As I write this column (in my Economics class, as my professor stares at me expectantly, assuming I will know the answer to something I don’t), I’ve officially been on Earth 20 years, three months, 30 days, 11 hours and 42 minutes. And it took the same brainpower to calculate that that it would have to do my Econ homework.

Age is just a number, right? A number broken down into smaller numbers and more finite definitions until it has no meaning. It’s why I get along better with my mom’s friends than my own. Age is just a number — until it’s not.

Watching the trailer for “Focus,” the sleek and sexy con movie starring Will Smith and Margot Robbie, I couldn’t even get past the first few moments without rolling my eyes. I didn’t see the movie — by all accounts it could be funny or charming or smart. But I just couldn’t watch 46-year-old Will Smith take 24-year-old Robbie under his wing, showing her the ways of the con world and maybe falling a little in love. I couldn’t stop thinking, “Why is that allowed?”

Why are we, as an intelligent audience, asked to suspend our disbelief when it comes to the age difference between onscreen love interests? It was the case in “Sabrina” 60 years ago – a daddy-issue-laden Audrey Hepburn was 25 while her counterpart Humphrey Bogart was 55 — and it still happens all the time today. Whether it’s part of the plot, as “Focus” attempts with Smith and Robbie’s veteran/novice relationship, or not, it seems we find it OK when men in movies are AARP cardholders and their girls barely out of braces.

Cursory research into this disparity holds true, even with award-winning movies. Bradley Cooper was 15 years older than Jennifer Lawrence when they fell in bizarre love in “Silver Linings Playbook.” (And now Bradley just broke up with Suki Waterhouse, a model 17 years his junior, which begs the question: is Bradley Cooper kind of a skeeze?) Woody Allen’s entire repertoire, including last year’s “Magic in the Moonlight,” features the perfunctory objectification of younger muses. It’s clear a director has a problem when the onscreen relationship between Emma Stone (25) and Colin Firth (54) barely bats an eye among audiences.

Search “age difference in film” on Wikipedia and the list of films featuring older men with younger women is more than three times the length of its reverse, older women with younger men. A vast age gap between a wrinkled man and rosy-cheeked girl is often not even addressed in the plot of a film — it’s just something we’ve come to expect in a patriarchal society. In contrast, when a woman is older than a man in a movie, you betcha the word cougar comes up. The Wikipedia list alone is laughable, featuring titles like “Cougar Club,” “My Teacher’s Wife,” and “Caught” — these movies are defined by this illicit age difference. What does the other side have? Oscar winners and box office hits.

When women are older they are often represented as unstable cougars, desperately clinging to their youth or fading self image — the infamous Mrs. Robinson in “The Graduate” comes to mind. Or they are lonely women just making a mistake, reclaiming their sexuality — J.Lo as the teacher gone rogue in “The Boy Next Door.” This is a decided type in film, a persona at the forefront of a script. Older men are rarely defined by their age in reference to their younger love interest, unless they literally are predators. We all know “Lolita” and shudder, but Keira Knightley was only 19 when she and Jack Sparrow had their almost-tryst in “Pirates of the Caribbean,” and no one ever talks about that in hushed tones.

I know it may seem as though I’m grasping for straws, but there is a real discrepancy. And it matters. Men are valued for their strength, their experience, their confidence; all traits that grow with age. Women are valued first and foremost for their beauty, and then their spontaneity, that fresh, fleeting ingénue quality.

We are afraid for women to get old. That’s it. Men can age with dignity and humor, developing distinguished gray hair and endearing laugh lines. As men in Hollywood age they become wiser, mellower, less inhibited. Women don’t have that luxury — in real life that’s why those who have the means so often turn to plastic surgery, and in Hollywood that’s why 26-year-olds are hired to fill a role better suited thematically for a 40-year-old. Meryl Streep was once quoted saying, “When I turned 40, I got 3 different witch scripts in one year.” That’s fucked up. (And to note, that was 10 years after Streep played a divorced woman replaced by an 18-year-old in Woody Allen’s “Manhattan.”)

Female actresses, both young and old, deserve better. The Margot Robbies of Hollywood deserve to be offered roles in which their sex symbol statuses aren’t salient character traits. They shouldn’t always be the targets of skewed power dynamics, a plaything for an older man. Older women deserve roles that recognize their age (and not in a negative way) while still valuing them as living, breathing, loving human beings. That’s not to say that age difference shouldn’t be used as a storytelling device — it’s important that movies do recognize when age plays a role in character decisions or behaviors. But this needs to be conscious, and should reflect dynamics actually present in the world.

My mom is four years older than my dad, and growing up it was always a thing. There were usually jokes at parties about Mary, the cougar. Not that it really bothered my mom – she was too busy living her goddamn life to let something like that irritate her. But it always intrigued me. Would there have been the jokes if my dad were older? Movies are often an inflated reflection on real life, in this issue especially. I want to live in a world where no one comments on my parent’s age difference, unless those same people also call into question an even more exaggerated age difference like that in “Focus.”

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