It’s Not Sexist to Notice the Kate Beckinsale–Pete Davidson Age Gap

It’s the exception that proves the rule.

Portraits of Pete Davidson and Kate Beckinsale side by side from the shoulders up.
Pete Davidson and Kate Beckinsale. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Ray Tamarra/GC Images and Francois G. Durand/WireImage.

After Pete Davidson said his usual piece on Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update over the weekend, anchor Colin Jost asked Davidson if that was all: “Is there anything else you want to talk about? Just anything else going on?” At first, Davidson pretended to demur. “No, I don’t think so,” he said with a smile. Jost continued to prod: “Not like a new girlfriend situation at all, Pete?” At this, Davidson seemed to wake up: “Oh yeah! Apparently people have a crazy fascination with our age difference.” Neither Davidson nor Jost said her name, but they were referring to Davidson’s much-discussed hockey-rink makeout session with actress Kate Beckinsale last week. (Davidson is 25; Beckinsale is 45.)

“It doesn’t really bother us,” Davidson went on. “But then again, I’m new to this, so if you have questions about a relationship with a big age difference, just ask Leonardo DiCaprio, Jason Statham, Michael Douglas … ” He proceeded to name a litany of famous men who have romanced younger women. Larry King was listed three times.

Davidson was clearly at least partly joking. If he were truly unhappy with the amount of attention the pair is getting, talking about it on-air would be a strange move (then again, so would ostentatiously making out in front of cameras at Madison Square Garden). But to the extent he was serious, he’s misguided to suggest that he and Beckinsale are facing some kind of sexist double standard because of their age difference. And so are any of the sites proclaiming his little speech a “feminist clapback.”

Davidson’s apparent pique over sexism is confusing enough that it’s going to take a minute to parse. If he’s saying that famous men date much younger women all the time, he’s right. If he’s saying that famous men date much younger women all the time and no one says anything about it, he’s wrong. Plenty of people criticize older men for this: Tabloids like the Daily Mail do it implicitly by highlighting stars’ drastically different ages in headlines (“Mel Gibson, 63, and girlfriend Rosalind Ross, 28, look smitten as they attend a charity gala in Los Angeles”) and more highbrow outlets like the Cut do so more explicitly. For experiment’s sake, if we accept the premise that large age gaps in relationships are bad—which is not what I’m saying, to be clear—Pete’s point is still muddled. As with other recent examples, the solution to sexism is not to take the bad things men do and have women do them too.

Davidson is right that people seem to be particularly fascinated by the Davidson-Beckinsale pairing. There are lots of reasons why that might be. One big one is who his previous girlfriend was: His whirlwind romance with Ariana Grande was one of the biggest celebrity stories of last year and made him orders of magnitude more famous than he previously was. That puts a natural spotlight on the next person he dates. A spotlight he could theoretically choose to stay away from, right? Because that’s not what Davidson seems to be doing here. In the shots that went viral, the couple was sitting in one of the front rows of a Rangers game at Madison Square Garden, which is just about the least low-key makeout location of all time. (They were flanked on one side by fellow attention magnet Antoni from Queer Eye, aka the hot one who people say can’t actually cook.) Yes, among the things people noticed is that Beckinsale is 20 years older than Grande, but the overall tenor of news outlets’ reactions was hardly shaming either of them for it; the same dynamics that tend to anger women in these situations don’t apply, because men aren’t discarded with age the way women are. Besides, if you follow celebrity news, it’s not strange to be interested that the guy who was engaged to Ariana Grande and the woman who was with Michael Sheen are now together. It would be weird not to be interested in that.

If anything, Kate and Pete’s older woman–younger man pairing was interesting on its own just for the novelty factor; people gawk at the age gap because it’s a perfect example of the exception proving the rule, underlining how rare it is for famous young men to date older women, while meanwhile the reverse is everywhere. And it’s only more interesting when, as in this case, that woman is famous in her own right. As fun as it was to watch the bemused smirk of a straight, white man experiencing what he thought was a double standard for once not working in his favor, that’s not what’s going on here.

Beckinsale, by the way, faces a whole ’nother set of double standards in their pairing that Davidson doesn’t have to contend with: Hollywood’s insistence that its female stars never age. At least in public, Kate Beckinsale at 45 doesn’t look all that different than she did at Davidson’s age, because actresses face immense pressure to maintain wrinkle-free faces and fat-free bodies and to do basically whatever is humanly possible to avoid the appearance of aging. Beckinsale actually doesn’t look “too old” to be dating a 25-year-old, which isn’t true of a lot of May-December romances where the man is older. It’s hard to imagine a woman who’s kept her looks up to a similar degree as, say, Mel Gibson—who has gone gray and whose face has wrinkles, both of which are normal for a man in his 60s—walking down the red carpet with a male model in his 20s. As much as Beckinsale and Davidson flip the script with their romance, there’s still a degree to which they make sense as a couple, or at least hew closer to territory that doesn’t upend typical gender stereotypes. If Davidson wants to be passive aggressive about something, he could start there.