Older-woman / younger-man fad is a mixed blessing

By Michael Medved

Does the hot new trend for older woman–younger man relationships deserve encouragement or condemnation?

On the one hand, a sexual affair between a 30-something woman and a teenage boy can lead a lady to jail, as in the notorious case of Seattle teacher Mary Kay LaTourneau. On the other hand, this same sort of romance can inspire a hip and critically acclaimed movie comedy like “Tadpole” – while a spate of other recent films and celebrity relationships similarly celebrate new feminine freedom to snag much younger men.

In “Tadpole,” Aaron Stanford plays a 15-year-old preppie who tumbles into bed with his stepmother’s best friend – the sly, sexy Bebe Neuwirth. He also nurses a king crush on the stepmother herself, played by Sigourney Weaver (who in real life is 52). Along similar lines, the September release “Igby Goes Down” shows Kieran Culkin as another 15-year-old enjoying vigorous sex with 30-something artist and free spirit Amanda Peete; “Lovely and Amazing” focuses on a 36-year-old woman and a 17-year-old boy; while “The Good Girl” shows a bored, trapped 30-year-old (Jennifer Anniston) drawn to a juvenile 22-year-old (Jake Gyllenhaal) who lives at home with his parents.

In real life (or what passes for real in Tinseltown), some of Hollywood’s most glamorous stars conspicuously select much younger men. Sandra Bullock (37) has been “romantically linked” with Ryan Gosling (21), while Nicole Kidman (34) recovered sufficiently from her divorce from Tom Cruise to keep company with “Spider-Man” Tobey Maguire (26). Meanwhile, the age gap between the mature lady and her callow consort proves more substantial for such luminaries as Mary Tyler Moore (17 years), Raquel Welch and Bernadette Peters (14 years each), Madonna (11 years) and Joan Collins (a whopping 33 years).

Some commentators applaud such unions as evidence of female empowerment. “You almost never saw (older women with younger men) in society in the 1950s or the early ’60s because there weren’t enough opportunities out there for women to be economically secure on their own,” author Warren Farrell (“Why Men Are the Way They Are”) told the Baltimore Sun. According to Susan Winter, another author on the subject (“Older Women / Younger Men: New Options for Love and Romance”): “These couples are on the front lines of the battle … you may never want to date a younger man. But you should have the right to do it without criticism, without discrimination, without social censure.”

One of the reasons that more women manage to exercise that right today is that more women manage to exercise their bodies and to stay in excellent shape through middle age and beyond. In the 1950’s, a lady as young as 35 or 40 might be expected to resemble Betty Crocker. Even as late as 1967, a seductive, lusty figure like Mrs. Robinson in “The Graduate” (played by Anne Bancroft when she was all of 37!) seemed a dangerous exception. Novelist Anna Quindlen once remarked that all women can divide their lives into three stages: Pre-Babe, Babe, and Post-Babe. Thanks to aerobics and weight training, hormone treatments, cosmetic enhancements and other technological advancements, many females can greatly reduce the duration of that final stage – or eliminate it altogether.

While most men will join most women in applauding the sudden, unprecedented abundance of sleek, sexy sisters in their 50s and 60s, there’s still something depressing and discomfiting about the fact that so many of these fashionable femmes select much younger males for companionship and coupling. This selection seldom reflects a time-tested, lifelong commitment – after all, few long-term romances have successfully commenced when the woman is a zesty 29 and the guy is, say, all of 14. For the most part, older woman/much-younger man alliances indicate that the lady has left a trail of broken marriages or romances in her past, or else went through youth without ever establishing a serious relationship.

Of course, the same could be said of the well-established tradition of superannuated guys who grab beautiful women of a younger generation, but these infatuated geezers stand a much better chance of building somewhat normal domestic arrangements than their female counterparts. Larry King and Warren Beatty offer two prominent examples of charismatic codgers who married wives who are many decades younger, sired children with them, and achieved well-advertised familial bliss. The brute force of biology makes it much less likely that a match of older woman and much younger man will be able to conceive, or prove willing to raise, children of their own.

This doesn’t mean that such a relationship lacks value or significance, but it does suggest that it will usually lack an important dimension – the dimension of shared progeny that represents the most permanent and profound bond that two human beings can enjoy. In this sense, the current vogue for aging-lady / youthful-stud alliances amounts to one more indignant rejection of the much-derided traditional norm of one husband, one wife, a few kids and a white picket fence.

In fact, the trend of accomplished and desirable mature women choosing to connect with far younger males indicates how much the old marital model has already broken down. These relationships flow from the fact that older women are not only more attractive than ever before, but also more available. In other words, in previous generations the overwhelming majority of women above 40 lived within lasting marriages; widows represented the most important exception to that rule.

Today, however, tens of millions of aging females have been left unattached through divorce, desertion or career-driven delay of significant relationships. These women sometimes incline toward youthful suitors in full knowledge that the connection may not lead to a permanent alliance or establishment of a family, but the advocates of such relationships (like Susan Winter, herself dating a man 16 years her junior) insist that the sex is spectacular. It therefore makes sense that “Tadpole” and other recent films showing older-woman / younger-man phenomenon highlight torrid and risky sexual adventures rather than fully developed romances.

Of course, men have been pursuing and promoting such unencumbered “pure sex” relationships forever. But in this particular arena, the recent efforts of older women to play catch up may not deserve a joyous or jubilant reaction.