Current contempt for age gap relationships serves to strip both men and women of their agency.
“Amanda Seyfried, 34, is playing the wife of Kevin Bacon, 61, in a buzzy new horror movie and I am mentioning this for no reason at all,” tweeted professional feminist Andi Zeisler, complaining about the age difference between the two lead characters in the new film You Should Have Left. Apparently the offensiveness of this pairing needed no further commentary. Zeisler’s audience immediately seized the problem.
Social media roundly lambastes both real and fictional couples with significant age gaps.
The older man coupled with the younger woman is Hollywood tradition, from a young Audrey Hepburn pursued by Cary Grant (Charade), Fred Astaire (Funny Face), or Humphrey Bogart (Sabrina) (all of the men looking overripe and easily bruised at the time of filming), to Catherine Zeta-Jones writhing in front of Sean Connery in Entrapment, or marrying her real life partner Michael Douglas, twenty-five years her elder. This age gap coupling is also a reality; around 30 percent of American heterosexual marriages consist of men at least four years older than their partners.
Yet conversations around film—from the unfairness of the way women “age out” of roles, disappearing from our screens once they hit middle age, to the new belief that film should provide moral instruction and depict life as it should be rather than how it is—have problematized the age gap in heterosexual couples. Owing to this new taboo, both real couples and fictional couples that display these age gaps are roundly lambasted on social media.
Never mind that a critique of this dynamic has always been embedded within the Hollywood tradition of the age gap relationship. This is on full display in the humorous and pathetic nature of these relationships in Woody Allen films—for example, Max von Sydow’s pompous “I’m just trying to complete an education I started on you,” when a much younger Barbara Hershey leaves him in Hannah and Her Sisters—or the anxiety and paranoia the younger and more attractive woman creates in the older man—recall Michael Douglas obsessing over Gwyneth Paltrow’s potential for infidelity in A Perfect Murder. But in our new age of hot take review culture and art as morality plays, we prefer the subtext to be text.
Those critiquing You Should Have Left needn’t have worried. The film complies with the emerging consensus about age gap relationships: there must be something wrong with a man who is attracted to or romantically pursues or partners with a younger woman. For all of the mutterings of disgust—“ugh” and “gross” being common social media replies to age gap relationships whether fictional or not—there is also the implication that the source of the relationship’s objectionability lies solely within the male partner. There is the implication that there must be something deficient or warped or “toxic” for a man to partner with a woman his junior, that he must be emotionally immature or need adoration. Otherwise, he must have done something terrible.
Must something be deficient or warped or “toxic” for a man to partner with a woman his junior?
You Should Have Left echoes this presumption. Indeed, there is something amiss about Kevin Bacon’s character Theo. Theo once was in a more age appropriate relationship, however his partner died under mysterious circumstances and left him to exist under a cloud of suspicion after a high-profile trial. In the end, it is revealed that he had a hand in her death—he saw she was drowning and did not intervene. For this, the film condemns him to eternal torment, which even he accepts as just. His soul is trapped in a haunted house complete with Christian themes. The basement of the house is the scene of punishment and divine justice, suspiciously resembling old-fashioned portrayals of hell.
Unlike in the film, the real world no longer collectively buys into divine justice or retribution. Instead, we have to dole out punishment personally. When Florence Pugh, twenty-four, went public with her relationship with Zach Braff, forty-five, fans quickly launched a harassment campaign. Whenever their relationship was referenced, both of their social media accounts were inundated with negative and abusive comments (of course, “ugh” and “gross” showed up a lot). Pugh has given furious interviews on the subject and still failed to tame the outrage or the surveillance of their romantic relationship. Much of the harassment cites “concern” for Pugh due to the perceived wrongness of Braff’s age, although any current or ensuing harm Pugh might endure is left ambiguous.
