Ageist, Muther-effin’ Punchline

I try to keep on top of the movies that come out that feature women over the age of 40 in starring roles—the ones that don’t star Meryl Streep or Diane Keaton, which, if you want to see a movie featuring a woman aged 40+ in a starring role, pretty much means you’re gonna get Meryl or Diane. I’ve been trying to catch Julianne Moore in the eponymous free-spirit, dance-loving-gets-a new-boyfriend-romantic Gloria Bell, but the show times have been during the day, when I am at the office, or after 9p.m., when I’m in bed. So, I went to see Poms—starring Diane Keaton—instead.

Contrary to what some Australian readers might think, Poms is not about English people, or the nickname Aussies have for the British. In this case Poms refers to a cheerleading squad.

What was it I made note of in my post the other day?

Oh, yes. I remember. Cindy Gallop said that there is “little nuance in the way age is portrayed…” that we get “ridiculously comical parodies and caricatures of older people.”  And then I said that advertising aimed at people aged over 40 is so often about retirement communities, that age ceases to be a mere characteristic of a character as the focus shifts to stereotypes of decline and disease, on things older people ‘don’t do’ anymore. The thing is, age is a characteristic, not an attribute that defines a person. Except it totally is in Poms, like it was in Book Club.

Okay, okay, we get it, we know stereotypes are a shorthand route to creating a character, a super one-dimensional character, the like kind you find in Poms. Personally, I see it as sloppy and unimaginative writing, but the spectre of age stereotypes, that shorthand, convenient way to contextualise accomplishments and standardise expectations, that reductive, faulty, fixed-with-bullshit meanings hits Diane and her similarly aged female cheerleading costars (side note, I LOVE Pam Grier and I will watch anything with her in it but…) hard and fast—and with NO muther effin’ cheer.

I very nearly walked out of Poms. The thing was, I’d paid way too much for a bucket of popcorn that I didn’t want to leave behind or take with me when I did the grocery shopping after, and for a moment, I considered asking the couple in the seats behind me if they wanted my popcorn, but I stayed, and ate that salty goodness because it was the best thing about the ripe with possibilities but utterly disappointing and craptastic missed opportunity that was Poms.

My teeth are on edge just thinking about it. Is it really that hard to write women beyond the age of 40 as realistic, whole, intelligent, attractive, and complex? I think Hollywood isn’t looking in the right places because…well, Jude Dry’s review of Poms on IndieWire, sums up things nicely.

“The characters in Poms are far from reality—not only of such acting legends but of any woman of a certain age—it’s easy to wonder if the writers have actually met anyone over the age of 65…what they see are these one-dimensional characters, long past their prime and waiting to die. There is not a single character who does not doubt herself or her ability… It seems that older women must apologize not only for wanting to feel good, but for wanting screen time. The central conflict of the movie—women in a retirement community have to fight for their right to cheerlead—is based on the premise that such a desire is totally out of character for anyone over the age of 18.”

There, right there, that’s the irksome problem. The film, like so many works of fiction with older or seasoned characters, focuses on the stereotypes of decline and disease, on things older people ‘don’t do’ anymore. But, as Dry and I both noticed, besides the whole retirement community thing and the ‘you’re too old to even think about wanting to do that,’ and the comical parodies and caricatures of older people, was the stereotyped, muther-effin’ line of dialogue that shifted the standard good luck line “break a leg” to “break a hip.” That ageist punchline reduced the entire film to an insult.

I can’t fault Diane or Pam or the rest of the cast. It’s wonderful that these women are working actors; we need MORE films and books that feature older women as the leads, but not as the leads in this kind of insulting stale outing that missed a real money-making opportunity.

I blame producers and writers who rehash and persist on the bullshit ageist stereotypes. The sad thing is, when a book, or film with older females leads like Poms, misfires and doesn’t make money, Hollywood, like the publishing world, takes that to mean that no one wants to see films or read books about older women.

Dear Hollywood,

I have a book series for you. The In Service series stars a middle-aged female butler and the spy who loves her. There’re no jokes about erectile dysfunction, and it’s not set in a retirement community.

