When news broke last week of James Franco’s near miss of a potentially sexual dalliance with a teenage girl, reactions on my Twitter feed ranged from ‘paedophile’ to ‘legend’ (with a lot of ‘I thought he was gay?’ thrown in between).
In the interests of being fair, I’ll outline the facts of the story for you now. Franco, 35 years old, contacts a Scottish teen via Instagram private messaging, after asking her to tag him in a photo she uploaded to the social network (below) after meeting him outside his latest play in New York. Franco asks a few leading questions, including “how old are you?”, “When are you 18?” and “Should I get a hotel room?’. Nothing more happens, except the messages somehow end up spread across the world’s media. He did not, in any way, break the law.
Soon, opinions begin to pop up online, from outraged, to amused, to conspiracy theories about how this is a typical James Franco ‘the artist’ stunt, for his new movie, Palo Alto, in which he plays a sports coach who takes advantage of a teenage girl. Hmmm.
Me, personally? It was pretty clear in my head about what my opinion own was – confused. I was confused as to why a 35 year old man, a rich and attractive and famous one at that, would be interested in an undeniably pretty, but quite clearly immature, young girl. I was equally confused as to the theories of this being some crazy marketing stunt – I mean, did the whole thing leave you desperate to watch Palo Alto? Me neither.
However, as I studied other’s reactions across social media, I found myself sadly having to put a lot of my peers into a group that I can only reluctantly describe as, in my opinion, a bit hypocritical, if not a bit sad.
You see, this is why I found so many people, especially grown women, a tad ridiculous in their condemnation of James Franco. Cast your mind back to 2011, when it was publically revealed that Xtra Factor host Caroline Flack was dating One Direction’s Harry Styles. You know what this group expressed then? Glee, or jealously (of Caroline).
To remind you, at the time, Caroline was 32 and Harry was 17. Nothing that happened was illegal. And, of course, you could argue that a 17 year old girl from a small Scottish town called Dollar is of a very, very different mentality to one of, if not the most famous 17 year old boy in the world, but to me, essentially, they’re two varying sides of the same coin.
Yes, we all remember Mr Styles whispering in X Factor winner Matt Cardle’s ear “think how much pussy you’re gonna get now”, seconds after his moment of victory, but for me, the entire situation still felt gross. Caroline and Harry’s relationship may not have given off a feeling of the Daily Mail’s favourite pervert buzzword, ‘grooming’, but it certainly left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth.
All this despite the hoards of “feminist” writers who defended Caroline at the time, because I just could not understand what she saw in his immature ‘banter’, fresh young skin speckled with teenage acne, and his unmistakably teenaged body.
I’ve never forgotten that relationship, and I’ve certainly never forgotten a lot of friend’s and contemporaries’ reactions to it, because I was pretty shocked to discover that intelligent women my age, or even older, would entertain, even fantasize about the idea of wanting to bang a 17 year old. Even if he was Harry Styles.
Earlier in the week, just before the news about James Franco broke, I was horrified to see, yet again, grown, intelligent and educated women tweeting about being attracted to Brooklyn Beckham, 15, in his debut modeling shoot. Not calling him a ‘handsome boy’, or predicting that he’ll be a ‘heartbreaker’ when he’s older, but actually admitting their attraction to him (albeit often via an admission full of shame). I likened it to the chilling list of tweets that made the rounds a while ago, featuring Chris Brown fans who were begging to be punched in the face by him, just like Rihanna, because they adored him that much. Honestly? Both cases made me feel a bit sick.
The majority of people I mentioned who condoned the Styles/Flack relationship, or tweeted their shameful attraction to Brooklyn Beckham, were female. Yet these same women were disgusted by James Franco’s antics, which, in my opinion, are not a million miles away from fancying a 15 or 17-year-old boy. Not as predatory, obviously, but also flagrant disregard for what is deemed acceptable in our society. When I questioned some of these women about it, asking how they could justify their polarizing opinions, they didn’t seem able to make the connection between the two. That perhaps they were holding conflicting opinions based on stereotypes.
So – what is it that makes some women in our society see it as acceptable for women to be attracted to teenage boys, but not the reverse? Is it the idea of the patriarchy? Is it because they believe that an adult woman is less capable of ‘grooming’ a teenager than an adult man is? Is it because they see women as the less threatening sex, particularly when it comes to sex?
Don’t get me wrong – I’m a feminist, and I definitely try to minimise my judgement of others in day-to-day life. Particularly when it comes to age gape relationships. After all, you can’t help who you love, can you? But what if the person you love, or you’re attracted to, is a teenager? Does it make it all ok if they (the teenager) are the power holder, the pants wearer, and you’re just going along for the ride, rather than dictating the nature of the relationship to them?
My point is that perhaps today’s media, the enduring 00s trend for ‘cougars’ and the misconception that women are not as predatory as men when it comes to sex, have all blurred our ideas on what is acceptable. I’m not here to tell you how to feel – only you can know if your shame in fancying One Direction, or whichever teen boyband is currently ruling the charts, comes from a place of knowing that you’re not too far removed than a 35 year old man asking a 17 year old girl if he should get a hotel room.
Or maybe it’s the fantasy, the hypothetical-ness of it all, which makes it perfectly acceptable in women’s eyes. Because maybe you’d never act on it. Fair enough.
All I know, is that when I see people writing off James Franco’s activities as ‘no big deal’, or overhear an adult man stressing to his friends that he would never be attracted to a woman under the age of 21, lest he be accused of being a perv, or even writing off the revelations of Operation Yewtree as ‘just what happened back then’, I can’t help but think that lines are being blurred between acceptable sexual behaviour for men and women, and the confusing effect that is having on all of us.