Ageism, Publishing, and the Notion of Reading Down

During the recent Romance Writers of Australia conference, this year titled Love in Isolation, I had to opportunity to ask Liz Pelletier, Editor and CEO of Entangled Publishing, how the company’s August imprint was going. August, if you are not aware, is an imprint aimed at Gen-Xers, with “older characters in their 40s”. It was launched in 2018. Kudos galore to Entangled for launching this line when other publishers outright ignore the consumer base of Gen-Xers, Boomers, and those beyond in favour of adhering to the stagnant tradition of keeping female leads young whilst courting younger readers. Hooray for an imprint that is specifically aimed at 40-somethings. Hooray for a publisher picking up on readers looking for Seasoned Romance. However, As happy as Entangled’s August made me when it launched, there were several troubling things that Liz mentioned in her reply to my question about how the line fared in 2020. The August imprint does not, as Liz said, “release many titles.” She also said that there “aren’t that many authors who want to write older characters,” but then she followed up that statement by emphasising that August books “don’t sell as well as predicted based on the number of authors who were begging for this genre because, it turns out, everybody still kind of reads down,” meaning readers read younger characters.

First, I’ll unpack the “everybody still kind of reads down” statement. Romance (and most genre fiction) readers read ‘down’ for one huge reason: the overwhelming number of lead characters in romance are in their twenties. The vast majority of romance novels produced and published every year feature heroines who are young, as in 39 and under. It’s hard to find a romance novel where this is not the norm. The norm means people are going to read down since the young heroine is what continues to be produced and published.

Next, any author will tell you discovery is hard. There are times discovery is tricky for readers too. Romance readers looking for older main characters often find it frustrating when there is no clear keyword to use when searching for the books they want. Search terms like older couples, older women and romance, middle-aged women and romance, and silver fox women seldom lead to romance novels with seasoned main characters. BISAC codes, that is the standard coding system used by many companies, such as Amazon, to categorise books based on topical content uses this classification for romance fiction with older main characters : FIC027380 FICTION / Romance / Later in Life, but that code seldom leads directly to what you want or to what you expect when you do a book search on Amazon. More vexing is how an imprint like August says it’s targeting Gen X readers, yet doesn’t release many titles. Since its 2018 launch, there have been 10 August titles, but only 9 are listed on the website, and are not easy to find if you aren’t aware of Entangled and its August line. Have you heard of August? I bet you haven’t. There hasn’t been much mention of the imprint anywhere since it’s launch, except for my occasional mention of it in various posts made here, and in comments after I did guest bits on review sites like All About Romance.

Finally, yes, I admit there are authors who have been begging, and continue to beg, for an imprint like August, authors, besides me, who have been pushing for Seasoned Romance, mature romance, later in life romance, whatever you want to call it, because we know there is an audience. Many romance authors who “are begging” for more imprints like August are also romance READERS who are tired of not seeing themselves represented in fiction, tired of being shut out of a beloved genre, tired of reading down. What I really fail to understand is why a publisher would use the number of authors begging for the genre as a demographic for predicting how well an imprint would sell when it is the readers who matter.

Remember how I asked if you’ve heard of August? I ran a poll on the Seasoned Romance Facebook reader group, which has a 3K+ membership. I asked reader members if they were aware of the Entangled’s August line. The response was a rather resounding “nope.”

I am not a professional in market research and advertising, but I am not blind to the practice or blind to the population base that is trickle-fed crumbs, or more often completely overlooked as even being a demographic. Case in point, the readers of the Seasoned Romance Facebook group are a ready-made test group for market research, yet romance publishers do not appear to include the group in any sort of market research. Companies, tend to seek out the youth market. They see anything outside the young dollar as a risk. This risk aversion is the mindset of marketing, of so much advertising, and why August releases so few titles with the excuse –-and it is an excuse—that readers read down.

