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The internet is astonished the 55-year-old actor is seeing a 46-year-old acclaimed mixed-media artist who, like him, looks her age. Because apparently only aging men are considered sexual beings.
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This week, the internet stopped in slack-jawed astonishment before a sight previously unseen by mortal eyes: An attractive, considerate man in his mid-50s, dating a woman only about one decade younger than himself.
The woman in question, Alexandra Grant, is an acclaimed mixed-media artist whose works have been praised for their “deep conviction and raw emotion.” She is also the founder of an organization that raises funds for arts-based non-profits. She has worked with people like writer Roxane Gay, legendary French feminist Hélène Cixous, and—on multiple occasions—the actor Keanu Reeves.
Keanu was her date. You can probably guess whose name was in the headlines. You can’t blame the internet for applauding Grant’s luck; as men go, Keanu is top of the line. Yet the reaction to Reeves and Grant curdled, pretty quickly, from general internet squee-ing to a weirdly patronizing astonishment that Reeves would deign to be seen with such a normie. Like plenty of “ordinary” women who wind up dating celebrity men—George Clooney’s stunningly beautiful, internationally recognized, human-rights-lawyer wife Amal comes to mind—Grant is being framed as the pathetic recipient of some man’s generosity, rather than a catch in her own right. In Grant’s case, it came down to her age: Though she is incredibly beautiful (the height! The patrician profile! Like a warmer Anjelica Houston!), she’s in her 40s and has gray hair.
We do not consider it unusual for men over 40 to be hot, or for them to date other hot people. This should be proven by how much the internet loves, well, Keanu Reeves, a man who, at 55, is much closer to 60 than he is to 46. Benedict Cumberbatch is 43 years old; Oscar Isaac is 40; Bradley Cooper is 44. Speaking of Cooper, he and Cumberbatch are actually some of the younger Avengers; the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) is 51, and Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) is 56. Paul Rudd, who plays Ant-Man, just dropped a Netflix show, Living With Yourself, about a man who is trying to get his wife pregnant.
Paul Rudd is 50 goddamned years old. Aisling Bea, who plays the wife, is 35.
You can say that Keanu Reeves or Paul Rudd look “younger than their age,” but look at them some time: They don’t. Keanu is grizzled. He has gray streaks in his beard and wear lines on his face. Rudd’s face, being made of ordinary human skin and not flesh-colored titanium, is also rumpled, and sags under his eyes a little, and crinkles when he smiles. Neither of them is superhuman. They’re just ordinary, handsome, middle-aged men living in a society where looking 50-something is considered handsome for male people. Yet when a woman shows up looking both beautiful and recognizably middle-aged, it’s an occasion for headlines, as if she were some kind of sexual Yeti who has never been sighted in the wild. For men, adult sexuality is the norm. For women, it’s a fluke.
Some part of this comes down to our refusal to acknowledge that women can have sex for pleasure at all. We still behave as if female sexuality is or should be purely reproductive. Evolutionary psychologists spout pseudoscience about how beauty standards were invented to separate fertile women from infertile ones, as if anyone has ever wanked to a poster of Ariana Grande in the hopes of getting it pregnant. Women drop off our radar at around 35 because, supposedly, that’s when their baby-making days are done. (Never mind that this doesn’t line up with many people’s actual reproductive schedules.) Yet the other part of this equation is darker: We behave as if only young women are sexual because young women are relatively powerless, and we live in a society that fetishizes power differentials between men and women. Specifically, we live in a society that behaves as if men having power over women is desirable, rather than dangerous for the women in question.
Older women have a harder time looking powerless because, well, they’re usually not. They’ve had time to build careers and have adventures and decide who they want to be. They’ve worked up résumés. They’ve become internationally renowned human-rights lawyers or collaborated with Hélène Cixous. They often have sexual experience—possibly more experience than the people they’re sleeping with. They’ve often risen up the ranks in their professions—possibly further up than the men they’re dating. All of this is true for older men, too, but we consider men with money and status and sexual know-how to be hot. We consider women with those same qualities threatening.
I don’t know what beauty is, exactly, but it’s not an objective assessment. There was a time when the internet thought Benedict Cumberbatch was beautiful, which made me feel like I was having an aneurysm. Desirability, though, is not beauty. Desirability is a social construction, a gestalt made of posture and status and signal, an “I would” response which lets you know this person has subconsciously ticked all the boxes that mark them as someone okay for you to want. We fall in love or in lust with people’s social positions as much as we fall for their faces or their bodies. We make a decision about who we are every time we make a decision about who to date. When 50-something men are sex symbols and 40-something women are past their expiration dates, we’re being sent a pretty clear message about whose power is desirable and whose is disgusting.
This is a stern conclusion to reach in response to a photo of Keanu Reeves’s girlfriend, and I promise that one day I will write a dignified op-ed about the Equal Rights Amendment to make up for it. Yet this attitude hurts women at every point in their lives. It’s why Emma Watson, a 30-year-old woman, has to come up with a goofy neologism like “self-partnered” to explain why she isn’t married yet, rather than simply being single and dating, like vast swaths of her male peers. (Or like James Marsden. By the way, James Marsden—like Alexandra Grant—is 46 years old.) It’s why women rush into abusive or dysfunctional or unsatisfying relationships in their 20s, and are afraid to leave them in their 30s, 40s, and 50s, for fear they’ll never find anyone else willing to date them. In fact, since many people still see women’s primary value as sexual, desexualizing a woman is often the quickest way to devalue the rest of her; refusing to acknowledge that adult women have sex lives is also why so many people feel free to ignore their needs, erase their work, overlook their activism, or dismiss them as someone’s boring mother.
It’s great that Keanu Reeves is going out on dates with hot women. It’s great for hot women that they get to go out on dates with Keanu Reeves. And, yes, it’s very nice that Reeves is evidently dating a woman he sees as a peer and collaborator, rather than a 23-year-old whose role in the relationship is to admire him. But Reeves’s dating Grant shouldn’t be framed as an act of generosity. He’s presumably getting at least as much out of this as she is. Nor yet should we behave as if it’s weird or rare to see a beautiful 46-year-old woman. There are lots of them, single and partnered. It’s lovely to see one such woman having a good date, but that sight shouldn’t be inspirational. We should acknowledge it for what it is: normal. It’s just a form of normalcy that misogyny doesn’t normally let us see.
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