You’ve Had My Two Cents, Now Hand Over Yours

Why is romance considered to be a young woman’s story?

Now and again I ask this question in some form, usually because I’m going through my thesis and I want to check if anything changed. For those of you who don’t know, the title of my PhD is: Cougars, Grannies, Evil Stepmothers, and Menopausal Hot Flashers: Roles, Representations of Age, and the Non-traditional Romance Heroine. . This time, as I shuffle things around and prepare the PhD to be sent off to the examiners, I tossed my little query onto twitter. Being in the Southern Hemisphere and having a 17 hour difference means the answers came from Australian tweeters. I’d like to be inclusive so I’m casting this net wider (I hope).

Some say you never forget your first love, but there are others who might say they wish they could forget their first love, or realise that first love was wasn’t love as much as lust. People fall in love at every age, not just when they are 18 to 20 or early-ish 30 something. I was and am curious to know why romance fiction and the media set a limit for the age representations of women falling in love, ones that force us to imagine ourselves with specific images of beauty that we all know are airbrushed and cosmetically enhanced. Does the lack of mature aged romantic leads stem from fear of our own mortality or is it a superficial fear of not being pretty, fear of wobbly bits (Bridget Jones says “no”), saggy skin, saggy boobs, wrinkles–superficial aspects of age that were are told are ugly? Or is it a matter of assuming we just aren’t interested in falling in love or in belonging because we are too old, and love is frivolous and only the young are frivolous?

A short time before A Basic Renovation was picked up for publication, I became aware of an event that BigCover- A Basic Renovation_Finaloccurred in Los Alamos, the setting of my novel. An Octogenarian couple went to the priest at the local Catholic Church and asked to be married. As my Aunt told me this, I whipped out my manuscript and showed her I had written that story. My ninety-two year-old GP wanted to marry Eilish Flanagan, his eighty-something year-old sweetheart. It was real life imitating romance fiction and I felt vindicated.

I’ll ask you again. Why is romance considered to be a young woman’s story?

21 thoughts on “You’ve Had My Two Cents, Now Hand Over Yours

  1. Yes Sandra you may quote me ….

    I have to disagree with Dani K without too much thinking I can come up with books that feature older heroines with saggy tummies, kids (and certainly by her standards) over the hill….
    “Cowboy Come Home” by Karen Templeton …
    “Morning Glory” by La Verle Spencer

    And the book I’m reading at the moment “Living with Lies’ by Patricia Watters …. and I want to finish with this quote from Living with Lies….to rpove my point … I actually cheered when I read this….

    “Just hear me out,” Jack said. “These beautiful women look good on a man’s arm, but for the long haul you need to find an ordinary woman. Grace is pretty, but she’s no raving beauty. But no matter how rough a day I’ve had, when I walk through the door she kisses me like I’ve just come home from war, and that’s after she’s been dealing with kids all day. And when I see that smile of hers, it doesn’t matter that I’d been bucked off an ornery stud a half dozen times, or the bull smashed the fence and got out, or my cowboys had been bad-tempered all day, I know my day will end with the woman I love in my arms.

    Watters, Patricia (2011-12-23). Living With Lies Trilogy (Books 1, 2, and 3 of The Dancing Moon Ranch Series) (Kindle Locations 10252-10257). . Kindle Edition.

    This hero is certainly not talking about an airbrushed, botoxed woman, but an ordinary woman who has…and she admits it huge boobs when she’s breastfeeding and laughs about looking like an ancient fertility goddess.

    This could also be because I don’t read frivolous chic-lit type stories but go for meatier stories with real story lines.

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  2. Fantastic discussion. It’s derailed me from what I’m supposed to be doing. Not this. I’m fascinated. When this discussion started on twitter it was fast and furious at 140 characters a pop.

    Danni K says with much more rigour what I said – it’s the pretty. By which I meant we live in a society that has quite a narrow prescription for beauty and an even narrower age range. We chase that pretty as we age – or not to our peril. I’ve worked with women who’ve had surgery so they could be more secure in their jobs. It stands to reason there’s a limited amount of escapism – and that’s what reading romance is about – in heroines whose lives might be too much like ours – not so pretty, not so desirable in a high gloss magazine sense any more.

    It’s also the EA and HEA. The bigger the scope the better the high.

    But then see, the clever writers – like Ms Sandra, can take that pretty and that EA and layer new interpretations on the old meanings – and we get a bend in the trajectory of romance and escapism.