I take umbrage with the idea of reading down. If you have come across my posts before, I have suggested that publishers deceive themselves by only courting younger readers without realising those younger will one day be older readers. Romance readers tend to be life-long romance readers. Older readers tend to have more disposable income. The belief in the tradition of presenting younger main characters is just that, a tradition. It is vital to note, that, whether you are a Millennial pushing 40, Gen X, a Boomer, or a Silent Gen reader, whether you read science fiction, crime, mystery, or romance novels it is readers who need to let publishers know what they want or else nothing will ever change. Cis, het, white romance with young heroines will remain the staple, the tradition. We can discuss how we need diverse romance, talk about inclusion, and still leave age representation and ageism out of the conversation since romance has a tradition of romance being a younger woman’s tale. Traditions can be lovely, but they can also be rabidly prescriptive and immeasurably narrow-minded. Some traditions, like keeping romance heroines young, can lead to and perpetuate age stereotypes and lack of representation, to the impression that people over the age of 40 do not have sex, that women over 40, especially women who happen to have grandchildren, do not have sex, and even if they did no one would want to read about them because granny sex is gross. Do you want to let a publisher decide for you, to allow a publisher to cling to a notion that is set in stone and denies you representation? Is it really reasonable when a publisher suggests you read down? Are you happy to accept the misconception that there are not many authors writing older lead couples in romance or writing older female leads in other genres?

I write older leads; my books have female protagonists who are aged 40+ and they are paired with men of a similar age. My romantic suspense spy thriller mystery In Service series, is indie published. I chose to go indie for several reasons, but what really kicked me into deciding to go indie with the books was an agent rejection I received saying the forty-something hero was great, but a heroine just 5 years older than the hero, wasn’t ideal for romantic suspense, ideal meaning she was ‘too old’. I had enough of the sexist ageism. Authors struggle with embedded ageism when they submit seasoned romance novels to publishers of romance, they are turned away, told to make their heroines younger, told they won’t sell well. How can they sell well, or sell at all, when It’s a struggle to get released, even by an imprint which is aimed 40-somethings, an imprint that gets little to no marketing push because most readers “read down”, meaning it’s not worth the attention. The International Institute for Analytics’ Robert Morison talks about the need to keep ageism out of analytics. Morison states:

Ageist stereotypes hold that older Americans don’t spend their money, they’re brand loyal, and they’re interested in a limited number of products, services, and experiences…

The point of mentioning this is that readers read down because romance has always been about younger people, especially younger women, and there is a misconception that no one wants to read about older women with an array of life experiences. Except they do, and publishers need to tune into in remembering, and understanding, that older romance readers are still consumers who want to see themselves reflected in the books they read. If it seems like I am picking on Entangled’s August imprint, I most certainly am. There is such exciting potential being squandered. Morison goes on to say,

“Brands need to be talking to them authentically and, insofar as possible, individually. Cursory attempts to reach the older market, and to reach it en masse, are guaranteed to fail.”

As a reader, and as an author, August feels like an absolute cursory attempt. As I mentioned, since its launch in 2018, there have been a total of 10 books released (although only 9 show on the August website), with little or no fanfare, and a modicum of advertising and promotion that stemmed from what individual authors have done themselves. August, with its 10 titles, appears doomed, which is tragic because its failure will be seen as just one more reason to say that romance fiction with older leads won’t sell, that older heroines won’t sell, that readers read down, that younger is better and more lucrative. Sadly, the pursuit of the youth market has become a fixed mindset. It’s risk aversion; a bit of the old if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, a little of the we’ve always done it this way, a whole lot of this is the standard practice. This is, as Morrison notes,

ageism by omission. The antidote is to have more age diversity across the board: on product and service development teams, marketing teams, and focus and test-market groups. Older consumers may be much more interested in your offerings than you imagine, and new offerings aimed at them can drive business growth.”

Part of doing what Morison suggests means that once you have an offering that can drive business growth, make the product visible. I am here to tell you, as a reader, as a consumer, as a women over 40 who wants to see women like me reflected in advertising, film and all kinds of genre fiction, especially romance, older consumers are interested in more than a cursory attempt to gain our custom. Prove that you see us. Be authentic. Don’t hide your product away or tell us the same old bullshit about how we’re supposed to think that younger is better, that older won’t sell, that we naturally read down.

