When people critique relationships with age differences, I suspect they’re concerned not about the effects of the patriarchy, but about young women expressing agency.
By Cade Leebron
This past August, my brand-new husband and I drove in a rental car to Bar Harbor, Maine. We picked a cute restaurant without a wait for a table and sat down and were looking at each other in that glowy post-wedding way when a waitress came over and asked us for our drink orders. We ordered beer. She asked for our IDs, then raised her eyebrows at us and said, “Wow.”
Because, I assume, the birth date on my ID is in 1992 and his is in 1982. Suddenly, the wedding rings around our fingers felt cheap instead of practical, like maybe if they weren’t plain silver bands that we’d bought at a used jewelry store she wouldn’t have commented. Suddenly I wanted to never order a beer or get carded again. I wanted to get up and leave, except we’d just put in our drink orders so we were stuck. Luckily, we had each other. And luckily, we agree on some fundamental things. Like: the fact that we’re equal partners, that our age difference isn’t the most interesting thing about our relationship—and also that we both really hated this waitress.
Watching this season of The Bachelor, I wondered if this was how many of the contestants felt, too. In a twist casting stunt, the show selected a 36-year-old man, Arie Luyendyk, Jr., a race car driver and realtor, to the be the lead, while stocking the contestant roster with mostly twenty-something women. Of the remaining four contestants who visited hometowns in this week’s episode, all are about a decade younger than Arie: at the time of filming, Becca was 27, Kendall and Tia were 26, and Lauren B. was 25.
In response to these age gaps, the nation has — like the waitress I encountered with my partner that day in Maine — let out a collective judgmental “wow.” “The Major Gap On ‘The Bachelor’ Is Glaringly Obvious This Year,” reads one Refinery29 headline. “‘The Bachelor’ Arie Luyendyck Is A Decade Older Than The Average Female Contestant,” states a Newsweek article, ominously. In response to the controversy, Arie himself has even weighed in, displaying a rare penchant for humor:
Undoubtedly, though, the most vehement backlash has been reserved for Bekah. Before (SPOILER ALERT) getting kicked off on last week’s episode, the 22-year-old had to contend with very loud public outcry over her age. To take just one representative example, a New York Post article crowed, “Bachelor Arie Wary To Rob The Cradle With 22-Year-Old Nanny.” Naturally, social media, too, was rife with ridicule:
Deleted scene of Arie and Bekah M. on a one on one #TheBachelor
Bekah: "I'm 22" Arie: #TheBachelor https://t.co/G8D6jHetFP
RosesAndRose: Does Krystal keep going one step too far? Is Bekah too young for Arie?! https://t.co/gIeI7lJLhj
Bachelor leaderboard: 1. Lauren 2. Becca k. 3. Tia 4. Kendall 5. The camera man 6. Chris Harrison 325. Bekah M, but after she becomes the legal age to date arie
I want Bekah M to get to hometowns and then Arie sees her dad and they realize they went to high school together. #TheBachelor
This national backlash was also echoed by the cast of The Bachelor. Arie himself seemed stunned when he found out how old Bekah was, uselessly repeating “She’s just so young” until it felt almost fetishistic. The women waiting in the house as Bekah told Arie her age while on a date seemed to unanimously feel that as soon as Arie discovered how old she was, he would certainly send her home. Some of them seemed to think that this would be the only appropriate choice he could make. And when Bekah was finally booted from the show, it seemed at least in part to be caused by a fellow contestant, Tia, telling Arie privately that she worried about Bekah’s maturity.
There are valid reasons to question, at least, the decision on the part of Bachelor execs and producers to cast young women exclusively (especially considering Bachelorettes are always provided an array of older men).
But when people critique relationships with age differences, I suspect they aren’t actually concerned about the effects of the patriarchy. I suspect, instead, that they’re concerned with young women expressing agency in a world that demands they have none.
It’d be one thing if age-difference vitriol was directed at The Bachelor franchise. Instead, it has been largely directed toward the young women on the show — and in particular, Bekah.
Headlines like HuffPo’s “Is 22 Too Young to Marry a 36-Year-Old?” place any “blame” for the relationship squarely on Bekah’s shoulders. By showing up and being 22, she’s apparently done something that is up for public debate, despite the fact that contestants don’t know who the Bachelor will be when they sign on. (And of course, despite the fact that the Bachelor himself is in charge of doling out roses and marriage proposals, making him the final arbiter of TV love.)
Meanwhile, Life & Style described Arie and Bekah’s first meeting by saying “Our 36-year-old suitor was clearly a little too mesmerized to see any red flags.” The overarching message here is that 22-year-old women are just way too sexy for 36-year-old men to resist. Neither party has much agency in this version of the story, as though if ever these two types of people were to collide, it would set off a chemical reaction that not even Arie’s total lack of charm could stop. On a more serious note, there’s also not much room for consent—or even basic conversation—in this narrative. The young woman simply attracts the man by virtue of her youth and physicality, while the man is “mesmerized.” It’s hard to imagine, if this is how we see these young women, that a relationship could ever evolve from this power dynamic. But why is this how we see young women?
