Call me by your name

The Mother Goose and Grimm, from February 21st:


A joke playing on use and mention: Grimmy mentions the name of the Oscar-nominated movie Call Me by Your Name, but Ralph understands him to be using the expression call me your your name, so he calls Grimmy Ralph.

That leads us to the movie and so to a thicket of issues about language, sexuality, gender, and the law.

The upcoming Academy Awards ceremonies. The movie is up for three Oscars: best picture; best actor, for Timothée Chalamet; and best writer of an adapted score, for James Ivory.

The movie in brief. From Wikipedia:


Call Me by Your Name is a 2017 coming-of-age drama film directed by Luca Guadagnino and written by James Ivory, based on the 2007 novel of the same name by André Aciman. It is the final installment in Guadagnino’s thematic Desire trilogy, following I Am Love (2009) and A Bigger Splash (2015). Set in Northern Italy in 1983, Call Me by Your Name chronicles the romantic relationship between Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet), a 17-year-old living in Italy, and his father’s [24-year-old] American assistant, Oliver (Armie Hammer). The film also stars Michael Stuhlbarg, Amira Casar, Esther Garrel, and Victoire Du Bois.

…  [on the movie’s title:] Finally, at midnight, [Elio] approaches Oliver on the patio. The two make love for the first time. They grow closer over the next few days, having sex frequently while keeping their relationship secret. In bed, Oliver tells Elio, “Call me by your name and I’ll call you by mine”.

Four things here: it’s a gay love story; it’s a coming-of-age story (so also a coming-out story); it’s a story about a relationship (both emotional and sexual) between a younger and an older person; and it’s a story, a fiction, not a documentary or a piece of advocacy.

On that last point, every story is a moral story, situated in a moral universe, presented sympathetically — as in Call Me — or judgmentally, or coolly neutral, but almost always with an appreciation of moral ambiguity and complexity.

On the first point, despite significant social advances, being gay  is still a stigmatized social identity — so that, on the second point, coming of age emotionally and sexually is doubly fraght if you’re gay.

And on the third point, though an age gap is normative in our society for relationships between females and males — the male partner is expected to be at least 2 or 3 years older than the female, and much wider gaps are common — and though there’s a considerable body of fiction (especially in film) celebrating relationships between younger males and older females, relationships between younger and older males are socially problematic, because of a widespread folk belief that gay men are pedophiles.

All this would be troublesome enough, but then, with the best of motivations (essentially, protecting the weak), the law entered this arena, regulating behavior by drawing bright lines between statuses I’ll refer to neutrally as Y (younger, and requiring restrictive protections) and A (older, granted agency in the law) — lines that differ in the law from place to place, from time to time, and for different purposes (marriage, sexual consent, work, drinking, driving, and voting).

Any rational person understands that transition from Y to A is (for the most part, the striking exception being the onset of puberty) gradual over some years, advancing at different rates depending on the behavior involved, and advancing at significantly different rates for different people. But the law is in no position to allow for assessment on a case by case basis, and so defines the transition from Y to A for some particular purpose to be a specific birthday. That definition then creates a new category of criminality, for those who disregard the restrictions enshrined in the laws.

The creation of fresh categories of criminality is a side effect of all sorts of regulating legislation. When (in an attempt to restrict the flow of immigration from certain groups) the law requires that immigrants have entry documents, it creates a category of immigration criminals. When (in a attempt to elevate moral judgments into laws) the law imposes restrictions on sexual behavior, it creates new categories of sexual criminals. It seems quaint to me now that as a young man I was a sexual criminal in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Massachusetts for buying and using artificial contraception, and a sexual criminal in New Jersey for engaging in fornication (sexual intercourse outside of marriage, in this case premarital intercourse). It doesn’t  seem even slightly quaint to me that later in my life I was a great throbbing mass of homosexual criminality for my encounters with other men in a number of states.

The categories Y and A are relevant to the movie Call Me because depending on where you live, laws about consent put Elio into the Y category and Oliver into the A category, so that in these jurisdictions Oliver is a sexual criminal for engaging in sex with Elio — and many people feel strongly that Elio should be classified as Y, so that Oliver is in their eyes a malefactor (deserving of social censure), even if he’s not technically a criminal.

