Notes on a Scandal
Based on a novel by Zoe Heller with what I think was a better title: What Was She Thinking?
The old double standard works most often against the female of the species, with men getting all the breaks, women being held to a higher standard. And in the case of a female teacher having sex with her 15-year-old student it may seem on the surface that this is just another example, in that the media frenzy surrounding such an event is usually more rabid. That’s because it’s rare, it’s unusual news. Man bites dog. When a male teacher fucks a young female student, we react with almost universal distaste, we flog him publicly and put him in jail and think, “Oh, well, just another male pervert.”
But in the case of older woman, young boy, there is an undercurrent, not really that far beneath the surface, really, that can be summed up as, “You lucky dog!” This has been celebrated in many, many films, the most memorable that I can recall being Summer of ’42. Woody Allen went so far as to virtually announce his weakness for jail bait in Manhattan, glossing over any possible damage to the young woman in question by making her far, far more mature than the Woody surrogate. This was long before the bizarre quasi-incestuous relationship with Soon-yi.
And, again on the surface, why shouldn’t we celebrate such encounters? I can avow that if Miss Gibson, my to-die-for 9th–grade civics teacher who had every young male in class crossing his legs to conceal an unwanted erection every time she walked by in her tight dress and straining blouse … if she had put the moves on me and dragged me off to her bed I’d have been the happiest guy at C.O. Wilson Junior High.
But it’s never quite that simple, is it? A quick fuck, the loss of virginity—a boy’s least valued possession—and forget about it … but things are almost always more complicated than that. The fact is, very few 15-year-olds, male or female, are ready for the complexity of an adult relationship. They need to be groping and/or fighting off somebody their own age, somebody as perplexed by this puzzling new body and its insistent demands as they are themselves, not being bedded by somebody who has been around the block. It is fated to end badly. Usually very, very badly. Male or female, these are still children’s minds in new-minted adult bodies; they’ve got a lot of learning to do, a lot of growing to do, and it’s not the sort of learning or growing that should involve an older man/woman. Still, we cut the older woman some slack. We say she’s a child molester (this being the century of equality, we have to pay lip service to the idea that females can molest males) … but we don’t really believe it. At least men don’t. You may not believe it yourself. I have several friends whose reaction to that crazy woman in Washington State who left her family for a very young student, is … What’s the big deal? I envy the kid, and I like the woman.
So, okay, don’t accept that it’s different when it’s a woman. One thing I don’t believe you can deny is that such a relationship is a terrible abuse of trust, an abuse of power. It’s like a therapist fucking a client, an officer fucking an enlisted man or woman. The question of whether the fuckee has the power to say no, or even to understand he or she can say no, is very much in doubt. This makes it a kind of rape. This makes it wrong. Always. And the fault lies squarely on the elder, male or female.
Sheba, the woman in the film, pleads helplessness. She is in thrall to her emotions. Woody Allen said pretty much the same thing, some bullshit about the heart having its reasons, love knowing no logic. Well, Woody and Sheba, it is your role as an adult to resist the illogic, something your young lover can be forgiven for being unable to do. I know I couldn’t have resisted. Could you? I’d still like to fuck Miss Gibson, but I’m grateful she never offered me the slightest opportunity.
The film is really not about child molestation, though. That merely provides the window of opportunity for one of the creepiest characters since Fatal Attraction to indulge her obsessions. Judi Dench is wonderful in the role of what I think of as an unfulfilled lesbian, someone who may very well never have had actual sex (too messy and undignified) but is attracted to women. Cate Blanchett is wonderful, too, and Bill Nighy, one of the best actors I know, is marvelous. But it seems to me it gets a little muddled between what are really two story lines. It has a bit too much on its plate to pay proper attention to either issue, and ends up in something of a muddle. Worth seeing just for the acting and dialogue, though.