The release of Some Kind of Beautiful on 25th September sees a 62 year-old Pierce Brosnan paired with both Jessica Alba and Salma Hayek – 34 and 49 years old respectively. This kind of gendered age gap casting is sadly the norm in Hollywood. Apart from bordering on the just plain ew, it has a much wider social and political impact. By not casting older women in romantic roles, and instead choosing only much younger women, it sends a message that actresses are only worth casting if they can be seen as desirable. If they don’t come across onscreen as someone worth sleeping with, then there is little point in them being there. It reduces the role of women in film right down to their looks, as well as denying that older women can be sexy (have you seen Emma Thomson recently?).
The lack of older women visible in film and television generally is an ongoing issue, not aided by the world media’s habit of presenting women as merely objects of desire. It’s hard to ensure there are enough female characters in cinema as it is, without then having to justify that we are more than something to lust after. And, what’s more, it’s so normal that we don’t even notice it’s happening – it takes something like this Buzzfeed article to highlight how much it is always the men who get the young girls, and not the other way around.
The dynamic of older men and younger women perpetuates the idea that men have the power and are educating women in the ways of the world. It takes away any control over their own sexuality that female characters might have, placing them at the mercy of these older men. Variety Magazine made some graphs, charting the onscreen age gap relationships Hollywood’s biggest female stars have been a part of.
This age gap is not always a bad thing though – when Diary of a Teenage Girl got an 18 certificate due to the sexual relationship between a 15 and 35 year-old in the film, its cast and crew weren’t happy. Bel Powley, the film’s star, told The Independent that the film was about her character “discovering her sexuality”. In this case, perhaps it’s more about coming of age, and working out who you’re attracted to as a young girl. It’s also interesting to note that the BBFC panel that gave the film its certificate was entirely male, whilst the film’s writer, director and producer are all female – sadly suggesting that it’s the men in the industry who have a problem with women on film taking charge of their sexuality.
Similarly in An Education, by falling in love with an older man, who takes her to Paris and parties and shows her how wonderful ‘adult’ life can be, Carey Mulligan’s character eventually does understand life, through getting her heart broken. By emerging from her reverie of innocence, she can see the world in a different way; ultimately a more adult way. It’s no coincidence as well that both these films are written and directed by women. It’s when women are telling the story of being a woman that it is the most truthful, the most relatable and the most heartfelt. Men tell the story of women over and over again in cinema, with wild guesses at what it means to be a teenage girl. Powley also pointed out that Diary of a Teenage Girl saw a young female character onscreen who wanted sex, a teen movie trope more usually dominated by boys. With films like Some Kind of Beautiful, Pierce Brosnan’s character is a lothario, constantly on the lookout to get his end away, whilst the female characters are seduced by him, thus limiting their sexual identity to being controlled by a male character.
When these typical gender roles are reversed, you get women in control, showing the male characters the ways of the world. And it’s not like it never happens, with The Graduate being one of the most famous examples. Dustin Hoffman’s character Benjamin is young and unsure of the world, and it’s he who learns about life at the hands of an older married woman. And even more empowering, it’s her who instigates their relationship: “Mrs Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me” is the ultimate proof of that. But The Graduate was released in 1967. We’re 48 years on, and it’s still a rarity for characters like Mrs Robinson to be onscreen – older women who are still seen as desirable, and as having desires themselves, despite being over the age of 30.
Another famous perpetuator of age gaps is Woody Allen. His new film, Irrational Man, sees Emma Stone have a relationship with Joaquin Phoenix’s character, who is 20 years her senior. Stone pointed out to The Guardian, however, that “the film is contingent upon the age difference; the movie is about that disparity”. So Stone is suggesting the film to be an exploration of that age gap issue, often exploited by other filmmakers and the media as shorthand for men being wise and dominant, and women being the opposite. It should in no way be a taboo subject; film should open things up for discussion, not shut them down. So Irrational Man is raising questions – a breath of fresh air when compared to Some Kind of Beautiful’s blind acceptance that 62 year-old Pierce Brosnan getting younger, attractive, perfect women is the absolute norm, not only in film, but also in society.