More on the categories Y and A. These days, almost everyone conceives of age, for people between the ages of roughly 4 and 25, as involving more than two categories — at least a third category, call it T, lying between Y and A. These are everyday, folk, categories, with all the usual characteristics of such categories: the boundaries are fuzzy, some individuals do not fall easily into any of the categories, people make the category distinctions differently in different contexts, and different people have somewhat different category distinctions. And, most impressively, the ordinary-language labels people use for the categories are extraordinarily variable.

Back in the two-category world of law (well, American and Canadian law), the labels most often used are, alas, child for Y and adult for A. I say “alas” in the case of child, because this technical usage in the law is so far from ordinary-language uses of child. Yet many people are tempted to take the legal usage as the true, correct usage, so that in the many U.S. states where the age of consent is 18, Elio of Call Me is a child, and Oliver is guilty of the sexual crime of child abuse. (But not in Canada or most U.S. states, where the age of consent is 16, or in the 7 U.S. states where it’s 17.)

The laws are a morass. Consent is bad enough, but marriage age is much much worse. From Wikipedia:

Unlike most Western countries, half of the U.S. states do not have a legal minimum age of marriage. While in most U.S. states, individuals age 18 have the ability to marry (with two exceptions — Nebraska (19) and Mississippi (21)), all states allow minors to marry in certain circumstances, such as parental consent, judicial consent, pregnancy, or a combination of these situations. Most states allow parties aged 16 and 17 to marry with parental consent alone. In most states, children under 16 can be married too. In the 25 states which have an absolute minimum age set by statute, this age varies between 13 and 17, while in 25 states there is no statutory minimum age if other legal conditions are met. Although in such states there is no set minimum age by statute, the traditional common law minimum age is 14 for boys and 12 for girls – ages which have been confirmed by case law in some states.

Digression on marriage age. The traditional common law minimum ages reflect a pretty direct relationship to the onset of puberty, with some allowance for the expectation that husbands will be somewhat older than their wives: in working-class households, girls were expected to prepare for marriage (while providing housework services to their families) and boys to begin their lives of labor, working with their fathers or entering into an apprenticeship. In farm families (like my maternal grandmother’s), girls typically married young and had their first children at the age of 14 or 15; as children, they went to public school through the elementary grades (for my mother’s parents, apparently, through grade 5, enough to master the practical skills of reading, writing, and arithmetic).

But then the middle-class luxury of secondary schooling was extended to all young people, and quickly required of them, to supply a need for large numbers of trained white-collar workers in addition to the blue-collar ones. Teenagers became a distinct social type, clearly recognized in many ways. But the legal categories remained stuck at 2.

Working ages. One place where the legal label child has stuck tenaciously is in U.S. labor law, which arises from a desire to protect children (at the age of 10 or so) from exploitation in the mills of the Industrial Revolution in America. From Wikipedia:

The main law regulating child labor in the United States is the Fair Labor Standards Act. For non-agricultural jobs, children under 14 may not be employed, children between 14 and 16 may be employed in allowed occupations during limited hours, and children between 16 and 18 may be employed for unlimited hours in non-hazardous occupations. A number of exceptions to these rules exist, such as for employment by parents, newspaper delivery, and child actors. The regulations for agricultural employment are generally less strict.

Because the laws are intended to protect introvertible children, their language uses the label child throughout. Even, you will note, for those 16 to 18 years old.

A personal note. I began what I see as my adult working life at the age of 17, at the Reading Eagle, a evening newspaper in Reading PA. My work day was at first 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., then 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. (plus Saturday nights getting out the Sunday paper, which was a morning paper, and a fair amout of unpaid overtime — not all news events cease at 2 or 3 in the afternoon).

I got myself up in the dark, made myself breakfast at home, and took a bus several miles into the city. Then (if I didn’t have to work through lunch) bought myself lunch in the city, and took the bus back home, often after a stop at the local Press Club to hang out with the rest of the reporters (yes, definitely illegal alcohol).

