I can understand why many men, and perhaps some women as well, greet such inevitable somatic shifts with distress and fear. One wants at times to act out, to reassert a sense of aliveness, to risk a barbaric yawp and lay ahold of inquisitive attention where once it was assumed. I have generally refrained from such acting out, and have found even some contentment in not being an object of sexual scrutiny or even curiosity. The driven young pass me by and I wish them well in their own pursuits. And while some of them might catch my eye, I (generally) resist the creepy flirtatiousness that I might otherwise be tempted to indulge. But it’s a resistance at times, for sure.
Indeed, navigating how we age can be particularly daunting in a world that seems focused primarily on youth. Such may be an experience primarily of the Western Global North, the corporatized and consumer-driven first world, where the young are seemingly adored, and where a premium is placed on at least looking young. Millennials, with the help of their corporate overlords for sure, seem to be recreating our world as we speak. My husband and I just saw Alexandra Pelosi’s 2015 documentary San Francisco 2.0, about the reinvention of that city as a tech and .com paradise, run by and for hipsters who are slowly (or in some neighborhoods quickly) displacing the long-term hippie residents and creating a wealth of homelessness. Formerly successful workers now in their 50s find themselves frequently unemployed and unemployable, on the verge of becoming homeless themselves as their place, in history and the present, is usurped by youthful hordes.
Is this our new generational warfare?
I’ve been tracking cultural representation of such intergenerational engagements, hoping to find reflected in them some of the complexities of growing older, being young, and trying to understand our world together across the chasms of age. I’ve been searching for ways of thinking of age and youth that need not be laden with conflict, or that at least figure ways of understanding conflict as entrée to mutual respect and perhaps tentative detente. Inevitably, such stories are themselves made complex by the particularities of the old and young people involved, including specifics of race, gender, and sexuality. Here I want to consider two recent shows that pivot around such intergenerational contact, Younger and Cucumber. The boldness of these shows — which are both admittedly a bit slight at times on narrative — lies in their frank treatment of sexual contact between generations, where erotic interest across ages becomes a way to approach understanding of each other — or the limits of such.
Younger, which just finished its fourth season this past September, is a TV Land production based on a novel by Pamela Redmond Satran. The series largely revolves around actress Sutton Foster playing Liza Miller, a 40-year-old mother trying to get back into the publishing industry after leaving the New York workforce to raise her daughter. When her husband reveals his significant gambling problem (and debts), she divorces him, moves in with her bestie lesbian artist friend in hipster Brooklyn, and looks for work. But no dice. She’s just too old, and the publishing industry is now courting younger voices and players to shepherd writers into print.
Bemoaning her fate at a bar, she’s hit on by a young attractive tattoo artist, Josh, played by Nico Tortorella, who thinks that she’s his age — late twenties. Liza’s amused, even bemused, allowing the young man to believe she’s an “age-appropriate” sex object. The two part without going home together, but a seed is planted in Liza’s mind. With the encouragement of her roommate, she decides to try her hand at reentering the workforce again, but this time passing as a 26-year-old millennial.
With this not quite believable narrative of reinvention, Younger follows the comedic results as Liza tries to pull off her deception. Without giving too much away, I’ll say that much of the plot works its way through Liza getting sexually and romantically involved with Josh, becoming best friends with a legit millennial at work (played by Hilary Duff), being outed as a hipster poser, suffering the rebuffs of Josh and her co-worker friend, convincing both of them to help maintain her imposter role to save her job and support her college-aged daughter. Somewhere in there, she falls in love with her fortysomething boss, a more age-appropriate man who has no idea that his favorite employee isn’t actually 26. Age-related deception syndrome continues to fuel the plot.
