If it weren’t for a deep dive through angry Twitter threads full of complaints about the subtly disturbing age difference between the protagonists of Licorice Pizza, I wouldn’t have entered the theater with so much hesitation. When I initially watched the trailer for the flick, a bunch of dreamy 35mm film shots strung together with Bowie’s “Life on Mars,” I thought to myself, “this movie is going to be a masterpiece.” I knew there was an obvious age difference between the two leads, but I was intrigued; the movie seemed charming and harmless. That was before I discovered the word “pedophilia” linked to the movie’s title all across social media.
Before I get into my premeditated skepticism, let me walk you through the film. For those of you who don’t know the premise or have yet to enter Licorice Pizza Reddit at 2am (by the way, don’t), the film follows two characters, Alana (25) and Gary (15), and their confusing, flirtatious friendship in 1970’s North Hollywood. Literally seconds into the film, the charming and, dare I say mature, Gary makes it clear that he’s interested in Alana, the evidently older chick who’s working at his high school. While I would argue that Gary’s beguiling personality ages him, it still rattled me when a couple of scenes later, we see Alana agree to get drinks with Gary (by drinks I mean 2 Cokes– did you forget that Gary is a sophomore in high school?). Don’t get me wrong, I was still quite entertained, but the provoked Twitter and Reddit users were creeping into the back of my brain.
Halfway through the film I was anticipating a more fucked up subplot to Alana’s life that would reveal her desire to be with a 15-year-old. Daddy problems? Nope. Lacking a normal childhood? Nope. Self loathing and ridden with insecurities? Nothing. I’m all for a sexy age gap, but there is something I can’t quite place that makes Gary and Alana’s relationship confusing. Okay… maybe it’s the fact that he’s 15. But why wasn’t I instantly repulsed by the film?
I began to question my own gendered biases and the ethics of the film. After doing a bit of my own research, I realized that I, like many others, have a hard time identifying female pedophelia because it’s generally just not on anyone’s radar. I mean seriously, as a Gender Studies student at UCLA, even I can admit to the fact that I rarely think about females in a predatory manner. But I digress, the relationship in the film is never abusive or obsessive, and I watched as a dynamic reminiscent of a starry-eyed boy crushing over his hot babysitter came to life. So where do we draw the line between female pedophelia and an awkward age gap that happens to be just a little bit flirty..? Should Alana’s relationship with Gary even be considered pedophelic? I started to spiral.
I think the real problem lies in the question: “What if the roles were reversed?” I recognized that older females who are predatory to some degree tend to be sexually objectified or glorified, as we’re so used to stereotypes of vulnerable females, not malicious ones. We’re all too familiar with the hot teacher or the cougar MILF… While it’s easy to sexualize them, giving them their own sexual power goes against roles within the binary. It’s no news that most males are motivated by sexual desire, but it is hard for us to imagine the inverse, seeing a woman in a position of power, initiating sex. That being said, our annoyingly-gendered brains are uncomfortable with thinking of men as powerless or receiving sex or love against their will. In this case, it’s not our first instinct to think that our beloved Gary is being manipulated or pressured in any way, especially not by a female.
So, back to my original point, let’s say the roles were reversed, and 15-year-old Alana is spending an obscene amount of time with 25-year-old Gary and his gaggle of male friends. It wouldn’t take much for us to cringe when we see a relationship revolving around an older man. But in my case, I had to search for the discomfort when it came to an older Alana and her intentions. And while I don’t think she caused harm in Gary’s life, I argue that it is the principle alone that qualifies this relationship as a double standard. To be gender inclusive, we have to consider the faults of all people, despite the norms and stereotypes we’re all too comfortable with.
I don’t think the film wants us to think that hard about this age gap, and maybe that’s the underlying problem with the gender roles at stake. While I argue that the relationship between Gary and Alana isn’t one that is specifically toxic or harmful, I do think that the film can allow us to reflect on underlying gendered assumptions and inequalities that further dynamics in our society. At the end of the day, this film is simply holding a mirror up to society, showing viewers a look into bizarre age gaps that in fact do exist. It’s just up to us to decide whether we want to critique them or not.