A few months back, James Franco had a text exchange with a 17-year-old girl in which he tried to arrange a hotel tryst. On May 21, Hemlock Grove writer Brian McGreevy wrote a piece for Nerve entitled "Why I Sext A Teenage Girl." Both seem, for the most part, rather unabashedly unapologetic for their interactions with people much younger than them. McGreevy even cites the "Salinger Model," in reference to iconic writer J.D. Salinger's notable relationships with much younger women — including one Joyce Maynard, who's written multiple times about a romance with the author that started when she was 18 and he was 53.
There's no doubt that this sort of relationship has existed for as long as teenage girls and lecherous older men have been around. But society evolves, and certain dynamics are exposed to be the poisonous dreck they've not-so-secretly always been. This is why, immediately before the James Franco scandal cycled through the headlines, the Youtube community was in the midst of crisis: It was being revealed that a number of (often older) men in positions of power had been exploiting younger fans. That example was born, at least in part, out of the fan/creative dynamic and the sexual "opportunity" inherent in it. And that is, on a somewhat different scale, what is allowing men like James Franco and Brian McGreevy to talk about their lust for teenage girls with their heads held high.
Here's something James Franco said soon after the media grabbed hold of his attempts to sleep with a 17-year-old girl he'd met at the stage door for his Broadway show, Of Mice and Men:
I’m not going to high schools looking for dates. I’m leaving my work and they’re coming there… look, my fan base is like 17-year-old girls. If I do a book signing, it’ll be 17-year-old to 30-year-old women. That’s my biggest fan base. So I saw her, and she’s saying on her page, ‘I love James Franco,’ blah blah blah… So that, to me, sounds like, okay, she’s interested.
His excuse, basically, is that it's hard to meet women. There's hardly a mention of the fact that the girl he did choose to meet was 17 — an age that, yes, reaches the age of consent in New York, but also one that very much brings into the game questions of exploitation. The fact that he's looking for his hookups among his fans, for example: That's practically begging for a power disparity, the exact kind that easily funnels into abusive behavior.
Even when no abuse is present or reported, the dynamics are inherently off when you're talking fans being seduced by the object of their fandom. Take Maynard's analysis of Salinger's now-famous relationships with younger girls — herself included:
“He liked pretty young girls. Stop the presses,” writes the film critic (and father of daughters) David Edelstein. The implication being, what’s the fuss?
One of these girls, 14 when Salinger first pursued her long ago, described him in terms usually reserved for deities, and spoke of feeling privileged to have served as inspiration and muse to a great writer — though she also reports that he severed their relationship the day after their one and only sexual encounter.
Some will argue that you can’t have it both ways: how can a woman say she is fully in charge of her body and her destiny, and then call herself a victim when, having given a man her heart of her own volition, he crushes it? How can a consensual relationship, as Salinger’s unquestionably were, constitute a form of abuse?
But we are talking about what happens when people in positions of power — mentors, priests, employers or simply those assigned an elevated status — use their power to lure much younger people into sexual and (in the case of Salinger) emotional relationships. Most typically, those who do this are men. And when they are done with the person they’ve drawn toward them, it can take that person years or decades to recover.
In Franco's case, sure, with every Franco story there's a question of whether his behavior is reflective of his "true self," but that doesn't change the scope or influence of his public response to his own behavior: Even if this is all for some documentary, for every public James Franco sex scandal there are ten going on behind closed doors. All you have to do is read McGreevy's public exploration of his text convos with a teen girl to see how frequently and unabashedly men chase teenage girls:
Brandy found me on Facebook about a year ago following the release of my show. I wrote a novel called Hemlock Grove that was adapted into a Netflix series of the same name. Both feature liberal amounts of sexual perversity and violence, and the show has a Skarsgard, so it is not uncommon for a certain species of cult enthusiast to try to LARP their way into my social media network.
[...] As our communication transitioned from Facebook to iMessage, so did subtext become text – I started bugging Brandy for naked pictures. It’s funny how that happens.
It should be noted, for McGreevy's case, that the girl he's talking about is 1) very possibly a Catfish, and she 2) claims to be of legal age, and 3) he seems adamant in his conviction to never meet her and explore their sexual dynamic in real life. But the way he talks about her — and the way he talks about older men's fixation with teenage girls — is very telling:
But prom was the tip-off. This piqued my interest.
I dropped out of high school in the 9th grade, so those teen rites of passage have always been mysterious and charged with a sort of symbolic Sliding Doors energy for me. And she was the exact kind of type I would have had a helpless crush on during my own adolescence in the Pennsylvania rust belt: the girls who shopped at Hot Topic and talked brazenly about their sex lives with Fred Durst-alike boyfriends who generally kept a few bookish, introspective guys like me occupying a role somewhere between gay best friend and service animal. And thirdly, while checking both of those boxes, she was of legal age.
Neither Franco or McGreevy are on trial here: As far as we're aware neither of these men actually engaged in sex acts with underaged girls, and McGreevy makes a point in his essay about the difference between pedophilia and going after girls who are "sexually mature" in age. Unlike Youtuber and musician Tom Milsom, no one has publicly accused these men of sexual abuse.
But lack of certain legal boundary-crossings doesn't stop this kind of shit from being creepy, and problematic as hell.
McGreevy, to whatever credit you want to give him, seems to get that at least that part of the puzzle. Take this excerpt, which is simultaneously mountains of creepy with some notable peaks of reasonability (emphasis ours):
Teenage girls are both feminine and inchoate; they emit a siren’s pulse of fertility along with the appearance of infinite corruptibility that is a satyr’s fucking field day. The operative term being “fantasy”: where I align with the moral majority is the line between erotic fascination with youth and actually doing anything about it. While it is simply nonsensical to deny the fuckability of teenage bodies, their minds are too sensitive and labile to risk the damage an asymmetric power relationship can inflict.
Fantasy, after all, is not illegal. Fantasy, in many ways, is overall miles less problematic than action. It's when action follows the fantasy — when Franco tries doggedly to set up a hotel room meeting with the type of teen girl who waits at the stage door (hint: A fan desperate to interact with James Franco), for example — that things get real sketch. And the acceptance of Franco's actions — even in the name of potential documentary scheming — has been trouble since the day those texts were leaked.
But really, sketchiness isn't a line, it's a grid. And people in positions of power have the responsibility not to abuse it.
Image: Lucy Clode/Instagram