This was a serious, demanding job (though it paid minimum wage, 75 cents an hour at the time). I worked at it through three summers and all school holidays while I was at Princeton (the last summer boarding at a friend’s house after my parents moved to California when I was 19). The regular staff were helpfully protective of me and two other college interns while challenging us to do first-class work. It was a dream job, and at the end I was offered the assistant editorship of the Sunday paper, with a promise that I would soon be promoted to the editorship; the managing editor realized I was almost surely going to graduate school in linguistics, but paid me the compliment of making the offer anyone.

Now, recall that I was 17 when all this started. I would have been deeply offended if anyone had referred to me as a child. I was a young man in an apprenticeship at a job that I found both challenging and satisfying and that I came to be very good at. The other staff sometimes referred to the interns as kids — but not as children. This is informal kids ‘young people’, covering those in their mid to late teens though the early twenties, the kids of Patti Smith’s 2010 book Just Kids, a memoir of her relationship with artist Robert Mapplethorpe. From the back cover:


It was the summer Coltrane died, the summer of love and riots, and the summer when a chance encounter in Brooklyn led two young people on a path of art, devotion, and initiation.

Patti Smith would evolve as a poet and performer, and Robert Mapplethorpe would direct his highly provocative style toward photography. Bound in innocence and enthusiasm, they traversed the city from Coney Island to Forty-second Street, and eventually to the celebrated round table of Max’s Kansas City, where the Andy Warhol contingent held court. In 1969 [the year they both turned 23], the pair set up camp at the Hotel Chelsea and soon entered a community of the famous and infamous — the influential artists of the day and the colorful fringe. It was a time of heightened awareness, when the worlds of poetry, rock and roll, art, and sexual politics were colliding and exploding. In this milieu, two kids made a pact to take care of each other. Scrappy, romantic, committed to create, and fueled by their mutual dreams and drives, they would prod and provide for one another during the hungry years.

Just Kids begins as a love story and ends as an elegy. It serves as a salute to New York City during the late sixties and seventies and to its rich and poor, its hustlers and hellions. A true fable, it is a portrait of two young artists’ ascent, a prelude to fame.

More legal ages. Beyomd the legal ages of consent, marriage, and working, there are legal ages for driving, smoking, voting, and drinking, all intended to separate irresponsible Y from responsible A, and all subject, even just in the U.S., to enormous variation from place to place and time to time, though the movement to insist on uniform thresholds in each case — 15 or 16 for driving, 18 for smoking, 18 for voting, 21 for drinking — is very strong.

Lexical adventures. I often observe that languages don’t necessarily get all the lexical items they need, and that there’s often considerable variability in the usage of items they have — both observations applicable to age-grade vocabulary in English.

From NOAD, with my annotations:

noun child: [a, vernacular child] a young human being below the age of puberty or [b, legal child] below the legal age of majority. [c, kin term child] a son or daughter of any age.

Vernacular child and legal child shouldn’t be lumped together in a single sense, so I’ve separated them. The kin term child is indeed a distinct lexical item; its most common occurrences are as a possessed N: my oldest child, the adult children of the president.

noun kid: 1 informal [a] a child or [b] young person. [also [c, kin-term kid] a son or daughter]

The ‘child’ and ‘young person’ senses should be distinguished. As with child, the kin-term most commonly occurs as a possessed N.

noun teenager: a person aged from 13 to 19 years.

This is a “technical” definition, taking the teen of teenager entirely literally. I suspect that many speakers are reluctant to use teenager of a 19-year-old, and possibly an 18-year-old as well. The relevant conceptual dividing line for American speakers is, I think, the difference between high school and college students.

noun young adult:  a person in their teens or early twenties: the app is especially popular with teenagers and young adultsshe is the author of fifteen novels for young adults.

adjective young adult: denoting or relating to fiction, films, television programs, etc., intended or suitable for adolescents, especially those in their mid to late teens: young adult novels | the movies reach an audience beyond just the young adult demographic.

The noun usage is close to the sense of informal kid I discussed above. I was a young adult at the Reading Eagle, and Elio in Call Me is a young adult.

noun youth: 2 a young man: he was attacked by a gang of youths.

The noun is not necessarily affectively negative: consider a youth basketball team. But ‘young man’ skews the age range too high, I think; gangs of youths and youth basketball teams are likely to be composed of teenagers.

noun young man: [a] a man who is not far advanced in life; [b] a boy.