Are you listening, Entangled?

If you’re keen on not reading down, if you want to break with tradition, if you have been looking for romance novels with older, ‘seasoned’ main characters, aside from my books, try The July Guy by Natasha Moore, (an August author), Karen Booth’s Bring Me Back, and The Love Game by Maggie Wells.

 

References

Entangled Publishing August imprint. (2020). https://entangledpublishing.com/books.html?book_imprint=231&p=1&order=release_date&dir=desc&mode=grid

Morison, R. (2020). Keep ageism out of your analytics. The International Institute for Analytics. https://www.iianalytics.com/blog/2020/8/19/keep-ageism-out-of-your-analytics?fbclid=IwAR1-SAmzcBX-1yXvCtIQHP-FRZzpUjKjSNv7AQE3Xdp6ZXBY28sKGq4_MMI

 

 

What is Seasoned Romance: A Refresher

Seasoned Romance –some think the name needs work.

There are those who’d prefer a different moniker because ‘seasoned’ brings to mind images of salt and pepper, which, when you stop to think about it, is totally fitting since we are talking about characters who may have grey hair. Frankly, I’d be happy to just call it romance, because that’s what it is, but this industry is driven by the need to know where to shelf a genre. Whether you want to think of it as mature romance, later in life romance, or silver fox romance (and that silver foxiness includes women), Seasoned Romance is a sub-genre of romance fiction with a central love story where, typically, couples (m/m, f/f, m/f) 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.

It’s important to point out that Seasoned Romance is not Women’s Fiction, which may have elements of romance, but a romance is not what drives the plot in Women’s Fiction. Seasoned Romance is utterly driven by the romance.

As for the certain age part? Some of us writing Seasoned Romance suggest the line for ‘older’ starts at 35. My academic research (trust me on this, I have a doctorate in this stuff) indicates the ageist line is more heavily drawn for a heroine at 40, while, and this won’t come as a surprise, the line is far more age fluid for heroes, who get to be that ‘silver fox’ trope.

Although men have had the advantage of being silver foxes heroes, now, with Seasoned Romance, women of the same or similar age are finally being positioned as protagonists who challenge ageism, rather than act as a stereotype or joke. There is, as Cindy Gallop has noted, “little nuance in the way age is portrayed.” Too often, older people are reduced to ridiculously comical parodies and caricatures, especially women. Seasoned Romance demonstrates that age is a characteristic, not an attribute that defines a person or a story. While stereotypes like cougar may serve as a shorthand, a convenient way to contextualise accomplishments and standardise expectations, 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 such as cougar and codger. Further, since so much of how ageing is portrayed in negative ways, the shorthand denies many of us an image of a future we may look forward to. Why would you want to imagine a future when all you’ve ever been shown is the stock of disease, and decline, and doom?

This comes down to representation. Representation is the kernel of every cry for inclusivity and diversity. What we see and what we read can shape our identity, and shape how we see others. We like to see ourselves reflected in advertising, in film, in fiction, and older people are not tokens, comic foils, secondary characters, or stereotypes. With Seasoned Romance we see men and, especially women of a certain age, represented and portrayed as intelligent, interesting, confident, powerful, active, social, sensual, sexual, whole human beings who just happen to be older. Rather than adhering to stereotypes that portray getting older as a wasteland of negative decline, with Seasoned Romance we show ourselves an authentic and positive future, we show ourselves a true reality with all the hallmarks you love and expect in a romance novel, right down to sexy times and the all-important Happily Ever After.

Did I mention all my books are seasoned Romantic suspense, seasoned rom-coms, and seasoned rom-com-mysteries? Did I mention that I hit all the hallmarks you love and expect in a romance novel, right down to sexy times and the all-important Happily Ever After?

Systemic Isms and You

‘Isms’—like racism, sexism, ageism—single out, judge, victimise, oppress, and change lives. I am prone to single out ageism and sexism as forms of judgement and oppression, particularly because I write fiction with female protagonists over the age of 40 in a genre where the majority of female leads—or romance heroines as the genre prefers to call them—are aged in their 20s. There’s been lots of discussion about representation, and why representation matters, but the discussion often fails to include age as a necessary part of representation. I find this frustrating because ageism is the equal opportunity ism that intersects race, ethnicity, gender identity, religion, sexuality. I have suggested that ageism, the ‘last socially acceptable ism’, could be viewed as a learning tool; it’s the one prejudice that humans can, and most likely will, experience at some point in their lifetime. Why does ageism sit on the periphery of representation?

The intersectionality of ageism could be key to opening eyes to what it is like to be judged, victimised, oppressed, and excluded, but the tricky thing is how ageism hits women harder than men. So much harder. That wallop is evident in how we treat women over 40. While men aged 40+ are allowed to be heroes and silver foxes, women of the same age are turned into stereotypes, shoved to side lines, or rendered invisible in advertising, film and fiction. And, as they say in advertising, but wait, there’s more! Add racism to the sexist double standard of ageing and women of colour are walloped even harder. Studies show that, thanks to ingrained ageism and systemic racism, in their later years Black women in the US have the highest rates of poverty, the lowest incomes, as well as the most severe health disparities.

Worse than how ageism crosses race, ethnicity, gender identity, religion, and sexuality, is the fact that (like teaching someone to hate), ageism and ageist practice begins in childhood and spans a lifetime across the continuum of all the other isms. One can almost say, “Everybody’s ageist” because ageism is entrenched in our language, in widely accepted expressions that subtly influence our idea of age and ageing, usually in a negative light. Geezer, coot, little old lady, cougar, grumpy old man, dried up hag, you look good ‘for your age’ are all familiar terms we use on a regular basis without giving them any thought. Dr Andrea Charise, notes that the metaphors, words, and images, such as the above expressions, as well as emoticons and short-hand symbols that portray older people hunched over with walkers or canes, are actually dehumanising and dangerous phrases and images that we have been unconsciously conditioned to recognise and use from an early age. We have been taught to deny ourselves a positive, vibrant future.

You may wonder what you can do about this.

First, think about how you see ageing. Think about if you buy into the notion that ageing is something you have to fight tooth and nail. Think about how ageing is too often portrayed as a disease, as decline, as a future fraught with loneliness and unhappiness. Think about the anti-aging advertising movement that is so aimed at women. While it’s wise to try to think before you speak, to choose your words with deliberation, it’s not something human beings are always capable of actually doing. The way we respond is often so quick and without much thought since we’ve been using ‘perfectly acceptable’ expressions since childhood. As a writer I have the time to think, sometimes long and hard, for weeks, or, because I don’t plot out a book, for months at a time. I can ponder ‘isms’ oppressing and changing lives. I can try to confront ageism the way many other writers are trying to confront racism and other isms in romance and other genres of fiction, even when the stories I write are part of the escapist In Service Series about an Irish, middle-aged female butler and the middle-aged British spy who loves her — I had to work in a book plug.  I can challenge a publishing practice that has stated no one wants to read granny sex, that sees ageing characters as stereotypes, secondary characters, that sees women over 40 as mostly white, sexless grannies, as cougars, as anything but vibrant, intelligent, sensual, sexual whole human beings with a lifetime still to live. In my case, writing older female protagonists in a genre that favours youth challenges the ageism and sexism in in the industry, and fosters change for a better future—or rather it gives us the chance to see a future for ourselves — as middle aged Irish butlers, undercover FBI agents, house flippers, personal shoppers, and former race car drivers… Yes. I wrote those heroines.

