Intersectionality: Ageism and the Older Romance Heroine

Wielding my Shield of Smartass

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

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

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

Yeah, well, I’m ranting. Again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can be too.

Seriously, A Trilogy?

Here I am, on the cusp of the release for the second book of the In Service series, I mean it’s TWO days away until Forever in Your Service drops, and it only dawned on me, oh, about 5 minutes ago, when I shoved in a mouthful of this really delish cabbage salad, that I am writing the third book of a trilogy when I had no intention of writing a series when I started the first book.

Some cabbage may have fallen out of my mouth and onto my keyboard.

Honest. I had At Your Service and the short story prequel, Your Sterling Service, and I thought that was it. I didn’t know I was going write a second book about the middle-aged butler and the spy who loves her. I swear, I started writing the second book without realising there was going to be a second book. Ms Ainslie Paton, an author friend of mine asked, “Is there another book?” and I sorta looked down and kinda noticed that, yep, I was 2 chapters deep in a series I never knew I was going to write.

And here I am, mouth still full of shredded apple & cabbage salad, writing the THIRD book about a middle-aged butler and the spy who loves her.  My series is a Trilogy–The In Service trilogy.

Look, I’m a slow writer who often gets interrupted by my day job, family, headaches, holidays and ranting about ageism and women over the age of 40, but I aim to have the trilogy completed before the next James Bond movie comes out NEXT YEAR, as in 2020. The third book is titled True To Your Service. I already have a cover for it.

I can’t tell you much about the third book because I don’t plot, but I will say it battles the ageist structures that continue to keep older women from being portrayed as romance heroines, it positions a woman in her early 50s as the romantic lead, has tulips, banter, sexy times, is another genre-crossing romantic suspense cosy spy thriller mystery with older protagonists, and gives a middle-aged spy the happy ending James Bond never gets.

Now, if you’ll excuse me. I have to clean up spilled cabbage salad.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Changing Your Perception: The Butler Who Does It

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

I’m Getting Bored With This

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

The 3 or 5 Hats of Sandra Antonelli

hatsjpgLast week was a busy one. Like Bartholomew Cubbins, I wore a lot of hats– not quite 500 hats, but  3 or 5, which is a lot of hats when you’re a little over 5 feet tall.

My first hat was a holiday hat. Dr Shrinkee and I flew to Adelaide–a city in South Australia that was NOT settled by convicts transported for stealing a loaf of bread. We rented (or hired as we say here) a Toyota Something Silver Sedan with a giant trunk (boot) far too large for the ONE piece of luggage we shared, and drove around wine country where I took lots of photos of bees doing their bee thing because bees are awesome.Bee1

The holiday hat was put away when I went to attend the Romance Writers of Australia Conference in the seaside Adelaide suburb of Glenelg. I was at the conference to do the sort of stuff writers do at writers conferences such as meet romance industry types, like agents and editors. Hat No. 2 was kind of something of a fedora that I did a nervous Jimmy Stewart-esque fumble with while I pitched At Your Service, the story of a butler, her boss, her dead husband, a missing trust fund, and a deadly toilet brush to an editor at a well-known romance publishing house.

I wasn’t half as nervous about the pitch as I was the fact I had interviewed the editor back in 2012, when I was in the middle of my doctoral research on why publishers wrinkled their noses at older romance heroines. The mind-blowing thing about the pitch was the fact the editor remembered me. The other mind-blowing thing is that she wanted to read the full manuscript about the butler, her boss, her dead husband, a missing trust fund, and a deadly toilet brush.

The third hat was one I shared with Dr Shrinkee as we presented a a workshop together at the Romance Writers of Australia Ain’t Love Grand conference.  The workshop was titled  Personality Goes a Long Way: Is Your Bad Boy a Psychopath or A Dude with ‘tude? As you can imagine, what with Dr Shrinkee being a psychologist at a WRITERS conference, the workshop was all about crafting characters with believable personalities–good guys and bad guys.

Hat No. 4 was one of those English style floppy bonnets university graduates and academic types in the UK and Australia wear because I presented an academic paper at the University of Love conference that ran concurrently with the RWAus’ Ain’t Love Grand.  You know my paper was ALL ABOUT placing women over 40 as protagonists in romance fiction– the stuff that I discovered in my doctoral research, the stuff I go on about ALL THE TIME.  The paper was titled The (Saggy) Bottom Line: Women of a Certain Age and Romance Fiction.

Aside from speakiBee2JPGng a little too fast (I was excited) and not being able to hear the awesome clip from Amy Shumer’s Last Fuckable Day (Go watch it RIGHT NOW), I did rather well. I was surprised by the number of questions I fielded. I still sometimes think that I’m shouting into the wind about ageism, stereotypes, and the need for broader representation of women of a certain in romance fiction. However, the questions I was asked provide more evidence that readers want to see themselves, or people like them, represented in romance fiction. I was very HAPPBEE to learn that.

See what I did there?

Side note: I am grateful that Kat from BookThingo kindly tweeted bits from my presentation. Thank you for that Kat. Thanks also to Kaetrin from Kaetrin’s Musings and Dear Author for giving a wonderful wrap-up of the RWAus Ain’t Love Grand and University of Love conferences, as well as mentioning our ongoing differences of opinion on whether Gone With the Wind is a romance or not–I say yes, Kaetrin says NOOOOOOooOooOo!

I never saw hat 5 coming. It was half hidden by the ENORMOUS mountain of laundry and dust bunnies that had accumulated after a week away from home. I am happy to say I washed (an ironed) everything and vanquished vicious dust bunnies like a badass in a laundry drudge’s bonnet.

Older Broads Are The New Box-Office Powerhouses. Are You Listening Romance Publishers?

Wielding my Shield of Smartass

Wielding my Shield of Smartass

As part of the ongoing expansion of The “Mature” Content Stockpile of articles regarding women and age on this website, I keep track of news and other items I can add to the stockpile. When I came across this fab piece by Mark Harris from NY Mag over at Vulture you know I fist bumped myself, and OH YEAH MAMA-ed while I jumped all my about my kitchen. I was so loud, so exuberant, the builder installing insulation in my garage called out to to make sure I hadn’t hurt myself.

The article is titled Actresses Over 60 Are the New Box-Office Powerhouses.  As I read, the line that first stood out is pretty much what I soapbox about on a regular basis. Harris mentions “society’s tendency to write off older women as dear little “characters” without passions or aspirations of their own.” Then Harris goes on to discuss a 1968 study in Hollywood that examined the age demographics of film-goers.  It’s that paragraph that truly hits home; it’s what I say about a certain overlooked demographic of romance readers with an appetite for a certain overlooked subgenre of romance fiction–the Older Romance, Mature Romance, Mid-Adult Romance, Seasoned Romance, Contemporary Adult Romance. 

The audience is real, and so is its appetite. And those who get it — who don’t simply view this particular group of movie lovers as the “about to die” demographic — may, a few years hence, look like very smart early adapters. In 1968, well before demographics were a subject of serious discussion at the studios, Variety reported the results of a study that showed 48 percent of American moviegoers were 24 or younger. For the middle-aged men who then ran Hollywood and thought they were making movies for themselves, the news was revelatory. Baby-boomers — the pig in the python — were coming of age, and over the next 15 years, the way movies were conceived, made, and marketed would undergo a revolution as a result. Now, almost 50 years later, that demographic is coming of old age, and making itself heard again. And if anyone wants it, they’ve still got money to spend. —(Harris, 1 Aug 2016)

Did you notice that first line Early adapters are smart?

Did you notice the last line? That last line means I have to rewrite a small part of an academic paper I am presenting at the upcoming University of Love conference in Adelaide, Australia. My paper is titled The (Saggy) Bottom Line: Women of a Certain Age and Romance Fiction. I have to include what Harris says alongside what a few other studies and authors note. That last line is a big fat flag I wave when I’m on my soapbox, a big fat signpost that is being overlooked by the publishers of romance fiction.

In case you missed it, because romance publishers miss it, so it must be easy to miss, that big fat signpost is MONEY.

I’ve said it before, I say it in my paper presentation, and I’ll say it here again, There is a demographic of romance fiction readers  who MATCH this demographic of film-goers, and this demographic wants romance fiction that reflects the reality of their lives, not some hackneyed stereotyped bullshit about how a woman over 40 is dead below the waist, or, as Harris mentions, are people who buy “adult diapers and medic-alert systems and sit in their adjustable beds leaning forward with ear horns to make sure they hear the list of dangerous side effects in the commercials.”

This demographic wants romance fiction with heroes and HEROINES who are whole, intelligent, vibrant, active, sexual human beings, not diaper-wearing crazy, cat-loving, dried-up-old grannies with walkers. This demographic of romance reader wants a romance heroine who is like any romance heroine, only she just happens to be older. This demographic of romance reader is trying to make itself heard, and they have money to spend.

This Demographic HAS MONEY TO SPEND! What are you romance publishers waiting for? Early adapters WIN! Romance has been the Early Adapter of so many social changes regarding women– until now, and the industry is missing this goldmine right in front of them.

Thanks to Mark Harris for making me have to rewrite a small section my paper. I have to include this article because he’s given me more evidence that the romance publishing industry is overlooking a goldmine.