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.