We all age—living a long life is something many strive and hope for—however so much of our language around getting older indicates that the rest of life after 40 is nothing but decline. Remember this from The Power Of Words To Shape Culture, Instigate Change And Confront Ageism:

“Language matters. It can empower and inspire, but it can also insult, misrepresent and pigeonhole. Its detrimental effect can be long lasting and have life-changing consequences. Once an expression is ingrained in popular culture, it can be difficult (but not impossible) to erase. That’s why every word matters.”

 

Charise, A. (2020) Rising Tide, Grey Tsunami: Charting the History of a Dangerous Metaphor. http://canadiangeriatrics.ca/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/Rising-Tide-Grey-Tsunami-Charting-the-History-of-a-Dangerous-Metaphor.mp3

Ng, JH, Bierman, AS. Elliott, MN, Wilson, R. Chengfei. Xi, Hudson Scholle, S. (2014). Beyond Black and White: Race/Ethnicity and Health Status Among Older Adults. Am J Manag Care. 2014 Mar; 20(3): 239–248. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4474472/

Weinstein, F. (2020).The Power Of Words To Shape Culture, Instigate Change And Confront Ageism.  June. https://www.youareunltd.com/2020/06/16/the-power-of-words-to-confront-ageism/

Economic Security for Seniors Facts. National Council on Aging. https://www.ncoa.org/news/resources-for-reporters/get-the-facts/economic-security-facts/

Older Women and Poverty. (2018). https://www.justiceinaging.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/Older-Women-and-Poverty.pdf

 

Value Judgement: AGE IS NOT an Indication of a Person’s Worth

There is something I have been stewing over, trying find to a way to deal with my rage and put it into words without, well, simply ranting. I really, really want to rant. The suggestion one ought to give up their life for the good of a country’s economy is disturbing, like this pandemic is, but I realised the vile idea serves to underscore the ageism I often discuss. Sometimes hashing out an issue in writing helps to quell my urge to rant. At least that is what I am hoping. Like ageism crusader Ashton Applewhite, I’m going to use the term olders instead older people or elderly, which often conjures an automatic inference of infirmity. And yes, eventually I’ll relate this to how the media, that is film and fiction continue to portray olders as stereotypes, especially when it comes to women.

Strap in. These are weird times and it may get a little weird in here.

As we’ve witnessed with this pandemic, there are those who are fine with allowing olders to die, some even going as far as saying olders should be willing to give up their lives for the good of a country’s economy. The reasoning is, older individuals have lived a full life and ought to move over, or on, for the people who are making a contribution to society. Boomers, retirees, elderly in assisted living communities, olders sponging off taxpayers need to give up using the ventilators and consent let someone younger and probably in better health, with a higher probability of survival, use them. Olders are already ‘on their way out’ so they should be willing to just lie down and die for the good of others.

If you have been lucky enough to not hear about this, here is a sample of what I mean. An Article in The Telegraph mentions that the death of older people could actually be beneficial by “culling elderly dependents.” As if that isn’t horrifying enough, the Human Rights Watch article Rights Risks to Older People in COVID-19 Response: Combat Ageism; Ensure Access to Health Care, Services, Human Rights Watch reports that Ukraine’s former health minister suggested people aged 65+ were already “corpses” and the government need to focus all COVID-19 efforts on people “who are still alive.” This blatant ageism devalues human beings, is basically eugenics, and I don’t know about you, but it sounds a lot like something a Nazi would say. Nazis were big into eugenics.

Eugenics, by the way, is, judging a group to be inferior and excluding them while nurturing others judged to be superior, all to improve the quality of life, but in this case, instead of a selective ‘breeding out’ of undesirable genetic traits, it’s a ‘weeding out’ of an undesirable portion of the population for the ‘good of others.’ The undesirables here are olders.

