Keanu Reeves stepped out over the weekend holding hands with artist and longtime friend, Alexandra Grant. The new couple's debut at the LACMA Art and Film Gala prompted an immediate, enthusiastic response on social media that was centered around two things: The public desire to see Keanu Reeves happy after a litany of personal tragedies, and the fact that Grant is in her forties.
Keanu Reeves, Dennis Quaid and Our National Obsession With Women's Age
The 55-year-old actor's decision to date a 46-year-old woman with grey hair was seen by a majority of commenters as a badge of honor, and further confirmation that Reeves is one of the good ones. This reaction was in direct contrast to how the world simultaneously greeted the news that Dennis Quaid, age 65, is engaged to 26-year-old Laura Savoie.
Our obsession with Hollywood age gaps is nothing new. And though Sarah Paulson has received her fair share of scrutiny for her relationship with Holland Taylor, 32 years her senior, and Demi Moore raised some eyebrows when she married Ashton Kutcher, this is a conversation that almost always focuses on famous men and their girlfriends.
The problem is, while these discussions are usually dressed up as either critiques or endorsements of the male celebrities in question, judging them on the ages of the women they date reinforces ideas about female partners as trophies; accessories that serve only to reflect the men they're attached to.
To make matters worse, basing our judgements on the ages of these women in relation to their partners suggests that even in 2019, a woman is defined first by her relationship, then by her age, then by her actual accomplishments. When Dennis Quaid and his current girlfriend are discussed, it comes up only in the footnotes that Savoie is a PhD student who already has a Bachelor’s degree in Accounting. No one seems all that interested in the fact that she clearly has ambitions beyond her famous boyfriend.
The cultural tendency to correlate a woman's value with her age leaves women at the mercy of inconstant ideas around youth and beauty, versus maturity and experience—and that dichotomy invites insecurities for all. Regardless of which end of the scale women fall on, they can't win. If you're young, you're hot but you don't know enough yet; if you're older, you're smart but less physically desirable.
A further reflection of this arrived over the weekend, when even outspoken feminist Emma Watson admitted to feeling crappy about her age as it pertains to her relationship status. "Cut to 29," she told British Vogue, "and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, I feel so stressed and anxious.' And I realize it’s because there is suddenly this bloody influx of subliminal messaging around. If you have not built a home, if you do not have a husband, if you do not have a baby, and you are turning 30… There’s just this incredible amount of anxiety."
Single women over 40 may scoff at how Watson feels about 30, but her decision to identify as "self-partnered" instead of "single," in order to feel more empowered about her own status, is a move that has been warmly welcomed by thousands of women online.
Women being defined by their relationship statuses is an old problem that stretches beyond age. As Kate Bolick pointed out in 2015's Spinster, "Whom to marry and when will it happen—these two questions define every woman's existence, regardless of where she was raised or what religion she does or doesn't practice. She may grow up to love women instead of men, or to decide she simply doesn't believe in marriage. No matter."
This, despite the fact that women have been pushing back against these confinements for at least a century. All the way back in 1889, for example, when Tit-Bits magazine asked women why they were spinsters, the responses were sharp, bordering on acerbic. One wrote: “Because I have other professions open to me in which the hours are shorter, the work more agreeable, and the pay possibly better.” Another replied: “I find the animal man less docile than a dog, less affectionate than a cat, and less amusing than a monkey.”
Even when it's well-intentioned, when we continue to judge famous men for the relationships they're in, what we're also doing is reminding women that much of their value continues to be assessed through the lens of both their romantic lives and their ages. What's more, assuming men have all the onus over these relationships strips their wives and girlfriends of agency, as if these women had no hand in their own relationship status, or choice of partner.
In the end, passing judgement over partnerships between anyone, regardless of profession, or age, or sexuality, or race is utterly pointless. People will love who they want to love. Griping about it helps nobody.