The Bite Lecture Series on Romance Fiction: Romance Heroines Are Not Sissies, So Man Up Part 2

Welcome back. We hope you enjoyed the brief, DeLorean-free trip to the past and apologise for today’s bumpy landing. To refresh your memory, we were discussing

Sleeping with someone other than the hero;Being a bitch; using foul language; and (my favourite) Having the cojones to be over 40.

Yep. You heard that right. It’s a taboo to be 45 and in love… in Contemporary romance.

I’m being specific about contemporary romance fiction for a reason. I’ve always loved interplay of real life with the fantasy part of falling in love. That’s why contemporary rom is what I most enjoy reading, it’s what I write, and what I’ve noticed is oddly age limited. It’s pretty freaky when you know the average age of a romance reader is 44.9 (see RWA because despite that, a form of segregation creeps into Contemporary. After 40 a woman’s characterisation changes. She becomes what I’d like to suggest can be viewed as an additional incarnation of the ‘other‘ woman, where her age equates to a source of comedy, an unworthiness, or form of evil. ‘Other’ women have a place in romance fiction. I like a well-crafted female villain, but this isn’t about the purpose served by that sort of characterisation, or even about the way ‘other’ women are typically punished, although I can argue that the segregation I mentioned is a form of punishment.

Some of you have read my schtick before. You regular Biteyites know I research the phenomenon that moves a woman 40-plus out of contemporary romance fiction and ushers her, or for the sake of this entry, segregates her, into those genres that fall under the term of Women’s Fiction—the Hen, Matron, and Granny Lit type stuff where the story is driven by the female protagonist’s emotional growth. In contemporary romance, when a forty-plus woman makes an appearance it is often as a secondary character, sometimes with a subplot of her own (hello Susan Elizabeth Phillips!), but most of the time Ms. Forty is cast as a stereotype rather than as heroine.

Lately, there’s something I’ve noticed. A heroine’s age is treated differently across a few romance subgenres. In historical romance, most authors strive to be accurate with the context of their story’s place and time. Historical authors are aware that life spans were more limited in the Eighteenth Century than in the Twenty-first, which means middle age in Regency times (and this is a big fat guess here) was somewhere around, let’s say, 28-32. For the sake of historical accuracy, a 19 to 20-something old-maid heroine is not out of place in a Regency romance. In Paranormal and urban fantasy romance age exists in a magical world that has no bearing on a heroine’s part in the story if she’s a vampire, shape-shifting, alien witch-goddess. Indeed a woman can be all that she can be in these subgenres, but in contemporary romance it’s uncommon to find a woman of a certain age allowed that same agency.

Oooh. I threw you for a loop there, with that bit about ‘agency’ didn’t I? ‘Scuse me, my dissertation’s showing.

Think of all those forms of ‘other women’: the Stifler’s Mom cougar, evil stepmother, cranky old lady, mutton-dressed-as-lamb-whore, grandma, menopausal-wise-crackin’-best friend. None of these ladies are allowed to have centre stage. None of these women get to star in a book of their own.

OK, sometimes they do. The Age-Sinning Heroine is out there in Contemporarylandia. There are those who buck the trend. Julie, is in her sixties in Jeanne Ray’s Julie and Romeo. Nora Roberts has Roz in The Black Rose. Jennifer Crusie’s got Nell in Fast Women. But come on, we’re talking Nora and Jenny! They can do almost anything because they’re, you know, Roberts & Cruise!

Roberts & Crusie—sounds like a cop Buddy movie, dunnit? Maybe it should it be Crusie and Roberts…

Anyhow, I’m here to make a point, so let’s get back to the idea of the ‘other’ and look at one more Crusie offering. J.C. brought us Shar in Dogs and Goddesses. Shar’s 48 and, like Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander Claire, she appears in a world where magic is possible, where being 48 doesn’t matter, where age isn’t made an issue to the love story. This “other-worldliness” of paranormal fiction connotes an older woman can exist as a heroine, but only if she possesses some sort of extraordinariness that propels her further beyond the usual fantasy of romance, beyond the ordinary realities typically found in contemporary fiction. The heroines in paranormal romance are allowed to be much more subversive than their contemporary counterparts. They aren’t sissy girls. They can behave like ‘other women.’ They can sin. They can act like men. They can cuss. They can be bitchy. They can kill people. They can sleep with another man besides the hero. Oddly enough, if you leave out the vampires, changelings, magic, and telekinesis, when you get down to the actual fantasy of romance, the paranormal romance heroine is the most realistic warts-n-all representation of a real woman. And they aren’t punished for it.

What this says, and I’m talkin’ bottom line here, is that if you’re looking at the other side of forty, and you wanna be a real woman, you wanna be bad, you wanna get to fall in love, be confused by the trip, have wild chimp sex, a happily ever after, or happy for now, forget contemporary romance. Pick up a paranormal to find your ‘normal.’

Meanwhile, I’ll keep writing my contemporary romantic comedies with non-sissy 40+ women who man up and act like sinful paranormal heroines.

13 thoughts on “The Bite Lecture Series on Romance Fiction: Romance Heroines Are Not Sissies, So Man Up Part 2

  1. Pingback: Taboos, Radio, Pimpin’ and PhDs. | Sandra Antonelli

  2. I refuse to look up any more of Dhympna’s silly words which I suspect are dirty.

    The Star King is straight up romance. Of course, the hero is alien royalty from outer space, but he is hot and gloms right onto the 46 year old earthling.

  3. Howdy, Dr Laura,
    I’ve considered the child angle as a reason for the dearth of older heroines and I believe that is part of the issue for some readers and publishers. There are those who can’t separate romance from the path that MUST lead the heroine to marriage and babies. As a romance reader I’m there for the development of the romantic relationship, not the baby. There’s room for the romance to family fantasy, but there’s also a space for the romance fantasy to include women like Crusie’s Min, in Bet Me.

    I’m not in the cover with a kid camp. I don’t find them appealing. Of course, that could be a result of my age, but I didn’t find them appealing when I was younger either.

    Thanks for the comment!

    • “I’m not in the cover with a kid camp. I don’t find them appealing.”

      Neither do I. I’ve never thought dirty nappies and broken nights are romantic. But I think I recall reading that babies on covers increase sales.

      • Re: heh

        You could write about the discursive epistemology of the fissiparous tendencies of topoi in various romance liter-ah-ture texts.


        *runs before Saschakeet smacks her*

      • Re: heh

        I will have to remember that one for the next time I refer to my fat ass. 😉

  4. This also leads to genius savant heroines who have achieved remarkable career success at 30-35 (a good 10 years ahead of real life) and that drives me bonkers. If I read one more 32 year old CEO, Pulitzer prize winner, bestest and most famous ever surgeon, journalist, lawyer, artist, author, vet, scientist, horse trainer…well, you get the picture.

    Susan Grant’s The Star King struck me with her (gasp!) 46 year old heroine when I first read it and has stuck with me. She got full heroine treatment– hot alpha hero and grand adventure. This non paranormal heroine’s grown children later got their own books.

    Another grrrrrr is 55-65 year old parents portrayed as doddering, out of touch old codgers. WTF? That is so not my generation! I am not Aunt Bea.

    • Thanks you for a book suggestion! I’m always on the lookout for novels to add to my textual analysis. Would you consider The Star King Contemporary romance or does it lean towards the Hen/Matron Lit camp?

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