 

 

 

Dry, J. (2019). ‘Poms’ Review: Diane Keaton’s Lifeless Retirement Community Cheerleader Movie Needs a Pep Talk.https://www.indiewire.com/2019/05/poms-review-diane-keaton-cheerleader-movie-1202132593/

Old Habits

Since our perceptions about ‘old’ and growing older change, and we clue in to just how much bullshit is wrapped up in advertising ‘selling us a dream’ and telling us, women over the age of 40 in particular, that we ‘no longer matter,’ isn’t it time to challenge what we perceive as ‘old’ and how we depict age and ageing, to remove the stigma and fear? We, all of us, need to challenge, to change, to knockout negative depictions of aging in advertising, in films, television, fiction, all very powerful forces in shaping culture, that are utterly ageist because ageism is detrimental to us all, even more so if you are female.

Why is it so many of us fear getting older? Often, we treat antiques as items of great value and take care to look after them, yet rather than treat older people as valuable, we have come to ridicule and devalue them, older women in particular. Adding fire to fear is how we see ageing as a disease to combat. Girls and young women are bombarded by the message that getting older is a horrible road paved with ugliness and decline. As a result, we’re too afraid to face the skewed reality we’ve been told is true, when it’s nothing but a con.

If our primary goal in life is to, well, STAY ALIVE, seemingly as long as possible, why then do we see living a long life that changes our faces and bodies along the way as something shameful, ugly, and diseased?

Habit. Laziness. Because the stereotypes of age and ageism are so pervasive and accepted.

I often discuss stereotypes of women and age. I fully understand that stereotypes are a shorthand route to creating a character. I say dumb blonde Barbie or redneck and I bet it conjures up very specific images. The shorthand of stereotypes are a convenient way to contextualise accomplishments and standardise expectations, but the shorthand is reductive, usually faulty, and often comes with fixed meanings that people assign to it, which causes us to reduce people to labels like dumb blonde Barbie, redneck, or old coot. Age is a characteristic, not an attribute that defines a person. The depiction of older people as decrepit, pathetic, useless, as a crone, old coot, or geezer isn’t something that connects us with our future selves; it creates dread and denial of a natural process of life, it creates a multi-billion dollar industry that bombards us with reminders to fear and fight ageing, which in turn serves to devalue and dread our future selves.

When it comes to advertising, Cindy Gallop notes, “little nuance in the way age is portrayed,” there’s an either or with “beautiful blonde-haired, white-haired, blue-haired, gorgeous older people walking on the beach in the sunset…or ridiculously comical parodies and caricatures of older people.” There’s not a lot of ethnic or cultural diversity, not a great deal of products aimed directly at men the way anti-ageing products target women, nothing geared toward the older LGBTIQ community. Older people have the income, have the money to spend, but there is little to reflect this in advertising the products aimed at adults growing older. It’s about retirement communities, arthritis pain relief, funeral insurance, anti-ageing creams.

When it comes to films and television shows depicting older people, change is slow, particularly in romance fiction. I write about that often. I rant about it often. There have been some changes in Hollywood, even a little bit in romance fiction with the growing visibility of Seasoned Romance, and thank heaven for that. However, something I’ve noticed is that a number of films and TV shows with older leads, still treat being older as a joke, or treat ageing almost like another character present in the room. Invariably, someone points out that age is in the room with a well-timed, “really, at your age?” or there’s a scene with erectile dysfunction and Viagra, like in Book Club, where older women reading Fifty Shades of Grey is subversive and changes their lives. Age ceases to be a mere characteristic of a character as the focus shifts to stereotypes of decline and disease, on things older people ‘don’t do’ anymore, rather than keeping the spotlight on the story-telling of say, two older people finding love and sex again later in life, as in Our Souls At Night, which showed the romantic awkwardness and expectations of two people who just happened to be older—the awkwardness and expectations not really so different to younger people.

This could just be my bugbear, a thing that disappoints me, but it is something I’ve noticed and something that can spoil a story for me. I may even be guilty of it myself because I am so hellbent at making sure readers know my heroines are older, but I think, and I could be wrong here, that I don’t use a sledge hammer to do it, and I don’t make age a character in the room. I’ve written two books where I never specifically state the heroine’s age. Willa, in For Your Eyes Only and Mae the butler of my In Service series are both 50-ish—okay, Mae’s age is revealed—in one short statement that appears in Italian, but I chose to keep the exact ages of those heroines hidden. My characters get on with the story without bumping into those age stereotypes or jokes. Age is a characteristic of my leads, not an attribute that defines them.

