Romances in which the woman is the older-and-wiser character are beginning to be more frequently seen. Sometimes a romance hero is a few years younger than the heroine. Or a lot of years younger. Whatever, in these romances the power in a relationship that is based on age alone is definitely on the woman’s side. This is a fantasy that writers are only starting to explore as women’s roles in our society have expanded. A woman who earns more than many men her age do, a scenario that has become typical in many urban areas today, might also be dating younger men. And she might not care too much about either disparity. But the men might care a lot. Articles have already appeared about the perils of unequal dating when it’s the woman who has the good job and can afford the expensive entertainments, and the man doesn’t. There even is advice dished out by psychologists on how to cope with unequal income situations in a marriage.
But first we have to get to a marriage, both in real life and in romance fiction. Both men and women marry for the first time at older ages than they used to. (Maybe that’s because it takes so long to read the enormous bride magazines and plan a Bridezilla wedding?) Yet a high proportion of first marriages end in divorce. So both men and women are still looking for lifelong partners at far older ages than they used to. In fact, second marriages these days are entered into with about as much hope and naiveté (and as much pomp and expense) as first marriages used to be. Mirroring real life, a romance heroine who is in her thirties and has never married is no longer cast as a repressed virgin who sacrificed her one chance at love to fetch and carry for a selfish parent. Instead, the thirtyish heroine is usually sexually and emotionally experienced. Which again can mean a difference in the balance of power in a relationship with a younger man if he happens to have less sexual or emotional experience. Or even if those are equal, but she feels the pressure of her biological clock.
A recent take on the age difference was Keanu Reeves playing a youngish doctor going after Diane Keaton’s definitely middle-aged woman in the movie “Something’s Gotta Give.” Their romance doesn’t deal with financial or childbearing issues. And he’s a doctor and she’s a playwright whom he admires, so their respective areas of career success are sufficiently separate not to cause friction. But alas, Keanu is actually just there to be an ego-soother, since Diane is in love with Jack Nicholson’s character, who is her age and more. Keanu bows out gracefully and the older two end up together. To tell the truth, I was far more attracted to Keanu’s character; he’s a romantic ideal. The prospect of sharing the last years of a sick old ex-roue’s life is not as romantically appealing as sharing the best years of a young and healthy one-woman-man’s life. On the other hand, it can be far more comfortable and intellectually stimulating to be with a contemporary, someone who experienced similar world events at the same age, and who faces the same future issues at the same time as you. Plus, there is a certain amount of triumph involved when the older woman lands the older man. Keaton’s character and Nicholson’s are well matched.
But I was talking about couples whom at first glance seem ill-suited because the woman is older than the man. What do we think of real-life pairings such as the marriage of actors Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore? She’s 15 years older than he is and has three children, one of whom is only ten years younger that he is. Typical high-publicity Hollywood behavior today is serial relationships and relatively short marriages, so is their three-year marriage then already a success by celebrity standards? And should it be compared at all to the search for lifelong love that the general population and romance heroines and heroes engage in? And in romances at least, a relationship, however seemingly unequal, still is supposed to last a lifetime. That’s perhaps more of a fantasy today than ever before. But it’s still the prevailing fantasy.
A situation in which the heroine is less than ten years older than the hero is treated as a throwaway these days, a phony issue that gives the heroine pause but is easily shrugged off. A few years’ difference isn’t important in a society that doesn’t draw an arbitrary line between what is a marriagable age for a woman and what is over the hill. Especially what is still attractive in a woman. We aren’t presenting teenage debutantes much anymore, and a grown woman who has a career is a valuable asset to a man.
Another issue that used to plague the older woman-younger man situation and still does is fertility. But modern medicine has extended female fertility well into what used to be middle age. So a fortyish woman who meets a twentyish man might still be able to give him children, if they both want them and are at the family-building stage of life. Or a significant age disparity can be the major conflict of the novel, when the heroine is done with being a mom regardless of her ability to have more babies. I read a story like that a long time ago, but I haven’t seen a lot of mention of it since. It’s still rare in our society. But then, so are childless-by-choice couples who marry young.
At its core, the older woman-younger man romance involves the idea that we aren’t all moving on the same time track and it’s okay to be different. Late blooming women still have a shot at a full life, and early blooming men can grab for the older and more interesting women they want. There is also the idea that life has more than one stage, and that new loves can be found in maturity, but I don’t think it is essential to an older woman-younger man pairing. Have any of these become a staple in romances? Not yet. And depending on population curves, they never may. But they are no longer taboo.
One style of relationship that isn’t showing up in romances is the older-woman younger-man romance that mimics the real life scandals in which female teachers seduce their very young male pupils. It’s not yet an acceptable fantasy for women to take advantage of the youth and inexperience of boys. And thank goodness for that, because it’s major ick. Worse even than the classic older man-young girl ick that always does take advantage of an innocent, powerless girl.
But let’s not end this on a low note. Here’s hoping that Ashton and Demi are happy and will remain so for long enough to be able to look back and say “That was a good marriage.” And that the next romance you read has a heroine who doesn’t obsess over her age and a hero who honors her for the life she has lived before she met him.