Indeed, Younger works in part because it plays to both millennials, who are often portrayed as hip and hardworking, creative and generous, as well as to late Gen-Xers who are facing a corporate and consumer world that’s seemingly forgotten them in its drive to cater to the needs, tastes, and interests of a younger (and numerically larger) generation. Much of the comedy in Younger comes from Liza having to learn about social media, as well as adapt to changes in the publishing world, which seems at times under assault by new media. If anything, media becomes the marker of generational difference, with the younger editors pushing for a new imprint, appropriately called “Millennial,” that will appeal to a younger readership as a way to save the publishing house. That imprint, though, seems compromised by having to court young tech gurus who are semi-autistic, obnoxious hipsters only interested in the next trendy night spot, and social media video stars (such as the fictitious Stupid Girls) who have millions of followers tracking their inane antics, such as wearing diapers in public. Curiously, one of the Stupid Girls really wants to write serious literary historical fiction. Liza serves as the bridge between these worlds, modeling an older woman becoming educated about youth culture while helping her young friends cultivate more serious interests.
In some ways, Younger is very much a white girl’s How Stella Got Her Groove Back, with some more contemporary complications. But the gender politics are comparable: older woman, younger man. No one questions the potential ickiness of the relationship; of course a younger man would be interested in this cougar who’s hitting her sexual prime and reimagining herself. Would the same play as well if the genders were reversed? Or with a different gender configuration entirely?
We get to see such permutations in Russell T Davies’s limited run series Cucumber, whose eight episodes originally ran on the United Kingdom’s Channel 4 in 2015 and are now available through Hulu. Davies is perhaps best known for the British series Queer as Folk, which was made into an Americanized version set in Pittsburgh. The original QaF (as we all called it) was set in Manchester and followed the sexual and romantic exploits of a group of young gay male friends, a lesbian couple, and one of the main character’s mothers, who served as an open-minded guiding light to her sometimes wayward gay son and his friends. The series was good-natured as well as frank about the importance of sex to its young characters and was a groundbreaking post-advent-of-AIDS show that attempted to put the sex back in the contemporary representation of the homosexual. Cucumber takes us back to Manchester, but this time we see an older crowd anchored by Henry (played by Vincent Franklin), a 47-year-old gay man whose fear of commitment have him running away from the altar and his long-term partner. The pair split, but not before a tortured night in which Henry’s partner Lance (brilliantly played by Cyril Nri) invites a younger man for a ménage à trois intended to spice up their relationship. But no dice. Henry has … issues.
While Liza in Younger seems to have no problem finding her sexual groove, easily and delightfully bedding the much younger Josh, Cucumber’s Henry is vexed with sexual inadequacy and fear. His shameful secret is that he’s a middle-aged gay man who has never had anal sex. And he’s not sure he wants to. Maybe he would, but maybe not. He’s scared. What makes his situation somewhat pathetic is that Lance is an understanding partner, who would continue the relationship without full-on fucking. But Henry can’t quite overcome his own feelings of sexual shame; he just doesn’t feel sufficiently gay — an internalized feeling graphically represented by frequent shots of the titular cucumber being sliced and diced up in various ways.
Compounding Henry’s problem, though, is the relative ease and fluidity with which the younger generation seems to enjoy sex and intimacy. After leaving Lance, Henry finds desperate housing in a dirt-cheap loft shared by two younger co-workers, both of whom are rather adventuresome sexually. Davies seems to delight in contrasting Henry’s tortured self-loathing, including numerous scenes of him lying awake a night and masturbating to the wild sexcapades of the boys and their attractive young partners in the neighboring room. His roommates hop beds like changing underwear (if they even wear underwear). Even Henry’s straight nephew doesn’t mind kissing boys, especially if such kissing can be video-recorded and monetized for viewing by older men like Henry.
The specter of sex across generations that looms over Younger is given a particularly queer twist in Cucumber, when middle-aged Henry falls for his roommate/co-worker Freddie, a lithe young man who never misses an opportunity to walk around naked or in his tighty-whities in front of Henry while viciously reminding the older man that he’ll never get the chance to touch his desirable body. Freddie doesn’t even want Henry to have sexual thoughts about him. His viciousness is explained eventually by his backstory, involving a high school affair with a deeply closeted and straight-married male teacher. But the scenes are still painful to watch. Henry desires, but the young man withholds, reminding the older man of what he (and we older viewers) have lost, and what he may very well never have again.