    Bring it.

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    • Oh, I approve. And I rage. If you can have plus-sized heroines in romance is sure as hell can have a fifty year-old as the lead in the fantasy too—With a whole other level of doubts and concerns and issues and still have the driving force of the narrative be the love story.

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  3. I’ve never stopped to think about “romance” being a young woman’s story… in my long experience and coming from a family of romance readers, from my now deceased 93year old mother downwards, age is not a factor in romance stories so much as the quality of the story itself. Certain books where the female was TSTL had my mother throwing a book against a wall, and yet the same story told well made her smile.

    For myself, it’s the quality of the story itself that counts, not the age of the female or male leads. I have no interest in reading or writing about vacuous empty headed bimbos… I want female (and male) leads in a story to be interesting, grow during the book and overcome fears and genuine barriers to happiness… and most modern romances meet these requirements.

    In the 70’s and 80’s a lot of the Harlequin Mills & Boon type heroines were like the majority of the women of that time, subservient, easily dominated and had little career opportunities outside the home. And just as women have grown in emancipation and escaped the role of ‘the little woman’ so had the tenor of the romance novels being published has grown and changed.

    And yes I have lived long enough to have witnessed this change both in women’s lives and in romance novels… I have also read your book and find that it sits comfortably within the category of the modern romance… your heroine is no more mature than may others on modern romances… I can’t remember the last time I saw or read a romance that didn’t have a ‘mature’ female lead…so I find your premise that romances are written for and about ‘young’ women quite surprising in itself. In over 60 years of reading romances I have not found this to be the case.

    In the modern world … such is the pace and stress of life that even relatively young women (age-wise) face challenges that would have been beyond their grandparent’s comprehension… and this alone means that age is no longer the determining factor of maturity it was once regarded. Romance is not restricted to the young … 60 is now regarded as the new 40… and there are plenty of people that I know in this age bracket who have started over again after a failed relationship and found love and romance

    The growth of YA fiction in the last five years emphasises the fact that most romances have mature characters facing mature problems …. or there would have been no need for two whole new genres of fiction … YA and more recently … the New Adult genre (specifically about young people meeting and falling in love for the first time) have evolved to meet the need left vacant by the mature content of the modern romance…

    Thank you for the opportunity to comment.

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    • Thank you for your very thoughtful comment, Shirley, and thank you for reading my book. May I quote you in my PhD thesis because what you say is so wonderful? I particularly like your point of view regarding maturity “I can’t remember the last time I saw or read a romance that didn’t have a ‘mature’ female lead…so I find your premise that romances are written for and about ‘young’ women quite surprising in itself.” I completely understand your point, however, I may not have been clear in what I wanted to convey. I did not mean to imply that romance is written by ‘young’ women, as much as romance is written largely by and for women–of all ages. Nor do I mean to suggest that the idea of maturity is bound by age. I have know some incredibly wise and mature 18 year-old women. My point is entirely about chronological age and the fact that in the majority of romance novels the heroine is seldom portrayed beyond the age of 40. Like you you said, “it’s the quality of the story itself that counts, not the age of the female or male leads.” I agree with this wholeheartedly, yet it is so often thhat chronological age, rather than the content of the story, will push a female protagonist out of the romance genre and into some form of Women’s Fiction–where the romance fantasy ceases to be the driving force of the narrative. That is where my beef lies. Romance is for everyone at any age.

      Thank you again. I love what you have to say and I appreciate your two cents!

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  4. Where do I start? Perhaps with the fact that we now live in what I like to call an MTV society. Media, in all forms, has created an air brushed expectation of women, youth, sexual value, romance and attractiveness.

    An aging woman has lost her marketability. Advertising, movies and books are continually being aimed at a younger age group as this age group has accumulated a higher buying power and market influence.

    Women are bombarded with images of how they should look. Their clothes are modelled by 15 year olds and images of ‘older’ women in magazines are photoshopped and airbrushed so as to be that far removed from reality, they may as well have used a 15 year old body double.

    In our twenties we are being sold skin creams. In our thirties, it’s skin creams, eye creams, laser and dermabrassion. Forties plus? Shit, if you haven’t already been pumping yourself full of botox, collagen, restalyne, and any other en, you may as well resign yourself to never going out doors or purchase a burka, because you aren’t fit to be seen in public.

