Just The Way It Is Not, Baby

The Rembrandts, the 90s musical sensation, had a big hit with I’ll Be There For You, the theme song from the TV show Friends. Perhaps not quite as well-known is their song That’s Just The Way It Is, Baby. After reading another article about the invisibility of middle aged women,  I have that song stuck in my head; it’s a persistent earworm that I am trying so very hard to kill.

Why is the lyric line “That’s just the way it is, baby” a block of concrete in my brain?

The Roundabout Theatre Company writes about the production of Skintight at The Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theater/Laura Pels Theater in New York City. Skintight focuses on the repercussions of the cultural obsession with youth. The article itself discusses ageism and sexism, and being made to look ‘younger,’  being airbrushed to fit with the UNREAL world of the ideal image of beauty. The topic of middle aged women being I-N-V-I-S-I-B-L-E  is mentioned. The article, Invisibility of Middle-Aged Women, says:

“Because media has traditionally been created by and for men, and women face gender discrimination behind the camera as well as in front of it.”

And there, the title of the article, the Invisibility part and the “traditionally” bit in that quote, that’s the reason for the bag of cement that’s solidified the Rembrandts’ That’s Just The Way It Is, Baby.

Airbrushed models, twenty-something female characters paired with fifty-something men on screen, in fiction, in advertising is the norm.  Culture creates content, and content creates culture. The books you read, the movies you watch, the advertising you see matters; it shapes our identities, colours our view of the world. Girls and women seldom see realistic images of females in the media. Girls and women rarely see women over 40 portrayed in positive or realistic ways. Girls and women, boys and men are conditioned, socially programmed by the images they see–or don’t see. And what we don’t see often is middle aged women, except in stereotypes roles, sidelined roles, roles that diminish their value. That’s just the way it is, baby.

“While men gain status as they age, middle-aged (and older) women are considered less valuable than their younger counterparts. This devaluation effects how how women are hired, promoted, and paid; how they are (or aren’t) depicted in the media; and how they see themselves.”

We KNOW women are underrepresented in the media, but the underrepresentation hits middle aged and older women especially hard. Women over 40 fade away until they are invisible. That invisibility is something we’ve grown used to. It’s what we’ve been shown, what we come to expect, it threads its way through film and fiction. When we are presented with a female character outside the norm we are shocked. Some of us don’t realise we’ve blindly accepted the standard, or realise that the standard does NOT mirror reality becasue that’s just the way is is…

Are you humming the Rembrandts yet?

Sexism and diversity are issues vital to address within society, yet ageism is seldom highlighted as an issue that is sexist, and it is rarely included in discussions about diversity.  Ageism is insidious. The perceptions about ageing treat a natural part of life as a disease to be battled. This anti-ageing crap has an impact on men and women, but it has a greater impact on women. Older men remain visible, while women … cue the Rembrandts.

If you always do what you’ve always done, then you’ll always get what you’ve always got. It’s beyond time to change what we’ve always done, to alter what we’ve blindly accepted to be just the way it is, baby, when the way it is isn’t true to life.  We change the standard, change what we are used to seeing by being genuine, by tearing down the sexist and ageist attitudes in the media, in film and publishing industries that persist shoving the usual younger-is-better images down the throat of society. Film and fiction must stop treating older women with disdain, stop overlooking middle-aged women –a sizable portion of the population– who have money to spend if they can see themselves portrayed as they really are. We do this by writing stories that better include an array of age.

I’m doing it with every book I write. My latest, At Your Service,  has a middle aged female butler.  I put women over the age of 40 front and centre in narratives that portray them as whole as interesting, intelligent, capable, and attractive, sensual, sexual, and vibrant.  That’s just the way it is, baby.

 

 

Roundabout Theatre Company. (2018). Invisibility of Middle-Aged Women

https://www.broadwayworld.com/article/Invisibility-of-Middle-Aged-Women-20180716

[Rhino].  (2015, June 15). The Rembrandts -That’s just the way it is, baby. [Video File]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/k6KfhOpq2n8

 

 

Changing Your Perception: The Butler Who Does It

 

Yes, yes, things have changed a lot. Women are doctors, lawyers, and CEOs. It’s ‘you’ve come a long way baby’ and all that, but certain jobs continue to be viewed as traditionally female and male positions. For instance, when you see the word ‘nurse,’ do you imagine a man or a woman? What about ‘maid’ or ‘housekeeper?’  If I toss out the word ‘butler’ I’m sure your mind automatically conjures up Batman’s trusted man Alfred, Bertie Wooster’s Jeeves, Downton Abbey‘s Mr Carson, or Mr Stevens from Remains of the Day. And why wouldn’t you think of those men, of those chracters? The butler is a particular role dominated by males in fiction and film and real life. However, remember that ‘you’ve come a long way baby’ thing?