Both senses cry out for some age range in their definitions.

A bonus from my 6/8/15 posting “Guys in heat”

Consonant with his appearance, [gay pornstar Christopher] Ash comes across as generally smiling and open, projecting a “boy next door” persona. [Recall that a boy next door is rarely an actual boy.] Though his physical characteristics make him twink-like, he seems more substantial and more mature than your typical twink (yes, these are subjective judgments). We have no standard label for this sociotype; I suggest youngman, from the Village People song “Y.M.C.A.”, beginning:

Young man, there’s no need to feel down.
I said, young man, pick yourself off the ground.
I said, young man, ’cause you’re in a new town
There’s no need to be unhappy.

The age gap in Call Me. In the Outward section of Slate on 11/8/17, “What Should We Make of Call Me by Your Name’s Age-Gap Relationship?” by Jeffrey Bloomer:

(#4) Chalamet and Hammer in the film

For fans of the book and the film, it may feel self-evident that Call Me by Your Name is not a story of predation: It’s a story of first love and lust told from the perspective of a particularly mature teenager on the cusp of adulthood; the relationship is consensual; even Elio’s parents seem to approve; and, in any case, this is a fictional depiction, not an ethical endorsement. But the age gap will give pause to more people than right-wing trolls — it did to my progressive companion at an early screening — and it does the film no favors to pretend it’s not a question worth exploring.

Hammer himself, faced with these criticisms, has tended to use age-of-consent laws to wave them away. He’s pointed out that in most U.S. states, the age of consent is 16. In Italy, where the movie takes place, the age of consent is 14; it was also 14 in 1983, when the movie is set. (Historically, age of consent was, due to homophobia, often higher for same-sex relations, but at least officially, that doesn’t appear to have been the case in Italy.) That said, age-of-consent laws in general seem like an odd way to assess a fictional relationship. Our laws are a tangled legal morass that seek, and often fail, to establish a reasonable standard of consent. They traffic in their own kind of fiction by imagining that a person’s maturity and readiness around sex radically changes with an arbitrary birthday. The hard reality is that age of consent laws are not a universal red line that automatically makes a relationship predatory or not.

But even if Call Me by Your Name doesn’t depict anything technically illegal, does that make it ethical? To answer that, we need to resist the revulsion that often

comes with thinking about sexual relationships outside the idealized “charmed circle” (of the straight, married, same-age sort) and consider the specifics of the situation. That’s not to give cover to pedophilia or any other form of violation, but to acknowledge that human desire can be far more complex and intractable than we might like to admit. Not every relationship removed from our comfort zone is abuse.

The book, and to a somewhat muddier extent the film, are told from the perspective of Elio, the son of a professor who accepts Columbia postdoc Oliver into their Italian villa for a summer of manuscript revisions. Before long, Elio is sick with desire for Oliver; he pursues a local girl his age, but his obsession with Oliver continues to deepen all the same. The book’s first 100 pages are a furious and often comic encyclopedia of lust. By the time Elio finally snaps and comes on to Oliver, kissing and fondling him on a berm where Monet purportedly painted, it’s obvious the desire is mutual, and the couple embark on a tentative and then increasingly ravenous erotic relationship for the last weeks of summer.

Call Me by Your Name, the book, then, is very much the story of a 17-year-old teenager learning to navigate and act on his desire. Aciman, the author, is interested in this rich and tumultuous journey, rather than necessarily endorsing sex across morally charged aged differences. Oliver remains mostly opaque: Though we learn he stayed away from Elio in the early days of summer to avoid the coupling, their perspectives are never given equal footing. That, to me, is essential: Call Me by Your Name is really all about Elio’s experience. Few readers who were ever 17, particularly (gay) male readers, will not recognize some of themselves in him. He’s an older teenager messily discovering his sexuality. It’s misguided to deny that such a basically human process should be represented in a work of art, even if the outcomes of that process make us uncomfortable.

That reading stands for the film as well, though medium limitations and directorial choices complicate it in a few ways.

