experience with life, and the other is just beginning to discover what life is.”
The people involved in the film see no fault in the narrative either, and Armie Hammer said in an interview that “nothing about the relationship was predatory”. The movie isn’t a cautionary tale about adults manipulating closeted teenagers, but it should be.
For context: The actor who portrays Elio, 21 years old Timothée Chalamet, is working in a Woody Allen movie. Actor Armie Hammer declined to comment on the rape accusations against Nate Parker, but he did state in a recent interview that working with convicted rapists is “a grey area”.
The discussion around “Call Me By Your Name” is a conflicting one. The movie both perpetuates (even if it doesn’t want to) the idea that gay men prey on young kids, while it also normalizes and romanticizes relationships between adult men and teenagers. And, while the first instinct is to say “hey, no, LGBTQ people aren’t inherently predatory”, the overwhelmingly positive response (even from LGBTQ circles!) makes us wonder if it isn’t even more important to say “yeah, some LGBTQ people are predatory, and we have to protect young LGBTQ kids”.
The fact is that, though of course we aren’t born predators trying to turn the innocent straight youth gay, or trick the heterosexuals into sleeping with us; there are predators in our spaces, often protected by the idea that, because a space is LGBTQ, it will be safe.
I’d hoped that the response to “Call Me By Your Name” would be of swift condemnation (akin to the quick response to allegations of PWR BTTM member Ben Hopkins being an abuser, or the major outrage every time a show has killed a sapphic character in the last couple of years) or, at the very least, the start of a sincere discussion of how often isolated and closeted kids find themselves in unsafe situations when attempting to explore their sexuality. Instead, not only is the response overwhelmingly positive but, what’s worse, all criticisms are being shut down with either accusations of homophobia or defenses of abuse.
“Call Me By Your Name” isn’t okay because “Pretty Little Liars” has a victim marry her abuser or because Woody Allen keeps making movies where men in their forties fall for nineteen-years-old girls. Abuse culture is abuse culture, and these portrayals of abuse (including the warped and romanticized image of “Lolita” that has spread through pop culture despite the original novel being a horror story about an abuser and his prey) are all equally wrong, whether they depict heterosexual people or gay people as abusers.
Sure, toxic relationships are a common theme in fiction, and “Lolita” is a staple of literature because it so hauntingly portrays the mentality of an abuser. If “Call Me By Your Name” intended to be (like the original novel by Vladimir Nabokov) an introspection into the mind of a predator, or even a portrayal of the trauma that dating adults causes teenagers (like the dreadful, but accurate “Abzurdah”), there wouldn’t be a problem with it. And, just like we criticize heterosexual romances for normalizing and romanticizing abuse, we should be able to apply this same criteria to gay media.
But the most worrisome part of this argument isn’t the discussion over whether we can ever portray LGBTQ people as abusive (and how these narratives should be framed) but the argument that there is no abuse at all, and because a seventeen year old teenager is legally able to consent within the context of the film, there is nothing wrong with them sleeping with an adult in their mid-twenties. And what’s genuinely, truly scary, is that it’s not teenagers who don’t know better making these arguments, but actual adults in their twenties (and even older). There are people outing themselves as potential predators as a defense of this movie, and the majority of the Internet doesn’t seem to care one bit.
Maybe the most controversial part of the “it’s legal and so it’s okay” argument is the fact that age of consent laws are often frail and even illogical constructs. In Italy, where the story of “Call Me By Your Name” is set, the age of consent is fourteen. In the United States, where Oliver is from, the age of consent ranges from sixteen to eighteen. Some countries have an age of consent as low as twelve and, up until a handful of years ago, the age of consent in the United Kingdom was sixteen for heterosexual couples and twenty-one for gay couples.
What’s important to remember is that the law is not the end-all-be-all of morality, and that something being legal (like gay panic laws, the Industrial Prison Complex, or forced genital mutilation) or illegal (like existing as a gay person, abortion, or consenting adults practicing sex work) doesn’t magically make it right or wrong.
(Most of us) understand that, though they are both under the age of consent and it’s not directly punishable by law in most places, a twelve year old and a sixteen year old should not be having sex. There is an understanding that, no matter how smart or mature or physically developed a twelve year old is, there are certain vital stages of growth that separate them from a sixteen year old. Because of these stages of development it’s that consent, majority, responsibility and accountability are given to people in stages, allowing them certain rights and obligations as they grow older, with eighteen-to-twenty-one being the range where most countries consider a person fully mature. But, while it’s generally understood that the stage between twelve and sixteen years of age creates a kind of boundary, the abuse culture that we live in makes it so the lines get blurrier as teenagers get older, leaving vulnerable young people to be manipulated by adults with little to no consequences.
Always, in these discussions, we end up bringing up the anecdotal evidence. People will argue that their parents met when their mom was a teenager and their dad was in his mid-twenties “and yet they’re happily married!”, or think of a fling they had as a teenager themselves with an adult person that didn’t affect them much. What the overwhelming majority of anecdotal evidence actually proves is that most people who dated an older adult in the fifteen-to-nineteen stage experienced some kind of abuse. Even though a lot of these people can’t actually recognize it as abuse until it’s been pointed to them as such, it still is.
Young people dating older adults, particularly young people still in high-school, are still developing emotionally, sexually, and intellectually; and they don’t have the social and economic position that an older adult might have. They are more susceptible to manipulation, likely to have their boundaries trespassed and their consent forced; and at-risk youth are the most prone to be targeted by predatory adults.
LGBTQ kids are particularly endangered, especially closeted youth. Though not every LGBTQ teenager will find themselves isolated and without resources, it’s still a common experience, and one that can be exploited. When a more experienced adult presents themselves as the one source of wisdom and hope in an otherwise unwelcoming surrounding, and asking for counsel or help might mean outing themselves, the chances of LGBTQ teens ending in abusive relationships without even being aware that they are being taken advantage of are huge.
The refusal to portray abusive relationships as abusive only further endangers teenagers. From the “Twilight” books to films like “Call Me By Your Name”, the portrayal of these relationships as a non-issue convinces teenagers that not only are relationships with older adults acceptable, but sometimes even desirable. Given the prevalence of gay narratives where one’s “one true love” is what finally allows them to come out and be happy, and the overwhelming presence of romances between teenagers and older people; gay and bisexual teens often think that a relationship with an older person might be a necessary stepping stone or even the only possible outcome of the path to being out and proud.
It’s time to start holding ourselves and everyone around us accountable for harboring, spreading and defending these ideas. All of society is guilty of upholding a culture that normalizes abuse and protects abusers. But it’s particularly important that we, as LGBTQ people, remember that protecting our own, sometimes, means protecting the most vulnerable among us; not just from the outside prejudice that we’re all dangerous, but also from the abusers in our communities.
Parting note: It was incredibly hard not to write this as a personal essay on how the trauma of these experiences has marked me and mine, and why the discussion surrounding this movie personally wounds me, because I hope that an attempt at a less emotional talk will reach more people. Still, I urge you to read, if you can, this personal account about fandom’s normalization of abuse and how it directly affects victims.