Now, with that out of the the way I’ll try to make this short and tart because I’m kind of both and I have a deadline.
This morning, smart cookie and Ageism crusader Ashton Applewhite, author of the This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism (go read it NOW), flagged an article by Jacynth, the founder of The Bias Cut– Shopping With Attitude – Where Ageism Is Never In Style. Love that tag line, don’t you? Anyhow, I like to think my nose is pretty good at rooting up articles on women and ageism, but I missed Jacynth’s l’il gem from last July.
Maybe it’s all the Star Trek I watched growing up (Star Trek is a very multicultural TV series that tried to be inclusive and stamp out ‘isms,’ ICYMI), or maybe i’m merely über naive and idealistic, but it’s 2020 and I am über annoyed that we’re still not embracing diversity and equity in society. Nope, nope, nope. We’re still wrestling with racism, xenophobia, sexism, and ageism.
You know I’ve spent a long time talking about ageism in film, genre fiction, and the publishing industry, especially the romance fiction industry (and we know how things are, and have been, in Romancelandia). Ageism is particularly heavy-handed in romance fiction where men are ‘silver foxes’ who get their own trope, while women of the same silvery age are hags, grannies, evil stepmothers, cougars, raging lunatics, old — or invisible. Stereotypes of age and sexist ageism are so rampant in romance fiction you’d think someone would have pointed this or out done a study of it.
Oh, wait. I did.
Go look if you want to. The links to my academic works are up on the menu under Other Writing. The results of my studies weren’t startling, didn’t tell women over the age of 40 something they didn’t already know, but the study did support how a bias operates in the romance fiction industry. And if you didn’t know, ageism, like so many other ‘ism’ biases, doesn’t care about race, culture, gender (more on that in a moment), sexual identity, disabilities. Women of all colours and ethnicities get the fuzzy end of the ageist lollipop — but did you know ageism hits woman of colour even harder?
I am in no way suggesting that ageism does not have an impact on men. It does. In the workforce, men are passed over for promotions in favour of someone younger, they are viewed as dinosaurs with outdated ideas, however, as Jacynth she notes,
“the difficulties these [white] men face may seem to them more pronounced because they haven’t experienced other prejudices in their life.”
Interestingly, the impact of a man experiencing ageism for the first time might work as a tool to open the eyes of old white guys entrenched in sexist practices, or –and here’s where my idealism creeps in– open their eyes to all the other biased practices they’ve never noticed. Pointing out and challenging biases might function better if one has actually experienced the brunt of a bias. Nothing opens one’s eyes quite like ridicule or exclusion.
As I said, I’m keeping this sweet because I’m trying to finish writing True to Your Service, the final book in my trilogy about the middle-aged female butler and slightly younger spy who loves her (Hey, look! A book cover!), and dammit, they get a happy ever after, just like their younger counterparts, just as, I am hoping, silver fox James Bond does in the upcoming No Time to Die — except, in the film trailer, the woman Bond seems to be living his life with is half his age and really should have been Monica Bellucci’s underused, age-appropriate character from SPECTRE.
Consider this a follow-up to an earlier post, the one where I got ranty about how believing your youth is the “Best Time of Your Life” and how that belief keeps you from living your best life. The ‘younger is better’ thing is a notion that has congealed into the psyche of the media—that’s advertising, film, and fiction. The ‘younger is better’ perception is especially hard-set within the romance fiction industry, which functions under two common mistakes: younger is better, and older people, specifically older female romance readers who are past their springtime-youthful-fertile prime, yearn to be young again and find reading about younger romance heroines as a way to ‘recapture that glow of youth.’
As Glinda the Good Witch says in the Wizard of Oz, “Oh, rubbish!”
While the yen to recapture one’s youth may be true for some, the majority of older people, especially women over 40, do not feel this way, and maintaining a very persistent, very mistaken, nearsighted vision that touts ageist and sexist folderol within the romance fiction industry, a genre that is written mostly by and for women, is, as I have been saying for years, essentially shooting the romance publishing industry in the foot. There is a ready-made audience overlooked in favour of millennials, and it is made up of readers who are NOT just boomers, as the media would have you believe, but also often-overlooked Gen X and Xennials and there is money to be made by taking these readers seriously, rather than solely trying to figure out how to capture the millennial market.