Older. Undesirable. You can set the practice of ‘weeding out’ against the sexism and ageism women face as they move through life. If you are a middle-aged woman, you probably have noticed the ‘you are already on your way out’ notion. Maybe you started to see—or felt—your undesirability around the time you turned 40 or 45. Western society asserts 40 is an age when a woman’s value suddenly diminishes; it’s time for her to suddenly shrivel up, dry up, and tumble downhill all the way to nothingness, invisibility. The devaluing is often attached to the warped idea that a woman who is no longer fertile has nothing to offer to society, beyond being a caregiver or looking after grandchildren. Evolutionary biologists do research into why post-menopausal women live, and it’s a conundrum wrapped up in the concept of reproductive purpose and the contribution these women make in their later years. There’s the occasional scientific mention of post-fertile female killer whales who lead their pods, but unlike matriarchal older non-reproductive female whales, non-productive human females who lead are still an anomaly. Older and older woman are wrapped up in sexist, ageist practices and images we have been exposed to since birth. You’ve seen them over and over. Familiar stereotypes of harpy, dried-up, sexless, middle-aged hag with saggy breasts go hand in hand with the dottery, hard-of hearing, sexless, grumpy, olders with canes and walkers.

Thankfully, there has been a very small shift in the presentation and portrayal of women who have crossed the It’s Over at 40 line, a number of women have risen to leadership positions, and there has been some representation not wrapped up in an older woman’s fertility or, let’s face it, fuckability. It is a start, but there remains this persistent thought that chronological age equals undesirability, decline, and infirmity across the board, and it is devaluing. It hinders our ability to envision our future selves in realistic, positive ways. While it is true that olders are more susceptible to illness, AGE IS NOT an indication of a person’s worth any more than being a woman over the age of 40 is.

Tackling the age discrimination—the widely, most practiced and acceptable prejudice that crosses all boundaries of culture, race, gender, and sex—early on is the one way we can begin to combat all forms of discrimination. While skin colour, your ethnic background, the gender you embrace vary, all of us age; it is our commonality, something we can relate to as we move through life. If we are lucky enough, we will live a long life. Long life is what most of us strive for, hope for, but quite bizarrely, we deny the fact that to have a long life one ages, and we ridicule ourselves for daring to ‘get old,’ we deride and punish others who get old or have lived a long life and are old, and suggest that it’s better sacrifice themselves for being old. We, from governments, film, fiction, advertising, to young children, need to rethink, re-educate, recognise and respond to intersecting types of discrimination. These months may push us apart, yet this is the time for us to come together to change the way we choose to value human beings, and we must not base this on a procreative, economic contribution to society, or any other discriminatory habit. We must change the way we choose to value human beings, and we must not base this on a procreative, economic contribution to society, or any other discriminatory habit we have come to accept without question.

Stamping out and calling out ageism, especially when it comes to women, is my mission. I try to fight and challenge ageist stereotypes with the older-than-the-standard characters I create in the books I write. I try to defy the sexist and ageist practice that exists within the romance fiction publishing industry. Diversity is the battle cry, but age is a diversity issue too often left out of the call. It’s a small thing, and it may seem silly to some of you, but I am passionate about presenting and representing women over 40 as lead characters, rather than as the cockamamie stereotypes we have had forced down our throats decade after decade after decade.

I have a new book out, the third of my In Service series. True to Your Service is a gritty, occasionally witty romantic suspense cosy spy thriller mystery about a middle-aged female butler and the spy who loves her. It’s available as an ebook from all e-tailers here and paperback here. It’s had a few very nice reviews.

I’ve stewed on things long enough. I’m mostly done ranting. I have another book in the series to write. I’m doing my part in kicking ageism arse.

Won’t you do yours?

Flying By The Seat of One’s Puzzle

There are things that puzzle me. First, I’m always amazed by writers who plot things out to the tiniest detail, you know, those authors who storyboard and collage and outline their tales. I’m not like that. I try to put any structure in place and my story disintegrates. I’m not a seat of the pants writer either. I lack the pants one usually flies from.

