Older Women With Younger Men: Has Hollywood Helped Normalize May-December Romances?

Older Women Younger Men

Nicole Kidman and Zac Efron attend the world premiere after party for Netflix's 'A Family Affair' earlier this month. In the film, Kidman (57) plays a woman who has an affair with her adult daughter’s employer, Efron (36). Photo: Charley Gallay/Getty Images for Netflix

Here’s a juicy question to spring at your next cocktail party: has the concept of an older woman in a relationship with a younger man evolved to the point where it’s not especially striking? And if so, does that constitute a progression in societal thinking?

If we accept that film reflects our culture back to us, then the answer of late would appear to be yes, corroborated by many affirming real-world examples as well as by modified, even critical, thinking about older men dating younger women in life and in movies. 

On June 28, Netflix released A Family Affair, a breezy dramedy about a woman who has an affair with her adult daughter’s employer. The mother is played by Nicole Kidman, 57 and her paramour is Zac Efron, 36.

A Family Affair arrives on the heels of The Idea of You, from Prime and based on the novel by Robinne Lee, about an art gallery owner (Anne Hathaway, 41) who becomes romantically involved with a boy-band singer she meets at Coachella. He is played by Nicholas Galitzine, 29. Here too, the characters are unequivocally playing their ages. In fact, it’s a key plot point.

Also incoming on July 5 – though concerning an affair that is out of bounds – is acclaimed French director Catherine Breillat’s Last Summer, a remake of the 2019 Danish title Queen of Hearts. A hit at Cannes last year where it competed for the Palme d’Or, Last Summer follows a successful midlife lawyer who begins an affair with her husband’s 17-year-old son from a previous marriage. 

(Though it traverses similar terrain, I consciously omitted Todd Haynes’ May December from 2023, as the relationship depicted between Julianne Moore, then 63, and Charles Melton, 32, is viewed by many as predatory, inspired as it was by the Mary Kay Letourneau story). 

Several other recent-ish films spin positively on the older woman/younger man axis, including Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool from 2017 (Annette Bening, 59, paired with Jamie Bell, 31), and 2022’s Good Luck to You, Leo Grande with Emma Thompson, 63, opposite Daryl McCormack, 29. 

There are, of course, some important qualifiers to this roundup. For one thing, both Kidman and Hathaway are Hollywood-level gorgeous, a standard not typically applied to male actors portrayed in relationships with younger women. See: Jack Nicholson, 66, dating Amanda Peet, 31, in 2003’s Something’s Gotta Give, or cast at 60 as the romantic lead opposite Helen Hunt, 34, in 1997’s As Good As It Gets a role that earned him a Best Actor Oscar.

Jack Nicholson (then-60) Helen Hunt (then-34) in As Good As It Gets, 1997. Photo: Sony Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection/Canadian Press

 

As well, in Leo Grande, Thompson’s Nancy – also very attractive, albeit perhaps more conventionally – pays for sex with McCormack’s Leo. But the film makes clear their connection eventually transcends the transactional. 

Yet as recently as 2015, actor-director Maggie Gyllenhaal noted that, at 37, she was told she was too old to play the love interest of a 55-year-old man. Has the ensuing decade really ushered in such seismic change?

I’d argue yes, for a bunch of unscientific but demonstrable reasons. These include the #MeToo movement, which amplified women’s voices in the mainstream as never before despite its dreadful roots. There has also been an uptick of robustly marketed big-budget films written and/or directed by women – mostly notably Greta Gerwig’s Barbie but also recent titles by Chloé Zhao, Elizabeth Banks, and Olivia Wilde – telling women’s stories to a targeted female audience. 

There is also broader visibility of older women with younger men in the real world, with each showing incredible grace. Take Brigitte Macron, 71, longtime wife of French president Emmanuel Macron, 47; British filmmaker Sam Taylor-Johnson, 57, and husband, actor Aaron Taylor-Johnson, 34; and British pro golfer Tommy Fleetwood, 33, and wife and manager Clare Craig, 56. 

 

French President Emmanuel Macron (47) and Brigitte Macron (71) arrive to welcome U.S. President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden at Elysee Palace on June 8, 2024 in Paris, France. Photo: Christian Liewig – Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images

 

And though they appear headed for divorce, stage and screen star Hugh Jackman, 55, and wife Deborra-Lee Furness, 68, enjoyed 27 years together, a feat by any measure. There’s a potential split in the cards for actress Priyanka Chopra, 41, and actor-musician husband Nick Jonas, 31, while actress Gabrielle Union, 51, and husband, former NBA star Dwayne Wade, 42, denied divorce rumours.  

Meanwhile, Canadian sex columnist and author Valerie Gibson’s notorious 2001 book Cougar: A Guide for Older Women Dating Younger Men may have provided the world with a handy – if hugely pejorative, IMHO – term for older women who hook up with younger men mostly for sex. Think: Mrs. Robinson from The Graduate. But the roster above shows there can be more gravitas to the OW/YM dynamic.  

Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) unbuttons the back of Mrs. Robinson’s (Anne Bancroft) blouse in a scene from Mike Nichols’ 1967 classic The Graduate. Photo: John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

 

Concurrently, there’s seems to be a shift in the kneejerk acceptance of older men dating younger women. Consider Leonardo DiCaprio. Though universally respected as an actor and activist, the 49-year-old is also the ongoing butt of jokes – and even a cheeky Reddit chart – noting that his relationships appear to fizzle before his girlfriends surpass age 25.  

Mick Jagger, 80, is undeniably charismatic and a rock legend. But his relationship with ballerina Melanie Hamrick, 37 – with whom he has seven-year-old Deveraux – raises reasonable questions about health risks associated with older fathers. That’s also true of Robert De Niro, 80 and Al Pacino, 84, who have both recently fathered children with markedly younger women.  That’s one area where older women mostly receive a free pass since nature dictates – and strictly enforces – a non-negotiable child-bearing timetable. 

Maybe that’s a weight at the other end of the seesaw. As we become more openly accepting of OW/YM – which increasingly seems less like a trend than a natural evolution in thinking, much like women’s rights generally and historically – we are less blasé about OM/YW scenarios, which have largely gone unchallenged to the point of languor, on-screen and off.

For better or worse, women have learned to take equality wherever they find it, preferring to look forward and not back.

And yes, I do happen to think destigmatizing older women dating younger men – ideally while also defanging and deep-sixing the dreaded “cougar” term – represents gender-based progress. 

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