Back in 1972, Susan Sontag wrote about the Double Standard of Aging, and nowhere is this more evident than in film and romance fiction. In movies and books, men get distinguished as they age, and they are allowed to age. Men at 45 are silver foxes, while women of the same age are merely ‘old.’ Representations of women of a certain age have become ingrained in society and have resulted in stereotypes—you know the ones I mean, the acceptable roles; grandma, crabby, crazy cat lady, old hag, peddler of adult diapers, retirement communities, denture creams. Women over 40 are seldom presented as attractive, intelligent, sensual, sexual, whole human beings the way men are. Women become mutton dressed as lamb, cougars, are shoved aside, or dropped into those acceptable stereotyped roles because, unlike men of the same age, women are now toothless hags who need denture cream. Of course, the upside of this is that an older woman can now wear white trousers and swim and box and be sporty without ever having to worry about periods or leakage.
Opps. I forgot about incontinence pads.
As I said, we’ve been conditioned to not see our own worth–except as consumers of products that tell us we have to fight the disease of ageing–or face a wrinkled, toothless future of pee pads and retirement living and funeral insurance.
What you do see is what you’ve always seen, and it is what you accept because that is all you have ever been shown. You may not be aware that you buy into the negative image. After all, for decades we’ve been bombarded with ageist and sexist imagery about adult diapers, creams that lift sagging skin, Cary Grant with Audrey Hepburn, and Daniel Craig’s James Bond (who was in his late 40s at the time) romancing twentysomething Lea Seydoux rather winding up with than the disposable fiftysomething Monica Bellucci in the last Bond feature, Spectre.
**Yes, I’m still irritated by that moment when the Craig Bond was poised to go on being different but failed to deliver. After SEVEN minutes (if I remember, that’s how long Dan and Monica had on screen) the story fell back onto the usual status quo that disposed of the older woman for the younger woman. By the way, if you’re wondering, I had already written the first book of my butler & spy In Service series, At Your Service before that movie came out.**
Sorry to digress and rant, but I’m sure you understand that advertising, that the persistent older man-younger woman construct, reinforces the information you see about women ‘getting old,’ and men being hot silver foxes. Although you’ve had plenty of movies and romance novels where the older guy silver fox gets the girl, and gets it on with the girl, how often do you seen a couple who are the same age getting it on?
I bet you can count the times on one hand, maybe two. Who would blame you for believing the double standard of aging?
In the celluloid world, in the fictional world, especially in the world of romance fiction, the silver fox smokin’ hot grandpa is easy to find, it’s even a trope in the romance genre, but smokin’ hot grandma? Age equivalent sex is viewed as problematic—and it’s all because of the woman. Add a woman with sagging skin and she’s automatically a grandma, and granny sex is gross because grandmas don’t have sex—even with silver foxy grandpas. What’s the point of a man having sex with a woman who’s probably no longer fertile anyway since everyone knows that a woman is only attractive if she’s fertile, like the Nile Delta, and able to bear children.
Go ahead and call bullshit on that. You know you want to.
I’ll leave the rant about the predominance of men writing, producing, and perpetuating the silver fox hero and masculine wish fulfillment that has kept older women sidelined or invisible (thanks for the reminder, Vassiliki) to another day, but what turned me to become a hybrid author was when I had a female romance publishing CEO tell me no one wanted to read granny sex. Yes, I’ve ranted about that before. A lot. I saw what I was up against, what I’d always been up against. The comment corroborated the findings of my doctoral work. I knew that, despite an offer from my publisher, and on-the-fence interest from another who worried about ‘where to place the book’, I could do a better job marketing my butler & spy series in what is still considered to be a niche or yet-to-prove itself audience my research demonstrated was and IS there. The CEO’s comment is revealing and points to the fact that, for some publishers, an older female protagonist is risky. A sexy, sex-filled romantic interlude in romance fiction, like onscreen, is still considered to be a venue open only to young, fresh-faced, fertile women.
For many publishers the status quo remains, it’s silver foxy men, but no silver foxy women, and THIS is the root of the image problem. We get what we’ve always had because of the pervasive attitude that older women aren’t attractive or sexual and it’s a vicious circle. Keeping grandma out of the bedroom, that is, not allowing portrayals of older women as sexual or attractive serves to reinforce the attitude that no one wants to see grandma as sexual or attractive.
Here are a few questions to consider why some find portrayals of sexual women over 40 is so problematic.
Is it really about sagging breasts and lined faces?
Is it really that romance is a tale for younger women, or readers who want to remember what it was like when they were younger?
Or is it because we are so rarely shown positive images of mature female sexuality, or that mature sexuality is too often portrayed as a joke where older women fan themselves or blush or giggle and mention Fifty Shades of Grey while whispering about viagra and their older partners with erectile dysfunction?
The image problem boils down to a lack of representations showing us that women over 40 are attractive, intelligent, sensual, sexual, whole human beings. This means it’s time to make a NEW status quo, to normalize how life really is, and how women over 40 really are. If a publisher thinks granny’s saggy boobs are distasteful (not something a romance hero would care about), the solution is simple. Romance has various ‘heat’ levels. That is, an array of how intimate sexual activity is described–from a chaste kiss and closing the bedroom door, to graphic sex. There is a spectrum of readers, those who like the bedroom door closed and those who want explicit description.
There is a spectrum of readers who want ‘Seasoned Romance’, Later in life tales featuring women 40, 50, 60, and beyond, those who want granny to close the bedroom door, and those who want to see granny in all her glory.
Most importantly, there is a spectrum of people who want to see their lives reflected in the stories they see on screen and in the pages of a book. Love has no age limit. We’ve let advertisers, filmmakers and publishers tell us that love has an age limit. I want to point out again, that this is not a niche market. There is money to be made. Advertisers, filmmakers and publishers need to stop believing and peddling the old bullshit hype. They will, once there is a story that hits it big and makes them some coin because guess who has the cash to be instrumental in making this come to fruition this? Women over 40.
And we’re worth a lot.