The social media reaction to TV presenter Caroline Flack's comments on an age gap are proof that men usually get let off the hook in this regard, while women are taken to task, writes Jennifer McShane
"There's nothing wrong with an age gap!" Caroline Flack insisted when discussing Love Island couple Chris and Harley this week. Chris told Caroline that he'd originally thought the age gap of eight years was too large for he and Harley to be a viable prospect. This was when Flack weighed in with her comment.
The TV presenter, having been at the receiving end of some very harsh criticism during the run of the reality series, was likely referring to her own romantic life: she previously admitted to dating Harry Styles when he was just 17 and she was 31. At the time, there was an uproar from the Styles camp; the words "paedophile" and "pervert" were largely used to describe her by the tabloids. And much of Twitter jumped on that bandwagon this week too.
Remember the Friends episode where Monica dates a high-school student named Ethan and describes their relationship as "icky"? That's essentially how Flack was viewed. She, a woman old enough to know better, dating a teen half her age.
It's long been accepted that men get a free pass to date and marry women decades younger and that women who do this are viewed as "cougars" or with far more disgust.
Something that obviously unacceptable and wholly wrong is an adult dating a child, to label Styles as a child is incorrect. Post #MeToo, the conversations around what is appropriate versus what is unacceptable has naturally, deepened in this area. Contrary to some articles and comments at that time, Flack did not break the law - the legal age of consent in the UK is 16 years of age, but the general consensus was that Flack was out of bounds. It's still that way now, she remains in the wrong.
— Anna Grew ?? (@annagreww) July 28, 2019
Whichever side of the fence you sit, the topic of age gaps is never far from controversy.
Rooted in stereotypes
Whether or not you feel uneasy about the fact that she dated the young teen is one thing (it's a noticeable age gap, given that he hadn't turned 18), but on the other, much of the reaction Flack received is rooted in stereotype. It's long been accepted that men get a free pass to date and marry women decades younger and that women who do this are viewed as "cougars" or with far more disgust. We're not allowed date younger men without society telling us why we shouldn't. The strong reaction to Flack's comment this week alone is an indication that it isn't seen as normal for the roles to be reversed.
Remember when Meghan Markle and Prince Harry got together? Reaction immediately centred on the fact that Meghan was three years older - and the question almost instantly arose about exactly how fertile she'd be at age 37 - Harry was treated with a 'boys will be boys' attitude in comparison.
It was a slightly different playing field as they were much closer in age, but the common thread was that it was the woman who bore the brunt of the criticism.
But that's how all men who marry younger women are generally viewed, as if they have achieved something to be proud of. Leonardo Dicaprio gets a lot of stick in the press because he allegedly doesn't date women under 25, but the tone is playful in each piece. There's a Buzzfeed chart, it's all done in fun. Towards him. This week, his rumoured girlfriend (who is 21 to his 44) took to social media to plead for an end to the harassing comments she frequently receives.
In Flack's case with Styles, the tone was - and still is - predatory.
Is it fair?
Either way, it all happened behind closed doors, so who are we to judge her?
Main photograph: @jacksbanked
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