[Roundtable] Age-gap relationships in fiction

During the Fushigi Yugi watchalong, Caitlin, Dee, and Vrai would frequently chat privately about their general impressions (read: hot takes) of the show. While watching the OVAs, the conversation turned to the relationship between a pair of supporting characters (a first-year high schooler and a college student in his early 20s, respectively), which in turn developed into a discussion about age-gap romances in fiction.

As the subject is a complicated one (and particularly topical given recent anime), the team thought it worthwhile to expand it into a roundtable and publish it for the site.

CONTENT WARNING: Discussions of pedophilia and child abuse. SPOILERS for relationships in Fushigi Yugi, Cardcaptor Sakura, and The Immortals quartet.

Vrai: I’m so very not on board with Yui apparently dating Tetsuya. Yuuuuuuuuck.

Dee: I know it should bother me, but it never really has.

Vrai: I don’t care for it.

Dee: I get that. My brain knows it’s bad, in a general sense, it just doesn’t skeeve me out in this specific instance.

Vrai: Yeah, I guess I feel that way about like, some of Cardcaptor Sakura’s bullshit. Like Sakura’s parents being a student/teacher situation is pretty “naaaah” but I tend to mentally gloss over it because I’ve been a fan of that series from a very young age and it didn’t ping to me back then. But then there’s the teacher giving a promise ring to a grade schooler which was and is gross all the way down and into eternity (don’t give me that “he’s waiting until she’s legal!” crap, CLAMP, do you know what grooming is).

An adult man in shirt and necktie poses with a girl in a field of flowers. He's setting one flower behind her ear.
Rika and Terada (Cardcaptor Sakura)

Caitlin: I’m just kind of like… yuck.

Apparently in the light novels it’s implied Keisuke gets with Mayo which is EW EW EW EW EW.

Dee: Yeah we ignore that implication, that shit is gross.

…Although now that I think about it, Yui and Tetsuya are only 3-4 years apart in age, I think?

Caitlin: He’s in college while she’s in high school. It chalks up to four years, which I honestly think is inappropriate at that age. But the age difference debate is SO boring, so I don’t really want to get Into It.

Dee: I’m mostly just trying to work through why it doesn’t bother me in this case given how much I normally hate age-gap ‘ships. I want to understand my own reactions to media.

A close-up of a young man in sunglasses and a young woman with long hair standing next to each other, looking concerned.
Yui and Tetsuya (Fushigi Yugi)

Caitlin: Let’s agree not to bring it up on the podcast at least.

Dee: I don’t think we can just ignore it. You guys can talk about it. I’ll just say “you’re right” because if nothing else I do agree that media too often portrays teen/adult ‘ships as equal/loving when in real life they almost always aren’t, which in turn can encourage teenagers to enter unhealthy or abusive relationships in the real world. (No one needs to know about my shameful problematic ‘ships.)

Caitlin: Actually, you know what? I’ll see it as an opportunity, because fandom has gotten WEIRD about age differences. I was talking to my friend about potentially trying to get a Persona 5 Yusuke/Futaba zine started and she was like “Well, a lot of people would probably actively try to shut that down because of the age difference.” And I’m just like: Buh.

Vrai: Another 15/17?

Caitlin: Yusuke is 16. He’s a junior like the protagonist, I’m pretty sure.

Vrai: So only a year. Buhhhhhh.

A CG gif of three people at a beach. A teen boy in a hoodie holds a lobster in each hand and plays keepaway with a teen girl in a swimsuit.
Futaba and Yusuke (Persona 5)

Dee: I’ve found myself pushing back a little on the age stuff because of fandom discourse, to be honest. To me, power dynamics are a lot more important. Which is why I think I always found Sakura’s parents (in Cardcaptor Sakura) really yikes because he was a teacher, but it took me almost no time to accept Usagi dating Mamoru (in the Sailor Moon ’90s anime) because she’s the team leader who spends half her time saving his kidnapped ass.

Caitlin: I agree, but age/maturity plays really heavily into power dynamics. Maybe I’m touchy on it because I know my mom was heavily taken advantage of when she was a teenager partying in Hollywood.

