Vive la difference – between French and English (speaking) stereotypes of older women, that is

I think that there would be general agreement that Sean Connery was a man of great sex appeal, right through his long career. It could, however, be said that romancing a woman almost young enough to be his granddaughter was stretching things a bit, to the point that – in 1999 – I wrote an article for Brisbane’s Courier-Mail about how that was a typical example of the extraordinary age gaps that Hollywood had long accepted as acceptable. Acceptable, that is, when it was the man who was the older person in the relationship. The 1999 film in question was Entrapment, made when he was 69 years old, and his co-star, Catherine Zeta-Jones, was 30.

More recently, a 2016 Film Inquiry review of the age gap in Hollywood romance films found that films featuring older men and younger women are “easy to identify and numerous.” According to film researcher Angela Trott, however, “there would be nothing inherently problematic about this were it not for the fact that it is simply not equal to the amount of older women dating younger men onscreen, and therein lies the real issue: not of couples romancing across age divides in film, but the lack of not only representation of older women in cinema, but the tendency for men to be viewed as sexually attractive much later in life than women are permitted to be.”

Moreover, Trott points out that in the fewer examples where it is the woman who is older, “the woman is often represented as a comic or even slightly tragic figure. One has only to consider the term ‘cougar’….to get some idea of how these women are frequently ridiculed.”

According to British relationship expert Barbara Honey, interviewed for Huffington Post, “our reaction to older women dating younger men has a lot to do with the stereotypical way we see relationships. ‘There’s a stereotype that men like to date women who are younger than them and vice versa.’”

Move across to France, however, and it’s a whole different ball game. Not long after Entrapment was made, film critic Erica Abeel was writing in The New York Times, in 2001, that “to the French, femmes over 50 are still fatale.” As she put it, both in literature and in movies, “the French have long celebrated the allure and desirability of the older woman.” And, she reported, this observation has been reinforced by social science, with a study that compared Gallic and American sexual behaviour finding that “French men continue to find French women attractive as they age (in contrast to American men, who pair sexiness and youth); and older French women regard themselves as sexy.”

Nonetheless, when it comes to real life, things can be a bit more complicated, as the now high profile French couple the Macrons have found. The fact of a younger man married to an older woman has not gone without comment even in their country. And 40-year-old new President Emmanuel Macron’s 64-year-old wife Brigitte Macron has come in for considerable media scrutiny and comment, and some ridicule, in both the French and international media.

What makes this particularly interesting is that – as noted in the Huffington Post – their age difference is approximately the same as, but just in the opposite direction to, that of President Trump, aged 70, and his wife Melanie, who is 47. And, “while some publications did comment on the Trump’s age gap during the US presidential election, the level of scrutiny the Macrons have received is incomparable.”

As Macron told Le Parisien, “It’s only because my wife is 20 years older than me that people say it’s not tenable.” The strength of their relationship in the face of such criticisms is a major contribution to the endorsement of relationships that work, regardless of age differences, in either direction, and regardless of stereotypes. From reel to real life, France is definitely leading the way.

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  1. Your article made me wonder if the sexual behavior of American women over 40 would change if society, men, and, yes, other women, did not make them feel useless and unattractive as they age? Many women I know (including me) complain about loss of sex drive, both physically and psychologically as they age. Some of it can, of course, be attributed to physical factors, such as shifting hormones, increased health problems, medications, etc. However, I do think the response we receive from others and the message that become ingrained in us have to have something to do with why we put our sexuality on a shelf. Does being viewed as sad and tragic cause our sexuality to diminish? To what extent do we internalize these negative messages and how much of a role does it play?

  2. You raise some interesting issues in your questions, Amber, which are not so easy to answer because, as they say, it’s complicated. The good news, from my readings, observations and personal experience, is that – while there is still a way to go – we older people of the West and its burgeoning of healthy longevity are of the generations which have been making big leaps forward in women’s confidence in our place in the world. Consequently, many of us keep on going in our work, our leisure and our pleasures into the older decades, encouraged by great examples of more prominent women doing likewise, as we can see that their careers as actors and entertainers, politicians and professionals, are no longer automatically aborted by reaching a certain (pretty young by present day standards) age.

    On the other hand, ageism is not only not dead in our societies, but is reinforced by vast cosmetic industries preying on and profiting from women’s insecurities. And for those who are vulnerable to those sorts of social pressures, it can be difficult to maintain confidence in all the positives that they have, and to be philosophical about aspects of ageing, because of a blinkered focus, instead, on perceived negatives, and – in worst case scenarios – suffering from the throes of ageing body hate, which would certainly not enhance one’s sexuality.

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