Daryl McCormack and Emma Thompson in the film, Good Luck To You, Leo Grande. Nick Wall/Searchlight Pictures
When I left my ex-husband, who was only the second man I had had sex with, I started keeping a “fucked them” list. I would write in the back of a notebook the first letter of the name of every man I had sex with after my divorce. I was not keeping score of the proverbial “notches on my belt,” but tracking instead my progress in unclasping patriarchy’s hold of sexual shame on me. I was fucking the guilt out of my system.
I was born in Egypt, which has the greatest number of women and girls of any country in the world who have experienced Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting, a practice–a torture–with a clear goal: the control of female sexuality. I was not cut but I was not raised for desire. I snatched it from the jaws of shame.
In the film, Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, 60-something Nancy Stokes (Emma Thompson) is snatching desire from the jaws of ageism. She has never had an orgasm. Recently widowed after a passionless three-decade marriage during which she faked orgasms with her husband, the only man she had had sex with, Nancy hires the eponymous Leo Grande, a much younger male sex worker played by Daryl McCormack, to help her go through a list of the kind of sex she never had with her husband–a “fuck-it list,” as he calls it. She wants to fuck her desire back to life.
It matters little that this woman of my generation was born in England and not Egypt because patriarchy carries its straitjacket on female desire around the world with the ease of a traveler holding a NEXUS security clearance. There is no FGM/C in Nancy’s background but she too was not raised for desire.
I recognize that determination to own your desire. Had I followed the rules–or more honestly, had I continued following the rules, because I did obey, for a long time–I would have been Nancy. Who among us is raised to desire? I know what it’s like to feel you were robbed of something vital—desire and pleasure—and to reckon with what feels like a second theft so to speak as peri/menopause rearranges your sex drive.
“Bitch” and “cunt” are not the worst things you could call a woman. Selfish is. Knowing what you want and taking it is filed under “selfish” in patriarchy’s dictionary. And by the time we meet Nancy, she is a woman determined, finally, to be selfish. I cried as my selfishness met hers, as I recognized the heady terror of being done, finally, with obeying.
We see that heady terror all too clearly about half way through the film, when Nancy asks Leo to take his shirt off.
The normally eloquent Nancy, a former religious education teacher who appreciates Leo’s use of “big words” like “empirically” and “reductive,” loses the ability to complete her sentences, so intoxicated and mesmerized is she by the beauty of the young man’s body. She can barely look at him head on; she must at first snatch glances sideways, partly due to shyness but also because it’s difficult to look directly at the sun.
In one of their earliest scenes together, Leo asks Nancy “Why won’t you take what you want when it’s right here within reach?” He is what she wants. He is right there. And yet she wants to cancel the whole thing several times.
She was never allowed to want.
And so no wonder that when she finally does take what she wants, by asking Leo to take his shirt off, it is too much. After gingerly circling his naked torso in awe, she faces him and almost as soon as she plants her hands firmly on his pecs, she breaks away, breathless, confessing that she is faint and nauseous. His beauty; her lust.
“Bitch” and “cunt” are not the worst things you could call a woman. Selfish is.
Had the film focused just on Nancy’s determined pursuit of sexual pleasure, it would have startled enough. How often do films center a woman in her early 60s? I am 54 years old and can barely watch films and television shows these days because they are too often about high school students or 31 year olds whose dilemmas are too far in my past to care about and whose parents, who are my age, are too peripheral to the narrative to keep my attention.
Rarer still is the film that centres a woman in her early 60s who wants to fuck.
Heteronormative patriarchy’s designated shelf life for cisgender women is the age at which we cease to be its walking incubators. And yet here is a woman who not only wants to fuck, she has spent, as she confesses, months planning and quite a bit of money hiring Leo and renting a hotel room to finally take what she wants after years of giving.
I have watched and rewatched that scene of Nancy in awe of Leo’s naked torso. I recognize the hunger that is off bounds for those of us raised to be object and never subject, raised instead for the hunger of the male gaze but never with the power of our own gaze, taught how to please that male gaze and shamed for doing it too well or not well enough or at the wrong time.
I also see a much younger man comfortable being semi-nude, who likes being looked at and touched, and who enjoys being wanted by his clients, in a way that Nancy, consumed by body shame, cannot imagine. Here is a young man whose eldest client was 82–unimaginable for Nancy, a woman snatching sexual desire from the jaws of ageism while confessing that she doesn’t want the men who want her because “they’re all old.”
It is such complications that make Good Luck To You, Leo Grande more than a comedy about an old woman who wants to fuck. Not only is the film's older woman-younger man coupling rare enough, about ninety percent of the film is just Nancy and Leo in a hotel room. Every flicker of self-consciousness is intentional, every question they ask of each other an element in the alchemical transformation that we see them instigate in each other.
Heteronormative patriarchy’s designated shelf life for cisgender women is the age at which we cease to be its walking incubators.
Leo, like the eponymous 31-Year-Old-Lover of Kim Addonizio’s poem, imbues Nancy with her fantasy of “feeling young again…That feeling of having it all before me.”
Leo is tender, attentive, and curious where Nancy’s husband was insensitive and self-centered, and like her son boring. In turn, Nancy allows Leo a reckoning with a mother who was harsh and judgmental. It is a reckoning made possible because being with Leo has helped Nancy fuck judgementalism out of her system.
“My body is no longer the carcass I’ve been heaving around for 30 years,” Nancy tells Leo. “No. It’s now a thing of wonder. A playground of delight as you say.”
