Here’s a story that may sound familiar. There’s a teenage girl who’s reflective and mature enough to have trouble connecting with her peers, but is still emotionally naive. She and the boys her age look past each other. Like anyone, she still wants to experience love and acceptance. She wants to feel seen and heard by someone equally reflective. The first person to scratch that itch is a teacher, a coach, a mentor – an older man with the kindness and sensitivity she’s been craving. The gap between their ages is inappropriate, but so what? This is the closest she’s come to what being in love is supposed to feel like and age is just a number.
The age gap relationship is a taboo and often distasteful topic in real life and fiction, for good reason. It’s all too common for adults to take advantage of the skewed power dynamics at work with a younger love interest. The alleged responsible party is often just…not. There’s also an insidious tendency to blame the instigation or fallout of these relationships on young women (shout out to the people who nicknamed me Jailbait at 17). It’s disingenuous, however, to pretend that there isn’t compelling evidence for why a young girl would develop such feelings in the first place. The dark side of these entanglements have led to some of the most long-standing traumas in my life, and yet…I still find myself drawn to stories of scandalous age differences. It’s hard to know where to categorize these feelings in the context of my past, but I believe there’s a place for processing and experiencing healthy fantasies through fiction. Two stories that have been positive or even healing for me are good old Twin Peaks and the winter 2018 anime Koi wa Ameagari no You ni (Love is Like After the Rain).
When I first watched Twin Peaks, I had a crush on Dale Cooper and wanted to be Audrey Horne. Without the context of Fire Walk with Me, Audrey has the most bad girl cues of the teenage cast: sultry musical themes, sexier clothes, and a vampier way of carrying herself. It was already my red lipstick phase, and I daydreamed about more successfully embodying such a baby femme fatale persona. Switching from Vera Wang Princess to YSL Parisienne seemed like a sophisticated move fitting of the worldly, self-possessed college freshman I thought I had become.
It seemed obvious and natural to ship Dale x Audrey. Hardly a crack ship, Special Agent Cooper and Twin Peaks’ most precocious teen have amazing chemistry and palpable affection for each other. What I didn’t realize at the time is that I didn’t need to dream of being Audrey Horne. I pretty much already was. There was probably an Audrey in your peer group, and there are plenty of Audreys in high schools and colleges everywhere. In my (totally Audreyesque) bravado and shortsightedness, I missed the glaring similarity to the character: her heartbreaking vulnerability; a deeply lodged craving to be reminded that I was still a kid.
In both Twin Peaks and Fire Walk with Me, violence against women, especially by older men, is abundant. David Lynch and Mark Frost also excelled at writing young female characters with interiority and deep explorations of the intersection of agency and trauma. Laura, Donna, Audrey, Shelly, and more struggle to find empowerment in their roles within the confines of a place controlled by corrupt, often evil men. Audrey is in a unique position not only as the daughter of one these men, but with considerably more class privilege than her peers. She isn’t the only one with daddy issues, but on top of her parental neglect is the knowledge that her own father was complicit in the abuse of a girl her own age.
Part of what makes the “dark heart of a small town” theme so terrifying and real in Twin Peaks is that you can’t throw a rock without hitting a local man who was somehow perpetuating or turning a blind eye to violence against women. This is what makes Dale Cooper, and to some extent David Lynch’s Gordon Cole, so attractive. Not only are they literal symbols of justice and all-around good men, but they are practically the only straight male characters with clean hands in the abuse of female characters. It’s not surprising that a worldly but misunderstood girl like Audrey would fall for Coop. He’s the only decent man to pay attention to her as more than a novelty or object of desire.
The most iconic Dale/Audrey scene is a masterclass in how to handle age gap romances with sensitivity. A distraught Audrey tries to seduce Coop with the goddamned power move of showing up in his bed. Cooper turns her down without making her feel small or stupid, and reaffirms his respect and friendship. Their relationship retains a current of romantic/sexual tension throughout the show, but is always grounded in this sense of boundaries even as it’s apparent Coop has feelings for Audrey. I doubt I’m alone in still shipping it after this scene, though. It’s the best ship simply by virtue of going unconsummated. Its appeal goes much deeper than unresolved tension, at least for someone who has been in a similar position.
What’s so touching and painful about Dale’s conscientious treatment is that it’s the ultimate, comforting fantasy. As a teenager I sought solace with older men 10, 15, 20+ years my senior because I was looking for self-worth and acceptance, not sex. Sometimes the idea of sex – walking up to the line but not crossing it – was intoxicating, but the key to this fantasy is that I never had to find out what was on the other side. It would be difficult to count how many harmful or even dangerous situations I ended up in that started “because he was the only one kind to me.” At the revelation that there was more than kindness to these men’s motives, I would usually take what I could get. Looking back on that time, it’s clear that what I really craved was something closer to Dale’s treatment of Audrey. I wanted to feel worth it – worth respect, worth friendship, and worth being heard. It’s forgivable to muddle those with romantic love and sex as a teenage girl, but it’s up to the older party to draw the line.
