why age gaps make me cranky.

One of the quickest ways for a movie to piss me off is also one of the more common things films do: pair an older actor and a young actress romantically and treat their age difference as though it’s not even worth mentioning, let alone interrogating. This sends me completely off the charts almost instantly. I find it problematic, offensive, frustrating, enraging, and every other word you can think of that means “THIS IS NOT OKAY.” I freely admit that I basically have a panic button that gets pressed by even the appearance of a large age gap between actors who are romantically involved, and sometimes it looks worse than it is (see Safety Not Guaranteed, which paired young-looking-28-year-old Aubrey Plaza and aging-really-poorly-36-year-old Mark Duplass; see also Take Shelter, which paired Jessica Chastain and Michael Shannon who in reality have a three-year age gap but whose ages in the film looked more like a father and his daughter than a married couple). But sometimes it’s exactly as bad as it looks: 2011’s Coriolanus paired the 35-year-old Chastain with 49-year-old Ralph Fiennes, and the 1998 romantic comedy Six Days, Seven Nights was briefly and eyebrow-raisingly notorious for pairing then-56-year-old Harrison Ford with then-29-year-old Anne Heche. And oh God, Entrapment (1999). Sean Connery was 69. Catherine Zeta-Jones was 30. The 90s were a dark time.

At this point you may be giving me the side-eye and quietly clicking away to another page. I understand if you’re confused. After all, the expectation that men will be the older party in relationships is so deeply ingrained in our culture that having the woman be older by even a few years can get eyebrow-raises. It’s considered perfectly normal for women to date up; “I like older men” is something a lot of girls start saying right around the time they hit puberty, and no one bats an eye. It’s folk wisdom taken as gospel truth that girls mature faster than boys emotionally and psychologically as well as physically, so – the logic goes – it’s perfectly reasonable for young women to want to date older guys. Right?

The town I grew up in didn’t have a middle school. Instead, grades 7 -12 were thrown into one building and, in a vague nod to parental concern, placed on a minimally staggered schedule. As such, I knew plenty of girls who, at middle school age, were fooling around with high school boys. I wasn’t one of them, but I would’ve been if I could have figured out how to make it work with various boys, one in particular who still sticks out in my mind. As an adolescent, it all seemed perfectly sensible to me, and I didn’t understand my parents’ distress. (It’s funny how the age gaps that seem so irrelevant when you’re on the younger side of them are glaring from the other side.) As an adult, it’s all rather queasy-making. Most adults I know agree. And here’s the thing – obviously, a two- or three-year age gap is nothing (as 13-year-old me would have said). The reason it’s so queasy-making is the life stage gap between a 13-year-old and a 16-year-old. And the thing is, life stage gaps don’t just vanish because you get older. They become somewhat less predictable, somewhat easier to navigate, and somewhat less likely to be exploitative, but they don’t go away. And I promise you, my hand to God, the same social norms that look at a relationship between a 25-year-old woman and a 40-year-old man with nothing more than a raised eyebrow are the same ones that allow 18-year-old guys to think it’s perfectly okay for them to date/have sex with/prey upon underage girls.

And let’s talk about those norms for a second. (I discussed them after I read The Yiddish Policemen’s Union and I think I did a pretty good job, so I apologize if you briefly get deja vu while I basically paraphrase myself.) Our culture has pretty much accepted the idea that romantic relationships should be relationships between equals, and while I know that gets complicated, I think we can agree with it as a starting point. If we’re gonna say that large age gaps in relationships are categorically beyond interrogation – and let’s remember for a moment that we’re only talking about older men dating younger women, since there isn’t really a cultural script for older women and younger men that doesn’t consist exclusively of the words “cougar” and “Mrs. Ashton Kutcher” – then we’re also saying that it’s perfectly sensible for men in their 40s and women in their 20s (for example; we could even do a smaller gap) to be equals. For that to make sense, you have to be comfortable with the idea that grown men are on an equal intellectual and emotional footing with twentysomething women, which buys into all sorts of uncomfortable myths about the helplessness/arrested development of men and the assumed capability of women. Guess what? Women are people, and people are fucked up. Some women are incredibly capable from young ages. Some are not. Some women love being in relationships with men in states of arrested development, because it gives them something to care for. Many don’t. Some men are, in fact, in states of arrested development. So are some women. Many are not. Also, has it occurred to anyone that “girls mature faster than boys” at least in part because girls are expected to act mature sooner than boys are, and penalized for not doing so?

I’m almost certain there are some people reading this who are in relationships with large age gaps, and I want to stress that I’m not saying every relationship with a large age gap is a creepy exploitative disaster. Of course I recognize that love is love, people relate across lots of different axes, etc etc etc. It’s not your relationship I’m concerned about. It’s the way one of the elements of your relationship is depicted in media and understood and interpreted by the culture at large, and thereby internalized and brought into people’s personal lives. Media is an incredibly powerful cultural force; if it wasn’t, those of us who talk about it a lot wouldn’t spend so much time talking about it. Large age gaps are just another version of the helpless-husband trope in sitcoms. They’re just another way of belittling men and giving women yet another set of unrealistic cultural expectations to live up to. There’s a difference between something that happens organically and something that is reified in media. It’s that second one I’m arguing against.

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About Sara

I like to talk about media, food, and gender.
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9 Responses to why age gaps make me cranky.

  1. Red Jenny says:

    But I can still dream about the college girls I never had a chance to date when I was that age, right? RIGHT?

  2. WAKnight says:

    As a guy, the whole ‘girls mature faster than boys’ thing always rankled. Mostly it was because I was a pretensious 14-year-old snot that didn’t like the notion that my female contemporaries (many of which, lets face it, still liked the Backstreet Boys) were more mature than myself, who had penetrated the musical and social complexities of ‘Master of Puppets’. More seriously I never liked people looking down on me, and being viewed as a big baby has never struck me as appealing, be it in the form of irresponsible 40 somethings or doofus sitcom dads.

    • WAKnight says:

      Looking back irresponsible 40 somethings dating equally mature 24 year old manic pixie dream girls are just sticom dads that got divorced, so maybe I should have set up a better contrast. Oh well.

  3. neighbors73 says:

    Interesting. Of the age gaps you mentioned, the one that seems completely normal is the 35-49 numbers. I’m 38, my husband is 42, we have friends in their late 40s and early 50s and that all *feels* about the same. I think it’s that feeling of being mid-career, raising kids, etc. But, yeah, if one of our friends starting dating someone in their 20s, I think I’d be pretty cautious.

    One of the things I liked about Crazy Stupid Love is that that one extensive “pick up” Steve Carrell makes is Marisa Tomei, who is about the same age as he is. Obviously, later, there’s a bevy of babes, but that first one was a contemporary.

  4. k___ says:

    I admit I’m not as bothered by age gaps as you, at least not in principle. In practice, I do know a couple of young women who are dating older men (late-20s women, early-40s men), and only one of their relationships doesn’t involve a major power differential. Money is basically the main factor. It’s eyebrow raising when a young woman with a college degree is being set up in her own apartment by her older boyfriend, you know?

    However, the 90s rom-coms with an unspoken age gap are just sooooo much worse than any of that. Was it even mentioned in those films, was there even one Viagra joke or anything like that? At the time those movies mainly skeeved me out because nobody was even talking about the fact that men who barely even qualified as silver foxes at that point in their career (1980s Connery, yeah ok. 1990s Connery… looked like he had long since switched from an evening Martini to an evening Metamucil) were running around with these much younger women. Yikes.

    • Sara says:

      So in my experience, the relationships I’ve known with a big age differential have been eyebrow raising for me because of how immature the dudes were. I’m sure they exist, but I’ve yet to meet an older guy in a relationship with a much younger woman who is age-appropriately emotionally mature. Sometimes the dude is even less mature than the chick. That’s actually kind of what started me thinking about this stuff. When I met couples where the dude was so much older I used to just think, “Oh, I guess the girl is way more mature than I knew, that’s how this makes sense” but when I started to get to know the couples better it became clear that that wasn’t really the case at all. Which makes sense, when you think about it – in most cases an age-appropriate guy is going to realize that he’s not actually peers with a much younger person.

      Anyway, that’s the douchier judgier side of my thoughts on this =P

  5. CitizenE says:

    My wife was ten years younger than me and it was a disaster; I wanted something far different than she did, and while I am generally not a snob, the depth of my education with regard to hers made both of us uncomfortable talking about shit outside our concrete realities. I have fallen for younger and older women. I do know one couple where the gentleman was thirty years older than his wife when they first met 40 years ago. She is my age, a little younger, and he is in his mid-nineties now, beginning to lose it. They love each other so much, for her it was struck by lightning, and I can only imagine the lonely years facing her after he is gone.

    With movie stars, age gap stuff is more believable. I mean, while I have a hard time seeing what Demi Moore saw in Kutchner outside the bedroom that is, it would not be hard to imagine a man in his twenties quite taken by Ms. Moore. Robert Redford, well he’s getting a bit long in the tooth by now, but one could see him hooking up, lets say with someone like Michelle Pfeiffer a couple decades back, because she in her twenties had a charisma thing going on along with her attractiveness. In real life, however, and this I can say from the few times I had young women students who had crushes on me, I found attention from young women when I was in my fifties extremely discomfiting.

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