Dee: Oh, absolutely. And I don’t mean to minimize that. I just think a lot of fandom discourse tends to focus so much on numbers that it oversimplifies the conversation and ends up not even really discussing the reasons why teen age-gap relationships are a problem. Like you said, it’s because the power dynamics are inherently skewed, which more easily leads to exploitation or abuse.

(And let’s be crystal clear that I’m talking specifically about fictional relationships here—Usagi/Mamoru would be totally unacceptable in the real world because there’s no way you could have an even power balance.)

A teen girl with long hair wearing a ballroom gown dances with a young man in a tuxedo and mask.
Usagi and Mamoru (Sailor Moon)

Caitlin: Yeah, true. And that sort of adds a wrinkle—if the fictional characters are written as having equivalent maturity, even if that would be near-impossible in real life, is it an issue?

Dee: That’s sort of what I’m grappling with. I think there are these “layers of unreality” that responsible writers can use to write age-gap stories so they’re more clearly safe-space fantasies for young readers rather than actively promoting those relationships in real life.

And LISTEN maybe this is just me desperately trying to justify the fact that I’m a Daine/Numair stan (from Tamora Pierce’s The Immortals quartet), but even as a preteen I knew damn well that would be a bad real-world relationship… but it was a fantasy world and they were cute together, dangit.

Vrai: I too had them Dainemair feels back in the day.

Caitlin: I honestly don’t think I thought twice about Daine and Numair the first time I read In the Realms of the Gods.

A teen girl in a medieval European-style tunic is surrounded by a horse nuzzling one hand, a hawk swooping in from the other side, and two smaller birds in the corners of the frame. She looks excited.
Daine and Numair (The Immortals)

Dee: I know it helps that I had family members who engaged with media with me—who’d read/watch the stuff I did and say “Okay but you understand this is just fiction, right, and it doesn’t work like that in the real world.” And I know that not everyone has that.

I guess I just want to make it clear to our readers that the point of this conversation (and pretty much all the ones we have on AniFem) isn’t to condemn people who know these relationships are/would be unhealthy in the real world and just find them entertaining in fiction. The point is to instruct those who don’t know.

Caitlin: I’ve always kind of rolled my eyes at people who demand I brand every criticism with BUT IT’S OKAY TO LIKE IT.

Dee: I understand that. But as someone who has a tendency to guilt-spiral about consuming problematic media (“who am I indirectly hurting by liking this thing?” etc.), it really helps to hear it. Figured it wouldn’t hurt to clarify that for any readers who have similar tendencies.

A young man in a waiter uniform bows slightly and extends a hand to be shaken. Across from him is a pigtailed girl in a pink school uniform, looking startled. Subtitle: "Won't you work here as a precursor to going out with me?"
Maika and Dino (BLEND-S)

Vrai: That’s fair. I definitely crushed on older folks as a kid, and I get that within certain frameworks (I’ll stan for Gankutsuou every day of any week) it’s an escapist fantasy that people like. I just think it’s always worth pushing back to say “why did you write this, what do you think is worth normalizing?”

Like with Fushigi Yugi, Watase was closer to Yui and Miaka’s age when she was writing. I still think there’s then the “okay but who takes what cues from this” question, but it’s something I get—a young writer is coming from the fantasy position of the younger partner. The older a writer gets, the more I get the LOUDEST alarm bells unless I see them being very careful and thoughtful about how they’re writing.

So many cases don’t bear a lick of care or acknowledgment that the older partner is kind of inevitably predatory at a certain point (not in those two- or three-year gaps, but the notable legal and maturity separation). So to me, those age-gap stories are worth questioning basically 100% of the time because of the Piers Anthonys (CW: CSA), Marion Zimmer Bradleys (CW: CSA), and Anne Rices (CW: pedophilia apologism, animal cruelty) of the world.

A black-and-white image of live-action teen girl drinking a milkshake while an older glasses-wearing man sets a harmonica to his lips behind her.
Tracy and Isaac (Manhattan)

Caitlin: The way I think of it is, most young people don’t have the person in their life who steps in and points out that things in fiction aren’t healthy. I don’t think I necessarily ever did, but I did develop my skills in critical reading and writing pretty early and didn’t tend to be attracted to romance.

But as people who criticize media from a feminist standpoint, and who discuss media aimed at young women, my hope is that we can help some people, who don’t or didn’t have that person in their life like Dee did, see where these problems lie and how these fantasies shouldn’t translate into real life, because it doesn’t work like that.