You know I’m all about changing stereotypes for women, particularly women over 40. Female protagonists of a ‘certain age’ (man, how I hate that expression) are all I write. Naturally,  I’ve written another. This time my older, or seasoned –as many are calling protagonists over 40– doesn’t just challenge the usual ageist stereotypes that cast older women as (say it with me now) cougars, grannies, evil stepmothers, hot flashing menopausal harpies, crazy cat ladies, and sidelined supporting characters only there to offer ‘sage’ advice to younger characters. This time my heroine challenges what has been a traditionally male role. This time my heroine is the butler.

Yep, the butler. Not the housekeeper. NOT. THE. HOUSEKEEPER.

I know I’m not the first to present a female butler. Linda Howard did it in Dying to Please. Helen Mirren took on the role of Hobson the butler in the remake of the movie Arthur, a role previously played by Sir John Gielgud. I happily add Mae Valentine from my forthcoming release At Your Service to that short list of female butlers.

My butler is older than your standard romance heroine, older than your usual romantic suspense romance heroine, but there are expectations she meets. The butler for a retired Army officer, Mae is efficient, professional, loyal. In other words, Mae is like all those other ‘traditional’ butlers you know so well, the ones who go that extra distance for their employer, the ones whose age doesn’t matter because the age of men seldom matters. Simply put, At Your Service is tale of a butler, a spy and a toilet brush. It crosses a few genres, plays with a few genre archetypes, subverts certain images we have in mind when we see words like older womanbutler and spy… Call it a romantic suspense cosy spy-thriller-mystery with a dash of humour. It’s Charade meets Remains of the Day. It’s set to release this September. You can pre-order it now

 

Return of A Little Help From My Romance Reading Friends: The Lazily-titled Sequel

It’s coming up on two years since I put out my plea for your help.  Back in February of 2016, I penned a post titled A Little Help From My Romance Reading Friends. Once again,  I come to you, Dear Reader, you with your finger on the pulse of romance, your eyes on the words and covers and spines of books of paper, screen, and audio. I come to you asking for your help, asking you to tell me about the Romance novels you have read where the heroine is aged OVER 40. That is, the heroine is 40, 50, 60 and beyond.  It’s time to update my list and I need YOU to do this because I am only one tiny woman with a TBR pile and books to edit and books to write so I can add to this list of mine.

I’m very specific here. I want representation of women over 40. Why 40? Because, like in Hollywood 40 is some kind of invisible line for women. Women under 40 get roles, but hit 40 and they dry up. Plus, I’m tired (aren’t you) of the sexist, ageist older man-younger pairing that is the staple of Hollywood and, let’s face it, most kinds of fiction.

Let me be even more specific. I’m after Romance, not Women’s Fiction. In Women’s Fiction there’s often an element of romance, but the lovey-dovey stuff isn’t the primary focus. In ROMANCE the story is driven by a couple on a journey to find love, rather than, as you frequently find in Women’s Fiction, a woman’s journey of self discovery or tale of women’s friendship and/or relationship with friends and family. Call it Adult Contemporary Romance, MidRom, Seasoned Romance, Older Romance,  MatRom, Vintage Rom, (I’ll bite you if you call it HenRom, GrannyRom or HagRom), I want all the romance, I want two people falling for each other and all the glorious, complex, baggage-filled mess that goes with it, the Big Misunderstanding, the (however much I despise them) Secret Baby, Enemies to Lovers, Friends to Lovers, the Marriage of Convience, I want all those familiar tropes you love and maybe even hate, but I want them to feature heroines aged 40 and over.

