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“All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does, and that is his,” Oscar Wilde famously wrote in The Importance of being Earnest.
Perhaps Wilde had a point. Women, after all, have been known to wail with horror every now and then, “Oh my God, I sound just like my mother!”
Men, on the other hand, may not turn into their mothers. But they have been known to marry their mothers.
Oedipus, is that you?
The most obvious case of this in recent times is the marriage of the president-elect of France, Emmanuel Macron, 39, and Brigitte Trogneux, 64. Whether Macron was subconsciously enacting a desire to kill his father and marry his mother—controversially identified by Sigmund Freud as the Oedipus complex—by marrying his former teacher is unknown, but then again one could argue that a schoolteacher is a pretty good substitute for a maternal figure.
Incidentally, the just-concluded French elections were viewed rather provocatively in some quarters as a study of Freudian contrasts, pitting Macron’s alleged Oedipal yearnings against Marine Le Pen’s perceived desire to symbolically kill her own mother and marry her father, following in his footsteps to lead the far-right political party he founded, the Front National. There is a twist to this tale, however, as it could be argued that Le Pen in fact slayed her father—politically speaking, that is—when she expelled him from his own political party in 2015, and remains estranged from him.
I wonder if Freud named a complex for THAT.
The Macron love story has been repeated ad nauseam: a 15-year-old boy at an elite high school falls in love with his drama teacher, the bourgeois wife of a banker and the mother of three children, one of whom had been Emmanuel’s classmate and rumored love interest until his parents realize it’s the teacher he’s after. His scandalized parents move him to Paris, but he vows to return for his teacher and marry her some day. And he does. Ten years later he runs for president of France with her by his side, and he wins.
It’s an unconventional coupling, no doubt, and the fact that it has endured despite all odds is really quite impressive. But then again, the French have always venerated older women, valuing their experience, their wisdom, and their sensuality. Just look at how women d’un certain age like Catherine Deneuve (73), Charlotte Rampling (71), Isabelle Adjani (61), Fanny Ardant (68), and Carole Bouquet (59) continue to be celebrated in France; when they choose to appear in film, they are cast in roles that realistically acknowledge, without being patronizing, their age and allure. And you can bet that well into their ’60s and ’70s, girlfriends are still getting it on. Just look at Madame Macron: the president clearly still has the hots for his wife.
The age difference between Macron and his wife can admittedly be too uncomfortable for some people to handle, particularly when one takes into account the fact that she is a grandmother. But what is refreshing about their story is that it dispels the all too common and vicious narrative of the older woman as a cougar stalking her much younger prey, painting her as calculating, selfish and amoral. It has been well documented that Emmanuel was relentless in his pursuit of Brigitte long after she was no longer his teacher, wearing down her resistance until she finally left her first husband for the proverbial much younger man.
And yet, when the roles are reversed, and a much older man is seen with a much younger woman, no one bats an eyelash. Talk about an all too common trope. Just look at Donald Trump, who is 24 years older than his wife Melania, exactly the same age difference between the Macrons. If Brigitte Macron is old enough to be Emmanuel’s mother, Melania Trump is old enough to be his daughter. While there may be an ick factor in both marriages, the Trump marriage is arguably the creepier one.
One gets the sense in the Trump marriage that the younger wife is a trophy to be displayed and not an equal partner to be valued and cherished. One also gets the sense that Melania barely tolerates her husband and would rather not have anything to do with him but the pre-nup prevents her from leaving him. Not to be too crude about it, but if one were to play “one of these things is not like the other,” featuring Donald, Melania, Brigitte and Emmanuel, it’s pretty obvious who doesn’t belong—Donald Trump is the least attractive, the least bangable person in this quartet. He’s also the least intelligent and the least sincere. The thought of having to perform wifely duties of any kind must make Melania’s skin crawl. No wonder she’d rather hole up in Trump Tower as much as she can.
One could also say that at the end of the day, Donald Trump is what he has always been—a cliché. And, really, vive la France, for Emmanuel Macron breaks the mold. Next to an aging, raging, petulant and clueless man-child, Macron is youthful, dynamic, and energetic projects far more virility and power and intelligence.
It seems quite obvious that Macron is a feminist as well, and he did highlight gender equality issues during his campaign. As one Frenchwoman put it in an interview with the Boston Globe, the fact that Macron has a wife who “has wrinkles and cellulite makes me think of him as a feminist. He is the opposite of Donald Trump.”
Vive la différence.
B. Wiser is the author of Making Love in Spanish, a novel published by Anvil Publishing and available in National Book Store and Powerbooks, as well as online. When not assuming her Sasha Fierce alter-ego, she takes on the role of serious journalist and media consultant.
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