Is it so hard to tell a tale without having arrows constantly pointing to the chronological age? No, it’s not. Stories unfold and develop with all kinds of characteristics becoming an unnecessary factor to the story-telling. When a story is well-written and executed, age, like a character’s eye color, fades into the background; we no longer notice the bright blue eyes, unless they are bright blue for some very important reason that impacts the story. What do you think?

Am I miles off base? Is age REALLY that important to tell a story?

 

 

 

Intersectionality: Ageism and the Older Romance Heroine

Wielding my Shield of Smartass

Yes, I’ve been saying this and I keep saying this.

Age is often overlooked as an issue of diversity, especially within the publishing world. As a result of this disregard, romance fiction, so often at the forefront of social change for women, is losing its place as a feminist trailblazer, especially for older women, and it’s missing out on an opportunity to make money.

I write romantic suspense and contemporary romance featuring lead characters over the age of 40 (that’s heroes and heroines aged 40+) who fall in love and get it on, because unlike what you see—or don’t see—men and women 40, 50, 60 and beyond still fall in love and have great sex. Some of you may be familiar with my novels, my academic investigations into portraying older women as heroines in romance fiction, my occasional ranty soapboxing about the roles that have typically been given to women 40+, about the stereotypes of age, and the importance of including older women as leads in romance fiction.

Yeah, well, I’m ranting. Again.

Hollywood and publishing have had a much-needed kick up the backside, one that has called out the overdue need for diversity and inclusion on screen and in fiction. There’s been a call for more stories featuring POC as leads, more stories of people with disabilities, more stories showing a wider spectrum of cultures, of sexual orientation and gender identities, of people long overlooked as real, as whole. We’ve had the success of Crazy Rich Asians and Black Panther, the #metoo movement, Hollywood and romance publishing standing up to sexism. Hooray! However, in spite of the discussion around diversity and inclusion, like I said, age diversity is often left out of the conversation and that exclusion is ageist. Ageism can have an effect on everyone, regardless of skin colour, cultural heritage, disability, gender identity or sexual orientation. We all age, yet it remains acceptable to  to degrade, ridicule, devalue and fear older people. Especially older women.

The intersectionality of ageism is seldom acknowledged, but the reality is that ageism, sexism, and racism are all linked, people of all colours and cultures experience ageism, it hits women much harder than men, and this intersectionality, especially in western society, results in a culture steeped in ageism. We (women in particular), unconsciously accept and participate in widespread and invisible ageist structures, stereotypes, and biases that show up in books TV, movies, advertising. This conditions us to see things one way, and the images you see are powerful. What you don’t see is even more powerful, and you rarely see older women as romance heroines.

The age bias is evident in the romance fiction industry, where the standard has been for the heroines to be young, which means romance is conceptualised as a younger woman’s tale. It’s something of a vicious circle. What you don’t see effects what you do see, and we have been conditioned to accept only young women as heroines. We lack older female role models. Hollywood and fiction embrace the silver fox hero, yet you seldom find a silver foxy heroine. The older man paired with a younger woman is ubiquitous in film and fiction, but the roles for women 40+ boil down to mother, wife, cougar, granny, crazy and/or evil old hag—roles many of us take on board without realising they’re stereotypes. Women 40+ are rarely portrayed as complex, confident, sensual or sexual, and are more frequently sidelined to secondary characters, or written out the narrative entirely. This is sexist and ageist. Thankfully, things are beginning to change in Hollywood.

I write the complex, interesting, confident, sensual, sexual romantic older heroines I want to see. My latest releases, At Your Service and Forever In Your Service, and Your Sterling Service feature a 50-ish female butler paired with a slightly younger spy. In my academic investigations, I established that there is an audience for stories featuring older protagonists like mine, and it’s one that can attract money. I’m repeating myself and I’ll keep repeating myself because over the last 15 years, this waiting audience has grown, and they STILL want romance novels featuring older, or ‘seasoned’ lead characters. It is this audience who are pushing to refer to this ‘later in life’ romance subgenre as ‘Seasoned Romance’ (SR). If you want evidence, beyond mine, of this burgeoning, waiting audience, check out the Facebook Groups Seasoned Romance, and Romance in Her Prime, with over 3,000 reader and writer members and growing. Hollywood may have recognised the power of the ‘silver or grey dollar,’ and begun to cater to the audience craving older characters, but, like me, many older readers eager to buy SR find romance publishing lagging behind.

Publishers are trying. There have been attempts to market to readers who are looking for older characters. In 2006, Harlequin launched the NEXT imprint, the late 80s gave us Berkley’s Second Chance at Love, and Ballantine’s Love & Life. None of these imprints lasted long. Second Chance at Love and Love & Life were poorly marketed and had unappealing covers that turned off reader (trust me on this, I have some of them). NEXT was essentially Women’s Fiction; romance was a sideline to the narrative rather than what drove the plot. The failure of these imprints was seen as proof that readers couldn’t accept older characters as leads, rather than as a marketing misstep. Marketing is savvier now and see potential. Recently, Entangled launched August with a focus on older couples, and Sideways, a Women’s Fiction imprint. Entangled recognises financial opportunity and the audience wanting SR. However, both imprints have, or have had, limits set on the age range for characters. Limiting character age demonstrates ageist (and, as you see with prevalence of silver fox heroes, sexist) structures and biases that continue to operate in publishing.

Although there has been some shift within the industry regarding an openness to age, I often come across SR authors recounting how romance editors have told them to ‘make the heroine younger,’ or stated that, ‘no one wants to read a story with granny sex,’ or that ‘older characters have too much baggage for a romance.’ Not only do these comments show some editors have lost sight that the love story is the core of romance, they also give credence of the pervasive ageism within the industry. Sadly, SR has to prove itself. There has yet to be that one best-selling big book.

Luckily, there are authors like myself, Karen Booth, Natasha Moore, Kerrie Patterson, Maggie Christensen, Kristen Ashley, Maggie Wells, Cecilia London, Josie Kerr, Jeannie Moon, Julie Hammerle and many others, who working hard to disrupt ageism with the stories we tell of complex, intelligent, interesting, confident, sensual, sexual, romance heroines who happen to be older. We are the new trailblazers.

You can be too.

Discovery of the Obvious

The hardest thing any author faces is discovery. We write the book, we try to get the book published traditionally, or go indie and put the book out ourselves. That’s the easy part. The thing that makes us pull out our hair is trying to get noticed. Or in my case noticed and HEARD

This week, I was very kindly invited to be a guest and post on Breathless in the Bush, “an eclectic group of writers who share a love of Romance, the enjoyment of a good laugh, and a dedication to learning all we can about the craft of writing.” These wonderful Australian writers have graciously allowed me to tell them and other readers and writers about Seasoned Romance and, of course, my books. It’s a lovely way to  have readers discover my upcoming release, Forever in Your Service, the second book of the In Service series, which again features a middle-aged female butler and the spy who loves her. It comes out 29 March.

If you enjoyed At Your Service and the short story Your Sterling Service, I think you really might kind of like Forever In Your Service. It has a dog in it. Also, the leads, Mrs Valentine and Major Kitt, discover things about each other as they discover the world around them is made of cowboys, charlatans, wine, snow, and obvious lies.

Where was I ? Oh, yes, discovery. You know I write novels with an emphasis on the portrayal of women over 40 as heroines, I write older romantic heroines and I always have. I’ve been going on and on–okay, I’ve been ranting about older romance heroines, ageism and sexism in Hollywood, in publishing, and especially in romance fiction. Whether you want to call what I write Adult-Contemporary romance, ‘mature’ romance, grown-up romance, later-in-life romance, or to use the term author Maggie Wells coined, Seasoned Romance, they are central love story where the female lead, where couples of ‘a certain age’ are front and centre as lead characters in a story that comes with all the hallmarks you love and expect in a romance, novel, right down to sexy times and the all-important Happily Ever After.

Guess what? I’m not alone in what I do. Others have joined my voice, have given credence to my academic and ongoing scholarly research, the stuff about an overlooked audience of readers eager to see older heroines and older couples in their fiction, and the viability of women aged 40+ as romance heroines.  There are other like me out there, writers and readers. We’ve been here and now we’ve joined forces. Visit the Seasoned Romance Facebook Group to find out more about the authors and readers and books.  JOIN US!

We’ve been out here all along, writing, and writing, and having some of our books traditionally or Indie published. We’ve been waiting for you to notice, to discover us, and I’ve been telling you, I’ve been shouting, “We’re here!  We’re here!” like a little Who from Whoville.

I’m not going to say it.

Okay, yes I am.

I told you so.

 

Smashin’ Frivolous Myths

Let this serve as a reminder of what I do. A writer I know posted this on Facebook — it’s originally from The Best of Tumblr.


My thing is to smash the MYTH that’s decreed romance heroines should only ever be in their 20s since women over 40, don’t have sex anymore, and if they dare to knock boots it’s, as I heard one publishing executive say, “granny sex and who wants to read granny sex?”

Nope, I’m NOT going to let that publisher’s comment go. That there feeds right into the ageist and stereotyped bullshit I’m smashing. It also reminds me of something I read when I was doing my Master’s thesis. Now, I tend to keep EVERYTHING research related, but do you think I can find the reference about younger women populating romance while older women (that is women 40 and over) are kicked into Women’s Fiction? Do you think I can find the quote that says something like, ‘after 40, women are no longer interested in the frivolity of love?’

AS IF love is truly frivolous! It’s what everyone on the plant needs and wants and hopes for.

I’ve spent half the morning looking for the quote on my newest laptop. I have to assume it’s at home, still buried with all the masters stuff on my ancient (as in I had it in 2008) heavy, white MacBook with the dead battery and wonky touch pad. When I find the reference,  I’ll post it because the premise that so often makes others look down their noses at Romance fiction is that the genre deals with love, which, for some reason, suddenly becomes frivolous if the protagonist is female and the writer is female.  We all know when it’s a tragic tale of love, it’s literary, but if it’s written by a woman, and has an optimistic, positive ending where love triumphs, it’s not creative or literary, and if the protagonist is female, then the tale’s focus on love is not creative or literary, but frivolous.

AS IF love is frivolous.

Yes, I know. The impact of this post would be so much better if I could find the bloody, frivolous quote.

In the meantime, I’ll go back to writing True to Your Service, the third book in my In Service series about a middle-aged female butler and the spy who loves her. The first book, At Your Service and a companion short story, Your Sterling Service, are out now.

Five Reasons Why My New Release ‘At Your Service’ Is Important

Here are 5 reasons why my latest release At Your Service is important for women:

1. At Your Service breaks down ageist and sexist barriers that have allowed men to age, be adventurous, foxy, and paired with women 15-20 years younger while dismissing women over 40.

2. Portrays a strong, middle-aged female lead who is not an ageist stereotype or is typecast as a mother, wife, grandma, harpy, or crazy woman who lives in a van.

3. Portrays a middle-aged woman as intelligent, capable, attractive, sensual, and sexual.

4. Ageism is often overlooked as an issue of diversity. Young women will one day be older women. Positive, realistic representations of intelligent, capable, attractive, sensual, and sexual women over 40 create positive role models for younger women.

5. Sexism has rendered older women nearly invisible in all forms of media. The women over 40 in At Your Service get noticed.

Okay, so At Your Service is a romantic suspense cosy spy mystery thriller and how realistic is it to have a female butler join up with a British spy… Ah. Yes. You get it. Fiction. Content here creates the culture, the positive role model of a female butler, which is unusual role for a woman, AND the fact she’s middle-aged, intelligent, capable, attractive, sensual, and sexual IS the spin on the content and culture we’re SO used to seeing. Breaking down the barriers of sexism, ageism, stereotypes, and the sidelining of older women we’ve come to accept as the norm is not reality and it’s not fiction either.

The reality is, women over 40 are not invisible, but they have been miscast and have, for far too long, been left off screen and out of fiction. It’s my mission, so to speak, to challenge this, to change this, to give the world a positive portrayal of women over 40 and a role model for younger women AND men, one book at a time.

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.

Preorder links for At Your Service

Kindle

Kobo, Nook, and more 

 

 

 

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