“We’re both looking forward to spending the second half of our lives together,” said 92-year-old Rupert Murdoch of his planned summer nuptials. Ann Lesley Smith, his 66-year-old fiancee, remarked meanwhile, “I speak Rupert’s language. We share the same beliefs. For us both it’s a gift from God.” What manner of god would want Murdoch to live to be 184 is anyone’s guess, but obviously we wish the happy couple all the best.
Just as a thought experiment, though, imagine how Murdoch’s own media empire would take it if a 92-year-old woman announced her fifth engagement and asked the world to join her in looking forward to her next chapter. Obviously, this incorrigible romantic wouldn’t exist, because no woman of 92 would be allowed to occupy the public eye. Her relevance would have started to wane maybe 40 years before; she would have had a brief flash of the spotlight in her 50s, for the purposes of wondering how she had kept her six-pack – pray God she still has one, and isn’t in a “what she looks like now will amaze you” sidebar, for the bad reasons. After that, she would either make a dignified exit from public life, or she would be the Queen.
At any age, though, there are certain conservative standards for women and how many times they’re allowed to get married, or how many established relationships they’re allowed to have, before they become ridiculous. The fascinating mechanism of this ridicule, how it bounces from traditional to social media and back to traditional, is distilled in the story of Ulrika Jonsson, nicknamed 4x4 in the 2010s by someone even she never identified, for having four children by four different fathers.
This ricocheted off to become a 3x3, which doesn’t even mean anything (no, wait, maybe it has a usage in carpentry), but still became the charge of the social media trolls to Stacey Solomon from Loose Women. Thereupon, Jonsson herself took to the pages of the Sun to protest at the outrage of being called a 4x4. If anyone engaged in the ridicule were called upon to explain why successive relationships are so laughable, I’m not sure they’d be able to supply their own punchline.
It’s in age gaps, though, that the gender asymmetry reveals itself most clearly: whenever Murdoch gets married – and for all of this century his spouses, Wendi Deng, Jerry Hall and Smith, have been a bus ride away from him in age – the manifest disparity of their season in life tends to splash back on the wife, in the form of insinuations that she is after his money.
It doesn’t matter how rich she is: Hall had no obvious need of an income boost; Smith is a medium-sized tycoon in her own right. But there is no amount of wealth that can insulate a Murdoch bride from this, because she will never be as rich as him, nor as old. QED. But the age gap reversed also taints the woman: there’s no cultural equivalent gold digger who’s male; there’s only a ridiculous cougar character who ought to be able to see what everyone else can.
But even if none of these double standards existed, even if men were subject to exactly the same prurient judgments, the same tacit inferences about their mortality and how risible it makes them, as women are, you still get the sense from Murdoch’s pronouncement about his love match that he wouldn’t care. He knows his opponents would never pass comment, because we’re too polite, and have our minds focused on higher things, such as the forthcoming $1.6bn defamation lawsuit against Fox News hosts and commentators, claiming that they peddled a false narrative about 2020’s “stolen” election. And he’s right! I am too polite. Good luck to the happy couple.
Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist