Reading Between the Lines in <i>The Reader</i>: When is Abuse Not Abuse?

The Reader? It's goodish. And Kate Winslet is, as ever, brilliant. And it has Nazis, which elevates it on the Oscar nom scale. But it doesn't fully address the fact that Michael is a victim of abuse.
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The Reader? It's goodish. And Kate Winslet is, as ever, brilliant. And it has Nazis, which elevates it on the Oscar nom scale. But I'm not critiquing it here. I'm addressing its portrayal of child abuse - an adult having sex with a minor. I'm curious about the pass the disturbingly intimate relationship between a mature woman and an adolescent boy seems to be getting in David Hare's adaptation of Bernard Schlink's novel, as directed by Stephen Daldry. Pivotal to the romantic tragedy is the passionate post-war affair between a 36.year-old female German tram conductor Hanna (Winslet) and a dewy 15-year-old virgin Michael (David Kross). During their multiple, wonderfully lit, detailed erotic scenes, we see plenty of bare gorgeous Winslet indoctrinating the equally nude boy into the ways of slow sex that please a woman, and leave a man satisfied as well. Trust me: they both look very yummy - or judge for your self. View the trailer:

But, reverse the genders and consider a parallel, made up example. Imagine an intellectual period drama (perhaps they quote Chekhov and Homer, too) in which Hugh Jackman, 39, and Miley Cyrus, 16, play characters that have explicit sex. OK, so maybe there's an underlying awful secret -- he participated in aboriginal genocide, or ratted out Reds in Hollywood, or upheld apartheid in South Africa but... while the camera rolls, the focus of the scenes is the sex and intimacy that occurs in bed and bathtub, between two beautiful bodies, one experienced and dominant, the other ripely pubescent. Reverse the genders - older man deflowers underage girl - and there would be a public outcry. Look no further than Miley's scandalous Vanity Fair/Annie Liebowitz bare back photo and multiply it times ten. Is there any doubt that, even if the younger partner "consents," this is statutory rape because she's a minor and, by definition, under the age of consent?

What's interesting is the blatant double-standard in Western cultures when it comes to the relations between an adult and a minor - when the pair happens to be an older woman, younger male. When I wrote about the treatment of women teachers hitting on their pubescent male students - aka Clearasil Cougars - like Mary Kay Letourneau in the November issue of Marie Claire, I wondered whether these hook-ups are any different from male teachers molesting female students? What I discovered is that our society often treats the victims as lucky boys being eased through a tricky rite of passage. It's the Mrs. Robinson, Summer of 42 syndrome. Fifty years ago, small-town grandpas took their pimply grandsons to a local prostitute to lose their virginity. And, in The Reader, mother-aged Hanna saves Michael from the unbearable awkwardness of unhooking some same-age Gretel's bra. Our society actually, leniently views "consensual" sex between older women and teenage boys, like marijuana smoking or underage drinking. Male judges -and Hollywood execs -- give it a wink and a pass (right on, junior!).

Ultimately what's curiously disturbing about The Reader has little to do with Nazis. As Michael grows up and Ralph Fiennes replaces David Kross in the role, the adult suffers from the kind of failure at mature sexual and intimate relationships - with his wife, daughter, and mother - that often typifies abuse victims. He's distant and at least his daughter believes the culpability is hers; he doesn't love her because of who she is, not his adolescent secret. When we first see the adult Michael, he's having an affair of the bed - but clearly not of the heart - with a gorgeous woman nearly young enough to be his daughter. And, as the mistress complains that Michael won't let her in to his life, he clearly can't wait until she leaves his apartment so that he can be alone with himself and his memories. It's textbook abused behavior - and all the movie's ambiguities about Nazis, hidden secrets, and admitting culpability don't fully address the fact that Michael is both the victim of abuse, and lost in his continued love for his abuser, because nothing since has come close to that intensity. Emotionally, he stopped growing at 15.

Michael is a victim of abuse, and his abuser just happened to have been a luscious retired Auschwitz guard. You can call their tryst and its consequences a metaphor of two generations of Germans passing guilt from one to the next, but that doesn't explain why filmmakers Daldry and Hare luxuriated in the sex scenes -- and why it's so tastefully done audiences won't see it for the child pornography it is.

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