The Culture

The Trouble With Middle-Aged Men Writing About Teenage Girls

Louis C.K. and Matthew Weiner have one approach, Greta Gerwig and Pamela Adlon have another. Guess who gets it right.

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Last week, Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner became the latest powerful man in the entertainment industry to face allegations of sexual misconduct in the workplace. A former Mad Men staff writer, Kater Gordon, told the website The Information that eight years ago, when she was 27 and working late one night with Weiner, who is now 52, her boss said “she owed it to him to let him see her naked.” Weiner has denied the allegation, although he did apologize for being “a demanding boss.”

Weiner now joins Louis C.K. — whose star has swiftly faded after the New York Times recently confirmed longstanding rumors that the comic masturbated in front of non-consenting women — in my own personal lineup of fallen heroes. Both of these revelations, which came after the Times and the New Yorker revealed the full scope of Harvey Weinstein’s decades-long abuses of power, have put a damper on the marketing efforts of C.K.’s new movie, I Love You, Daddy, which has been shelved, and Weiner’s debut novel, Heather, the Totality, which he is currently promoting on a nationwide tour, although several stops have been canceled.

Of course, the fun isn’t contained to the world of entertainment. On Tuesday, shortly after he pardoned the ceremonial Thanksgiving turkeys, President Donald J. Trump threw his support behind Roy Moore, the former chief justice of the Supreme Court of Alabama who is currently running for that state’s Senate seat — and who has been accused of sexually assaulting underage girls when he was a local judge in his thirties. Like the Weinstein reports, the stories about Moore preying on young girls have been met with a social-media campaign in which women have shared their own stories of sexual abuse and predatory behavior from men when they were still only girls.

These stories cast an ugly light on Weiner’s and C.K.’s new projects, both of which revolve around men who are obvious stand-ins for their creators expressing a deep anxiety over their teenage daughters’ budding sexuality. To be clear, neither of these men has been accused of any kind of impropriety with an underage girl. But it’s interesting to look at these works in light of the conversation now taking place about abuse, consent, and power — a debate about teenage girls’ sexual maturity that seems to be taking place over the heads of actual teenage girls.

I Love You, Daddy and Heather, the Totality are a film and book in which the teenage girl at the center isn’t so much a person as a conduit for her father’s middle-aged anxiety. In the former, a successful TV writer named Glen Topher (C.K.) upends his personal and professional life when he becomes obsessed with the relationship between his 17-year-old daughter, China (Chloë Grace Moretz), and Leslie Goodwin (John Malkovich), a 68-year-old director dogged by longstanding rumors that he likes little girls. In the latter, a Manhattan businessman named Mark Breakstone grows increasingly worried for the safety of his 14-year-old daughter when he notices a construction worker at their building leering at his precious Heather.

Weiner writes in an almost biblically omniscient voice, capitalizing common nouns like Parents and Sisters; to Mark, the construction worker is simply the Worker, although the reader knows him as Bobby, a delinquent who’s just been released from prison for violently assaulting a woman. Heather, which is just 144 pages, alternates between Bobby’s story and Mark’s, with a few fragments from the point of view of Mark’s wife, Karen, and a brief section toward the end when we get inside Heather’s mind.

But for the most part, it’s the milquetoast Mark whose head we inhabit. Weiner includes several passages about Mark’s historic discomfort around women, how he’d only slept with a few in his life “and none of them, other than Karen, had he chosen or pursued.” As a teenager, Mark was awkward and insecure, and masturbated to catalogs and yearbook photos because “pornography embarrassed him.” Like Glen, he’s a bit bumbling, outnumbered by and unable to stand up to the women in his life.

Although Heather’s defining characteristic is her blossoming beauty, Weiner is careful not to attribute Heather’s appeal solely to her looks: “As Heather grew into a little girl her beauty became more pronounced but somehow secondary to her charm and intelligence and, most notably, a complex empathy that could be profound,” he writes. China, in contrast, is a peaches-and-cream sight to behold more than anything else, a striking screen presence whom we first glimpse in a skimpy bikini and whose own father, as much as he adores her, seems to regard as shallow and shiftless.

One day, while approaching his building, Mark sees Bobby staring at his daughter, who’s looking down at her phone. The stare, Weiner writes, “was so carnal and intense that Mark charged across the street and pushed Heather away as if he were stepping between her and an oncoming car.” He becomes obsessed, and decides he needs to do something. Similarly, Glen becomes fixated on China’s relationship with Leslie, who takes an interest in his daughter that’s not unrelated to, in Leslie’s words, her “perfect body.”

In both the movie and the book, when the men bring up their concerns to their significant others, the women laugh them off. It’s a strange reversal of roles, putting these men in the position of moral arbiter while the women brush off the potential danger that Bobby and Leslie pose to these pubescent girls. And of course, in both cases, the men are right to be worried about their daughters; we know that Bobby does intend to harm Heather, and we know that Leslie has a reputation, however poorly defined, for taking an interest in underage girls.

In any case, both the movie and the book hinge on a confrontation between two men — Glen and Leslie, and Mark and Bobby — leaving the daughters supposedly at the center of the story almost an afterthought, placeholders for a male angst that’s apparently more important than whatever the girls might be feeling.

Two recent works that actually do center on teenage girls offer a telling comparison. Lady Bird, written and directed by Greta Gerwig, is a lovingly detailed portrait of 17-year-old Christine (Saoirse Ronan), a Catholic school senior impatient to leave her hometown of Sacramento for the cultured East Coast. And Better Things, Pamela Adlon’s FX series, focuses much of its second season on Max (Mikey Madison), the oldest daughter of Sam’s (Adlon’s) three daughters who’s also a senior in high school. (Yes, C.K. is a co-creator of Better Things, and co-wrote the second season’s ten episodes. But the show is clearly Adlon’s vision — it’s based on her life as a single mom raising three daughters — and she directed every episode of the second season.) Max and Christine aren’t simply nubile bodies for their parents to fret over (or, in China’s case, candy for an audience to drool over): They’re fully drawn people, with specific thoughts, desires, habits, and personalities. They wear dresses and heels but also pajamas and sweatpants. They contain multitudes.

They’re also not immune to sexual impulses. Max wears short skirts and halter tops and often lounges around the house in her underwear; Christine doggedly pursues two different love interests, and Lady Bird includes a scene in which she eagerly loses her virginity. In the first episode of Better Things’ recently concluded second season, Max is dating a man in his thirties. Sam is not happy about this situation, but for the most part, she keeps her mouth shut and waits for her daughter to figure out for herself that she’s not comfortable — that, as she tells her mother at the end of the episode, she’s in over her head.

The depiction of these girls is not prudish, but it’s also not fraught with a kind of anxiety that seems to hold young girls implicitly responsible, by the very fact of their bodies, for the heavy-breathing interest of older men. In I Love You, Daddy and Heather, the Totality, the subject isn’t really a teenage daughter but her father’s metaphoric impotence at his inability to protect her. And that perspective blinds C.K. and Weiner to their own characters — the young women who deserve to be drawn not as ticking sex bombs waiting to be detonated, but as people with all the potential complexities of their creators.

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