Hey, you know this shit where we systematically treat all women who are not Helen Mirren like untouchable garbage as soon as they hit 40? It's a problem. We see it in sitcoms, where uniformly schlubby husbands bed uniformly "hot" wives. We see it on reality TV, where older women who dare to express sexuality are mocked as predatory and absurd "cougars." We see it in the 'bloidz, where every single cellulite dimple on every single famous bun is tagged, catalogued, and filed away by a fusty British librarian. And we especially see it in Hollywood, where leading men get older and older, but leading ladies stay the same age. All right all right all right.
Vulture put together some brilliant little infographics tracking the relative ages of male movie stars and their female love interests. Unsurprisingly, because this is how time works, the leading men get older at a steady rate (and remain leading men). The women they're fucking, however, stay the same age—around 29.
Some actors' age gaps are more persistently egregious than others. Johnny Depp had multiple on-screen partners who were under 20 when he was gaining on 40. Liam Neeson, 63, will be going to town on Olivia Wilde, 29, in Third Person this year—a 34-year age difference (high-five, bro!!!). Richard Gere, also 63, and Laetitia Casta, 34, bridged a similar gap in 2012's Arbitrage. At the other end of the spectrum, Tom Hanks's female counterparts have remained reliably within a decade of his age (attributable, I'd wager, to the fact that Hanks typically plays cuddly dad types rather than virile sex-having types). Here's Vulture's analysis of the Liam Neeson chart:
Remember how Depp only allowed a love interest within striking distance of his own age if she was an Oscar-winning actress? The same more than holds true for Liam Neeson, who was partnered with older Oscar winners Jessica Lange and Meryl Streep in the mid-nineties. Aside from that brief moment in time, Neeson usually robs the cradle by wooing actresses around fifteen years younger than him, and ever since Taken reestablished his box-office virility, the age of his love interests has dropped precipitously: More than two and a half decades separated Neeson from his screen-wife January Jones in Unknown, and in Paul Haggis's next film, Third Person, the 61-year-old Neeson will bed 29-year-old Olivia Wilde.
So dudes are into hot young chicks? So what? It's nothing new. I believe it was Jane Austen who once wrote, "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a venerable leading man in possession of a good hot chick must be in want of another better hot chick with 30% less spider veins." Then she drowned in a barrel of wrinkle cream on her 31st birthday. The cause of death was "old age/being gross." (Below, the medical examiner added, "BRB, just met this really hot baby named Charlotte Bronte & am waiting for it to turn 18 so that I might obtain some of that fine undercarriage. #yolo.") Literature.
It matters, of course, because we place expiration dates on female actors—and, by extension, female humans—that we do not extend to male actors. It's a problem that manifests in pop culture and is fed by pop culture in a massive, unrelenting feedback loop: We internalize what we see on television (old men with young women; younger = better), and then we pursue that ideal in our own lives, and then we hunger for media that validates our choices and feeds our desires. Around and around. And media isn't just fantasy—plenty of evidence suggests that the images we consume can profoundly affect our perceptions of the world. Images can change our brains. So would it be so difficult for mainstream films to cast women over 35 in leading romantic roles, and change a few brains for the better?
I'm not talking about excluding conventionally beautiful young women from show business (anyway, I'm sure they'll be fine)—there are plenty of scripts that call for young couples, or storylines in which a May/December romance is a relevant plot point. Even if there were just some age diversity in on-screen couples, a wide gap once in a while would be a totally acceptable non-event. (Those relationships exist in real life, after all, and are not objectively problematic.)
But the fact that Harrison Ford's neck-wrinkles connote "distinction," while Denise Richards's muscular arms make her a haggard crone is a double-standard that hurts everyone. When filmmakers prioritize youth and beauty over ability and presence, the subtext is that female characters are more decorative than human. It's one more way of marginalizing women—of hammering home that men are people, and women are women, always, always, always. Not to say that beautiful young actresses are untalented or lacking in character by default—but in the marketplace their talent is expressly subordinate to their looks. It does a disservice to actresses of all ages, to the characters they're casting, and to the public expected to consume ill-cast schlock. It's also not true—I know plenty of men who are happily growing old alongside their similarly-aged partners, because a lot of people fall in love with people, not idealized physical abstractions.
And then, of course, it all trickles down into our actual human lives. Prioritizing superficial beauty constructs to the exclusion of all else lands people in unfulfilling, doomed relationships. Women spend their lives imprisoned by anxiety, while plastic surgeons and cosmetics corporations milk feminine self-hatred for every last dime. Men are flabbergasted when things don't work out with the "perfect 10" that they only married because of her slender ankles.
There's nothing wrong with being attracted to the things that attract you. Beauty is beautiful; youth is glorious; chemistry is opaque. And it's nobody's responsibility, personally, to dismantle any bit of that system. But it's just not that hard to do little things that, cumulatively, can change big things. I'm not even demanding that Hollywood stop worshiping conventional standards of beauty, because I am not a credulous idiot (I don't expect to see, say, Rebel Wilson cast as Mrs. Channing Tatum any time soon, unless their "unlikely" union is the subject of some wacky Shallow Hal mix-em-up). But seeing even just a few more 40- and 50-something women paired with desirable leading men—in dignified roles where they're not sexless moms or goofy cougars—could change the way a lot of women feel about themselves, and the way our entire culture thinks about women. Catherine Keener instead of Olivia Wilde once in a while. Vera Farmiga instead of Megan Fox. Beautiful movie stars paired with handsome movie stars. Imagine that.