Dee: I agree with that 100%.

Vrai: YEAH, what Caitlin said real lovely.

A man in a business suit and glasses is propped up on his elbows on the ground while a teen girl in a school uniform presses her hands to his chest as if she's just fallen into him. She looks concerned, but he's smiling.
Nadeshiko and Fujitaka (Cardcaptor Sakura)

Caitlin: And I don’t want to toot my own horn but I have gotten people who said reading my columns about abuse helped them, or they wished they had something like that, because the media skewed their view of how the world worked.

Vrai: Your columns are good.

Caitlin: So when we talk about these things, it’s not for the people who know better or the people who have it as a fantasy that they know shouldn’t come true; it’s for the people who don’t have those tools in their toolbox yet.

Dee: Exactly.

Vrai: Something like Daine and Numair, I think that’s fairly harmless if you DO have a support system to sit down and have that potentially condescending talk of “you know this isn’t real and you shouldn’t do it in real life right.” Because for the people whom it isn’t a given, it is CRUCIAL.

A live-action image of a teen girl in glasses standing in a kitchen with an older man; the two are smiling at each other.
Enid and Seymour (Ghost World)

Dee: Well and Daine and Numair is also one of those “layers of unreality” situations, I think, because it’s a series set in a fantasy world where 16-year-olds are going to war and talking to gods and whatnot, and by the time the two actually get together they’re functionally equals in power/status. It’s impossible that it’d work out that way in the real world.

Vrai: Which I think is important and along that line of “what are the safe and ethical ways to do this fantasy.”

Dee: So, to me, there’s the specific level of “these characters are written in such a way that I wouldn’t call this relationship unhealthy/abusive” and the more general, meta level of “Hey kids, friendly reminder that this is fiction, not reality, and just as you (probably) won’t summon a god you shouldn’t assume this age gap is a good idea because 99% of the time it’s really bad.”

Caitlin: Yeah. And at the same time there are people arguing Victor/Yuri is abusive because at 24, Yuri’s prefrontal cortex hasn’t finished developing.

Dee: That one I had NOT heard. Boy I love the fandom fringes (I’m assuming that is a fringe).

Caitlin: Yeah that’s pretty much fringe. The big one is Yurio/Otabek.

Two teen boys, one with short dark hair and one with mid-length blonde hair and a hoodie, sit at a restaurant table while two women press their faces to the window outside, looking surprised.
Otabek and Yurio (Yuri!!! on ICE)

Vrai: My thing is usually “is one a teenager and the other 20 or more?” That’s a BIG difference in not just maturity but also legal rights like driving, voting, who can control the bills, etc.

But also, the Otayuri discourse is EXHAUSTING. I think 15 is a little young to date seriously, but I’m pretty sure that’s purely my personal hang-up rather than “this relationship is an inherently toxic” thing. And it is both worthwhile and important (in a way I think the internet has lost track of) to distinguish “personal squick” from “serious cultural issue.”

Dee: By “teenager” I’m guessing you mean “under 18” because I can’t imagine a 19-year-old dating a 20-year-old would bother you. (…Although Yurio will only be 17 when Otabek is 20…)

Vrai: Yeah. 18 doesn’t magically confer maturity, but it does give some important legal rights and a full education, usually. Like with Yurio and Ota just like… like wait a year, kiddos. Just be friends a little longer.

Caitlin: Yeah, the potential for an adult to take control in a relationship with a minor is pretty hairy too.

An older man in a suit and a teen girl in a school uniform stand under an umbrella together as hearts fall around them.
Akira and Masami (After the Rain)

Dee: I wonder how best to take specific national laws and social practices into account, too. In Japan a lot of legal rights are granted at age 20 instead of 18 like it is in the U.S., and culturally it’s considered “the age of adulthood.” But at the same time, various acts like the Child Welfare Act define “child” as anyone under 18… and also at the same time, high school isn’t compulsory, so you could enter the workforce full-time at age 15.

(Also INB4 someone informs us that Japan’s age of consent is 13, because while that is the national law, almost every prefecture has it set at 18. In practical terms, the age of consent in Japan is actually higher than it is in many U.S. states. And even if it wasn’t, the discussion we’re having isn’t about if something is illegal, but if it’s exploitative or harmful.)