    Never mind the fact that a lot of us have given birth by then and this certainly hasn’t helped our bodies defy gravity. So, now we should be enquiring about boob jobs, tummy tucks, fat sucking, face lifts, eye lifts and even vagina lifts. I mean, we have to compete against all the younger chickies; we need all the help we can get.

    All this seems inevitable with the sexualisation of girls at a far younger age than previously seen before. Children are not getting the same length of childhood as we had growing up. YA/NA books and films are being read and viewed by a much younger audience than I belive a lot of the authors had in mind.

    So, given that we have been brainwashed into believing that we have to look ‘fuckable’ in order to be of any worth these days, is it no wonder that we don’t want to read about older women in romance. If a woman hasn’t caught a man by the time she’s thirty, she’s missed the boat; move on over, let the young babes show you how it’s done and enjoy your retirement with your menagarie of cats. Don’t be bitter, don’t rock the boat. You had your chance and you didn’t cut it.

    I will note Sandra, that even though Lesley is older, she is still hot, fit and looks younger than most of the woman strolling around the school car park (not a dig at you, just an observation). I will be happy when a romance is written about an overweight, mousey, frazzled single mum of 3 kids AND it gets published (point me in the right direction if one exists).

    But, kids, tweens, teens and young adults are cashed up now. They have access to mum and dads purse strings on a grander scale than before as guilt ridden working mums and dads fork out cash to make up for time. And they do not want to be reading about some forty year old ancient chic getting it on (please, that is, like, so gross). Older, cut, cute guys are o.k, because, (O.M.G, Hugh Jackman) they just get sexier as they get older. No beer guts or baldness allowed. Unless we are talking Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson baldness. That guy owns a bald head. Sorry, tangent; any way, this cash is directing what gets published and what doesn’t. Especially now that mums are reading what daughters and sons are and gushing over the ‘hottie’ hero together.

    Rant over, I’ll leave you with this. Do you think Twilight would have been so popular or even seen the light of day if Bella had of been a 40 year old woman Edward spotted while hanging out at the library?

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    • Thanks, Danielle! I love what you have to say. I’m glad you think Lesley is still hot in her mid forties. That’s kind of my point. I wanted to counter the claim that once you’re over 40 you can’t be hot, unless you’ve been airbrushed, botoxed, and brainwashed into thinking you’re worthless unless you look young. Dominic thinks Lesley’s hot. Her mother thinks she’s not ‘acting her age.’ Lesley has moment of self doubt about herself and recognises it’s the advertising brainwash bullshit. My book, For Your Eyes Only has a heroine who is older–she’s 50, although I never come right out and stipulate her age.

      You’re right it’s a business and what sells is…well, you know what sells. Also, Bella as a Cougar courting a “younger” Edward? I hear fan fiction spin off!

      Furthermore, I love me a good bald man. Jean-Luc Picard,Jason Statham, Bruce Willis…Oh, man, we need more bald guys and guys with beards, but that’s me.

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  5. I think a big part of the HEA is being young, healthy and pretty enough to enjoy it. The young are often being told they’ll have their whole lives ahead of them, so how better to spend those years than with your perfect match?

    There’s the cliche of women being left for younger ones and feeling like they’ve given their best years to this failed relationship and the only thing they have to show for it may be their kids, but they’ve otherwise been left on the scrap heap. I’m definitely not saying that romance doesn’t rate a second chance once you’ve reached a certain use-by date, but I think there is a perception that when you find the HEA love early in life, you and your partner are getting the best of each other and you’ll never grow apart as long as you continue to communicate with, love and respect each other.

    Also, it gives authors the freedom to write sex scenes without fear of muscles seizing up, old joint injuries flaring up and any associated limits on movement (I say this as a 30-something who has regular physio sessions on my arthritic knees 😛 )

    But the later in life you find your HEA, the fewer years you have left to enjoy it and those years aren’t going to have the same quality as the early ones.

    And I think it’s a touch of Darwinism where youth and fertility is sought after. I mean, it’s not like marriage and kids is a romantic trope or anything 😉

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    • Know what I like? I like that I can disagree with you completely yet still value everything you say. I really mean that. No sarcasm. It makes it more fun to discuss this.
      For me, the HEA can be applied to anyone at any age, regardless of the amount of time one has left to spend together. You’re so right. I don’t think sex scenes where things seize up or include descriptions of vaginal dryness, sagging asses or Viagra belong in a fantasy of romance. I mean, really, come on, this is supposed to be fantasy stuff, why the hell would I put that in the fantasy? That being said, scenes with 40+ couples can be written without any of that sagging this and flaccid that crap and be completely hot.

      I don’t think fertility, the promise of fertility, or even marriage isn’t necessary for a HEA. I just want the couple to be together at the end. Thanks for your two cents. I truly value your input.

      OK. I admit The one thing you said that made me CRINGE is “use by date” Oh, thanks for that (insert sarcasm here). Advertising tells me I’ve expired.

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      • Yes, I should have used more quotation marks with expressions like “use-by date” and “best years” because I meant them more as perceptions than actuality and I didn’t intend to make anyone cringe. There are people who come into their own later in life for all sorts of reasons and romance doesn’t really seem to factor that in. This is just one of the ways in which the fantasy departs from real life. You can fall in love at any age, but I think that fiction, film, etc (not just romance) focuses more on a set age range because it’s somehow considered more palatable. Whether we genuinely think that or have been taught to think that is a different topic.

        One exception to this that I’ve been following is the longitudinal romance between Diana Gabaldon’s Jamie and Claire, who met in their 20s and I think they’re now in their 50s. They still have a loving, sexual relationship and it works well.

        I read more paranormal than any other subgenre and it does give wider scope for age, but the characters all look young, despite being around for centuries. You get all the benefits of age, such as wisdom and experience, but it comes wrapped in a pretty, unlined, strong package. A hero can be as old as your grandfather (or older!), but he can’t look or act like it.

        Not all romances must end with the beginning of a new family, but I think it happens often enough that it does get recognised as a trope. I also just want the couple to end up together and don’t care whether or not they have kids. Kids can also distract a couple from focussing on each other.

        I also found Shirley’s POV interesting. In a romance, there is a lot of growth for the couple as individuals and together that it could be seen equally as a new stage of life, or a stage of renewal. In that situation, why would/should romance seem to be limited to younger characters? Unlike Shirley, most of the human characters in the romances I’ve read have been young.

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      • I think we are led by social norms that are sexist and ageist,especially when it comes to women. Women are devalued in all form of media, particularly as they age. For women, age is a disease that must be fought, because if you don’t do battle you run the risk of or entering a zone of invisibility. I want to stop that devaluation and invisibility. I don’t get why one has to be young in contemporary romance. Paranormal is a different world, a fantasy within a fantasy,so kind of anything goes. However, in the contemporary world, where you can have issues of divorce, and single parents and war veterans, being older is still outside the fantasy. I like the complexities of daily life found in contemporary romance, the stuff that isn’t pretty, the issues the characters face. For me, to leave out getting older as one of the complexities of life shown within the context of a romance fantasy comes across as fake, as fake as the airbrushed, touched up, cosmetically enhanced images women are bombarded with on a daily basis.

        I should have said that at the start. I’m looking at age as an issue in contemporary romance, not historical, not paranormal.

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  6. Starting over when you are older is more daunting because you know more! When you are young and in love, ignorance is bliss.

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    • It’s still scary. I work from the premise that you’re ignorant at any age, despite your ‘life experience.’ Starting over at 45 isn’t that different to starting out at 25. Each relationship is new and different you go into it blind and ignorant, and completely unprepared, despite what you “think you know.” How many 25 year-olds think they have it all figured out, only to discover how wrong they are? That keeps happening throughout life. At least it does to me.

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  7. I think romance is considered a young woman’s story because they (we) are willing to overlook habits that they think they can change or for awhile are cute. As older women we have learned that it takes years of training to adjust some habits and year of eye rolling to live with the “cute” ones. As we get older the thought of starting over again is daunting on a good day, but we do know what we are willing to live with and what habits are deal breakers. Older women want friendship, similar interests, and loyalty.

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  8. I’ll bite, let you know what I think 😛

    I’ve not yet hit 30, not a fan of marriage (for me) and don’t have kids. I did look for paranormal romance books because I perceived (however wrongly) that modern books were about other age groups, and that I wouldn’t be interested in women obsessed with weddings or having babies, or trying to juggle kids and finding new love. I hate most rom-com movies (women are hysterical! women are manipulative! women have to choose between career and family! blah blah). Paranormal romance seemed to be more young/ish, previous relationships might come into it and, in the ones I’ve read, there’s no kids or marriage hangups.

    Then I read Dianne Blacklock and was sort of shocked because the writing was so good, I got sucked into these lives that are nothing like mine. Divorced women, widows, families, etc. I now have a nice little collection of Blacklock books 🙂

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