Hollywood age gaps are not funny, they’re just weird

While jokes abound about 18 year olds dating 40 year olds, the reality is no laughing matter


Courtesy of Showbiz Cheat Sheet

Bar Refaeli attends a 2010 film festival with Leonardo DiCaprio, who is 10 years her senior.

Walker Newman, Contributing Columnist

20 years apart isn’t that bad, right? 

It might not have seemed that odd when Leonardo DiCaprio was six years older than his then-girlfriend Gisele Bündchen, or 10 years older than Bar Refaeli, another girlfriend. Age gaps in Hollywood are often overlooked when the older partner in the relationship is a man, but when 48-year-old DiCaprio is dating a 25-year-old, something doesn’t feel right. 

Considering the type of women that older men in Hollywood go for, the relationships are even more sickening. These women are often young, up-and-coming models and actresses who are subject to the seemingly predatory behavior of older men. DiCaprio isn’t the only example of an actor being involved in an age-gap relationship — he’s simply one of the more dramatic examples. 

Being in the spotlight in Hollywood as a young woman brings unwarranted attention by older men. Turning 18 years old in the United States grants people a sense of freedom and access to new opportunities that raise them to the status of adulthood. However, 18-year-old brains are not fully formed and most likely unable to recognize predatory and manipulative behaviors due to a lack of dating experience. In college environments, many students would find it odd if a senior in college were still dating a senior in high school. It would be strange for a multitude of reasons, including the difference in life stages and experiences. Well, multiply those feelings by about 10, and that is the scale of Hollywood relationships. However, many of the people have been raised in the industry and are desensitized to such issues because of constant exposure. 

Age gaps in Hollywood have begun to be recognized for their predatory nature as more young women band together in recognition of their collective mistreatment. 

Even if partners in a relationship are both consenting and knowledgeable of their situations, people who are far apart in age have their differing life stages and experiences to consider. An older partner in a relationship might be looking to settle down and have a family, whereas the younger partner may be focused on more ambitious prospects within the workplace or travel, to name a few examples. 

In the early 2000s, Hollywood relationships took a front-page seat in tabloids and magazines that popped up, from grocery store aisles to airports. You had to know who was dating whom, all of the drama that ensued and how old everyone was. This was a time when kids from Disney Channel were being noticed by older male actors and other people in the business, and this predatory recognition set an example for young girls. If Demi Lovato could date Wilmer Valderrama at 17 (when he was 29), anything was possible. 

These relationships in which the younger partner wasn’t of legal age made an impact on impressionable audiences. What many people seem to overlook, though, is that Hollywood isn’t reality. In the real world, people don’t continue to form relationships with underage models or actresses, again and again. Hollywood might not be a reality, but it’s at the center of the United States’ media sphere. 

Age-gap relationships in Hollywood primarily stem from one of two scenarios. In the first scenario, the partners in a relationship have worked on a project together, whether that be in making a movie or producing an album, and the subsequent relationship “bloomed” from there. In these incidents, though, there are sometimes clear power imbalances since one party is in the position of “directing” the project and the other is in a position of being controlled. The incidents mentioned don’t always include a director and performer; they can include two performers, but the partners may still experience a large age gap and corresponding power imbalances. For example, the director Sam Taylor-Johnson and now husband Aaron Taylor-Johnson were apparently aged 18-19 and 42, respectively, when they worked on the film, “Nowhere Boy.” It only seems appropriate to question the context of their relationship, especially considering Sam Taylor-Johnson is old enough to be Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s mother. Their relationship exemplifies the issue of power imbalances coming to fruition. 

The second scenario is more manipulative in nature, and it involves a younger up-and-coming star getting involved with a person that they have idolized, who is much older and fully knowledgeable of their actions. Examples of this include Phoebe Bridgers who was 20 years younger than Ryan Adams when they met, or even Taylor Swift and John Mayer, who were 19 and 32, respectively. Swift and Bridgers never explicitly stated such feelings of idolization, but Swift did release a song titled “Dear John” in which she depicts a relationship where she was too young and treated unfairly. In such scenarios, the younger partner, typically a woman, has just gained attention from the media for their talents and is preyed upon by older men. These men might be trying to stay relevant in the industry or regain some sense of control and power in their lives, but in any case, the relationships often end up abusive, in some form, and damaging. Such was the case with Ryan Adams, who has been accused by multiple women of emotional and verbal abuse after romantic engagements started, according to a 2019 New York Times article. 

There is a difference in age-gap relationships in which the partners met on a job and formed a relationship equitably and consensually and a situation where one partner has idolized the other. Idolization opens up a world of further exploitation because the younger partner most likely still views the older one as a celebrity and may be willing to be taken advantage of — even unknowingly. Furthermore, there is the problem of grooming. Grooming is a scenario in which an abuser gains the trust of a younger partner and builds a relationship for the sole purpose of exploitation, whether that be sexual in nature or not. 

With all of that being said, ordinary people have no real idea what celebrities are actually like in person. All we have are our opinions and judgements as fans or critics of people we have seen represented in many non-realistic scenarios. There is clearly a division between how celebrity relationships are represented online and in the media versus their real-world depictions.

It could be argued that as women have begun to unite against mistreatment from men, we have good reason to be concerned. Even though the public eye might not know all of the nitty-gritty details of celebrity relationships, we have a right to our own perspectives. As movements like #MeToo have become more widespread in recent years, it seems as though women are entitled to — and need to — look out for one another. If no one is looking out for such young and impressionable people, who will voice their concerns? A little public criticism of such relationships is good — even necessary.