Age is never just a number. Of all the takeaways from the most-recent episode of Girls, that's one of the most unmistakable. Though "One Man's Trash" has been the most-discussed installment of this season (and perhaps of the entire show), much of the commentary has focused on the mind-blowingly insipid suggestion that a woman who looks like Lena Dunham doesn't "deserve" a man who looks like Patrick Wilson. The focus on the imagined attractiveness disparity between the two actors misses an equally meaningful plot line: the appeal and the challenge of age-disparate relationships.
In real life, Dunham and Wilson are 13 years apart (she's 26, he's 39.) On Girls, the age gap is 18 years (Hannah is 24, and Wilson's Dr. Joshua is 42.) That small bit of artistic license exaggerates the disparity in life experience between the two, moving Wilson's character towards genuine middle age. Tellingly, Hannah asks Joshua how old he is before she even knows his name: that Joshua is so much older seems to be an inextricable part of his appeal. The doctor's affluence and handsomeness and stability are obvious, but Hannah seems more drawn by the age gap than anything else. Joshua, meanwhile, is fascinated, if a little bewildered by her boldness. Though a few male writers found the hook-up totally implausible, the mutual attraction is both believable and instantly familiar.
The storyline works because we live in a world where 42 year-old men are taught to find 24 year-old women more appealing than their own female peers. Ask 20-something women on OK Cupid or other dating sites how many they receive from men 15 and 20 years older; ask women in their 40s how many guys their own age seem primarily interested in pursuing much younger romantic partners. The "cougar discourse" doesn't change the reality that most heterosexual relationships with a substantial age gap still feature an older man and younger woman pairing.
As she so often does, Hannah reverses the stereotype by being the sexual aggressor — and Joshua's intensely grateful reaction suggests not just surprise at her boldness but also, perhaps a kind of relief that a woman in her mid-20s finds him still desirable. Forget the dick-wringing from male writers about how a hottie like Wilson would never go for a young woman who looks like Dunham. Not only does that woefully underrate the sex appeal of the Girls' star, it also obscures the reality that having a younger woman walk into your house and make the first move is a classic middle-aged man's fantasy. Joshua's eager, bewildered gratitude is only a surprise to those hung up on the spurious hotness differential between Dunham and Wilson. To anyone familiar with the older man/younger woman dynamic, his hungry response is instantly recognizable. (Since Wilson first came to fame for playing a pedophile opposite Ellen Page in Hard Candy, it's tempting to speculate that the decision to cast him as an older man sexually enthralled by the much-younger Hannah was a deliberate nod to that 2005 film.)
While Wilson's Joshua may be what Hanna Rosin calls "a ridiculous parody of a grown-up," what he offers is what we often teach young women they ought to hope for from older men: a tenderness and an expertise missing in their callow peers. In the New Yorker, Emily Nussbaum notes that the sex between Joshua and Hannah is unlike any we've seen on the series so far:
She rises into the frame and softly asks Joshua to make her come instead. He does, using his hand. The camera doesn't cut away: instead, it drifts even closer to their faces as they kiss… the scene was so intimate that it felt invasive: raw and odd and tender. That's a nearly unheard-of quality in sex on cable television.
We've never seen Hannah receive pleasure like that. While in real life, 40-something men are just as capable of sexual selfishness as younger guys, in this dream-like episode, Joshua lives up to the fantasy of the generous and patient older lover.
The episode touches on other traditional aspects of the older man/younger woman trope. Joshua is predictably out of touch with the younger generation; he mistakenly identifies his loud hipster neighbors as frat boys, a description that Hannah finds hilariously inaccurate. She mocks him gently for his cluelessness and sets him straight about kids these days; Dr. Joshua isn't just getting great sex, he's also getting a quick lesson in pop culture from an exquisitely reliable source. One of the most compelling aspects of age-disparate relationships is that the power seems to flow both ways. The younger woman is as much teacher as student; if the older man wants to feel as if he still "has it," he'll need her to explain her generation to him.
With blessed speed, Hannah and Joshua fall out of fascination with each other. Though they're polite about it, they recognize that they're each self-absorbed in fundamentally incompatible ways. Wilson's character is an archetype of middle-aged upper middle-class masculinity, focused on work and on order. (That focus on order is what sets up the episode, when Joshua walks blocks to complain that the sanctity of his trash bin has been violated.) Hannah is hungry, as she always is, for experience, for adventure, for material. Each gets to live out one of our most enduring cultural fantasies. Mercifully, each realizes just how implausible that fantasy is to sustain, and how awkward and eventually painful it would be to try. Hannah and Joshua figure out fast that age is never just a number. In real life, it often takes a good deal longer to come to that same wise conclusion.
Jezebel columnist Hugo Schwyzer teaches history and gender studies at Pasadena City College and is a nationally-known speaker on sex, masculinity, body image and beauty culture. He also blogs at his eponymous site. Follow him on Twitter: @hugoschwyzer.