… In trying to think through these issues in Call Me by Your Name, I called Joseph Fischel, a Yale scholar who has written on the messy politics of age and consent for Slate. He noted our society’s intense focus on age and sexuality is a relatively recent notion, not a long-settled one, and that while the law may have a legitimate need to be blunt and rigid, our art does not. In my view, it’s reasonable to be disturbed by the unconventional relationship in Call Me by Your Name, but it’s not reasonable to say the movie endorses pedophilia, or really any kind of power-based abuse, just because it depicts that relationship. If we go down that censorious and unnuanced path with our art, very little will survive the trip.

Some have gone down that path, with distressing results. From the Here and Now interview show on public radio station WBUR (Boston) on 2/15/18, “One Author Says ‘Call Me By Your Name’ Is About Abuse, Not Love”:

The Oscar-nominated film “Call Me by Your Name” is a coming-of-age story about a 17-year-old named Elio and his brief romance with a 24-year-old grad student, Oliver, who comes to work with Elio’s father.

Some, including author Cheyenne Montgomery, say they’re disturbed by the age difference between the two protagonists — one portrayed as a boy, the other a man.

Montgomery (@cowboy_montg), who was abused by a teacher as a high school student, joins Here & Now’s Robin Young to discuss why she sees the movie as a “deftly directed, beautifully photographed, wonderfully acted master class in sexual predation and abuse.”

“[Oliver] keeps asking Elio to tell him what he’s thinking about. And it reminded me of my own experience, because it was word for word what my abuser said to me over and over again. The child just developmentally isn’t in a position to really know what they wanna do, and what they wanna tell that adult. It’s very confusing for a child.

“It reminded me of that because, in my head, as a 15-year-old or a 16-year-old, I very much believed that I was in control, and that I was able to consent, and I would say, that’s part of being 16, is you have that illusion that you’re on top of things. But in fact, an adult has the ability to … the adult is developmentally in a position where they are able to play with a teenager’s emotions in a way that a teenager can’t even really understand what’s happening.”

The film triggered in Montgomery an intense flashback to her own experience of abuse: she’s evidently distressed, breaks into tears at several points. She was then led to identify wholesale her own terrible experience with Elio’s experiences in the film, though they are obviously quite different in many details, and Elio’s is a fiction; see my remarks on fictions above, and Bloomer’s as well.

And throughout she refers to Elio as a child, and therefore as incapable of properly comprehending his experiences, as lacking in agency and mesmerized by someone older, more experienced, stronger — and malicious. You might be somewhat uncomfortable with Elio’s story, but it is, after all, a story, and one much more complex and nuanced than the mere-child reading would allow.

5 Responses to “Call me by your name”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    Much food for thought here, and I don’t have anything to add to your very thorough exploration of the issues raised by the film, and our society’s attitudes to age difference, in sexual and other matters.

    So, on a lighter note, I will remark that when I read the Mother Goose & Grimm that you used as a springboard, it reminded me of a (rather slight) Edward Albee play that I saw quite a few years ago, whose title was The Play About the Baby. I couldn’t help thinking that Albee had chosen the title in part to cause the existence of mildly irritating conversations starting “We went to the theater last night.” — “Oh? What did you see?” — “The Play About the Baby.” — “What;s the name of the play?” [etc.]

  2. John Baker Says:

    Note that many states now have close-in-age exemptions. The thinking is that, for a state in which the age of consent is 16, it should be a crime if a 30-year-old has sex with a 15-year-old, but it should not be a crime if a 16-year-old has sex with a 15-year-old. The summary by state in the Wikipedia article on Ages of consent in the United States,, appears to be pretty good.

    Close-in-age exemptions usually do not apply when there is this much of an age difference. In Delaware, however, it is legal for teenagers aged 16 and 17 to engage in sexual intercourse as long as the older partner is younger than 30. In contrast, Arizona, Florida, Idaho, North Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, and Virginia, all of which have 18 as their age of consent, have close-in-age exemptions, but they would not have saved the 24-year-old here because he is too old for them. California, Oregon, and Wisconsin have 18 as their age of consent and have no close-in-age exemptions, so the 24-year-old would have been in violation of law there too. The remaining states have lower ages of consent, usually 16 or sometimes 17.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Close-in-age exemptions are an interesting second-order fix, attempts to remedy the obvious inequities of the original laws. Yielding an even more complex morass.

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