“But what about millennials?” publishers cry, “how can we attract them as readers of romance?”
Guess what? Millennials are going to grow up to be older people one day. Doesn’t it make sense to have in place books that are aspirational to people who are younger now, books that paint an image of a future where being older does not mean blue hair, walkers, dementia or an end to love and sex, as the utterly wrong, completely cliched and ageist aspirations the advertising and entertainment industry has relentlessly shown us?
Advertising’s job is to make something attractive so that people will buy a product. HOW IS THE PUBLISHING INDUSTRY MISSING THIS POINT? Maybe because advertising is doing such a crap job of paying attention to older people.
There is money to be made here. If advertisers (and film, and fiction) took the time to talk to older people and made them the primary target, rather than a stereotyped caricature of decrepit and worthless, we GenXers, Xennials, and Boomers would spend up. Older people know what matters in life, have experience with life and relationships and know how to express their individuality—all things younger people aspire to. As Cindy Gallop points out, if advertisers “Lead with what’s aspirational about being older,” that is, if they give us role models, portray older people, especially older women, as the confident, vibrant, attractive, sensual, sexual, intelligent, whole human beings they are, younger people, as in those worrisome millennials, will notice, they will see what they can aspire to, and follow.
Yes, there are a few of you, one publisher in particular (yes, again I am looking at Entangled’s August imprint) that could lead by example but, and this is important, little has been done to garner attention, next to no time has been taken to MARKET to readers who want to be your primary target, readers who want to read what we’ve come to call–not that you or any other publisher has noticed–Seasoned Romance. Come on romance publishing. Get off your arse. Pull your finger out. Pay ATTENTION. Include age as an issue of diversity in the discussion. Latch on to the Seasoned Romance subgenre many of us are reading and writing, and include it on editor wish lists when looking for fresh new voices and fresh new stories. Make something attractive to older readers already looking, and they will buy a product.
I’ve said it here often, but in case you’ve forgotten, there’s money to be made.
A few weeks ago, while I sat in a cafe with my coffee, I picked up The Sunshine Coast Daily newspaper and read a story about a local author who’s had success with writing YA. I was happy for her, fascinated by her journey as a writer. She spoke a bit about reading and writing as forms of escapism. She mentioned that stepping back into one’s days of youth was cathartic and the ultimate form of escapism, much like using a time machine.
Of course, the idea of escaping into youth and it being the cathartic form of ultimate escapism immediately chapped my hide because it suggests, it buys into the absurdist notion that your younger self is the only self worth a damn, it plays right into the hands of the media, into advertisers hawking anti-aging products, into fear-mongering about growing older, into the bullshit idea that getting older means your best days are in your past because your future is nothing but wrinkles, adult diapers, and dementia. Or, if you’re a woman over 40, a future of invisibility.
I’d like to believe that the smartypants who came up with the thought that the best days of one’s life are the days of one’s youth is related to the asshat who decided that a woman over 40 is too old to be an attractive romantic lead and has “seen better days,” kind of like these shoes here. But women, as we know, aren’t shoes.
I’m pretty sure there are a few of things happening with this ‘younger days were better’ thing, which equates to the ‘younger IS better’ concept that is so prevalent in society. First, the harkening back to the days of one’s youth and romanticising that youth—in spite of acne, awkward social encounters, and the associated anxiety of being a teen—has been around since the year dot. Next, thanks to advertising, giant corporations who want your money, and the media who also want your money, the natural process of ageing has been medicalised and treated as a disease to fear. We seldom take into account that life expectancy has steadily increased from ‘old age’ being somewhere around 30 to now pushing over the line of 80. Oddly, very oddly, instead of drawing attention to this fact, that 80-something life expectancy is overlooked. The portrayal of a dismal future is where this idea that ‘escaping’ to your youth comes into play, regardless of the numerous studies that show older people are healthier, happier, more satisfied with life, and still have another potential 40 years of life still left to live.
I prefer to focus on that 80-something life expectancy, despite what advertising and books and films continue to push about life after 40, especially when it comes to a woman’s life after forty. I write novels about older characters who live in the now, in their present age the same way younger people do, without looking back to or escaping to their days of youth. These characters have a lot of living to do, a lot of mistakes to make, a lot of shit to get done in whatever escapist ‘fantasy’ I happen to shove them in, like a middle-aged female butler fighting off the assassin sent to kill the spy she loves in my romantic suspense-cosy-spy-thriller-mystery In Service series (yes, it’s a book plug, kids).
There have been some changes in a little bit of what we have seen on screen, some movement away from the ageist, sexist structures that have kept women over the age of 40 stuck in the same roles. However, advertising, the majority of media, films, and fiction persist in forecasting an ageist, gloomy image of life after 40, especially for women, after the bloom of youth ends at 40. Older women in particular continue to be cast in the stereotyped roles of grandmother, witch, cougar, while now and then appearing in ‘acceptable’ roles as amateur sleuths like Miss Marple, Mrs Pollifax, and Agatha Raisin, with occasional lauded ‘literary’ roles that still fit the grumpy old woman stereotype, such as Olive Kitteridge.
It may take 40 years to get past ‘youth,’ but how about putting a focus on how there’s another potential 40 years of living, a focus on a life after 40 that remains full of exciting possibilities and experiences that can excite us the way new possibilities did as when we were in our youth? How about we see a future crammed with new things we’ve never explored, rather than believing one needs to escape into one’s past to enjoy the present? Escapist stories have their place, I love a good popcorn movie or a book about spies and their beloved housekeepers (see what I did there?), but isn’t presenting people, and by people I mean women who happen to be older than 40, in a variety of roles other than mother, grandmother, cougar, granny, harpy, lunatic, Feminazi, or badass-ass-kicking copies of male action heroes, the ultimate form of escapism?
Last weekend, I attended the Romance Writers of Australia conference in Melbourne, Australia. To be honest, I didn’t attend this conference with the intention of participating in workshops or sessions that would help me further my career as an author as much as I did to be present at a panel session about Diversity. This session was a long time coming and, frankly, well overdue. The author-panel was made up of a Queer woman, a Black woman, an Asian woman, while the moderator was a white woman who happens to be Chair of the Writers Board of South Australia, as well as an academic currently examining intersections of race and gender in historical romance.
I sat right up front. The panellists were all romance writers, and I was interested in what it was, or is, like for those members of the panel to be, or have been, overlooked as a leads, incorrectly portrayed, rendered to stereotypes or rendered invisible.
If you follow the ranty Sandra Soapbox Mature Content Stockpile stuff I usually post here, what the panel discussed may sound rather like what I ranty Sandra Soapbox about. That’s because being overlooked as a lead, incorrectly portrayed, rendered to stereotypes or rendered invisible it is exactly what I ranty Sandra Soapbox about. All the time.
Imagine then, how pleased I was when, at the start of the panel, slides popped up to INCLUDE AGE AS AN ISSUE OF DIVERSITY! My research and the Seasoned Romance subgenre got a little shout out. I kinda wanted to jump up and down when I saw the slides. I wanted to jump up and down—while simultaneously hiding under my chair because I’m an introvert and everyone was looking at me. But holy shit, there was a nod to my research (Thank you, Amy), and a slide that mentioned my work on the sexist ageism entrenched in the romance fiction industry, and the quote included that line I keep repeating on this blog, the “no one wants to read granny sex,” comment that shows how the industry overlooks, incorrectly portrays, renders to stereotypes or renders invisible.
I felt so validated, yet at the same time, I admit, if that nod hadn’t happened, despite my introversion, I was quite prepared to stand up on a chair (because I am short) and make sure that the room full of people knew WHY it was important to include age in the discussion of diversity, but I didn’t want to hijack the panel. It was vital to hear Renee Dahlia,Nicole Hurley-Moore and MV Ellis convey their experiences, give their opinions, give a history lesson on whitewashing and yellow face, on being portrayed as victims and villains, of having history erased—and then leave room for questions, to generate discussion from the floor, to open eyes and get RWAus authors to think about how they write whole real, human characters of colour, characters of different ethnicities, LGBTQ+ characters when the author is none of those things.
Some people just don’t quite get it, and an hour-long panel discussion plus a short Q&A isn’t enough to educate or have that lightbulb moment. However, I am not under a time constraint here. I can take more time to explain and offer a theory to those who still don’t get why this is important, to those who believe they can’t empathise or identify with or see their life reflected in a Black, Asian, or Queer hero or heroine. It’s because you are a cis, straight, white woman and have never experienced what it is like to be anything other than what you are since you have never—or rarely—seen anything other than what you have been conditioned to see because you have never been excluded from having your story, your truth, your life portrayed. This is what you need to know: One day, perhaps sooner than you think, you are probably going to experience ageism. You are going to experience what it is like to suddenly be seen as “other” and fade into the background or be erased from your own future. If you cannot fathom what it is like to be excluded or erased on the basis of your ethnicity, your skin colour, your gender identity, or your sexual identity, Ageism is there to help you understand.
I’m going to make a bold statement and say I have a theory. I believe the key to understanding the need for diversity and inclusion may lie within the framework of ageism—the last acceptable prejudice. Ageism affects everyone. Why? Regardless if you are Black, Asian, White, Queer, Straight, Transgender, Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Hindu, male, female, transgender, non-binary, ageism is an equal opportunity prejudice. Ageism excludes, renders to stereotypes, and erases. Ageism has a greater, often more obvious impact on women than men; after a certain age, women are more quickly stereotyped, side-lined, devalued as human beings, and rendered invisible. Sound familiar? Do you see the connection?
Ageing is an inescapable fact of life. I am getting older. So are you. You have seldom seen anything other than what you have been conditioned to see. I whole-heartedly believe we need to change what has always been presented as the norm because in reality it IS NOT the norm. Life is not all one colour, ethnicity, or one sex. It never has been. If you don’t think change is necessary, if you don’t want a better reflection of actual humanity, then keep reading your young, cis, het, white leads, the ones you say you can empathise and identify with, and will probably escape back to when you see your older self incorrectly portrayed, rendered to stereotypes or rendered invisible.
As you might guess I have news alerts set up for anything that mentions ageism, women over the age of 40, romance fiction, anti-ageing advertising, diversity, stereotypes of ageing, and so much more. I often see posts from Ageism Warrior Ashton Applewhite’sThis Chair Rocks. A recent post that popped up in my Facebook feed gave details for Scott Harper, an independent documentary filmmaker in Canada. Harper is working on working on a documentary on ageism. He happens to be on the lookout for story and casting suggestions about ageism because, as he says,
“Frankly, we feel it’s time to give this issue the same profile as racism or sexism.”
He goes on to mention that,
“We’re looking to tell a story with a bit more edge. The film, ideally, takes us inside the world of someone who is actively trying to fight back against ageism where they have encountered it. This is, in our minds, someone who is pushing for change, in a way we can follow or at least re-tell, whether in the workspace, the courts, media, politics, healthcare, the community, anywhere where generations co-mingle and ageism is present… We want this to be a character driven film and so at this stage, we need to find a great cast, or at least, a single great storyline of someone on a mission in this space. To that end, we’re reaching out to people like yourself to ask if anyone comes to mind that you think might serve this role…”
Golly. Do I think I can help? Do I think can make a suggestion about someone on a mission because…well, you know, I’m on a mission? Some may write off my suggestion because it’s focused on romance fiction, but how great a fit when the genre struggles to be taken seriously, is so frequently maligned and viewed as unimportant fluffy trash. Stereotypes abound about romance novels much the way stereotypes abound regarding older people and women who have surpassed the age of 40. The thing is, the genre sells, the genre makes a crapton of money, and older women have money to spend on things like books, even when the ageism affecting women is rampant in the romance fiction genre.
Authors, like me, Natasha Moore, Karen Booth, Maggie Wells, and many others who write or want to write older female romantic leads are often told by agents, editors, and publishing houses that sell romance fiction, ‘no one will buy that that older woman character’ or that ‘a romance with a older heroine won’t sell.’ It’s that kind of fearful we-won’t-make-money-from-older that caused Lancôme, in the mid 1990s, to let go of 42 year-old Isabella Rossellini as the face of their cosmetics because she was too old, and “older women dream about being young.” That kind of thinking perpetuates the notion that women over 40 are suddenly unappealing hags. It also feeds into that perception that (here it comes, the comment I keep dragging out, the one made by a romance publishing CEO) “no wants to read granny sex.” In case you didn’t realise it, being an older woman not only ruins the advertising dream that a woman is supposed to have of being forever young, but a woman who happens to be grandma who has sex is going to ruin the romance fantasy. If you’re a man, this dream-killing, fantasy-spoiling, of course, does not apply, especially when it comes to fiction or film.
De Tavenier and Aartsen note that ageism leads to exclusion and exclusion leads to a lack of agency. Older women are being denied agency in romance fiction. In spite of romance fiction’s embedded unwillingness to see women beyond 40 as whole, vibrant human beings who dream of being beautiful or sexual at any age, there are those of us, like the authors I mentioned, above, who have not been discouraged. We write romance novels with older leads, with older romance heroines and try to change the publishing industry standard of that “younger dream” because we know, like Lancôme, who rehired 65 year-old Isabella Rossellini as the face of their cosmetics 2018, came to understand, it’s sexist, ageist, bullshit.
Trying to change an industry standard within a genre that is often discussed as being a ‘fantasy’ with a happy ending is an uphill battle. It makes me hoarse sometimes because the change is so slow, but age is an issue of diversity and everyone is shouting about the importance of diversity within the romance publishing industry, except diversity of age keeps getting left out of the conversation. I’ll repeat myself, again, and again, and again: ageism affects everyone regardless of skin colour, sexual and gender identity, ethnicity, culture, weight, or height. Ageism has more of an impact on women than men and nowhere is this more evident than in romance fiction.
My mission is clear: change the industry standard by writing older romance heroines, like Mae the fifty-something butler heroine of my In Service series (book plug!) the kind who are like Isabella Rossellini returning to Lancôme as the face of women dreaming of being beautiful, whole, and vibrant at any age.
Did you really need a survey to discover that women over 40 feel misrepresented, underrepresented, that there are not enough books featuring older women, and it’s past time to end the perception that women washed up the minute they hit 40?
Apparently you did because you haven’t you been listening. You haven’t been paying attention. I know this because I’ve been paying attention. I’ve been listening and watching and waiting and writing the books your survey says women over the age of 40 have been waiting, and waiting, and waiting for.
A couple of you publishers are gonna say you’ve tried this already. Don’t we remember Harlequin’s NEXT, Berkley’s Second Chance at Love, Ballantine’s Love & Life, and Kensington’s To Love Again. There are one or two of you sort of trying now, but seriously HarperCollins HQ, a SURVEY? This really proves you’re not paying attention. This proves you haven’t heard me shouting–or readers saying that they want to see female characters over the age of 40 as lead characters.
Forgive me. For those of you who are not publishers allow me to explain my beef with this survey.
The HarperCollins imprint HQ, an imprint of HarperCollins UK, was once MIRA and MIRA Ink, both romance imprints that rebranded to ‘commercial fiction.’ HQ joined up with Gransnet (Grans as in Grannies, an offshoot of Mumsnet–because yanno, all women are mums and grannies), a “social networking site for over 50s”), to conduct a survey of 1000 women aged 40+. This study “reveals” that women over 40 feel misrepresented, that there are not enough books featuring older women…oh, and pretty much everything we here already know, and all the stuff my damn doctoral dissertation noted–the stuff I post about often.
Now HQ is trying to fix this lack of representation with a contest open to women writing novels with female lead characters aged 40 and beyond. They are even running a competition.
“Together with HQ, an imprint of HarperCollins, we are launching a fiction writing competition for women writers over the age of 40. We will specifically be looking for stories featuring a leading character aged over 40.”
Two or three publishers saying they are looking for older women or older couples isn’t enough. Despite HQ, Entangled’s August imprint & Facebook groups like Seasoned Romance and Romance in Her Prime, in romance, the older couples are often secondary characters, or hero is older; the silver fox paired with younger woman, or the heroine is portrayed as a ‘cougar.’ More often older females are reduced to stereotypes like the survey explained, like I established in all my academic research.
One big issue no one bothers to mention in this survey is that many rom editors are still not open to older heroines, even the ones who say they are. Authors who write older heroines, like I do, are told to ‘make heroine younger’ because older ‘might not sell,’ or as one editor said to me, “no one wants to read granny sex.” For example, when it originally launched, Entangled’s August line HAD a a character age limit of 45.
Currently, their commercial fiction line Sideways has an age limit of 50.
Back in 2012, when I conducted interviews I with romance fiction editors, I was told older women have too much life experience & baggage for rom & were a better fit for Women’s Fiction–and yet there’s an age limit of 50 in Entangled’s Sideways commercial fiction line, which includes Women’s Fiction.
As I said, many romance authors have written older heroines only to be told to “make them younger.” They’ also been told, “older won’t sell, or, like I was told, that “no one wants to read granny sex.” Yes, I know I bring that chestnut up a lot because that was the response I got three years ago, when I asked Entangled’s CEO why the August imprint had that 45 age limit. However, age limits may be a thing of the past. Maybe.
HQ executive publisher Lisa Milton said:
“We publish many books by women over 40. Many of our books have female characters over 40. Many who also defy stereotype. But not enough.What amounts to a handful of books, in a genre (written mostly by and for women) that is clinging to the Hollywood version of how to treat women over 40, i.e. stereotypes, punchlines, is not enough.”
Like I said. Maybe. A competition, and what amounts to a half a handful of publishers and a handful of books, in a genre written mostly by and for women, in an industry that clings to the Hollywood version of how to treat women over the age of 40, that is as stereotypes, punchlines, or invisible is STILL not enough.
So back to my Open Letter to (Romance) Publishers
Dear Fiction Publishers,
Here’s a hint on how to fix what the HQ UK Gransnet survey discovered, and it’s not really that hard to change:
Stop telling romance authors who submit stories with heroines over the age of 40 to “make their heroines younger,” quit believing that books with older heroines “might not or won’t sell, or that no “one wants to read granny sex.” Have a damn look at the Seasoned Romance Facebook page, take a look at what the readers there say they are looking for. Check out the conversations on Twitter. Have a good look at the books on Goodreads reviews and pay attention to comments and reviews, like the ones for At Your Service, the first book of the In Service series about that middle aged female butler and the slightly younger spy who loves her:
“The plot is twisty and complex and the dry, witty banter flows thick and fast; it’s an exciting, fast-paced story, and I really appreciated the protagonists being older than usual for romance novels – he’s late forties, she’s early fifties and they’ve both been around the block a few times.”
If you want or need help I’m here. And I am more than happy to help because conducting a survey and discovering it’s not enough is not enough. Running a contest as a response to the not enough is not enough.
UK survey finds that older women feel misrepresented in fiction
I’m excited about this because older couples–older women in particular–deserve to have their stories told. Older couples, women over the age of 40, are worthy of more than a secondary romance, being pushed into Women’s Fiction, being sidelined, or rendered invisible.
I mention a few romance novels, the kind with the hallmarks and sex and all the trimmings you’d expect from romance fiction with leads who just happen to be older and, yep, you guessed it, more experienced in life, love, sex, and mistake-making.
Let me remind everyone here, you will make mistakes your ENTIRE life. Older people still do dumb shit. You will do dumb shit when you are 24 and think that you need a baby oil assisted suntan, dumb shit when you are 40 and drive all day in that convertible without a hat or sunscreen, dumb shit when you are 80 and the painful blisters that make you hobble came from the cute shoes you wore on your walking tour of fashionable Rome because they went better with your stylish outfit than the ugly walking shoes all the other ‘oldies’ in your tour group wore.
Here’s something you may not have noticed, but older people are often just as ageist as younger people. My 80-something in-laws see others their own age as “elderly,” and refer to some of their friends as ‘old man’ and ‘old lady’ because those individuals are not as active, as healthy, or as physically mobile as they are. My very darling mother-in-law (I LOVE YOU so much, Mum!) is not a fan of grey or white hair, as to her, that means ‘old lady.’ This is anecdotal, but it’s that clear how you perceive old and elderly is relative (or in my case my relatives).
What has always struck me as something weird is why, when we are younger, we can’t wait to be older. We dress older, try to look older, get fake IDs, and try to gain experience, especially of the sexual nature. Somewhere along the way we lose this and develop a bizarro distaste for tales of experience when the stories are about older people–and there is even a tiny hint of sex. The age for that distaste shifts as we grow older. What we view as old or older shifts, like my MIL’s thinking grey hair on a woman her own age equates to being an old lady. The thing is, we are never too old, despite what we or someone else tells us, to fall in love. We may age, but love is not something we ever want to cease to experience. It’s as if a notion that love, and wanting love, is limited by how long you have lived chronologically, like all the life experience you may or may not have had with love by the time you are, let’s say 45, was enough; you’ve “been there and done that” and don’t need any more.
Yep. You see how ridiculous that is.
It’s outrageous that we routinely shut out love as an experience for people who are older, especially women. Too often, we value a woman’s life experience around fertility. A woman beyond child-bearing days is not only washed up sexually since she no longer has anything to contribute to the gene pool or to the world. Any experience a woman has, beyond child-rearing or being a grandmother, is no longer interesting or believable. Without fertility she is no longer worthy of love. Of course, this a heaping steaming pile of horse poo, but this is the one BIG message we get about older women and why Seasoned Romance is so vital to changing the notion that love is limited by age.
While I write books with older couples (book plug),At Your Serviceand Forever in Your Service, are my latest novels, I’m quite specific about featuring older women as leads to give readers, especially younger women, a way to envision their own future in a positive way, with the experience of love and sex. I write romantic suspense and contemporary romance with women (and men) who are as intelligent, interesting, confident, powerful, sensual, sexual, whole human beings who just happen to be older.
I’m not alone, as my guest post on All About Romance will show you. There are others writing older, later in life love Seasoned Romance too.
It won’t surprise you to learn I follow a number of writers, websites, and professionals in various industries (Tech, fashion, health & heauty, marketing & advertising). I like Forbes, Ashton Applewhite (see her website Yo, Is this Ageist and her totally bitchin’ book This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism), Next Avenue, and MarketingWeek.com to name a few. Much of what I follow discusses discrimination on the basis of age—that is sexism, ageism, ageist practices and how it all has an effect on how we view getting older.
This follows on to yesterday’s post about discrimination, ageism and the romance fiction industry. The Ad Contrarian Bob Hoffman (smart man, Bob, he was once named one of the world’s most influential marketing and advertising blogs by Business Insider) had a recent post titled The Stupidity of Ignoring Older People . Click on the link there o check it out. It’s a short clip from his presentation at the NextM conference in Copenhagen.
If you don’t have the time (or inclination) to watch it, Bob takes umbrage with statements such as “young people are more creative” and people, like Mark Zuckerberg, to task for saying something as dumbass as, “Young people are just smarter.” In the clip, Bob turns the ‘younger people are more creative’ schtick on its head by pointing those who won the 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature and Pulitzer prizes poetry, drama, and history were all over the age of 50. Bob also mentions that the female actors nominated for Oscars in 2017 were all over 50, which, if you know much about Hollywood’s obsession with younger women (like the world of Romance fiction) was something of a spectacular first, however the observation does hammer home his point about creativity being viewed as something only young people possess.
Bob gives a few other noteworthy facts that might be a little eye-opening. I’ll break them down:
“In the US, people over 50 are responsible for over HALF of all consumer spending… [including entertainment]…”
“[people over 50] account for 50% of all consumer package goods, they outspend other adults…”
[people over 50] are only the target of FIVE PERCENT of marketing activity…
Based on those few stats, s Bob says,“Do you REALLY think it’s a good idea to ignore these people?”
Bob goes on to mention that advertising and marketing ignores older people “because we hate them,” and that advertising is an “imitative and conformist business” that is difficult, or dangerous, to challenge because, and this is my take on it—OH DEAR GOD, WHAT IF IT FAILS. Or rather, as some authors might think, what if I FAIL?
Challenging the status quo is always a challenge and yes, there is a danger of failure. Fear is a powerful motivator. Fear motivates some people to keep things exactly as they are because change is scary and what you’ve always known is easy and, works. The status quo makes you money. If you’re a big company that publishes romance novels that feature younger women as the heroines and those books sell, have always sold, and you make money, why change what ain’t broke? Except that it is broke and, as Bob so amusingly suggests, not challenging the current status quo that hates older people is going to send you broke.
I, for one, see fear as powerful motivator FOR CHANGE. With the books I write, my In Service series(obligatory book plug!) about the middle aged female butler and the middle aged spy who loves her, I am challenging the status quo and facing the fear. Yes, I face the fear. I’ve given public presentations, the kind with slides and stats like Bob offers in his presentations—and I’m an introvert. Do you know how hard it is for me to face a room full of people, how terrifying that is? In terms of companies, like romance fiction publishers, the status quo means they simply can’t build a sexy marketing strategy based on the ingrained perception about older people, especially older women—you know the entrenched notion that women over 40 cease to be attractive or intelligent or useful because they are grandmas who don’t have sex. This is similar to what Bob calls “the boredom of middle age” or, as I like to put it, how can a marketing department in a romance fiction publishing house build a campaign with the status quo that presents ageing as something horrifying that reminds us of our impending death, because who wants a death fantasy as part of their romance fantasy?
