When the movie Entrapment was released in 1999, it caused an uproar among feminists because of the large age difference between the two main characters who get romantically involved. Sean Connery was 69; Catherine Zeta-Jones was 30. Entrapment is hardly the only movie that incurs feminist wrath for the same reason. In the 1993 movie In the Line of Fire, Clint Eastwood is 63 while Rene Russo is 39. Feminists charge that these movies reinforce the cultural norm that women have to be young to be desirable, whereas men can be much older and still attractive to women.
To the feminists’ chagrin, however, the pattern of an older man and a younger woman in romance is not limited to movies that appeal mostly to men. The pattern is the same in the so-called “chick flicks” popular among mostly female audiences. For example, in the 1998 movie Six Days Seven Nights, Harrison Ford is 56 while Anne Heche is 29. In The Horse Whisperer of the same year, Robert Redford is 61 while Kristin Scott Thomas is 38. In the 1997 blockbuster As Good As It Gets, Jack Nicholson is 60 whereas Helen Hunt is 34. This movie was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, and both Nicholson and Hunt won Oscars for their leading roles. Nor is this pattern of older man and younger woman a recent Hollywood trend. In the 1963 classic Charade, Cary Grant is 59 while Audrey Hepburn, who actively pursues him romantically, is 34. In The Big Sleep of 1946, Humphrey Bogart is 47, and Lauren Bacall is 22. Of course, Bogart and Bacall were married to each other in real life.
With the notable exception of The Graduate, it appears that the man is older, sometimes by decades, than the woman among couples in movies. Why is this? Why do both men and women in every generation expect and want the leading male character in movies to be so much older than his female counterpart? The conventional social science explanation relies on cultural norms and socialization. Our “culture” imposes arbitrary standards of desirability, which include being young in the case of women but not for men. People in our “culture” are therefore “socialized” to expect attractive women in movies to be young, not old, whereas men, who are not subject to the same arbitrary standards, can be old and still sexy.
As we discuss in our book Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters (Chapter 3 “Barbie -- Manufactured by Mattel, Designed by Evolution”) or, more briefly, here, there is evolutionary logic behind every aspect of ideal female beauty, including youth. There is absolutely nothing arbitrary about the standards of beauty. With respect specifically to movies, however, there are two pieces of evidence that contradict the conventional social science view.
First, even though they are produced in the US, Hollywood movies are now exported throughout the world. And blockbusters in the US almost always become commercial successes in other countries where they are shown. While repressive nations like China and those in the Arab world might censor the contents of Hollywood movies for sexual explicitness and other taboos like homosexuality, there has not been a single case to my knowledge where such regimes censored or banned movies because of the large age difference between the male and the female leads. The premise of large age differences appears to be readily accepted throughout the world.
Second, while movie production throughout the world is heavily dominated by Hollywood and therefore the US, all cultures produce literature, which often becomes the basis of movies. And it turns out that literary themes and plots in all the cultures and throughout the recorded history are remarkably similar. While I have not seen data on movies produced outside the United States, I am very confident in predicting that such movies, like the growing number of “Bollywood” movies out of India, also mostly depict romantic scenarios in which the man is considerably older than the woman, and that very few movies (or novels, for that matter) produced anywhere in the world would have the opposite type of couples as romantic leads.
If not cultural socialization, what then accounts for the popularity of romantic couples where the man is much older than the woman? From the evolutionary psychological perspective, it is a direct consequence and reflection of evolved male and female natures. Data collected from societies throughout the world show that men in every single culture prefer to mate with younger women, and women prefer to mate with older men. Men prefer young women because they have greater reproductive value and fertility than older women, and women prefer older men because they possess greater resources and higher status than younger men in every human society.
Further, the older men get, the greater the age difference between them and their desired mates. Men in their 20s want women who are about five years younger than them, whereas men in their 50s want women who are about 15 years younger. In a perfect example of the proverbial “exception that proves the rule,” the only category of men who prefer to mate with older women are teenage boys. For them, older, not younger, women have greater fertility. In other words, regardless of their age, men always prefer to mate with women in their 20s at the peak of fertility. Women do not show the same pattern; regardless of their age, women prefer men who are about 10 years older than them. Since movie producers and authors are in the business of making money by producing stories that appeal to the moviegoers and readers alike, it is natural that their products reflect the evolved desires of their target audiences.
It is interesting to note as an aside that, while Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate is supposed to be much older than Benjamin, being the mother of his girlfriend Elaine, in reality, Ann Bancroft is only six years older than Dustin Hoffman. It appears that we expect the woman to be so much younger than the man in movies that, when the woman is actually older than the man, even by only six years, she is considered to be “too old” for him. I should also note that, by the end of the movie, Benjamin (the Dustin Hoffman character in The Graduate) ends up with the young Elaine, not with her mother, consistent with the evolutionary psychological prediction. Sorry for the spoiler.