It’s widely recognised that women face more scrutiny than men when they are the older person in hetero relationships. It only takes comparing labels like ‘cougar’, ‘MILF’, and even ‘toy boy’ to get the message that relationships where the woman is older pose a challenge to the status quo and are subsequently somewhat of a taboo.
Only when there’s a dramatic age difference between couples (like J. Howard Marshall and Anna Nicole Smith) does society start raising eyebrows. And even so, the ‘sugar daddy/gold digger’ name-calling only describes - or makes an issue out of - social status rather than gender roles.
These societal norms have been passed down through the magic of movie-making since films like The Jazz Singer explored patriarchal family structures in the 1920s. However, with female roles currently being dominated by actresses under 35, it’s unsurprising that the age diversity in on-screen couples is severely lacking.
A large number of Hollywood’s love interests comprise of an older man and a younger woman, leaving little room for actresses to work with actors their own age (and vice versa) or to have actresses playing opposite younger men. And as the current industry gives preference to actresses on the good side of 30, it’s unlikely that this trope will diversify.
"Thanks for the movie offer, and which older man will I be making out with on this project?"
Recently pulled statistics show that on average, actresses are seven years younger than their male counterparts.
A numbers enthusiast with the alias ‘CuriousGnu’ imported content from IMDb into a data management system, revealing that the average age for actresses is 32, and 39 for actors. The sample consists of all roles played by actresses (21,551) and actors (50,165) in American movies released between 2000 and 2015, with more than 10,000 IMDb votes.
The article explained the graph, stating, “The diagram below shows that the distribution of ages of actresses is more skewed to the right than that of actors' ages," concluding that:
"This suggests that there is a relatively higher demand for actresses under the age of 35. Interestingly we do not see such an apparent age preference in the casting of actors.”
This age specification for actresses, who we don't see as being blessed with the fluid ages of their male counterparts, explains why we see so many younger women playing opposite older men. Colin Firth, Eric Bana, Hugh Grant, Will Smith, Tom Cruise and Johnny Depp are all likely to have their love interest cast from a pool of talent at least 20 years their junior.
Many of Hollywood’s favourite on-screen couples demonstrate this. Almost all of our signature duos have a reasonably large age gap, whose chemistry even worked so well that they were called to play lovers a second time. Kate Hudson, for example, is ten years younger than Matthew McConaughey, Drew Barrymore is nine years Adam Sandler’s junior, Emma Stone is eight years younger than Ryan Gosling, and there is a five-year age difference between the beloved e-mail senders, Meg and Tom.
More recent cult hits follow suit. There is a seven-year age difference between Rosamund Pike and her co-star Ben Affleck in Gone Girl, a six-year disparity between Jon Favreau and Sofia Vergara in Chef and eight years between Date Night’s Steve Carrell and Tina Fey. However, unlike films like The Lunchbox, where the age difference is central to the script, many mainstream films do not make a comment as to why 41 year old Leonardo DiCaprio is getting steamy with 25 year old Margot Robbie. Today's mainstream films like Daddy’s Home, Brooklyn, Ted 2, Trainwreck and The Danish Girl all have the same relationship dynamic, suggesting either that women who are meant to share the same birth year as their middle-aged love interest just happen to look years younger, or that being significantly younger than your partner is the norm for women.
Not only does this preference for younger actresses detriment actresses' career opportunities, but also limits the scope of film content. As there's little variety in the ages of characters, audiences rarely get to see a friendship or relationship with an older woman-younger man combination that isn’t explained with a specific reason like a teaching profession, motherhood or some ‘cougar’ instinct.
However, when the top ten highest paid actors are over 40 and two of the highest-paid actresses were born after 1990, there is a high probability that when it comes to depicting romance, the Jennifer Lawrences of the industry will be paired with the Bradley Coopers, and will continue to tell stories that standardise a girlfriend being 15 years younger than her partner.
Here are some more films where no one seemed to notice the age gap on screen; trunk, tusks and wrinkles and all.
Forrest Gump - Robin Wright and Tom Hanks (10 years)
When Harry Met Sally - Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal (14 years)
Ted - Mila Kunis and Mark Wahlberg (12 years)
Vicky Cristina Barcelona - Scarlett Johansson and Javier Bardem (16 years)
Furious 7 - Michelle Rodriguez and Vin Diesel (11 years)
Django Unchained - Kerry Washington and Jamie Foxx (10 years)
Zoolander 2 - Penelope Cruz and Ben Stiller (9 years)
Entourage - Emily Ratajkowski and Adrian Grenier (15 years)
Watch 'A Dangerous Method' on SBS On Demand. A controversial romance based on a true story of Dr. Carl Jung and his mistress, 24 years his junior. Starring Keira Knightley and Michael Fassbender, with only 8 years between them.
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