Why Are All These Young Women Falling For Aging Men?
By Stacey Richter
I AM INCREASINGLY disturbed by the offhand way romantic comedies pair older men and younger women. According to these movies, women in their thirties fall for men in their sixties--yeah, old enough to be their fathers--with the casual regularity of scheduling a haircut. In most movies, nobody even mentions how weird this is. I mean, come on. This is really weird.
Two recent movies, Woody Allen's Deconstructing Harry and James L. Brooks' As Good As It Gets, work the younger woman/older man thing with a vengeance. In Allen's latest, Harry Block ("a thinly disguised version of myself," Woody quips) charms and cheats his way through a series of ingenues, including Julia Louis-Dreyfuss and Elizabeth Shue, while As Good As It Gets matches Helen Hunt and Jack Nicholson. My objection isn't that this is unrealistic--reconstituting dinosaur DNA from ancient mosquito blood trapped in a drop of amber is a better definition of unrealistic. Rather, I find the overwhelming prevalence and acceptability of this plot twist dumb and offensive.
The message of both these movies (and a whole bunch of others) is that men are attractive at any age, just as long as they're rich and charming, while women are only attractive in their youth. (Or, perhaps more to the point, male actors remain box office draws well into middle age, while women have a shorter career-span.) As a female audience member, I find this message insulting, and obviously untrue. No matter how hard I squint, I cannot make Woody Allen into a sexpot. Jack Nicholson has only a transient, avuncular charm. Thank God the directors of each of these movies had the grace not to include a sex scene. And by the way, I think anyone who saw Alien: Resurrection would have to admit that Sigourney Weaver is a hell of a lot sexier than Winona Ryder.
What is especially appalling about the September-May romance film is how easily we are expected to digest striking disparity in ages. In As Good As It Gets, hardly anybody comments on the fact that Jack Nicholson's character is well positioned to be the father of Helen Hunt's character. (Interesting, she has a mother but no father, perhaps to avoid odious comparisons.) Woody makes one joke about being "way too old" for the beautiful Elizabeth Shue, but this doesn't mitigate the shock of watching them make out in a hotel room right after they meet. It's creepy. This kind of romance is not romantic.
It's unsettling to find filmmakers assuming their audience will swallow huge age differences without complaint, especially considering that half the audience members are probably women who might not find Mr. Allen or Mr. Nicholson all that fetching. And in Deconstructing Harry, Allen's character Harry Block is also a real schmuck who's completely self-absorbed, and who constantly finds himself in comic situations that involve betraying women, or leering at them. Charming he's not. And Allen, by creating situations that parallel his biography, invites us to drag what we've heard about his real life into it. Knowing that the guy who made the movie has been able to justify having an affair with a girl who, if not his daughter, is certainly his son's sister, makes the idea of excusing his bad behavior anything but funny.
When the situation is reversed, and the romance is between an older woman and a younger man, all the alarms go off. Movies with an older woman/younger man romance never just gloss over this point casually; they're about the age difference and the problems the couple faces because of them, like The Graduate, or The Summer of '42, or Harold and Maude. (A priest says to Harold, about his grandmotherly girlfriend Maude, something like: "The thought of your young body commingling with her withered flesh....sagging breasts....flabby buttocks....makes me want to vomit.")
Maybe it wouldn't be quite so insulting to see young women with old men if the situation were reversed now and then. C'mon guys, mix it up a little! What about an adventure movie starring Jessica Lange as a fighter pilot, with Johnny Depp as her accident-prone but adorable love interest? Or a romantic comedy where the wealthy Helen Mirren saves the sweet-but-misled Christian Slater from his pathetic life as a street hustler? That would really deconstruct something.
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