Cucumber’s narrative cuts a bit closer to the bone(r) than Younger’s, which keeps the narrative mostly light and plays off laughs against periodic pathos. While Liza steadily looks back at her sexy fling with Josh with a sentimental smile of nostalgia, Henry remains agitated and conflicted, not wanting quite to give up yet, unwilling to go gracefully into his late middle age. The difference might lie in queer versus straight experiences, and I can’t help but read Younger’s portrayal of Liza as a slow (but steady) straightening her out, moving her from the crises of middle age to acceptance of what’s appropriate. The presence of the lesbian roommate, who is sexually fluid and adventuresome in her own right, signals that Liza is currently making some queer choices; but the roommate is only a roommate, a temporary arrangement that will eventually be replaced by a more permanent relationship. That is, Liza will have to grow up. At least that’s how the show is trending. Cucumber in contrast is a done deal, its narrative purposefully limited to offering us a limited slice of life from a 47-year-old gay man’s perspective. Henry has his own crises, for sure, but the show terminates with him still in some conflict, a bit older and perhaps a bit wiser, but leaving us (and him) wondering if he will ever come to terms with what it means to be gay. By keeping Cucumber a limited-run series, Davies doesn’t have to drag out Henry’s dilemma but also doesn’t feel that he has to resolve it either; Henry may never get “straightened” out, which seems both deliciously and frustratingly open-ended — kinda like getting older and recognizing you don’t have all the answers you thought you might.
Another difference in the shows is how they treat the fact that both older protagonists are essentially fucking around with other people’s children, people who could, after all, be their peers. Younger’s Liza and her relationship with Josh is problematic because she withholds the truth about her age from Josh, but we aren’t really prompted to wonder if the relationship is inappropriate per se. Cucumber’s Henry is confronted head-on with Freddie’s parents, who wonder why an older man is living with their son. But we never get to see Josh’s parents (at least not yet). In fact, we really know next to nothing about his background; he’s a blank slate in some ways for Liza’s desires — which seems a bit tough on his character because it positions him as a young man who will just naturally welcome sexual interest as opposed to a more complex character who might bring his own issues to the bedroom. Conversely, Freddie’s backstory allows us a way to understand why it’s important, perhaps even necessary for him to torture Henry a bit, however unfair that might be to Henry. Freddie has been taken advantage of by an older man, and Henry’s willingness to be interested in Freddie without demanding sexual satisfaction is perhaps part vengeance but also perhaps part healing for Freddie. At one point, Freddie actually offers himself to Henry, but the older man declines — either masochistically or in recognition of Freddie’s damage, or both.
Growing older isn’t easy, for sure. And, alas, you can still fall in love with inappropriate people. But what is inappropriate? That may be the question that the shows are ultimately asking. Have we older folks talked ourselves into acquiescing to what’s age-appropriate? And in the process, have we allowed ourselves to get old? Have we shamed ourselves out of our bodies, out of experiencing pleasure in age, or despite age? Younger’s Liza, while a liar, learns a lot about intimacy from her younger friends. And Cucumber’s Henry, while leering at his young roommates, learns that he needs at least to try to love himself. And the young benefit from these encounters as well in what we might call some mutually useful and ultimately harmless predation.
But what about that predation? I encountered some of my own predatory feelings recently as my husband and I planned my 50th birthday bash. We had joked about hiring some Butlers in the Buff, some barely clad twentysomethings to serve our guests drinks and otherwise be on hand to entertain with the presence of their youthful bodies. The crowd was mixed, mostly straight, some gay, and part of me felt bold and audacious in introducing my straight friends to some campy gay fun: having barely clad young men walk around serving cocktails. Everyone seemed to have a good time.