Truth be told, I am not a fan of pants (as in trousers, not knickers/panties/ full-coverage briefs). They are restricting, twist and bind the way collages and storyboards and outlines do when I try to do them. When it comes to writing, I have a box box in my head. It’s full of puzzle pieces made up of dialogue like this:

“We’re onto disguises now, are we?”
“You don’t like my hat?”
“You look better in the cowboy hat you wore on New Year’s Eve than in that ugly baseball cap.”
“You miss my cowboy hat.”
“Go on and think that if it makes you feel better.”
“I feel just fine.”
“Which is why you took your time getting here.”
“I was being thorough.”
“Thorough. Is that what you call chatting up Ms Goedenacht?”
“She was doing the chatting up. Weren’t you listening?”
“No. The earpiece stopped working when the discussion turned to marital aids and splinters.”

No speech tags, no description, just the two leads talking. They are always talking. And probably eating. There’s always food involved somewhere. Perhaps that’s one reason why True to Your Service took so long for me to write; I was always eating, as one tends to when one has a house full of visitors, or when one was on holiday someplace that may or may not become the setting for the next book in the series I didn’t realise was a series when the two characters started talking way back in 2011.

The other thing that puzzles me is that women over 40 are treated as a conundrum by publishing and Hollywood, both puzzling over how to structure a story with a woman over 40 as the lead, and scratching their heads over what a woman over 40 looks like as the lead.

It’s not that hard to show a woman over 40 as a whole human being, but Hollywood and publishing are anxious about that and stick to the sexist, ageist structure that has, well, worked for them . Film and fiction are risk averse. Film and fiction will stick to what makes them money; franchises make them money, and something new (well, actually, something older)  scares them because it’s different, it’s not what’s been selling, and what’s selling is what gets replicated or rebooted, or remade. Repeat sexist ageism and a lack diversity across the board…

I will concede one thing. I applaud the way Hollywood has grabbed onto the empowered badass-ass-kickin’ older woman we’ve seen lately onscreen. However, there is more to being an older, empowered, ass-kicking woman than we’ve seen. Being an older empowered arse-kicking woman with life baggage can be even more complex and exciting in telling a story, and it doesn’t mean an older woman has to be superimposed onto a male action hero narrative to be ‘acceptable,’ or adhere to the ageist and sexist stereotypes we are so used to seeing. I want more. Maybe you do too.

I’m all for showing ass-kicking-badassery, only I’m gonna do it like a middle aged woman would–with all that empowering, complex baggage and life experience, possibly slower, or maybe faster and with more ass-shaking like J-Lo at the Superbowl. The point is, there is MORE THAN ONE WAY to portray a powerful, attractive, capable, intelligent, sensual, sexual woman over 40, and it’s not simply making her an action lead, which is a start, but

True to Your Service, the third of the In Service Series features a middle-aged female butler and the slightly younger middle-aged spy who loves her. It’s genre-blending and crossing with a good measure of meta, seasoned romance, sex, tulips, murder, danger, and true love.  It knocks ageist and sexist stereotypes on the head and places a woman well past 40 as the lead. It pokes fun at spies and mysteries and crime stories. And it all came from a box of puzzle pieces in my head.

You can pre-odrer True to Your Service from your favourite e-tailer here and from Amazon

 

Ageism, (the sly ‘ism’ we’ve ALL been conditioned to accept) Is Inherently Sexist

Happy New Year!

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.

Yes, I’m still pissed off about that.

 

Jacynth. (2019). The Bias Cut. Ageism, Is Inherently Sexist- This is Why. 12 July.

 

Seen Better Days Says Who?

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?

 

As an aside, if you’re interested and in Australia, tonight’s Q&A on the ABC features Ageism activist Ashton Applewhite, , , and host . Tonight at 9.35pm AEDT is about gender inequality, ageism, sexism, feminism, violence against women, and #MeToo.

You can bet I’ll be watching.  If you missed it, you can watch Q&A Broadside here.

Diversity and the Hidden Value of Ageism: A Weird Theory? Maybe.

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.

Wielding my Shield of Smartass

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.

Let me know how that works for you.

 

Are You Experienced?

The subject matter won’t come as a surprise, but I did a guest post on All About Romance.

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 Service and 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.

 

 

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/