In light of my own experiences, it was unbearably sad – and romantic – to see an alternate fantasy of my own life on-screen where a young girl was valued instead of used; where the older man is truly kind and knows what to provide, and what to withhold. The handling of the Dale/Audrey relationship in the original series was also the only thing that made the prospect of an endgame in Return not only possible, but exciting. We now know that didn’t pan out. Even so, Twin Peaks played the age gap story out in the best way it can go, I think: with boundaries in tact and the younger person left with lessons and self-awareness they can carry on to more viable relationships.
Anime has an uneven track record with handling ~problematic~ relationships, but I was too curious about this season’s age gap romance between a 17-year-old and 45-year-old not to try it out. Koi wa Ameagari no You ni is a gentle story about former track star Akira, whose sense of purpose is derailed when she suffers a leg injury. It’s a beautiful show with some of the strongest visual storytelling I’ve seen lately. Even before the opening credits, we’re clearly shown that Akira feels adrift and disconnected without running.
I’ve been in a place of examining and processing my own narrative recently, and it was encouraging to start my journey with KoiAme in Akira’s point of view. Although I was never a high school athlete, I started late because of severe anorexia. I remember feeling so out of touch. After being away from school for a year and struggling with a very internal battle, I had no sense of what a normal teenager was like or what they were into. It would be a few years before my older man problem began, but even at that age I was much more comfortable eating lunch in classrooms with teachers than trying to talk to other kids. Akira, who has lost her place and sense of utility in her peer group, also seeks comfort elsewhere.
That comfort comes in the form of her part-time job’s middle-aged manager, Kondou. Other reviewers have pointed out that the show really goes overboard making him as dorky as possible, but it makes sense to me. Akira feels out-of-place, so it’s natural that she would notice someone else who isn’t quite in step with those around him. Her crush is solidified simply because Kondou offers a small kindness in a particularly lonely moment. As the cinematography so beautifully shows, Akira is experiencing life through a slowed, depressive state, and Kondou is the first person who seems to slow down beside her.
Kondou is dealing with his own existential crisis. A single father at 45, he feels like his time to accomplish anything of note has passed. He notices Akira, but not as a love interest. Where Akira fantasizes about being in a relationship with Kondou as he is, Kondou sees her as a wistful reminder of his own youth. He doesn’t understand that his age is actually attractive. Shots of Kondou stretching his back and groaning or grumbling about his eyesight are an interesting complement to the frequent focus on Akira’s feet and legs and the pain she still experiences. For someone whose depression is so inextricably tied to the limitations of her physical body, Kondou’s “old man” tics become a point of connection.
On the surface it may seem inequitable that Kondou has an inner monologue and Akira does not. We may be explicitly told what Kondou is feeling, but the visuals let us see Akira’s world in rich detail. Being in a position to sympathize with Akira and still know what Kondou is thinking is crucial for why I find KoiAme “healing.” Kondou’s take on Akira and their relationship is at worst self-indulgently sad with regard to his own feelings on aging, but mostly he is as solicitous, concerned, and platonically kind as he appears to be. I didn’t read his monologues as twisting the narrative into his story, but rather as a confirmation that he’s ultimately a nonthreatening outlet for Akira’s crush.
The gap between Akira’s fantasies and Kondou’s thoughts reiterate that boundaries are where they should be. Akira is able to indulge in romantic ideations: smelling Kondou’s shirt, daydreaming of kissing him on the cheek, or saving the receipt from their coffee “date.” Aside from occasionally imagining himself as a young man, Kondou sees the world as it is. His realistic perspective functions a bit, to me, like Dale’s rejection of Audrey. My experiences (though they may have involved romantic fantasies on my part) were not wholesome or safe, but the heart of what I wanted was closer to Kondou’s mentor-like care. KoiAme allows me to tap into familiar emotions through Akira and imagine a happier ending for myself through Kondou’s reactions.
The nature of the self-realization that Akira needs vs. Audrey Horne is far less tied to romantic relationships. But as of the most recent episode, her infatuation with Kondou is unwittingly laying the groundwork for her own growth. After visiting the library to familiarize herself with Kondou’s favorite books (early 20th century Japanese literature – this did not help my own older man feels), a heartfelt talk with him about reading leads her to a photography collection of runners. My hope for this odd pairing is that Akira finds the strength to seek out a new place for track – or another passion – in her life, and Kondou’s feelings of irrelevance are softened at seeing the difference his compassion makes in someone’s life.
Akira and Kondou’s story isn’t finished, so there’s always the chance that I’m putting my faith in it undeservedly. All I can say is that the show has already been an encouraging presence in my life. I’m not interested in policing the feelings of young people, even when somewhat misplaced. There’s enough literature and messaging telling girls they’re wrong, or worse, at fault. I think there’s a place for stories like KoiAme and Audrey’s arc in Twin Peaks that let young girls see their own experiences normalized while still setting examples of appropriate boundaries. It’s hard not to wonder what kind of influence this media might have had on me at a crucial moment – what they might have shown me, what red flags they might have raised. I can only hope that the lessons that came too late for me, from the rare gems in the age gap canon, are reaching someone else when they need it most.
~Big thanks to my friend Tim for the KoiAme gif ~Find me on: