You can’t really escape the age gap discourse. Each week, a fresh romance makes headlines involving a man in his late 30s or 40s and a woman in her early 20s. Naturally, if you’ve ever experienced an unhealthy or manipulative relationship with an older partner, this can be an upsetting reflection of your own experience. But even if that’s not you, something about the dynamic always feels like an open invitation for some classic relationship dissection and projection.
This week, the (former) couple in question was Suki Waterhouse and Bradley Cooper, thanks to a viral and since-made-private tweet featuring two photos. The first picture was from when they were dating, in 2013, when she was 21 and he was 38; she’s sitting between his legs at a park while he appears to read her Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 novel, Lolita. The second image, more recently, shows her posing with Kate Elizabeth Russell’s 2020 novel My Dark Vanessa, a novel about an adult woman realizing she was groomed by a teacher in high school who preyed upon her vulnerability. “The way I could write multiple essays about these photos,” the original poster wrote, suggesting a parallel between Waterhouse and the protagonist of Russell’s novel.
But as we all flagellate ourselves with another round of age gap debate, I think we need a reminder: Celebrities are not like the rest of us.
Sure, maybe Waterhouse’s recent photos are a statement about her past—it could’ve been a stunt in the same way the older photos seemed at the time. My Dark Vanessa is partially in conversation with Lolita: Its antagonist gives the narrator a copy of the book, and the novel’s title refers to a line from another Nabokov book, Pale Fire. But otherwise, it’s a stretch to compare Cooper and the then-21-year-old Waterhouse’s relationship to that of a teacher who grooms a high school student in My Dark Vanessa or that of a pedophile who kidnaps and molests a prepubescent child in Lolita.
Waterhouse is entitled to whatever ill feelings she may or may not have toward Cooper—but we have no idea if she even has those feelings. In interviews, she mentioned looking back on a relationship and realizing it was unhealthy and even toxic, but she never explicitly talked about Cooper. Ultimately, he has little to do with this narrative at all. I don’t know what he’s like, and I have no interest in taking it upon myself to defend him. All I can say is that Cooper is not like the weird older boyfriend you or your friend had in your late teens or early 20s. Cooper is not at all a parallel to the 20-year-old I “dated” at 15. Why? Because Bradley Cooper is fucking famous. And famous people, as much as they’d like to create an image of normalcy, do not abide by the same interpersonal rules and norms as the rest of us.
Bradley Cooper is not at all a parallel to the 20-year-old I “dated” at 15.
Why do older men date younger women? The most straightforward answer is just because they can. In many cases, though, the fact that an older man can date a younger woman hinges upon the fact that he can’t date older ones. Something about him—maybe his immaturity, his lack of a career, his emotional instability—makes him unattractive to women his age in a way that goes undetected or otherwise ignored by the younger ones. In regular life, that’s often how it goes.
For whatever reason, at 38, Cooper didn’t date someone his age. Perhaps he and Waterhouse just liked each other. Perhaps he strategically wanted to be with someone younger because her newness to the industry appealed to him. Maybe he even felt like he could manipulate that youth and newness. But he definitely did not not date a woman his age because he couldn’t. Because as immature or cold as any celebrity man may be, these traits can always be overlooked for fame’s other perks and prestige.
For anyone, dating can signal status, be it wealth or beauty or other forms of power. This is particularly true for celebrities, whose relationships are often deeply entwined with their public image. There are dynamics at play that will never be relatable to most of us. It’s in drawing comparisons between our relationships and those of celebrities that we run into trouble: we assume that someone like Bradley Cooper is as much of a creepy scrub as some guy who can’t find a woman his age to date, or we compare our relationships to those of age gap couples when the status markers just aren’t the same. In both cases, we don’t have an accurate reflection of reality.
Many things can be true at once. An age-gap couple can have a perfectly normal, happy, healthy dynamic or a predatory, imbalanced one. Some older men do groom younger women. Our relationships can reflect any of these realities, and so can celebrity ones. But when we exclusively use celebrity relationships to frame the rest, we don’t get very far because we live according to an entirely different framework. Waterhouse and Cooper tell us nothing about how age gaps play out in real life. When we use celebrity relationships as a lens through which to view our own, things will never look quite right.
The post Stop Using Celebrities to Talk About Age Gap Relationships appeared first on VICE.