We Must Stop Worrying About ‘The Younger Woman’

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Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth recently told Elle that her long partnership with Thurston Moore ended “in a kind of normal way – midlife crisis, starstruck woman.” The woman in question, as it turns out, is 34, and the midlife crisis his, naturally. (Moore is 54; Gordon is 59.) The drumbeat for Moore’s head built to a throb pretty quickly. I first saw the link to the piece shortly after it went up. A (female) friend e-mailed it to me with the preface, “I’m beginning to think all men are awful.” By the end of the week, this was among the more generous remarks one could find around the web. “It sucks to think of one of your musical heroes like Thurston as just an average unfaithful disgusting bro,” lamented a particularly stricken fan at Metafilter. Over at Vulture, a commenter added, “Yeah, TM just went into the douche column. I am keeping tabs.”

“Average,” “kind of normal” – that is exactly what bothers us about this kind of story. But it hits at a rather more personal place for the straight women who were talking about it. Specifically, it taps into the chilling fear that you’re going to end up alone for no reason other than that you dared to age. Both because that is the “average” experience, and because it is even the experience of someone as amazing as Kim Gordon. In other words: Being amazing will not necessarily let you keep your long-term relationship. Even Martha Stewart knows that, and she’s 71, and basically a billionaire.

I found even myself being depressed about it, though less about the individual Moore/Gordon case than about the aggregate problem. “Women make natural anarchists and revolutionaries,” Gordon is quoted as saying in that interview. She’s talking about the Russian band Pussy Riot, so she means the hard realm of politics. But this has been less true, it’s always seemed to me, in the realm of romantic love. Most women do not want to give up on the idea of an everlasting soul mate. And it is not just the set who think of themselves as within the Gordon-and-Moore ideal, who want to believe that their long-term partnerships will survive all the slings and arrows. Kate Bolick’s 2011 Atlantic article on single women recorded young women, empowered though they were in so-called “hookup culture,” as being horrified by the prospect of still being single in one’s late thirties. And you hardly needed that reporting to know it. Most people would still trade being in a stable long-term relationship for being Kim Gordon, alone.

It’s really easy to get stuck there, to make your self-worth a losing bargain with time. There certainly is an air of resignation about this among every woman I know. Resignation and, of course, anger, which may explain why, increasingly, going after the younger lady is no longer rendered in soft-focus. Charlotte Brontë may have pulled a mythic romance out of the liaison of Rochester (“perhaps he might be 35”) and Jane Eyre (18). But the second wave to feminism rather took the air out of that balloon. By 1978, when Jill Clayburgh gave an iconic performance in An Unmarried Woman, it was the older woman left behind who was the focus of sympathy. By the time we hit those First Wives’ Club movies of the nineties, the attitude towards the younger interloper was roughly equivalent to that of a carnival goer playing Whack-A-Mole. Now we have Don Draper go back to an older woman after dipping his toe in the waters of the much-younger Megan, and it is framed as somehow more existential a crisis, less pathetic, had he found yet another 18-year-old.

The change in the story has let us see that attractive youthfulness doesn’t really yield the kind of love you’d want, anyway. Many younger women are remarkably naïve in assessing their own situations. They usually think they have hit the monogamy jackpot. But “true love,” as it turns out, can eclipse a lot of nagging and important facts. Like that you, too, one day, will be old. And that a man whose heart, at least today, wants the young flesh that it wants, is going to notice. Gross and self-involved as that is, he has a fairly incontrovertible argument to justify his behavior: specifically, that no one should be legislating romance. There really is no way around it. Why would you want to be with someone who has to keep arguing themselves into staying?

Since shame alone can’t overcome that, increasingly I think we will all need another solution. It's not that we need to give up on romantic love entirely; I’m not sure anyone can be convinced to do that. The critic Laura Kipnis wrote a whole book telling us to do that, Against Love: A Polemic, and don’t get me wrong, it’s a great book, very entertaining, interesting ideas and some convincing arguments, but every single person I know who read it told me they had the same reaction to it as my perpetually single and picky and cynical self. Which is that I set it down afterward and said aloud to myself, “But I would still like to be in love again.”

What feels a little more possible to do, as a person, is to not have a One True Love be the Alpha, the Omega, and the Holy Ghost of self-worth. People fail each other. It happens. The end of a love affair will always be painful, but it isn’t insurmountable, and we need to stop talking as though it were the only thing worth having.

After all, look at Kim Gordon herself. She is hardly sanguine about the separation, describing herself as initially “traumatized.” But she has made other accommodations. She invites people over for dinner as an “improvised family.” She is painting, and forming a new band, and working as a model. She is still Kim Gordon, in other words. And, at least as the reporter puts it, the fact of the young starstruck woman and her ex-partner’s meltdown over the same, well – it’s just one of the facts of her otherwise still rather fabulous life now.