Let's face it: There used to be something tragic about even the most beautiful 42-year-old man. With half his life still ahead of him, he was deemed to be at the end of something—namely, everything society valued in him, other than his success as a human person. If he remained sexual, he was neither predatory nor desperate—just doing what was totally accepted and expected by society; if he remained handsome, what gave his masculinity force was the fact of its fading. And Viagra. And if he remained alone ... well, then God help him. He would be a bachelor forever, compelled to have sex with whomever he wanted whenever he wanted: A/S/L, NSA, DTF.
Josh Charles is 42. Jared Leto and his luscious locks are 42. Justin Theroux is 42. And so if you want to see how our conception of the early middle-aged man has not changed at all, simply imagine Mad Men remade, with Theroux in the part made famous by Jon Hamm. Or Ben Affleck. Or Jude Law, who turns the golden age this year. Or any of the 42-year-old men now gracing our culture. The result might be misguided, in the way of so many remakes. But it would neither outdo the original, in terms of heat, nor upend it entirely. In the right hands, it would be funny; but even in the wrong hands it could still get away with what Matthew Weiner and Jessica Pare got away with: a television show that never dealt with Megan’s total lack of guilt with herself for having hot three-way sex with a 42-year-old man. It is hard to feel sorry for a young woman who goes to bed with the man everybody else in the theater wants to go to bed with.
There are many reasons for the apotheosis of 42-year-old men, and some of them have little to do with 42-year-old men themselves. In a society in which the median age keeps advancing, we have no choice but to keep redefining youth (especially as we get older and fewer people our age want to sleep with us or look attractive to us). Life lasts longer; so does beauty, fertility, and sex. And yet 42-year-old men are not enjoying some kind of scientific triumph (except for Viagra) but rather one of political and personal will—a mere continuation of the last three hundred years. A few generations ago, a man turning 42 was expected to voluntarily accept the shackles of sociology and convention—getting married, having kids—or, you know, not.
It seems there is no one in our society quite so determined to be free as 42 year-old men. Feminists still attack masculinity with the absurd notion that it makes its adherents less attractive to women; in truth, it is masculinity that has made 42-year-old men so desirable. Also, they can be bachelors forever.
Idris Elba. Michael Ealy, Paul Rudd. Jean DuJardin. Jason O’Mara. Ewan McGregor. Early middle-aged, yet still so virile. Especially after 20 hours a week at the gym. And Viagra.
It is no accident that many of the men mentioned here have comic as well as carnal appeal, and entice us with the promise of lust with laughs. All generations of American men have entered its forties as frank about sex, and every generation of American men has been as attuned to—or forgiving of— nay, totally welcoming of—the absurd theater of women trying to get into their pants. They have had so much going their way for such a long time that their superiority to their female counterparts has become part of the grain of American life, especially in movies and on television where they get whatever they want: the money, the fame and especially, the girl; indeed, it may be said that the best thing that 42-year-old American men have going for them is 22-year-old American women who are willing to overlook the age difference and their receding hairlines in exchange for dinner and ten minutes of decent sex.
Of course, they have to work for their advantage; they have armored themselves with Viagra and Crossfit even as they joke about the spectacle. Still, what has made them figures of fantasy is not that they have redefined the ideals of male strength but rather their own vulnerabilities. Go to a party: There is simply no one as unclothed as a 42-year-old man in a linen summer suit (except for the women in the skimpy bikinis). For all his toughness, and humor, and smarts, you know exactly what he looks like, without the advantage of knowing who he is. He looks like a hot guy you’d totally fuck.
“Have you ever wondered if there was more to life, other than being really, really, ridiculously good looking?” Derek Zoolander asked us a long time ago. The question, back then, was all that mattered. Women have long known the answer.