That is what takes Good Luck to You, Leo Grande’s subversion and propels it into the stratosphere of revolution: its acknowledgement of the liberatory power of lustful desire–of “concupiscence”--that underpins the transformation that Nancy and Leo have sparked in each other. It is a word that Nancy–when she taught religious education–used as a warning to her students. It is a word that Nancy now uses as a celebration with Leo.
That’s what Patriarchy’s Map of Life for us women 50 and older delineates: a Hiking Trail Into the Kingdom of Shriveling Up and Fading Away.
Religion, so often an arm of patriarchy, had a loyal footsoldier in Nancy–as it did once with me. Several times, we hear her slut shame her female students–judging the length of their skirts, sympathizing with male teachers whom she likens to “lambs to the slaughter” in the face of the power she thinks those girls had on the teachers. Leo interrupts that slut shaming by shifting the power and the blame to where it belongs: teachers, men and women.
Patriarchy polices women’s desires and also recruits them to police other women’s. Being with Leo helps Nancy see how she had footsoldiered for that patriarchy.
Wanting sex and expressing sexuality outside the tenets of heteronormativity: these are a chaos and liberation that threatens patriarchy, deeply. There is power in expressing and insisting on desire, pleasure, and sex on our own terms. And in Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, we see that power clearly signal from both Nancy and Leo.
How many women will hear the words Emma Thompson’s character says–“I see my friends fading away at the edges shriveling up over the years”--and feel their lives are being read back to them? Because that’s what Patriarchy’s Map of Life for us women 50 and older delineates: a Hiking Trail Into the Kingdom of Shriveling Up and Fading Away.
And Nancy knows.
“I’ve never done anything interesting or remarkable in my life. This is it. I always obeyed all the rules. Fell in line. Never drank too much. Never overshadowed my husband at parties. I was always the designated driver,” she tells Leo. “Ate my five a day even before they were called five a day. I always, always answer my phone when it rings. You’re the only adventure I’ve ever had. The only freedom…”
Wanting sex and expressing sexuality outside the tenets of heteronormativity: these are a chaos and liberation that threatens patriarchy, deeply. There is power in expressing and insisting on desire, pleasure, and sex on our own terms.
It is worse, much much worse, than reading women’s lives back to them. This film challenges women to consider they have wasted those lives doing what everyone else wanted them to do because doing what they wanted would have left them faint and nauseous with the power of it all.
It is as if you had placed your hands on a much younger man’s pecs and felt a live wire, the third rail on the tracks of the subway: it is the power of knowing what you want, the power of taking what you want.
Just before Nancy asks Leo to take his shirt off so that she can run her fingers along his body as if he were a statue in the Ancient Greece section of a museum that allowed us to touch the art, her daughter called and ruined the moment. In her frustration, Nancy finally speaks what we are rarely allowed to say out loud.
“Sometimes my children feel like a deadweight around my neck. I’m not sure I’d have done it if I’d known,” Nancy says. “I could’ve done many other things if I hadn’t been a mother.”
And there it is. Her son, like her husband, is boring. And she resents her daughter for living the life she wished she had. What freedom would she have had if she had not had them?
It is like watching Evelyn in Everything Everywhere All At Once get a taste of options–the What If’s–available to her alter egos in other universes. We understand why women are denied a three-dimensional life, why their imagination is flattened out of daring to want any more than what they have. Because we would want more, we would want different, we would want a multi-dimensional life and enough freedom to determine who - in this Universe of ourselves - we want to be.
And what kind of selfish bitch regrets having children? Don’t ask me, I’m the selfish cunt who refused to have them in the first place.
And that is why films that center older women are important. They keep showing us women with options. In Juanita, Alfre Woodward is a woman who chooses herself–is finally selfish–over her overly-dependent grown children by leaving town altogether. And they show us women who desire—I love how Blair Underwood keeps popping up in Juanita’s fantasy!
For such an astutely observant film, Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, is startlingly silent on race. An older white woman who hires a much younger Black male sex worker cannot go uncommented on. Another point that needs addressing is, as my friend Conner Habib pointed out, Emma Thompson’s support in 2015 of a campaign demanding that Amnesty International reject a proposal to endorse the decriminalisation of sex work. It does not appear like she’s reversed her position and so it is puzzling that she is starring in a film that not only does not demean Leo nor try to save him, but which echoes his stance that sex work should be offered to all who want it as a public service.
It is similarly confounding that an actor whose role in Good Luck To You, Leo Grande unpacks bodily shame, is also in a film in which she wears a fat suit.
To even consider such a question would mean we want more, we would want different. And what kind of selfish bitch regrets having children? Don’t ask me, I’m the selfish cunt who refused to have them in the first place.
There is liberation in speaking our desire. It will leave you feeling faint and nauseous when done suddenly, akin to losing one’s breath at higher elevations before the body has acclimated. We are called selfish because patriarchy understands the dangers of such liberation. Once acclimated though, there’s no knowing what rebellion is instigated as you develop greater lung capacity, as you fuck the guilt out of your system.
For Nancy, the greatest rebellion is that against shame. In an unprecedented final scene, the likes of which I’ve never seen, she performs the equivalent of torching Patriarchy’s Map of Life for women 50+. It is glorious and heady. It is like touching the third rail.
Mona Eltahawy is a feminist author, commentator and disruptor of patriarchy. She is editing an anthology on menopause called Bloody Hell! And Other Stories: Adventures in Menopause from Across the Personal and Political Spectrum. Her first book Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution (2015) targeted patriarchy in the Middle East and North Africa and her second The Seven Necessary Sins For Women and Girls (2019) took her disruption worldwide. It is now available in Ireland and the UK. Her commentary has appeared in media around the world and she makes video essays and writes a newsletter as FEMINIST GIANT.
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This is so good!