The announcement last week of Stephen Fry’s engagement to his boyfriend, Elliot Spencer, turned, in my opinion, surprisingly few heads. Perhaps it’s because with his quintessentially British humour, charm, and intellectualism, this BBC frontman is beyond reproach from the regular conservative mudslingers. Perhaps, given his unabashed honesty about his past, from juvenile arrests to suicide attempts, we’ve come to expect the abrupt extremes from Fry. Alternatively I’d like to think that, in the UK at least, we’ve simply outgrown this “taboo” against age-gaps in relationships in which both parties are consenting adults.
Granted, thirty years isn’t exactly mainstream; it’s roughly ten times the average age gap, with men being older in the vast majority of conventional heterosexual relationships. In fact, an age gap of this magnitude is reminiscent of most marriages circa the 1800s, where women were married off for a dowry as soon as possible to an eligible bachelor, generally twenty years her senior. Picture Austen. Back when gender equality simply didn’t exist, girl-brides would have no option but to remain married for life, learn to become the perfect housewife, and to accept that they would never be able to converse with their husband as an equal, not hoping to come close to his level of intellectual maturity.
Nowadays, thankfully, gender equality and feminist progress mean women have an equal level of education to that of men. They are beginning to earn the same salaries, to occupy the same positions in the workforce, and as such no longer rely on men for domestic or financial security. Being a single, professional woman in your twenties, and thirties, is the social norm of our generation; we no longer need to get married. So, without this material reliance on older men, surely the old-fashioned ‘allure’ of the age-gap is lost?
Maybe the old-fashioned part is. One of this century’s fads seems to be the ‘trophy wife’, or alternatively, the ‘toy-boy’, whereby the sexism is simply displaced as society now chooses to condemn the ‘cougars’, and congratulate the aging bachelors. I’ll admit, maybe in some cases (of the Hefner category) it’s hard to sympathise with the young, semi-naked, peroxide bunny, who might openly admit to being in a relationship for the lifestyle that comes package deal. It’s possible that the toy-boy just wants a pat on the back from the lads after gaining some sexual experience from a ‘milf’; who, herself, may only be experiencing a misguided mid-life crisis.
Evidently, the above are the most shallow and cynical of outlooks. For my part, I think many age-gap relationships exist because they are more interesting, and because they are tolerated in an open and accepting society. Personally, I find it difficult to imagine being in a serious relationship with someone I don’t (secretly) consider more intelligent than myself. An older partner means they have more life experience, better insight, and more sage advice. They are more likely to challenge you, and their opinions to interest you. The sex will, undoubtedly, be better, and the person themselves (thinking specifically about men here) will be more mature.
There’s no denying you won’t share the same ‘generational reference points’ so to speak, and maybe tastes in music and popular culture will clash, but if the people match, then the age discrepancy becomes somewhat obsolete. Obviously with vast age differences, situation generally imposes itself in the form of kids, ex-husbands/wives, family planning, and whatnot. It’s this reality, which curses a large proportion of these relationships. For instance, a recent survey (published by the Atlantic and carried out by A.M Francis and H.M Mialon) on 3000 recently married and divorced Americans shows that a ten year age difference leaves the marriage 39% more likely to end in divorce, a 20 year gap is 95% more likely, and a 30 year gap is a whopping 172% more likely to fail, than a marriage between people of the same age. Clearly, interpretation of these statistics is entirely speculative, but it’s not hard to imagine that for many a rushed marriage could simply be the fulfilment a romantic fantasy; a case of getting carried away.
This paints a somewhat pessimistic outlook for Fry and his new fiancé. However, stats certainly aren’t everything. The tried and tested example of Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta Jones is brought to mind as, notwithstanding a brief separation in 2013, they have been happily married for fourteen years despite him being twenty-five years her senior. The hilarious and internationally adored talk show host, Ellen Degeneres (voice of Dory), is likewise proving that age is paramount only in the abstract as she remains happily married to wife of six years, Portia de Rossi; who is fifteen years her junior. A somewhat less concrete example, given the relatively recent nature of the nuptials, is that of actor Aaron Taylor-Johnson and filmmaker Sam Taylor-Johnson, who is twenty-four years older. You’ll know Aaron from his (somewhat ironic) role as Vronsky in Anna Karenina, or perhaps, like me, you will always associate him with his role in ‘Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging’; which makes his mature marriage seem a bit surreal.
It’s hard to predict the future for Fry and Spencer, not least given Fry’s bipolar disorder, but it’s undeniably refreshing to see a reaction that is largely supportive as opposed to disparaging. Perhaps part of that is because, as a gay couple, there is less of a taboo, as gender role stereotypes can’t be applied. What’s more, the LGBT society is generally more accepting, and those of us who aren’t part of it tend to have more respect nowadays for freedom of choice. Given society already accepts Fry’s sexuality, perhaps it’s a case of no more questions asked.
Prejudice against interracial couples was once an immense issue, followed by that against couples of a non-heterosexual nature. Today however, there no longer exists an exact ‘mould’; few among us students strive to attain the 1950’s version of the perfect nuclear family in the next five or ten years. Following this progression it’s more than conceivable relationships with huge age discrepancies will increase. For now, I’m happy for Fry, and regret my immediate reaction of ‘….grandfather?’ to his ‘happy couple’ photo.