Age, agency, and being the older woman in a romance

“So if he does it, it’s gross, 

But if I do it, it’s okay?”

Anne Hathway’s Solène asks Annie Mumolo’s Tracy in The Idea of You. They are talking about Solène, 40, having started a romantic something with a 24-year-old popstar, Hayes Campbell, and how men (in this case the ex-husband who left Solène for a younger woman), are judged too for sleeping with younger women, so how should women be excused?

The Idea of You does not quite deal with this question, and although the film is beautiful, it focuses far too much on Hayes’ Campbell the popstar, than Hayes’ Campbell the younger-man. 

One of the best cinematic portrayals of the younger-man-older-woman dynamic is the Korean drama Something in the Rain, starring Son Ye Jin (Yoon Jinha) and Jung Hae In (Seo Joon Hee), that deals not just with the taboo of loving a man so much younger, but also her younger brother’s best friends, also comes from a broken, poor home. 

Today, I want to focus on the characters of Jin-ha and Solène, and why the feminist reaction to this age-difference is – it’s okay. 

In TIOY, Solène has lost her 20s to early motherhood, and now that she’s turning 40, she realizes how much of her 20s she simply did not focus on – she was either there for her child or her then husband. In SITR, Jin-ha is in her mid-30s, her boyfriend has just cheated on her, her parents are pestering her to get married, and she is constantly harassed and bullied at work; a routine she struggles to fight against. 

For Solène, connecting with someone in her 20s is about reclaiming a lost phase of her life, to remind her of the unattached fun that that age-group brings with it. Plus he’s a pop-star. If this was another rom-com about a pop-star falling in love with an ordinary girl, it would take a sense of agency away from her – he was rich, famous, a man. She would not be anything but an accessory to his story and journey.  

But Solène is 40. Successful. Her own person, with her own life. Her decision to say yes to Hayes is an act of reclaiming agency – her age raises its neck to level the field of his fame and power. It’s her choice to go to him, her choice to walk away. The agency – all hers- and one that she can exercise with far greater authority because she knows that no matter how much of a back foot she has as a woman in the world, her age would never. 

In SITR, Jin-ha, finds that everyone treats her like a pushover, except Joon-hee. When he tries to step in to play the part of a protective boyfriend, she wakes up and realizes that she is so much older than him she should be able to take care of her mess herself – and that gives her the courage to begin to learn to stand up for herself. And in that process, find herself.

We have built a world in which women almost never hold power; and what little they do, they have to fight for, scream for, beg for, and constantly justify having it. All of that vanishes when a younger man enters your life. 

You see that for once, you are not asked to behave like a grown up good girl, you are not asked to behave your age, you are not asked to dress your age. When a younger man enters your life, you want to hold on to him – because he makes you feel safe, powerful, and in control when you want it to be. You are respected, seen, and heard because the vantage has changed – you are sitting on the same high chair as him – he with the man card, you with the number card. Suddenly, you get the license to be playful without being called childish, you can go on a holiday with a man if you feel like (and return when you want to). You get the license to forget that there are otherwise rules for you that will never apply to men.

Cougars have become a symbol of hyper-sexualised aging, because films portray them using the same lens we use when we portray men looking at women – treating them like prey. But look beyond caricatures and stereotypes, and peel back the layers of what it means to be the older woman in a relationship.

It fulfills the most divine of our desires. 

Not power. But equality. 

Want to talk more about it? Tweet to me @pramankapranam or email me at prakrut[at]purplepencilproject[dot]com