Why is Gen Z so critical of age gap relationships?
Celebrities like Billie Eilish and Olivia Rodrigo have been brought under the spotlight for dating older men, as the world debates about unbalanced power dynamics
The confrontation between millennials (people born between 1981 and 1996) and Generation Z (those born between 1997 and 2012) is nothing new. Making fun of the thirty-somethings and their supposed obsession with Harry Potter, their “addiction” to coffee and avocado or the skinny jeans they wear has been popular for some time now. Kate Lindsay analyzed it last August in The Atlantic: “Millennials – and their mannerisms – defined the online ecosystem that has ruled for a decade plus, treating sites such as MySpace, Tumblr, Facebook and Twitter as the jungle gyms in their internet playground. But now that we’re well into the TikTok era, the cracks are starting to show. Instagram and Facebook, while still popular, are attempting to capture the magic of TikTok by pivoting to videos and other ultra-sharable content that doesn’t come quite as naturally” to them. Millennials are becoming the first generation to age out of the online environment in which they were born, she notes.
The digital dispute between these two generations, which in most cases is more like a meme than an actual fight, has flared up again. The reason? Jesse Rutherford, the boyfriend of singer Billie Eilish (20), who is 11 years older than her. The couple’s first public appearance took place last November at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s gala, where both posed on the red carpet wearing Gucci pajamas – slippers and blanket included.
Since their first images together were seen, the alarms went off among the artist’s youngest followers. They could not believe it. Eilish, who on her last record had criticized the unbalanced power dynamics in big age gaps with the song Your Power, was now dating a man much older than herself. The situation worsened when her followers began to look into it and discovered that the two met when Eilish was 16 and she was a huge fan of The Neighborhood, Rutherford’s rock band.
Gen Z flooded the internet with criticism of this relationship. The rejection was absolute. Eilish defended herself in a video interview for the American edition of Vanity Fair: “I’m in control. I’m in charge. I know what I’m doing. I’m OK. You can trust me.” Soon came more comments, not only from millennials, but also from baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964), who joined the debate. These two generations dismissed the zoomers as overreacting prudes: “Gen Z is five months away from doing the Salem witch trials but for age gap relationships,” wrote a user in a viral tweet that ended up being deleted due to the commotion it caused. “I saw a Gen Z getting mad at a 32-year-old going out with a 24-year-old? It’s a gap but it’s not that much of a gap. How close in age must we be to meet Gen Z approval?” another account mocked.
Writer and screenwriter Joshua Conkel also tweeted about this controversy: “There’s a weird cultural thing at play right now where some young people think they’re progressives while actually being deeply conservative.” While this comment was applauded by many, others expressed their bewilderment at these reactions. Several users, such as @whorriblytired, stated that it is actually very positive that the young generation is “being critical of age gap relationships [because] these dynamics are too normalized and should be looked at more closely.”
It’s weird some of the tales I see calling gen z puritans for like, being critical of age gap relationships and relationships with other large power imbalances— Aileen Wuornos was innocent (@whorriblytired) October 4, 2022
This is a good thing, these dynamics are too normalized and should be looked at more closely
Other users, like @womensmoon, try to understand how growing up on the internet may have affected Gen Z in forming a different opinion on this topic, compared to millennials or boomers: “This generation has been groomed online and out. We see how older men take advantage of younger girls.” But all the comments regarding the age difference between Eilish and Rutherford did not affect the couple in the least. Quite the opposite. For Halloween, they made fun of the whole situation by wearing matching costumes: she as a baby, he as an old man.
The criticism is “just going to push them closer together, like a classic Romeo and Juliet effect where the more forbidden a relationship is in the eyes of society, the more likely they are to commit to each other to kind of stick it to the man and be like ‘fuck you, I’m right, you’re wrong, I’m gonna do what I want and you can’t control me or tell me what to do,’” explains digital analyst Madisyn Brown in her video essay “Are you mature for your age or is he a predator?” But Billie Eilish is not the only famous young woman who has been the subject of controversy. Another very similar case is that of singer Olivia Rodrigo (19) who over the past year has received the same kind of criticism after her alleged relationship with music executive Zack Bia (26) went public: “SHE NEEDS TO START DATING PPL HER AGE,” opined, in capital letters, fans like @BARDIVERSACE.
First 24 year old Adam Faze when she was 18, now 26 year old Zack Bia at 19 years old... these predatory music executives and film producers need to stop dating these young girls. But that's fucking, predatory Hollywood for you. https://t.co/gZupi9j4wM— 𝕬𝕷 (@amazonBeau) June 21, 2022
Taylor Swift and Demi Lovato: What do the millennial idols say?
The discourse on age difference is present among the most veteran pop stars, which distance themselves from the position of the most popular members of the Gen Z, as well as from the opinions of their contemporaries. In her latest record, Midnights, Taylor Swift (32) openly talks about the psychological trauma of being in a relationship with John Meyer when he was 32 and she was 19: “Living for the thrill of hitting you where it hurts / Give me back my girlhood, it was mine first / And I damn sure never would’ve danced with the devil at nineteen,” she sings in Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve.
That was not the first time that Swift writes about this subject. She already did it a decade ago with the ballad Dear John, dedicated to Meyer, in which she sang: “Dear John, I see it all, now it was wrong / Don’t you think nineteen is too young / To be played by your dark twisted games, when I loved you so? / I should’ve known.” But most of all, Swift put age gap relationships under the spotlight a year ago when she released the 10-minute version of All Too Well (Taylor’s Version) in which she made reference to another ex-partner, Jake Gyllenhaal, who was 29 years old when they dated. She was 20 at the time.
Demi Lovato joined the conversation with her song 29, in which she talks about her ex-boyfriend Wilmer Valderrama, who was 12 years her senior. The song went viral on TikTok and eventually became a trend, with videos being created in which users made reference to heterosexual Hollywood couples with huge age gaps and toxic power dynamics.
If you'd never looked my way I would've stayed on my knees, and I damn sure never would've danced with the devil at nineteen— midnights lyrics bot (@midnights_bot) December 7, 2022
The infantilization of young women
What is clear is that power dynamics and age gaps are the subject of debate today. However, Brown warns that, when talking about this issue, one must be careful not to infantilize young women. It is important to recognize the autonomy of women because in the end they know what they are doing; they are aware that they are dating someone who is much older than them and the potential risk it entails, and they choose to do it anyway, adds the analyst in her YouTube video.
So, is this situation unavoidable? Author Rayne Fisher-Quann does not think so. In her essay “The Pain Gap,” she writes: “There is a sickeningly pervasive idea in our culture [...] that a young woman can only become interesting and complex by experiencing untold quantities of pain – and so we seek this suffering in an attempt to become artistic, but only end up learning that we were operating from a flawed premise in the first place. Pain is nothing but pain.”
Fisher-Quann goes on to reflect on the autonomy politics that were supposed to be a tool for liberation but instead became weaponized against women: “We chose this, we’re grown women now, we shouldn’t infantilize ourselves by implying that some boundaries shouldn’t have been our responsibility.” Given this narrative, does all responsibility fall on Eilish, Rodrigo or all the others who came before them or who will come in the future? In this process of framing guilt, it is the men who are infantilized, adds the writer: “We see them as incapable of restraint, victim to the woman acting upon them, helpless to draw a boundary or, even better, to critically analyze their desires.”