Photo: ‘Malcolm and Marie’/Netflix
Earlier this month, ‘Malcolm and Marie’ made headlines for its surprisingly large age gap between actors Zendaya and John David Washington, who, in the film, play lovers in a committed relationship. Zendaya, at 24-years-old, has already been making waves in Hollywood for her dedication to portraying realistic characters living in unique circumstances. For reference, her character Rue in the Emmy-award-winning HBO show ‘Euphoria’ is a drug-addicted teenager. Washington, at 36-years-old, has done similarly well in furthering discussions about race on the big screen with films like ‘Monsters’ and ‘BlacKkKlansman’. Casting these two accomplished actors together onscreen seems like a natural choice, right? Wrong. Recently, ‘Malcolm and Marie’ has come under fire for its normalization of a relationship with a large age gap.
Critique: Normalization Leads to Misrepresentation
Critics on Twitter have been arguing that the casting of a much younger woman opposite an older man is indicative of a larger problem within Hollywood concerning misrepresentation of relationships on screen. Age-gap relationships are unrealistic, but not only that, they can be damaging to viewers in their normalization of the inherent power imbalance that accompanies one partner being wiser and more experienced than the other. This power imbalance could likewise be damaging in the opposite way as well, allowing for a younger woman to manipulate her older partner with her youth and beauty. Ultimately, one of the main arguments for why this consistent depiction of a young woman in a relationship with an older man is simply that it is misrepresentative of many actual love affairs. It also seeks to perpetuate the decidedly male fantasy of a bachelor who switches out his lovers when they “age-out” of a relationship. See Jack Nicholson in ‘Something’s Gotta Give’ if you need an example of this stereotype.
Ageism From an Actress’ Perspective
This “switching out” of women when they become too old is a sign of Hollywood’s ageist tendencies towards actresses in general. The frequent casting of younger actresses as the love interests of older men speaks to a larger issue of ageism in the entertainment industry and the relevancy of older, female stars in comparison to their male counterparts. For example, in 2015, actress Maggie Gyllenhaal spoke out about her heartbreaking experiences with ageism in Hollywood. In an interview, Gyllenhaal talked about being passed over for a role because she, 37-years-old at the time, was too old to play the love interest of a 55-year-old man.
Therefore, the casting of younger women and older men together is intrinsically harmful to older actresses who may be a better fit for these roles. There’s also a greater message that is subconsciously communicated to older women, one that deems them irrelevant after the age of thirty. This, of course, is damaging in its misattribution to the value of actresses; signifying the direct connection between their appearance and their marketability to audiences. Though it does not need to be said, I’ll say it anyway to reiterate: the men of Hollywood simply do not face this same issue of dealing with ageism as frequently.
The Political Climate of Hollywood Leans Towards Scrutiny
But I want to circle back to ‘Malcolm and Marie’ for a moment. Clearly, the casting of a much younger actress opposite an older man is a frequent occurrence in the films and media we love.
However, after the Harvey Weinstein scandal that broke in late 2017. As you hopefully know by now, this scandal sparked the massive “MeToo” movement aimed at exposing powerful men who use their positions to abuse and manipulate vulnerable women. Hollywood, being at the center of this scandal, has, now more than ever, been placed under public scrutiny for its treatment of women. The political climate in the entertainment industry has shifted towards more fair treatment, inclusion, and representation of women both on-screen and off. Thus, the criticism of ‘Malcolm and Marie’ are ultimately an exercise in placing films under the critical eye of the public. Questions of ageism, as well as representation and realism, have sparked discussions about ‘Malcolm and Marie’, which I think is incredible.
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This progressive political climate is allowing for more discourse surrounding how we, the audience, feel about the media we consume. With social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram, we have the opportunity to directly engage with the creators of this content, permitting us to question their decisions when we feel they’re unfair. To sum up, I think this discourse and scrutiny is a great thing. It forces us to be more aware of the media we consume and how it affects our individual perspectives.
Female Agency in Age-Gap Relationships: A Feminist Critique
In the particular case of age-gap relationships on screen, however, this discourse often has a tendency to downplay the role of the female actress in agreeing to act in the film. By criticizing these relationships, we face a paradox of undermining the very women who choose to play these roles and participate in their real-life counterparts. We are disregarding the agency that they have in accepting the roles or being active participants in their relationships, which can feel a bit counter-intuitive. For example, actress Florence Pugh has been in a public relationship with comedian and actor Zach Braff for about two years now. Frequently, their relationship has garnered criticism for the almost 20-year age difference between the pair. People berate Braff for his “disgusting” choice to date Pugh all over social media sites like Instagram and Twitter. Pugh herself has spoken out against these comments in an attempt to remind her fans that she is an active participant in the relationship who is able to make her own choices regarding her romantic partners.
Her response to the backlash ultimately captures the point that I’m trying to make about age-gap relationships: the postmodern feminist movement is all about giving women the ability and freedom to choose what they want, which means that sometimes they might choose age-gap relationships. By consistently approaching these relationships with solely the male perspective in mind, we are refusing to acknowledge that the woman is also a consenting adult who chose to participate in the relationship. We must remember that women have agency, meaning they have the power to choose who they date and which characters they play on-screen.
By ignoring the fact that these relationships can be mutually beneficial to both parties, we are subsequently dismissing the female perspective by ignoring her involvement in the relationship. And that is condescending, not to mention decidedly anti-feminist. Though I would never say that it’s a bad thing to question Hollywood’s casting decisions, we must strive to respect the young women who appear on screen in these roles. They are beings with their own agency who are free to select the roles that they want to play, especially well-established actresses such as Zendaya.
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Caroline is currently a writer and contributor for Hollywood Insider. She believes in constant critical thinking and applied analysis when it comes to media consumption. Her goal aligns with Hollywood Insider’smission statement, and she strives to educate readers on the nuances of the entertainment industry and to hopefully encourage them to form their own opinions on the media they consume daily.