They could take another look at the facts, at the demographics that Bob Hoffman presents. Reframe the fantasy of living, the fantasy of falling in love–the one fantasy that doesn’t ever change just because you’re over 40 or 50 or 60 or beyond. Quit ignoring what is all cashed up right in front of you. Imitate what is THERE. Or keep doing what you’re doing publishing world, because it’s really workin’ for ya, innit?
I keep saying there is money to be made. Romance fiction could be, once again, at the forefront of social change for women, like it has been in the past. And be a front runner of better advertising to people of a certain age.
If you haven’t noticed already, let me tell you something you may or may not choose to take on board. Experience is worth nothing. And by nothing I mean experience is worth nothing financially. This begins to happen once you cross the line into your 40s, but your experience is devalued even more once you hit 50. You know this is true because you’ve seen the ads, the movies that point out what matters, what’s worthy is being younger.
“A paucity of older people in advertising leads to a poorer output and a missed opportunity for brands.”
I’m not in marketing or advertising but I am ‘of a certain age,’ and I am savvy enough to know that entertainment, advertising, and marketing that is aimed in my direction frequently MISSES the mark (see My previous post about the film POMS). It also misses an opportunity. How many studies do there have to be to demonstrate the spending power of people over 50? As a consumer, a writer, and author in an industry that does not at all favour women who are over the age of 40 (some will say 30), I get pretty cheesed off by anything that imprisons me with a fate I must dread after turning 40, and then dread my existence even more after 50 because, rather than putting the goddamned spotlight on LIVING, life after 50 is nothing but constant decline–dentures, wrinkles, walkers, adult diapers, and the inevitably of death.
The missed opportunity of gearing products to me and others middle-aged and beyond, products that tell me–to borrow and twist a line from from The Shawshank Redemption–to “get busy dyin”’ rather than to “get busy livin’ ” is also a slap in the face that utterly devalues my actual life experience.
In another Marketing Week article (the publication is often spot on with its studies of ageism and sexism in advertising and beyond), Sarah Vizard notes that,
“78% of those aged 50 or over feel under-represented or misrepresented by advertising, with 49% saying they actively avoid brands who ignore them. Plus 69% suggest they would be more receptive to brands if their advertising represented over-50s more accurately.”
Yeah, the paucity of older people, missing opportunity, and feeling under- and misrepresented as a stereotype is EXACTLY what I have been saying about the romance publishing industry shutting out older female leads, refusing to see them as viable main characters, and ignoring the older (or even younger) reader who WANTS to see better representation of themselves across an age spectrum. If our life experience counts for nothing, then our power to spend is a loss to big businesses, like the struggling publishing industry.
I quite like Waller’s article cautioning the advertising industry. If you didn’t read it, it’s about the younger age demographic of those employed in the tone-deaf, one denture-wearing, diapered older person-with-a-walker-and-funeral-insurance fits all advertising industry, which, he says doesn’t value the experience of older employees any more than it values the older consumer.
“The demographic make-up of the advertising industry sends a pretty clear message to people who have the gall to a) stay alive and b) keep working past the age of 30. And that message is: ‘Fuck you and the mobility scooter you rode in on.'”
Waller’s quote makes me want to say, “Wake the fuck up to this mother-fucking GOLD MINE” to the historically female-centric romance fiction industry. Women over 40 have money to spend and the world of romance fiction is, with very few exceptions, ignoring them and their money. Readers are saying they are receptive to romance novels that represent over-40s (and beyond) more accurately, as LEAD characters. Yet, as with advertising, these readers are still getting a “Fuck you and the mobility scooter you rode in on” from an industry that employs mostly women who will one day be over the age of 40, 50 and beyond.
Vizard, S. (2019). Brands should stop seeing age as a defining feature of the over-50s. Marketing Week. https://bit.ly/2yI0JgA
Older women have an image problem, a negative one that has become normalized. What do I mean by normalized? Simple. We’ve been conditioned to not see our own worth.
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 & spyIn Serviceseries, 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.