Bekah M: I'm 22 Arie: I don't think you're ready. Bekah M: (wraps hands around neck) Arie: Ok. Here's your rose. #TheBachelor
True feminism demands that, rather than relegating young women to sexy red flags, we trust and believe them. That means allowing them to choose their partners regardless of race, gender, ability, sexuality, and, yes, age. Mandating equations for how big an age difference can exist for couples (I’ve heard “half your age + 7 years” quoted as a way to find the minimum age for one’s romantic and sexual partners) serves to create a separate category of agency for women who date older men. And that category means not viewing these women as full adults. It means not trusting the choices of young women. It means telling them: Sure, date whomever, love whomever—but also that there are secret standards society can and will judge you by, that anybody has the right to step in, to comment, to sabotage.
If that sounds reasonable, contemplate how it feels when we hear that men who’ve committed sexual crimes are young men, are boys, that boys will be boys and thus should be judged differently. But just as young men, in reality, have full agency, so, too, do young women. Of course, young men who date older women also face stigma, with older women often called “cougars” while the men are lauded for their sexual prowess. This is problematic and unacceptable as well, as it reduces both parties to their age and sexuality.
Misogyny, however, adds an extra dimension to the older man/younger woman dynamic, allowing the women to be painted as temptresses, children, and all the other reductive categories they’ve been restricted to for decades (bimbos, arm candy, trophy wives, midlife crises, etc).
It’s easy to pretend critiques of these relationships revolve around men’s problematic “taste” for younger women. Presumably, nobody decent is in favor of the Lolita dynamic (nor, of course, the scourge of pedophilia). Thus, saying things like a woman is “barely legal” or that her partner “could be her father” is a quick way to reframe a relationship as sketchy and gross, even when that relationship involves two consenting, legal adults.
People may also find older men-younger women relationships questionable because of certain societal expectations placed on women. It’s an unfortunate reality that older women are often relegated to the mother/aunt/grandmother role and denied any sexuality (see: this fantastic Amy Schumer sketch), and there’s a fear that, as a result, in approving of or promoting the relationship between a twenty-something and Arie, we’re approving of this whole dynamic. We’re saying it’s okay for younger women to “win” the sexuality game, to beat out more “age-appropriate” women time and time again, and also that it’s okay for men to only be attracted to women half their age.
These arguments are understandable, and deserve a dialogue. But feminism also demands more nuanced thought processes. By deeming some women “age-appropriate” and others “not so much,” we’re really saying that we don’t see younger women as intellectual equals, or as equal partners at all. While men can dump their younger girlfriends and move on to “wife material,” what happens to the so-called bimbos? When do they become “wife material,” and when does “wife material” become “no longer sexually viable”?
And who gets to draw these lines?
These arguments also tend to conflate age with maturity, when the distinctions between the two aren’t always so clear. In fact, there’s no easy metric for maturity. For every experience (going to college, working full-time, living alone, attending a prom, losing our virginities, getting our hearts broken, etc.) that we might view as necessary and formative, there are people who grew into mature adults just fine without it. Plenty of those experiences also depend on circumstances of race, class, ability, and sexuality. Beyond that, it’s quite possible that a young woman growing up in rape culture is more “mature” than a white man who’s spent his life racing very fast cars for lots of money.
Bekah is the perfect example of how age doesn’t necessarily correlate to maturity. She’s a whole human being (or at least she plays one on TV). She’s smart, funny, charming, and not always polished. She stands up for herself in situations where it’s frowned upon. Sociologist Holly Wood, PhD, writes that in the current Tinder-affected era, “Date nights start feeling like a series of auditions for the role of girlfriend, performed for the benefit of a judge who ultimately determines whether or not his commitment is on the table.”
On The Bachelor, this isn’t just a feeling, it’s reality. Dates each come with a rose for the Bachelor to give to a woman, and being given a rose means you’re still up for the role not just of girlfriend, but of wife. The atmosphere this creates is often one of desperation, with contestants going out of their way to have “deep” conversations and to apologize for any possible slight. Another contestant (the infamously painful Krystal) found herself groveling for Arie’s forgiveness after daring to sit out a group date with him. Krystal was sent home after that conversation. Moreover, it’s hard for contestants to stand out from the pack; women with the same names have to go by their first name and last initial, which can’t feel especially dignified.
In this environment, Bekah dared to tell it like it was. She informed Arie that the reason he was nervous around her was that she didn’t need him to be complete and she wasn’t going to pander. She also explained that nobody else got to define her emotional readiness for marriage or commitment, and that she had doubts and fears about their relationship but wanted to continue and see what happened. Typically, contestants tell the Bachelor that they’re all in: They’re falling in love (after 3–6 weeks of knowing this person), they’re entirely ready to be a spouse, the connection they’re building is meaningful and unlike any other they’ve had in the past. Expressions of doubt mean a one-way ticket home.
Bekah’s willingness to challenge Arie wasn’t surprising because of her youth, but because nobody on the Bachelor behaves that way. The main “story” of Bekah M. and Arie shouldn’t be a story of an age scandal, but a story of a woman who respected her own agency and emotional maturity in a scenario where we assume both will be disregarded.
I’m not just talking about The Bachelor here, but about these relationships in general. It’s problematic to assume that young women who date or marry older men are bimbos, and it’s problematic to dismiss anyone solely based on their age or their age difference with a partner. While it’s important to be on the lookout for abuses of power in relationships, it’s also important to acknowledge healthy relationships, and to see women’s agency in the many situations where it can and does exist.