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The unsettling fascination of MILF Manor

Let’s start with some much-needed context. Amazon Prime Video has a new reality show up, called MILF Manor. ‘MILF’, should you be so naïve as not to know, stands for ‘Mother I’d Like to Fuck’ – and the protagonists indeed are eight women, 44 to 60-years old, in remarkable physical form and with a keen interest for dating younger men. Their purpose: partner up with their ideal toy boy. The other contestants are… their 20-ish sons. Everyone swears they weren’t aware of the plot twist until the actual, on-camera reveal.

Now, I must admit that my entire exposure to reality shows started and ended with the first episode ever of the local flavor of Big Brother, back in the year 2000. Except for the small online highlights, I haven’t watched MILF Manor either, both for lack of morbid interest and due to the fact that it isn’t accessible from my Italian IP – and the show is still on its second episode yet. Still, as an atypical sexualities expert who just a few months ago wrote about chronophilias, I just had to stop and think what this peculiar piece of entertainment actually means.

 

The participants’ perspective

A little Internet sleuthing suggests that the cast’s surprise can be taken at face value. The casting calls they answered hinted that the sons were to play just a minor role in helping their mothers connect with their potential partners – or even that they would take part to an entirely different, although parallel, dating show. One can even imagine a hint of filial piety in helping your single parent finding romance again. Under this premise, accepting to take part to the show sounds somehow less sordid.
Other huge motivators are, of course, the money involved and to a much larger degree the fame. Everyone knows that no “reality” show leaves the participants unscathed: they are bound to be subjected to embarrassment, humiliation and even pain – yet this is also a big chance to become a celebrity. Play your cards right, and you might even establish yourself as a minor entertainment staple, with all the financial and self-image benefits this entails. Self-affirmation (or plain narcissism) definitely plays a huge role here.

Keeping in mind all of the above, it becomes somehow easier to grasp why no participant just dropped out of this poor-taste charade as soon as the two groups were revealed to each other. The young men were holding on to the first and possibly only chance in their lives to break it big; the women as well, probably with an added pinch of pride for the rare opportunity to feel erotically idolized worldwide in an ageist mainstream culture that just automatically labels anyone over 35 as unattractive.
I’d go as far as noticing a certain peer pressure at work behind the cringey soundbites you can catch in countless social network shares; it is well-known how being surrounded by a bunch of strangers involved in bizarre behavior pushes you to follow, even if you’d never do the same things by yourself.

 

Us, the audience

What is far more interesting – at least from my point of view – is the relationship between a specimen as grotesque as MILF Manor and its audience. Or, in other words, why the hell such a thing exists at all, and why is somebody actually watching it?

Part of the answer surely lies in the above-linked article: people is fascinated by differences. Differences between the cast members’ ages, but also between ourselves and the “entertainers”: everyone has a sadistic side, and laughing at a clown slipping on a banana peel is always fun, especially because we are not that schmuck. Still, I distinctly remember how indulging in dirty pleasures was expected to only happen in private. I am pretty sure that up to my previous generation nobody would ever admit they’d peek at the quasi-incestuous spectacle of a gang of barely postpubescent boys lusting after their mothers, and even less at the reverse. That would have been utterly obscene.

Then I remembered how the word ‘obscenity’ comes from the Latin for ‘out of the eyes of the public’, as in ‘not fit for staying on scene’. Therefore, the issue here is not a sudden change of collective tastes: cronophilias (attraction between people of widely different ages) have forever wielded a powerful erotic value. What actually changed is the perception of what should be kept hidden from view: not of a semi-pornographic show, but of our own desires.
And there I am. I just caught myself almost writing ‘darker desires’, but that would have been putting a moralistic spin on a rather mundane part of our personalities. I mean, my entire job is to normalize the acceptance of uncommon form of eroticism, and yet some expressions of desire still feel improper to me. And no, I am not saying that we should embrace incest – however strong its underlying vibes blatantly resonate throughout MILF Manor.

Because, come on, the show is not about ‘destigmatizing relationships between older women and younger men’, no matter what the official publicity says. It is about recognizing everyone’s sexual identity – even your own mom’s or son’s – despite a deeply-ingrained social narrative. Which is actually great, come to think of it. In The Sexual Explorers Manifesto I even state it in the very first point, that reads:

Everyone has a sex life and the right to live it with satisfaction 

Every culture more or less rigidly defines for which persons having a sexual dimension is “appropriate” and who can instead be derided, criticized, looked with suspicion or repressed just because they feel the natural call to live their sexuality. Some examples are seniors, disabled persons, those who do not fit common aesthetic canons, adolescents – or even those who are identified by their social role, such as parent, priest, and so on. However, overcoming these conventions and acknowledging this right is essential both for the well-being of the people in question and because this allows to understand the causes of their distress and address them for the benefit of the whole society.

So why does this reality show still feel so cringey? I’d venture that the cringe comes not from its fulfillment of the above agenda, but from the way it is portrayed. Of course the producers were right in introducing the Oedipal element: that’s why we are here talking about it, after all. Their job is to create attention, and they did so admirably.
What really sounds off is the participants’ awkwardness, coming from their having too much on the line to feel free to back up from the biggest case of Too Much Information ever. Remove the ‘family members’ factor, add the sincere pleasure of exploring an interesting dynamic, and this would have been a much easier pill to swallow – or maybe even a show I’d recommend to watch.

As it is now, MILF Manor stands as but one more morbid oddity in a world too sick to exercise any self-restraint. I’d love to be able to conclude some deep wisdom from this. For now, settling for a bit of amused confusion while observing a clear social change would do.

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