But during the party, the part of my brain that wasn’t bathing in the vodka of our house cocktail that night, a Blue Lagoon, couldn’t help but wonder what our young friends were thinking about seeing other young people hired out to bare much of their bodies for the amusement of a generally older crowd. We are fortunate to know many young people, who are frequent guests in our home, and I worried that they might find the presence of the young butlers a bit troubling. To be sure, the butlers were completely charming, but how could they not also be … objectified? No young person complained, but my neurotic brain filled in the accusations for me nonetheless: What kind of creepy guy are you, hiring these young people to undress and serve you? Is this what happens to you with age and privilege — you become a leering, predatory creep? Disgusting!
I was relieved to discover upon talking with our butlers that one of them had just finished law school and was bumming around California before figuring out what kind of law career he wanted; another was a writer with an advanced degree and was collecting “experiences” for his craft; and another was a party boy from a fairly set family who just enjoyed his work as a way to find some decent parties. Two of these young men stayed after their shift ended at midnight, put on their street clothes, and continued to party with us. The “party boy” actually had a hard time keeping his pants on, delighting in dropping trou to show off his bum. I breathed a sigh of relief, feeling a bit less creepy, believing that I wasn’t taking advantage of these young people, even if I found it hard to take my eyes off one of their cute little butts.
I’m imaginative enough to realize that there are very likely other young men who serve in such capacities because they have too. I’m also imaginative enough to wonder if some of our millennial butlers were not entirely truthful about themselves, perhaps putting us at ease so we could objectify them with clearer consciences. That last thought strikes me as a truly generous one indeed — a willingness of the young to allow us a moment of pleasure, even if they are technically on the payroll. But I’ve seen such generosity before in ways that have made me question why we older folk don’t credit the young with more generosity — and why we don’t see them more generously.
I’m thinking in particular of Nico Tortorella, who plays Josh on Younger. He’s a strikingly good-looking young man, whose stunning light gray eyes and enviable head of lush hair is augmented by a sheer bon vivant friendliness and openness that is shared both by his character on the show and what one can glean about him as an actor from various interviews and articles. I will admit that I seek out news about this young man — in part because he’s just so fucking hot but also because he’s created a bit of a stir in various media worlds by outing himself as bisexual. His primary love interest is a young woman, who is mostly attracted to other women, but with whom he has declared life-long if non-exclusive sexual and romantic love. Nico’s sexual fluidity, his openness to falling in love with either men or women (or even with trans folk), goes hand in hand with his commitment to non-monogamy. He even has a provocative podcast, The Love Bomb, in which he sits and talks with the range of people in his life whom he has loved. Not all of these relationships are necessarily sexual, but Nico’s delight in the romance of knowing others is abundant. I put myself on the treadmill at the gym and let this beautiful young man tell me all about how many people he loves.
But what I appreciate most about hearing Nico talk about love is that he’s willing to use the term bisexual to describe himself. He’s on record as saying that he’s willing to embrace the term bisexual to honor those in the past who have used that term to push at the boundaries of acceptable notions of love and sexuality. In an interview with the Huffington Post, he says, “People fought for so long for that ‘B’ in LGBT, and I refuse to be the person that’s going to throw that away because I think I have a more colorful word.” I can’t help but falling a little bit in love with this intergenerational reaching out, this acknowledgment of the lives and loves who have gone before — the lives and loves of people like me, who were willing to out themselves at his age, at a time when it was assuredly more dangerous to do so. (I hope with all my heart it doesn’t become dangerous again.)
So, Nico, if you’re reading, let me say that I think I love you. You don’t know me, and I don’t know you, but I’d gladly get to know you. My husband would probably love you too. (He’s at least been quite kind about me gushing about you when we watch Younger.) To be fair, your expansive embrace of love, however charming, may not be adequate to solve the world’s problems. We have a lot of problems, and I’m sorry my generation couldn’t fix more of them. But I would put my faith in your delightful expansiveness and willingness to risk love across many barriers faster than nearly anything else on offer today.
Jonathan Alexander is most recently the author of Creep: A Life, a Theory, an Apology, available from Punctum Books.