Pugh and Braff share in the unwanted attention bestowed upon most age gap celebrity relationships these days, subjected to the “What is wrong with men?” commentary. Indeed, “What is wrong with men?” has replaced “What do women want?” as the question for our age. And while the older man’s desire for the younger woman has been explored, derided, and satirized for centuries, viewed sometimes as natural and other times as unnerving, only recently has it been pathologized in this way. The old cliches about men’s middle-aged crises turned a little more frantic with the mainstreaming of divorce, transforming from jokes to shouts of outrage.
To be sure, women also desire younger men—this is evident in the middle-aged women at Twilight and Magic Mike screenings, and the new infatuation women have found with Timothée Chalamet—but society does not empower women to act on this desire. Indeed, pop culture rarely portrays the pairings of older women and younger men ending well. In The Piano Teacher someone stabs themself in the chest, and in Chéri someone shoots themself in the head. The sensational How Stella Got Her Groove Back—the autobiographical fantasy of an older woman being treasured and respected by a younger man after she is abandoned by her husband—is even tainted by the scandal that followed. Author Terry McMillan claimed that this younger man had preyed on her, scamming her for money and a green card.
Society does not empower women to act on the desire for younger men. Indeed, pop culture rarely portrays such pairings ending well.
In You Should Have Left, Theo passively letting his first wife drown could very well be a metaphor for the supposed marital abandonment that has become a recognizable stage in the cliché of middle-aged masculinity. Theo leaves the room and she just drifts away, mirroring how post-divorce life is often depicted in popular culture. The jilted woman struggles, she drinks too much, and she experiences devastating loneliness until she might again be redeemed by love. Outside of the healing light of male attention, these women hardly even exist. Yet, paradoxically, men who reject them, who become distracted or bored, are akin to monsters. Perhaps it is this anxiety—the fear of living the second half of one’s life away from male attention and desire—that fuels much of the performed concern of the age gap relationship, projected onto the seemingly uncontrollable male libido.
The language introduced in the conversations around #MeToo and other mainstream feminist campaigns revealed the power imbalances and types of coercion that might exist within these heterosexual age-gap couplings. But while this language helped to illuminate how men in positions of authority can use their power to coerce or circumvent consent, it also implied that a small segment of the movement believes that men inherently hold authority or power. Implying that all men possess inherent power also implies that they must possess power over something or someone else. The harm in this is that it necessarily insinuates that all women have a power deficit, if not total powerlessness. Through this lens, every heterosexual coupling is subject to scrutiny, lest a man get away with abusing his power over a defenseless young woman. Of course the female subject, awash in feelings and hormones and femininity, is insufficient as the primary judge of whether her relationship is problematic.
This judgement is based on a retrograde notion of how the genders amass power. Traditionally, men gain power as they age, as the source of their power is their assumed ascending financial and social status. Conversely, women lose power as they age, as their source of power has been relegated to their youthfulness, their sexiness. Yet the power dynamics between the older man and the younger woman are still perceived as asymmetrical, seemingly because young women are still seen as naive and dependent, while men are seen as predatory and exploitative. But surely a couple like Florence Pugh, one of the most in-demand actresses, and Zach Braff, a has-been actor, should be seen as equal in power, even once the age discrepancy is factored in.
Every relationship worth having is fraught with coercion, manipulation, and deceit.
Rarely interrogated is what a younger woman might be getting out of these relationships. (Unless the age gap is enormous. Then the younger woman is re-cast as the gold-digging predator of old men, especially if the man’s estate plans suddenly change.) While a younger woman might reject suitors of her own age due to unmatched emotional maturity or cultural sophistication, looking to an older man to provide what a younger man cannot is often dismissed as indicative of “daddy issues.” This renders young women trapped within a childlike psychological complex.
One source of the infantilization of young women is the expansion of the word pedophile. It didn’t take long for the outrage around You Should Have Left to shift to drawing comparisons between this movie, where a sixty-something-year-old man is in love with a thirty-something-year-old woman, and The Woodsman, a 2004 film showcasing Kevin Bacon playing a pedophile.
In spite of the fact that “pedophilia” has one specific definition—an adult who has a primary or exclusive sexual attraction to prepubescent children—it is now casually wielded against men who pursue or are attracted to significantly younger women. “When you were graduating college, she was graduating kindergarten” is a common retort made against a man dating a younger woman, as if the kindergarten ceremony is where the spark of attraction began.
