Here’s a trope that gets a lot of play without almost anyone realizing it: age gaps. The age gap romance is much more common than you might think, but it’s not always marketed that way.
Think Bella and Edward from Twilight. How about the fairy love interests in Sarah J. Maas’s books? Pretty much any romance that includes a paranormal or supernatural element is likely to hit on the age gap trope.
In contemporary fiction, we’re more likely to see the trope named, although it sometimes lurks under the surface. Often, if something is billed as an “age gap romance,” it means one of the leads is 40 or 50+. It’s usually side-by-side with tropes like second-chance romance. This, of course, isn’t the only place we see age gaps. A college freshman and their professor is equally an age gap romance, although authors may steer clear of the label.
That’s in part because age gaps have become increasingly maligned on social media. And while we have good reason to be somewhat concerned, “age gap” doesn’t always need to be a dirty phrase.
The Problem with Age Gap Romance
The biggest issue with age gaps is the hint of pedophilia that can accompany them. I mentioned a college freshman and a professor or a sports coach shacking up as an example of the trope. In both cases, the college freshman is likely just barely legal. (I personally was not 18 when I started university, so we could really be toeing a line here.)
This creates a power imbalance, which is part of the reason the law is concerned with “age gaps.” Adults often have undue power and sway over minors who are in their care, such as teachers with their students. Teachers can coerce students in a variety of ways: offering better grades, threatening punishment, or bribing students.
Students, being younger and without power, may not recognize this manipulation. They may see their teacher’s attention as a sort of power or privilege. Often, the teacher will try to play on that perception, to make the student feel special.
This happens in more run-of-the-mill relationships as well, such as a college-age man dating a high school senior. The older man may provide access to living space away from parents, drugs, cars or clothing, or even income. Some students may simply be after social status. They may feel more “mature” if they date someone older. They may be able to access a different social circle. In short, they may think dating this older person makes them “cool.”
Who Holds the Power?
All of this creates, as I said, a power imbalance in the relationship. The power often rests with the older partner, as they’ve simply had more time to accumulate material objects, social clout, education, and life experience. They might have access to material objects, power, prestige, or people.
They can then dangle that over the younger partner’s head and use that to manipulate them. Sometimes, the simple reality of having more life experience is enough. The older partner may be able to “prey” on the younger’s lack of knowledge, know-how, or their naivety to convince them to do things they don’t actually want to do.
Age Gaps Often Coincide with Male Power and Female Exploitation
Age gaps are also often associated with male-female relationships. It’s a common belief that “much older dude, barely out of childhood chick” was a common arrangement. By and large, this wasn’t the reality for the majority of the population.
In the New World, the dynamic of much older man marrying a much younger woman was sometimes encountered. It’s often suggested that the logic here was that older men had more time to accumulate property and wealth, so they’d be better able to care for their wives. For the younger woman, marrying a man who was much older could mean a step into a better life.
While this was still relatively uncommon, the issue was a lack of marriageable women. The colonies were, initially, largely dominated by men. The lack of women of marriageable age meant men might delay marriage. The state preferred this, to some degree, as soldiers were needed to defend and fight on the frontier.
Age Gaps Weren’t Actually All That Common
Throughout history, though, men and women have tended to marry in their mid-to-late twenties. There is variability, of course. In the Roman Empire, for example, people weren’t considered “adults” until age twenty-five. Men had to finish their military service before they settled down and married. Thus, they tended to be older at age of marriage, while women tended to be a bit younger. In the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, people equally tended to marry at, on average, the ages of twenty-five to twenty-seven. In the 1950s, after World War II, the average age at first marriage dropped.
The “age gap” is usually thought to coincide with male power and female exploitation. A much older man has more power and clout. A younger woman is at a disadvantage when she comes to the marriage. Especially if she comes from a poorer family, she may not bring much to the marriage at all. In that case, she is even more at her husband’s mercy than she might be otherwise.
The “age gap” compounds this. She tends to have less life experience, in addition to fewer material possessions or access to social or political power. Thus, the age gap tends to exist at the intersection of at least a couple of power imbalances—which makes the relationship even more unbalanced.
Age Gaps Aren’t Automatically a Problem
Recent social media discourse has become more virulent against age gaps. While age gaps can have problems—see the power imbalance above—they aren’t a real problem after people reach adulthood.
As I noted, the law is concerned with the exploitation of minors by adults. In law, it’s understood that minors cannot give full and informed consent, precisely because they are minors. Even the most mature individual hasn’t fully finished developing on a cognitive level. They’re unable to think through situations the same way an adult can.
As a result, minors are motivated by irrational or emotional thinking to a greater extent than adults. It’s why teens often engage in impulsive acts that, in hindsight, were incredibly dangerous or stupid. Their need for approval from their peers outweighs any focus on consequences or risks.
Once someone is into their twenties or even their thirties, age gaps diminish in importance. When we’re younger, even a two-year gap between people can seem like an impossible span to bridge. Think about the difference in cognitive thinking between a two-year-old and a four-year-old. The two-year-old is barely stringing sentences together, while a four-year-old might be reading books by themself.
Fast-forward to these two individuals being twenty and twenty-two, or twenty-eight and twenty-six. The “impossible gap” that two years presented when they were toddlers is pretty much nonexistent.
