Letter from America
In New York, older men and their young girlfriends are under attack
‘She whispered, “Too young,” nodding her head towards the blonde’
At a bibulous house party of journalists, not a few of them Brits, in a fashionable Brooklyn brownstone, I found myself chatting recently with a woman who, it turned out, had run a now-defunct online fashion business.
Ms X seemed surprised that I didn’t know her, but pleasant withal. Some two-thirds of the guests were female, chiefly middle-aged, lively, consequential, boozy.
Nattering away, I noticed an odd little tableau in the next room: a couple standing isolated, looking a mite sheepish. More precisely, the man looked sheepish, being in his forties and distinctly senior to his date.
She was by far the loveliest creature in the place, possibly the youngest, too – a twentysomething pony-tailed blonde with a luminous complexion; the Olivia Newton-john de nos jours. Despite that, or because of it, nobody spoke to them. Something was off.
The man came over to us – quite good-looking with a fashionable threeday-stubble. The ex-gossipista and he locked eyes and smiled warmly. Evidently, they knew each other, quite well.
She leaned over and whispered, ‘Too young,’ nodding her head towards the blonde. He shrugged his shoulders affably, chuckled in a tipsy way, but she insisted, ‘No, no, too young.’
I looked at the girl in the other room, manifestly in her mid-twenties. So what was going on here? I decided to back him up.
‘Don’t pay any attention, old lad. In fact, I honour you. She’s smashing. You’re a Renaissance man,’ I said and shook him by the hand, extravagantly.
Ms X gave me a darting, exasperated look and bore him away to a corner.
One could easily caricature her conduct as bullying and envious towards – perhaps – a former lover sporting a new and fabulous girlfriend.
But it wasn’t as simple as that. I eavesdropped and realised that Ms X was, in fact, rather concerned for him in a sensible, practical even affectionate way. That is, concerned for his reputation. The effect on his professional life. Concerned that he shouldn’t be seen as one of those older guys.
If it sounds a bit far-fetched, and even rather devious on her part, consider that the incident took place soon after the widespread Metoo firestorm.
The party teemed with exactly the kind of powerful, female media types who were in the thick of the controversy. What’s more, they were her friends. She knew them and shared their views, and was sincerely advising him to be careful because it didn’t look good.
The fact is, she understood better than either of us two guys exactly the way that things had radically changed in our world in recent years and months. I heard him say, ‘I’m not her boss or anything – I don’t work with her. In fact, we scarcely know each other.’
Ms X shook her head forcefully: ‘It doesn’t matter.’
The rest was indecipherable but I understood this much. These days, you can’t even look like you’re in an unequal relationship. Watching eyes might conclude that you’re too impervious to know how to nuance yourself in today’s offices or conferences; that you tell off-colour jokes, give too many hugs.
I’ve had occasion to wax avuncular quite often of late to younger male friends on how the pattern of social odium has precisely reversed from our parents’ time.
These days, men’s reputations are fragile in the way that women’s were. People talk. They gossip about so-andso’s sex life and cause ruin – invariably to men.
It would take a book – too many already exist – to examine the gender wars in all their current fraughtness. But there’s surprisingly little coverage of the war front in non-institutional settings, in the social sphere or in the real world, where consensual relationships should bud organically in unregulated conditions.
Not anymore. The self-appointed behaviour-enforcers conduct their secret ministry through whispers and rumour, even at parties.
I know a girl who persecutes exboyfriends and play-boyish types by smearing them behind their backs as predatory, abusive or exploitative – a trendy calumny borne out of asymmetrical power relations.
This chatter does affect men’s reputations. In that nebulously nasty phrase that was formerly used against women, they become damaged goods. Radioactive.
And if you think I am special pleading for the privileged male side, consider the effect on women’s freedom of choice.
A twentysomething girl I know who’s been through the mill of affairs with boys her age, chose to settle down with a stable, older man, a divorced restaurant owner.
She’s terrified people will find out. Not other men, but women who disapprove of her for deriving financial advantage and happiness from being exploited.
She won’t even let him comment on her Facebook posts.
The land of the free has turned into the home of the witch hunt.