My aim, if it’s not clear, is to present women of a certain age in the genre of fiction that is and always has been female-focussed. I want to draw attention that there are older romance readers who are so damn ready to see themselves reflected in the genre they love. It’s about visibility. Older women deserve and need to be written back into the narrative of life and fictional tales. Because of it’s position as a vanguard for women and social change, Romance fiction holds the power to make older women visible.  However, there are impediments still in place, sticky impediments. With this list as proof of a growing market and subgenre (not a niche, dammit),  I want to clear way the cobwebs that still obscure some publishers minds, and show them the vibrancy of older women.  The Romance publishers who are open to older heroines, but limit the ‘field of older’ to between the ages of 35 to 45 because, as one editor said to me, “No one wants to read about granny sex,” need to understand that this limit perpetuates the ageist and sexist attitude that older women aren’t attractive, sexual, or interested in sex, which implies women over 45 are lesser, other, unworthy of love, and their hideousness must continue to be hidden or kept out of the narrative–you see how ridiculous that practice is.

Have a gander at the list I already have. I know since 2016 there have been titles released by traditional and indie publishers (I’m looking at you, Maggie Wells), but as any author will tell you DISCOVERABILITY IS KEY to readers finding new authors and titles.  I want to add books to my list of romance fiction featuring heroines over 40!  Give ’em to me. Shoot those titles my way! Help me add to the list and help these books be discovered! Let’s wipe out sexist ageism one Romance novel at a time!

PLEASE Leave your book recommendation as a comment!

Required Reading for Anyone Writing About Romance Fiction

Valentine’s Day is nearly upon us. This means it’s the time when newspapers, magazines, blogs, and websites roll out the clichéd stories about Bodice Rippers, Fabio, heaving bosoms Romance fiction, lonely, bob-bon-eating, middle-aged cat-owning women who read romance, dating, pleasure, sex, and reading choices.

Like many other authors in the romance genre, I’ve had more than enough of the tired, poorly-researched, stereotyped drivel about romance fiction. The American comedian Rodney Dangerfield used to say in his shtick, “I don’t get no respect.” Readers, authors and academic scholars of romance know full well about the lack of respect afforded the genre. What I find rather fascinating is how these Valentine’s Day articles about Romance fiction are written by men and women.

The theory goes that anything written by women is demeaned and considered ‘lesser’ than the writing of men. Back in 1983, Joanna Russ’ How to Suppress Women’s Writing discussed the ways social forces hinder the recognition of female writers by the patriarchy. Russ ought to be required reading for anyone thinking of writing a piece about women’s writing, women’s fiction, and romance fiction in particular. Why? Russ highlights suppression with eleven common methods that are used to ignore, condemn or belittle the work of female authors. They are:

1. Prohibitions: Prevent women from access to the basic tools for writing.

2. Bad Faith: Unconsciously create social systems that ignore or devalue women’s writing.

3. Denial of Agency: Deny that a woman wrote it.

4. Pollution of Agency: Show that their art is immodest, not actually art, or shouldn’t have been written about.

5. The Double Standard of Content: Claim that one set of experiences is considered more valuable than another.

6. False Categorizing: Incorrectly categorize women artists as the wives, mothers, daughters, sisters, or lovers of male artists.

7. Isolation: Create a myth of isolated achievement that claims that only one work or short series of poems is considered great.

8. Anomalousness: Assert that the woman in question is eccentric or atypical.

9. Lack of Models: Reinforce a male author dominance in literary canons in order to cut off women writers’ inspiration and role models.

10. Responses: Force women to deny their female identity in order to be taken seriously.

11. Aesthetics: Popularize aesthetic works that contain demeaning roles and characterizations of women.

Once you look at that list, you may think it’s about the patriarchy, especially when one notices how the books that make review lists are typically penned by men, or when one considers that special chestnut A Roundup of the Season’s Romance Novels penned by former one-time Simon & Shuster editor in chief Robert Gottlieb, the older white man in New York Times last September—you know which one I mean. Once you look at the list you might notice how it influences the piece Verity ran today, 7 Romantic Books That You Won’t Be Embarrassed to Admit Reading, which mentions dear Fabio and puts quotes around the words “romance novel.” Articles such as these hit the screechy stereotyped notes. Articles like these highlight the patriarchy at work quashing and devaluing work, any work, by women. It’s a sinister thing because it’s ingrained practice familiar to women; it’s what we’re used to, what we navigate on a daily basis across a spectrum of mundane and professional duties we carry out. But here’s the thing that really grates: number 2 on Russ’ list. Number 4 pisses me off too, but number 2 is particularly insidious.

Bad Faith: Unconsciously create social systems that ignore or devalue women’s writing.

This practice is so entrenched that women use the suppression, consciously or unconsciously, not only to demean the work of women, but even to inform women of their need to feel guilty or be embarrassed when they read subversive, feminist, substantive, social commentary that explores the human condition and the very human need to connect to others.