Real-life people (not anime for once): A teen boy holds the hand of an older woman in front of a set of lockers.
Pacey and Tamara (Dawson’s Creek)

Dee: I really don’t want this to sound like that awful “because CULTURE!” argument that’s used to shut down conversations, because ugh, no. There are various stages of brain development and hormonal activity through childhood/adolescence that affect maturity and decision-making and, by extension, power dynamics with people in different stages of development, regardless of what age your society says it’s cool to get married or what have you.

I’m more noting that if “age 18” doesn’t hold the same weight (either legally or socially) in another country as it does in the U.S., then I do think that shifts the power dynamics conversation somewhat. I wonder how best to talk about that without devolving into pedophilia apologism (because, again, ew).

Vrai: I guess one could make a blanket statement of “equitable status”—both legal adults or both minors, which applies everywhere. Then at least they’re on the same basic footing, though there will always be individual dynamics and power to think about.

Dee: With I suppose 2-ish years of wiggle room to take into account things like “if a 15-year-old and 17-year-old start dating and keep dating, there will be a period where they’re not of equitable status, but in general it’s not for a long enough time to significantly impact the power dynamics.”

Vrai: Yeah. Like if there’s a small gap where one’s going to cross over first, they already had a rapport from when they were young.

In the foreground we see the back of a long-haired woman leaning against a door frame; in the background a young woman is crouched practically in an older man's lap, his shirt disheveled, both looking towards the door in surprise.
Nicoletta and Claudio (Ristorante Paradiso)

Caitlin: …Okay the age difference discourse is bad but it’s not too bad when it’s a discussion between reasonable people.

Vrai: It’s one of those things that’s like, hey, it’s good that people are becoming more aware of this, because media marketed toward women and men come at this thing from different angles that try to romanticize it. Whether it’s “oh he’s so mature and cool, he’ll take care of me, and I’m definitely grown up enough to handle this” or “look, men can totally get younger and hotter chicks who will buy whatever you sell ‘em cause they don’t know better yet! You can mold them!” it puts young women in this really vulnerable position that totally does turn into real world effects. (‘SUP, WOODY ALLEN.)

Dee: Or, on the flip side, these “hot for teacher”-style narratives that celebrate teenage boys “winning” an older woman, which play into their own set of damaging gendered expectations and potentially abusive relationships.

Vrai: God, I hate that; if the older party is a woman, it is still abusive, and equally but differently damaging for young men to be told not to assess what’s happening to them there.

But on the other hand, a lot of fandom discourse does not know how to nuance. And people will treat an important thing as a cudgel for “I don’t like this ‘ship.”

Dee: Or worse, as a cudgel for “I don’t like this person and want to prove they’re bad for liking this piece of media.”

A teen girl wreathed in flames descends into the arms of a masculine figure with an animal skull for a face.
Chise and Elias (The Ancient Magus’ Bride)

Dee: Okay, I feel like I’ve thought all the thoughts I can think about this topic for now. Any final comments to wrap this sucker up?

Vrai: I think we can agree that context is key—if you want to set up a fantasy, make sure it’s several layers removed from the real world and that careful attention is paid to the power dynamics; and no, a 16-year-old dating an 18-year old isn’t the end of the world. At the same time, I think people should be aware of the legal and maturity differences with a young teen dating someone of college age or older, and what that can potentially normalize.

I’m all for death of the author and think you can write about almost anything depending on the way it’s approached, but there have been enough cases of writers who prominently and repeatedly sexualize underage characters turning out to champion or enact that in the real world that I think it’s worth being extra cautious and critical.

Caitlin: I’ve gotten pushback for being so outspoken about unhealthy dynamics in fiction from people saying they understand the difference between reality and fantasy. But sometimes it’s hard to tell where the boundaries lie, especially in stories that are more grounded in reality. It gets worse when the unhealthy behavior—abuse, age/power differences, and so on—become normalized in fiction to the point where they’re the default.

The fact is, a lot of teenagers turn to fiction to learn about these kinds of things, because it’s not talked about in their life. I’m not saying burn down all the bad ones, but we should seek to present a variety of situations. Tell stories about healthy relationships. Tell stories about relationships with major imbalances that include the potential consequences… just without coming across as preachy or exploitative. There’s so much media being made, there’s room for all of these.

 

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