And so it goes: age gaps that seemed enormous to us as children diminish in importance as we become adults. Suddenly, a five-year age difference or even a ten-year gap hardly feels like much of an issue, even though we know that, when I was ten, you were fifteen—a gap that meant the world then. What fifteen-year-old would be caught dead hanging around with a ten-year-old?
“It Was Wrong Once!”
And this is the crux of current social media discourse against age gaps. All age gaps were illegal at some point. If you’re five years older than me, there was a point when you were twenty and I was fifteen. That would be an illegal relationship if we were engaged in one at those ages. But if we meet when I’m twenty-five and you’re thirty, then we’re not breaking any laws. There’s a good chance we don’t feel that five-year gap is terribly important.
Yet people want to argue that a five-year age gap—or even more minuscule gaps—are somehow “wrong,” in part because of this historical “illegality.”
That ignores the idea that people … grow up and mature.
It also infantilizes adults, particularly women. Suggesting that a thirty-year-old woman is being taken advantage of or manipulated by her older partner suggests she lacks the cognitive ability to make good decisions. It suggests she’s perhaps operating on the cognitive level of a child.
Does that sound familiar? It should. Historically, women have been infantilized as having inferior intellect to men. Women were often depicted as “childlike” and “innocent,” especially during the Victorian era, and thus needing men to guide them.
Women are also often depicted as irrational and emotional, which is the inverse of logical and rational. Again, this particular discourse against age gaps suggests women are incapable of logical, rational thought.
This argument has been used to dismiss women in a number of ways throughout history, including stripping their rights from them.
Thus, any time anyone argues against an “age gap” between two consenting adults, it’s drawing on this line of thinking. It is more concerned with stripping rights from women and putting them back in their “rightful” place.
What about Age Gap Romance with Supernatural Creatures?
I kicked off this post by talking about how age gaps are pretty common in romances with supernatural elements, like vampires. Edward and Bella have an age gap of about a hundred years, give or take.
Age gaps between humans and supernatural creatures are thus even more interesting and complex. The power imbalance here isn’t stemming just from age or even gender. It stems from the literal supernatural powers that these creatures have versus our “regular human.”
Unfortunately, a lot of writers don’t take advantage of this added layer of complexity. How does being an age-old vampire or an immortal influence this being’s worldview? Their perception of time? What life experience do they have? What cultural differences are there when you literally can’t die?
It’s Been Eighty-Four Years …
Of course, there’s also the simple aspect of age and being able to relate to someone. Bella and Edward don’t grapple with this much, in part because Meyer tries to solve it by having Edward and the Cullens attend high school on a regular basis. Thus, they are always “with it” when it comes to current teen culture.
But Edward was born in the early 1900s. This is a many who had seen nearly a century of wars, depression, and other major historical events. He’d watched human culture evolve over time: from radios to TVs, from silent film to “talkies,” to computers and cellphones.
What does that do to a person when they then try to relate to someone much younger than them? One way we can look at that is through how parents relate to teen culture. They often react with fear or inability (or unwillingness) to understand.
So how is our 100-year-old vampire going to relate to some teenage girl? There’s a good chance he’s actually going to sound more like her grandfather than anything. Even if he comes at everything with curiosity and a willingness to learn—and he’s able to master new technology and new slang alike—there’s likely going to be a preference for what he learned during his formative years. Some things, like turns of phrase and how you speak, become crystallized as you age.
Okay, so vampires don’t technically “age,” but they do gather life experience. And even then, they’re probably not going to “adapt” as well as they think they might. It’s kind of like how your mom insisted that she was still cool or hip.
Oh, Grow Up
The trope also doesn’t always address the differences among people at different life stages. While everyone progresses through life on a different schedule, people evolve over time. What was important to them when they were younger is displaced by other interests or desires.
We’ve all heard the joke about twenty-somethings preferring to stay out late and party. They have trouble envisioning themselves being the kind of people who “get up early and go to farmers’ markets.”
Yet, once they get into their thirties and forties, many people find that the club doesn’t have the same appeal. They may prefer activities that do involve getting up early—like going to the farmers’ market, brunch, or the gym. They may find they prefer a couple of brewskis at the pub with some friends versus a rave. Or they might find they simply prefer to be in bed at a reasonable hour and sleep in.
So, yeah, a lot of us evolve away from the things we did when we were younger. That doesn’t mean we didn’t enjoy them or that it’s wrong for other people to continue to enjoy them. It simply means our interests have shifted.
Some of us do continue to enjoy some or even most of our hobbies well into adulthood. There’s nothing wrong with that. At the same time, some interests absolutely do shift.
What Does an Age Gap Romance with an Immortal Look Like?
So, what does it look like when a twenty-one-year-old shacks up with an immortal creature? A lot of us were “live fast, die young” types at that age, ready and willing to take risks, always looking for a thrill. Many of us enjoyed parties, ragers, staying out all night, doing drugs, casual sex. A lot of us wanted to be carefree; we weren’t looking for commitment.
What about an immortal? What are they looking for, and how do their hobbies line up with those of a twenty-one-year-old? Sure, we might find an immortal who has that “live fast, die … never” attitude, one who thrives on the nightlife. But what if you have an immortal who’s more like your granddad or a wise old sage?
This is one of the dynamics I had fun exploring in Rare Flower. Does it fully answer the question? Maybe, maybe not. I think there’s still plenty of room for exploration of supernatural age gaps and what that actually means.