Britney Spears, Sam Asghari and why we struggle to accept a younger man loving an older woman for who she is

© Getty Images GettyImages-1163709600.jpg

The reaction to Britney Spears’ announcement this week that she plans to marry her long-time partner, Sam Asghari, has been predictable and frustrating.

Previous to this announcement, much of the commentary surrounding Spears concerned the conservatorship she was living under and the legal fights she was having with her father. She famously told a Los Angeles court, “I want to have the real deal. I want to be able to get married and have a baby.”

Spears revealed not only that she wanted to get married and have a family, but that she’d long been prevented from doing so due to the restrictions imposed by the conservatorship her father controlled. Her engagement to Asghari, then, should be seen as a huge personal victory. Yet too many commentators have focused solely on the 12-year difference in age between Britney and her younger partner in the wake of the announcement, as if it is impossible to believe a younger man could want to be with an older woman without some sort of financial or fame-seeking agenda.

The same attitude has poisoned the marriage of Hugh Jackman and Deborra-Lee Furness for decades (with rumors abounding that he is gay and she is just a front.) Likewise, malicious bemusement and curiosity reigned when actress Robin Wright married her 16-years-younger husband, Clement Giraudet. Katie Couric also did not escape keyboard critics, who were quick to criticize the age difference between her and the man she eventually married — John Molner — following her husband’s death in 1998.

In all cases, these women are successful, independent, accomplished individuals. If we assume people get married because they love each other, then why is it so impossible for us to believe such women are worthy when they’re older than their partners?

In her 1978 book, Making News: A Study in the Construction of Reality, Gaye Tuchman coined the term “symbolic annihilation” to refer to the way in which women are often portrayed — or not portrayed — in the media. Tuchman posited that women are, if not absent entirely, then given stereotyped roles on TV or presented with flat, identikit personas in magazines. When women in real life act outside of these over-simplified roles, people don’t know what to do with them. Rather than accept that the media world they’ve bought into is unreal, they turn to ways to discredit the partnership or explain it away. It can’t be real, commentators say, and therefore there must be nefarious motives at play.

In 2007, we consumed images of Britney Spears shaving her head in frustration while being pursued by press photographers. Over a decade later, we’ve watched her take full advantage of the #FreeBritney movement through her own social media and court appearances. Women have gained a lot more control over their imagery since the early 2000s. It’s time they were seen as desirable well past their 30s, rather than gullible saps being led into something by men who don’t love them.

It would be nice if we could truly wish Spears well after everything she’d been through. It would be nice if we could recognize the longevity of her partnership and acknowledge that she may have more to give than her admittedly impressive $60 million. Rather than falling over ourselves to ask a man she was married to for 55 hours sometime in 2004 what he thinks of her engagement to Asghari (and by the way, he thinks it’s fine!), perhaps we should accept that Spears might have found happiness with a younger man. Perhaps we should even do what we might’ve done if she’d settled down with an older partner and celebrate it as a fairytale ending to a tale with many tragic twists and turns.

Britney fought for a long time to regain her voice — and she didn’t do it so you could take immediate issue with the first choice she made on her own.

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