Russ wrote about suppressing women’s writing 35 years ago. Clearly, change is still needed in the way women’s work, be it domestic, professional, or creative, is presented and discussed in the media, in the way women are presented in the media (particularly women over 40—I know you were waiting for me to mention the lack of respect mature women get). Pieces like Jennifer Weiner’s We Need Bodice Ripper Sex Ed  and Jamie Green’s Who Gets a Happily Ever After in 2018, place women’s pleasure, sexual and reading pleasure, first. Weiner and Green counter the usual claptrap about romance, trashy, sappy, porny romance fiction, and feeling guilty about sex or reading a novel.

Change is rolling in, slowly, but rolling in nonetheless, and it could use a little push forward. The next time I read a clichéd, crappy article about romance and romance fiction, I’m going to leave a comment directing the author to READ RUSS and do better research. I’ll also suggest reading Frantz and Selinger’s New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction,  Rodale’s Dangerous Books for Girls, Wendell & Tan’s Beyond Heaving Bosoms. and contacting the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance,  you know, to get the facts straight instead of relying on sloppy stereotypes. I’ll point out that romance authors like Eloisa James (Professor Mary Bly), Jennifer Crusie, Jodi McAlister (aka Dr Jodes ), Amy T Matthews (Tess LeSue,), myself, and so many others lead, or have led, double lives as romance fiction scholars and academics.  I’ll be sure to mention that us scholarly types can tell you a thing or two about the romance genre, like how the genre is subversive, feminist, complex, political, how it deals with social and psychological issues, has been at the forefront of social change for women, and that Fabio hasn’t been on a romance cover in decades, but model Jason Baca has been on 500 or more.

In the meantime, screw the patriarchy and those clichés about Romance fiction. The only thing I am chained to is my laptop, and while I write my next book and continue to fight the good fight to place more women of a certain age as romantic leads, I’m left wondering several things. Does the romance community look at news articles about Romance fiction differently when they are written by women; does the community view the piece with a more or less critical eye than if written by a man? Or do we, as readers, authors, and industry members, judge each piece on individual merit?

What is it we romance ‘enthusiasts’ want to see in an article about the fiction we so adore?

Now, the next time you read an less-than well-researched article about Romance fiction, enjoy a game of ROMANCE CLICHE BINGO, inspired by and created especially for this post and you by author and spider-lover Ebony McKenna! Many thanks to you, Ebs!

Created by Ebony McKenna ©2018

 

Excerpt: Russ, J. (1983). How to suppress women’s writing. University of Texas Press. https://utpress.utexas.edu/books/rushow

 

 

 

 

I’m Getting Bored With This

You’ve heard it all before. It’s not new. It’s the same story, over and over. Nothing changes. There’s a gap in pay and a gap in age. Women get, as Marilyn Monroe says in Some Like It Hot, “The fuzzy end of the lollipop,” or, if you’re a woman over 40, no lollipop at all.

News items, like Anita Singh’s article in  The Independent,  Hollywood Gender Pay Gap Laid Bare as Rich list of Stars is Filled by Men, highlight the gender pay gap that exists between male and female stars in Hollywood, as well as the rampant ageism toward older actresses.

The pay gap can be attributed to the dominance of action blockbusters and to a dearth of opportunities for older women. In the list of top 10 actresses, the oldest woman is Julia Roberts (49). All but three of the male top 10 are aged 50 or over.

No big surprise there. While I applaud the reporting of the ongoing disparity, this news is now tedious and commonplace. Story after story indicates that, despite all the reporting of the gap, nothing has changed, that there’s still a “dearth of opportunities for older women,” and it is boring. So very boring. We know about the disparity.

Some of us are trying to alter the pay gap and and the age gap. We are telling stories about women of a certain age, in case Hollywood and the Romance fiction industry haven’t noticed. Writers like me are trying to be proactive and smart. We SEE the audience the industry doesn’t. We want  to ensure that both men and women are afforded the same opportunity to have a lollipop that isn’t fuzzy–or a just a damned lollipop.

 

 

Singh, A. (2017). Hollywood gender pay gap laid bare as rich list of stars is filled by men. The Independent. 24 August. http://www.independent.ie/entertainment/hollywood-gender-pay-gap-laid-bare-as-rich-list-of-stars-is-filled-by-men-36060056.html .

