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Could the French election overturn old sexual tropes?

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Many have commented on the age gap between France’s Presidential hopeful Emmanuel Macron and his older partner, but what does it mean? asks Mari Marcel Thekaekara.

I’m fascinated by the number of messages and emails that arrived on my mobile phone in one day, with pretty nasty jokes about French Presidential hopeful Emmanuel Macron and his 60 plus-year-old wife Brigitte. There’s a distinct difference in the way people in general, both men and women, refer to older men with young wives and women with younger husbands. There are, of course, jokes galore about old men and their trophy wives, arm candy and sugar daddies. But there’s a subtle difference in the cougar jokes. The cougar implies a predator. So it’s always the older woman who pounces, who supposedly preys on the helpless young lad, with his uncontrollably raging hormones.

And the woman rarely comes out on top of it all. She’s left a pitiful, pathetic figure, a la Mrs. Robinson, stereotypically seducing a reluctant Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate. A more sensitive, layered, nuanced, witty casting of the older woman and younger male was Liv Ullmann in Forty Carats, also a seventies film.

Women are as pitiless in demolishing their own kind. A perverse pleasure in making mean jokes, perhaps a crab-like obsession with pulling down a woman who defies all societal norms, to claw her way out of the box? There’s a pitying, cruel twist to the older women with toy-boys, gigolos, or wealthy widows cavorting on the playing fields of the rich. The women control the purse strings. Yet they are objects of derision in a way that never quite manifests itself in the Trump-Melania, Onassis-Jackie equation.

Then there’s reality. Or is it manufactured illusion? A young woman is allowed to go for the father figure. It’s pronounced understandable. But the Oedipal connection being broadcast for 39-year-old Macron and 64-year-old Brigitte Trogneux, shows that the media may be ready for gay rights, human rights, race relations, feminism, but definitely not for role reversal. Is this just some papers? Zoe Williams wrote a balanced, intelligent piece in The Guardian. But Jan Moir, mocking Macron with ‘How can I get the world to take me seriously, if they think I am a mummy’s boy with a wife who is 25 years older?’ leaves an unpleasant taste for most readers.

Fortunately, for Macron and Brigitte they live in France. Europeans, by and large, separate the private lives of their politicians from the public domain. When the Clinton scandal broke, my sister’s Italian husband cracked us up when he shrugged, ‘These Americans, what do they want, they want a President or they want a Pope?’

I’ve been shocked at young adivasi men pairing up with women who indeed looked old enough to be their mothers, twenty years ago. It was incomprehensible to me. But is that because we are indoctrinated by advertising and movies from a pretty early age, into what’s, beautiful, desirable, sexy? It’s a difficult one.

What has to be said and has been pointed out in the Zoe Williams piece is that if a male school teacher had a ‘special connection’ with a 15-year-old girl student and ending up marrying her, it would certainly not be considered acceptable. However, the French have an entirely different take on things and many French women undeniably, have a certain flair, a certain indefinable oomph, the famous je ne sais quoi which puts them in a class of their own. So, to each her-his own.

Certainly Macron is more than anyone hoped for. Many of us heaved an enormous sigh of relief that he made it past the dire Le Pen prediction. So for the couple with the global lens focussed on them, I would say all the best in the forthcoming election and in this marriage which could change the way the world perceives ageism and older women!

To both, Bon Chance!

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About the author

Mari Marcel Thekaekara a New Internationalist contributor

Mari is a writer based in Gudalur, in the Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu. She writes on human rights issues with a focus on dalits, adivasis, women, children, the environment, and poverty. Mari's book Endless Filth, published in 1999, on balmikis, is to be followed by a second book on campaigns within India to abolish manual scavenging work. She co-founded Accord in 1985 to work with Adivasi people. Mari has been a contributor to New Internationalist since 1991.

About the blog I travel around India a lot, covering dalit and adivasi issues. I often find myself really moved by stories that never make it to the mainstream media. My son Tarsh suggested I start blogging. And the New Internationalist collective are the nicest bunch of editors I’ve worked with. So here goes.

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