This language does a few things. For one, it pathologizes male desire. Legal sexual encounters are now commonly mislabeled as deviant and criminal. This comparison between pedophilia and a general attraction to younger women renders all male desire potentially predatory. Because, the logic goes, if a man is attracted to a woman younger than him, how does one know where that stops? If he’s attracted to a thirty-four-year-old, why not a twenty-one-year-old? A fourteen-year-old? A four-year-old? As the Alliance of Revolting Feminists wrote in their manifesto, “Just as all men are potential rapists, so are all men potential pedophiles… [They] are in control of both women and children and thus have the social, political, and physical power to impose their sexuality on them.” And while it feels cheap to pick and choose second wave feminist language, then used to draw urgent attention to a then-invisible emergency of sexual violence within heterosexual couplings and families, it seems an accurate articulation of how American society currently views male sexuality predominantly through the lens of power.
This does contain a certain logic. After all, romantic interest is not just about feeling good or being emotionally supported. In a society that distributes resources primarily through the family and romantic relationships—everything from property to legal rights—being loved does come with material advantages. But attributing that material power to men ignores the reality of how unequally those resources are distributed, or how stunting or confusing that association might be to men who feel powerless. There has been an overwhelming amount of attention paid to how heterosexual men should not behave romantically.
While power dynamics are involved in desire, attraction, and love, power alone is not the whole story. A classical take on sexuality as libido—as an equally creative and destructive force that can be sublimated or redirected into other realms—gives the male subject more agency in how it is wielded and directed. Moreover, this allows women to participate in desire, rather than simply being afflicted by it.
A sexual offender is someone who commits a sexual assault, not someone who has solely offended the public imaginary.
This is the other feat accomplished by the language of pedophilia: the erasure of the agency and the autonomy of the young woman. She no longer exists as a participant in a relationship, but merely as a victim of it (even if she doesn’t know it, as in the case of Florence Pugh). Reduced to the position of the child, the woman is kept hostage by the man’s overwhelming power. The woman’s power, however, never seems to begin. There is always something interfering with or impeding it.
Those who feel powerless are often going to feel like someone else has all of the power. If power exists only relationally, surely powerlessness operates in the same way. And perhaps in this schematic, the only way for women to find and use power is against male power. In What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About #MeToo, JoAnn Wypijewski wrote about the “substitution effect” of these figures of public scorn and shame, the men who have become symbolic replacements for all rapists, abusers, and gaslighters. The context in which these public figures exist no longer matters once they become targets for mass projection. It’s not the way Zach Braff treats Florence Pugh, of which we know nothing, it’s the way an older man once treated you, how it made you feel to see your mother or friend left for a younger woman, or the social messages you have internalized about your value based on the way tabloids portray celebrity age-gap relationships.
Because, as Joseph Fischel pointed out in Sex and Harm in the Age of Consent, to be a sexual offender or a sexual predator has become an identity. But a sexual offender is someone who commits a sexual assault, not someone who has solely offended the public imaginary.
The definition of harm done by these relationships is left purposely ambiguous. Every relationship worth having is fraught with coercion, manipulation, and deceit. Yet with these age gap relationships, that harm—whatever form it is supposed to take—flows only one way. The younger partner is somewhat frozen into a state of risk, and the older partner is condemned for their bad intentions. The “ews”, the “ughs”, the “so creepy,” all reveal that this has more to do with disgust and fear of transgression than genuine concern for a woman’s wellbeing.
We repeatedly find that women who have suffered sexual harm are often rendered powerless by the systems designed to help. Women’s accounts of suffering are not believed, their pathways to justice are blocked. Surveillance of the power imbalances within age gap couples forces women into similar positions of powerlessness. Their accounts of their comfort or love are not believed, and their pathways to privacy are blocked by feigned concern. No matter what we do as women, we remain spoken for, doubted, and, in supposed protection, rendered powerless.