Home Again is released in cinemas today, starring Reese Witherspoon and an unknown hot young guy. That’s what the film is about. She plays Alice: a wealthy, recently separated, 40-year-old mum of two who happens to be the daughter of a very famous film director. Unknown hot young guy plays a broke 27-year-old wannabe film director. The stereotypes of capable older woman and hapless younger man start early when, on the first night they spend together, he throws up and passes out while she dutifully washes his clothes.
Seductive, neurotic Mrs Robinsons and polite, naïve Benjamins are characters we see again and again in cinema, culminating in movie names like Bad Teacher, The Boy Next Door, Cougar Club and I Could Never Be Your Woman. While the sex scenes are always exciting, it never works out because the guy isn’t emotionally developed enough and just likes the chase, and the woman has unrealistic expectations of the relationship and ends up feeling silly when the whippersnapper in question says or does something that really shows his age.
Is Home Again any different? Not at first glance. It follows the same broad pattern and plays into the same stereotypes. What it does differently, is explore the neurotic older woman trope. Alice isn’t presented as a predator, or as desperate, but she is neurotic and, as the film points out, with good reason. While Harry (that’s his name) falls asleep, we see her lying awake. As he bowls about her beautiful house and basks in her 100% cotton sheets, the world at his feet, she’s taking anti-anxiety medication. As he’s held up having drinks with someone who could make his as-yet unmade career, she’s checking her phone and waiting for him at a friend’s dinner. Sure, he’s nice to her and charming and easy-going, but it’s easy to be nice, charming and easy-going when you have nothing going on. There’s no pressure or responsibility in his life yet, it’s still just hopes and dreams.
Harry learns from Alice throughout the film; she matures him, calls him out on stuff, teaches him to stand up for himself professionally, teaches him that relationships aren’t black and white, and that sometimes you have to make sacrifices. But she doesn’t appear to get anything in return, besides the eye candy and above-average stamina. “You’re on the cusp of being a really great guy,” she says, because of course, she’s already a great woman.
All the studies into the reasons men date younger women point to women being most fertile in their mid-20s, which, for men, is evolutionarily attractive. The same studies say that younger women are attracted to older men because, again evolutionarily, they are seen as more capable of protecting and providing for children. Modern studies on why younger men are attracted to older women and vice versa are so few and far between, it’s like they didn’t bother to look into it. And all they can think is that it must be societal or cultural, because it’s certainly not biological. They say that women might be attracted to younger men in the 21st century because they don’t need older men to protect and provide for them anymore, and because the younger men aren’t intimidated by that.
In her essay ‘Why Successful Women Gravitate Towards Younger Men’, clinical psychologist Suzanne Lachmann Psy.D. explains that younger men might be attracted to older women because they’ve grown up in a time where women are powerful and leaders in business, so they accept and admire this, and it doesn’t threaten their purpose. Despite the title of the article, Lachmann only writes one line about why older women might be attracted to younger men: “When you’re a successful woman who gravitates toward younger men, it may be because you find in them, a non-defensive willingness to absorb what you can provide.” That’s it.
Professor of psychology and practising clinician Noam Shpancer agrees. “In this new arena of increased gender equality, it seems that many women – like many men – find the company of a young and beautiful partner appealing and rewarding,” he writes in his essay ‘The Cougar Conundrum’. “Attractive young men can play the same role long assigned to young women, entering into the unspoken agreement: ‘Be sexy, beautiful and obedient and I'll teach you a little bit about how the world works, show you off to my friends, buy you nice clothes, and have sex with you.’”
When psychologists are being so basic as to compare young men to lapdogs and easily impressed absorbent paper rolls, what hope is there for film portrayals? The younger guy on screen is destined to be a fool. Initially impressive and charming, he never lives up to the first scene. Take The Good Girl, starring Jennifer Aniston as a 30-year-old depressed department store worker and Jake Gyllenhaal as a 22-year-old, also depressed, department store worker. They see something in each other that they’ve never seen outside of themselves before and it’s interesting to watch, until, of course, he turns out to be an idiot. The younger guys always end up writing embarrassing poems or getting crazy jealous and making a scene. The younger guys always unravel, while the older women cement.
In his cougar essay, Shpancer quotes Susan Sarandon, who dated a man 30 years her junior. “In the past women had to partner up with a man who could support her," she said. "Now women are quite financially independent, so we partner up with someone because — radical thought — we like him.”
With the exception, perhaps, of the 1971 cult hit Harold and Maude, film has lacked imagination in this department. And despite their sweet, odd romance, Maude is so old that she dies at the end, leaving a bereft Harold and showing age to be a truly fatal flaw.
So while the younger guys benefit from career advice and life experience, older women can expect death, anxiety and zero personal growth. Thank god Home Again is a rom-com.