The Image Problem of Granny Sex

Older women have an image problem, a negative one that has become normalized. What do I mean by normalized? 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. This needs to change.

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.’ 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.

What you 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, the imagery you’ve seen about adult diapers, creams that lift sagging skin, and late fortysomething Daniel Craig’s James Bond romancing twentysomething Lea Seydoux rather than fiftysomething Monica Bellucci, reinforces the information you see about women ‘getting old,’ and men being hot silver foxes. Who would blame you for believing the double standard of aging?

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 have you seen a couple who are roughly the same age getting it on? Age equivalent sex suddenly becomes problematic—and it’s all because of the woman. Add a woman with sagging skin and she’s a grandma, and granny sex is gross because grandmas don’t have sex—even with silver foxy grandpas.

Give us silver fox smokin’ hot grandpas, but no grannies and their saggy this and that. I had a romance publisher tell me no one wanted to read granny sex, quite recently in fact. I was prepared to show this publisher evidence contrary to her statement (have a look at the Seasoned Romance Facebook page). Unfortunately, this was at a conference, others stepped in, and my opportunity to continue was lost. That moment indicated that, for some publishers, romantic interludes in romance fiction, like onscreen, is still considered to be a venue open only to young women.

For many publishers the status quo remains, 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 this pervasive attitude that older women aren’t attractive or sexual. The image problem is a vicious circle, but I’m pushing for change. While I’ve posted about what to call this subgenre of romance (I’m still leaning toward just calling it Romance), this time I’m asking for reasons why you think 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?

Is sex after 40 just plain gross?

Or is it because we have so rarely been shown positive images of mature female sexuality?

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 romance 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.

Leave a comment about what you think is problematic. Meanwhile, I’ll keep writing my sexually active silver foxy heroines over 40.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Seeking Role Models for Women Over 40 in TV and Romance Fiction

In the Hollywood Reporter, Inkoo Kang’s Critic’s Notebook: For Women Over 40, TV’s Feminism Is Flawed has interesting things to say on TV and the meaty roles for women over 40, but questions, like I do, why these women of a certain age remain bizarrely flawed and dysfunctional, why these women, more often than not, remain morally ambiguous, less-than-positive role models of older women. In other words, why women of a certain age are still cast as something wicked.

Kang, praises the inclusion of older women (as do I), yet points out that ‘Moral ambiguity is the currency of today’s prestige and middlebrow small-screen projects, and ethical transgressions can indeed make for a more compelling protagonist.” Kang also notes out how “There’s not a powerful and pure-hearted Buffy Summers, Dana Scully or Jane Villanueva among them,” and cautions “let’s not make the mistake of confusing goodness for a lack of complexity.” This confusion is where the danger lies because it relies on continuing to present older women as stereotyped cranky old ladies, kooks, and harpies.

On one hand, we have to applaud television’s inclusion of the older woman, since old broads have been invisible for so long. On the other hand, and yes there are a few TV series that offer positive, complex, moral-hearted representations and role models of women over 40 (Grace & Frankie, Madame Secretary, The Fall, The Night Manager), yet too many still rely on the stereotypes and assumptions about older women.

Which brings me to my usual plug for the older romance heroine. The 40+ romance heroine is perfectly placed to combat the confusion, the moral ambiguity, the stereotyping. Yes, it’s time for 40+ romance heroines to step in and BE models of strength and poise, to BE valued for their potential, to BE powerful, ‘powerful, pure-hearted,’ and complex, not merely bizarrely flawed and dysfunctional. After all, Romance fiction has been at the forefront of social change for women for decades–but romance publishers have been a little…intractable with seeing women 40+ as viable romantic leads (because falling in love only happens to young women and sex over 40 is icky), or as a valuable money-making audience. Romance publishers are beginning, slowly, to come around. Like television has.

The key to changing the biases we have, and changing the stereotypes fiction and Hollywood clings to is, as Kang suggests (and I shout), offering NEW tales featuring women of a certain age, and presenting these women as something to aspire to be. We need to re-train our brains to accept a new status quo.

One last note. It may be my imagination, but I think the UK is frequently better at NOT relying on and challenging the portrayal of older women as kooky, dysfunctional stereotypes in TV and film roles.

Kang, I. (2017, June 13). Critic’s Notebook: For Women Over 40, TV’s Feminism Is Flawed. The Hollywood Reporter.  http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/critic-s-notebook-women-40-tv-s-feminism-is-flawed-1012782