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 mentionall my booksare 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?
Last night, as part of the upcoming online Romance Writers of Australia conference, I sat on a panel of romance authors and editors who were also academics and scholars in romance fiction. We talked about our experiences as doctoral students and the challenges some of us faced when we submitted proposals to critically investigate romance fiction, a genre that was, for far too long, not taken seriously or considered less-than worthy of study. Things have gotten better in academia. We academic types and scholars studying the genre are being taken seriously now, more seriously than women over the age of 40 appearing as lead characters in romance novels are.
Reminiscing with the panel, and my frustration with the ongoing sexist ageism in the romance genre, reminded me of a conversation I once had with another romance fiction author about my romance novels being taken seriously. We talked at a conference for writers, back when I was a fledgling grad student and author on the cusp of being published. Our discussion focused on the age of romance heroines and how they have traditionally been young women, usually under 35. At the time, this author assured me that my writing was good, but she was adamant about two things: romance readers wanted to read about younger women because the springtime womanhood bloom of love was an essential part to the fantasy of romance, and a fundamental part of the traditional structure of romance fiction. She said that, if I was serious about being published, if I wanted to sell lots of books, I’d need to make my heroines younger.
The idea that younger women were essential to the romance fantasy, the ‘springtime’ issue of a female’s fertility being fundamental to falling in love (sorry for the alliteration), was an issue I addressed in my masters and doctoral work. I’m still addressing that notion now. We know fertility is not fundamental to falling in love. The only fundamental here is risk-averse publishers telling authors that books outside the ‘traditional’ parameters of romance “won’t sell”, or that no one wants to read granny sex, y, or z.
The panel, recollecting what that author and a few romance fiction editors have said about younger being essential to the romance novel, reminded me about a blog post I once ready by author Fay Weldon, best known perhaps for her novel The Life and Loves of a She Devil.
Have you ever seen She Devil, the Meryl Streep/Roseanne Barr adaptation? It’s kind of fun and at the same time not fun. It’s basically a story of revenge. What’s fun and not fun for me in the film, is how Meryl is a pink-wearing romance novelist prone to flouncing and histrionics—you know, that glorious Barbara Cartland-eque stereotype of romance novels and writers that still gets volleyed about, which, of course, adds to the genre not being taken seriously. Meryl, as usual, does a stellar job and makes a shallow, self-absorbed, horrid woman more than a caricature in frothy pink, but back to Weldon and all the recollecting. I went and dragged out my resource files, also known as Ageist Shit That Pissed Me Off and I Will Write About Someday.
Obviously, that someday is today.
Weldon, who teaches creative writing, has a section on her website that offers writing tips for authors. One particular post asks What Age Are You Characters? The piece mentions that if you want to be publishable it is important to keep the age of your characters in mind because, as Weldon states,
“readers come in all sizes, sexes, shapes and ages, but all prefer their novels to feature young women rather than old.”
ALL? Really? Ooooh! I love a good sweeping generalisation as much as I love flouncy pink-clad stereotypes of romance authors, don’t you? Stereotypes and generalisations always seem to go hand in hand with ageism and romance fiction, don’t they? Weldon also gives this advice:
“Get your juvenile lead on the front page: lure the reader in. 25 works better than 35, 35 than 45 – after 50, forget it.”
Which is quite similar to what the author said to me at the writers’ conference, but the thing in Weldon’s post that really chaps my hide is how she believes readers…
“…prefer to identify with themselves when young, not as they are now, in the days when they were sexually active, agile of limb, and not afraid of adventure.”
Okay then. I prefer to see myself as I am, to identify with characters who are of a similar age to me, not younger than me. Personally, I am affronted by the notion which assumes that, as I age, I will no longer be adventurous or that I will be afraid of something new. I fully expect to still be curious and adventurous about a range of things as I get along in years, despite how poorly ageing is portrayed and presented in advertising, film, and fiction that favours younger people as better. Why, I continue to wonder, is your younger self perceived to be your better self? I don’t want to be 25, I don’t want to watch or read about characters who are 20 very often, and I don’t think my 20s were my best days—they were far from my best anything. This notion that gold-plates your 20s also shoves down our throats the notion that women over 40 have ‘seen better days,’ that her best days are behind her. Might this be because, as Weldon notes,
“Publishers, who these days tend to turn away novels by middle aged women about middle aged women on the grounds that they are depressing, are probably wise to do so.”
Are older women depressing? Are their stories depressing? Or are women middle-aged and older just written that way? Frankly, when you read a lot of books and watch a lot of films and TV, you notice that older women are absolutely written that way. Younger women are viewed happy and as essential, while older women are constantly cast and represented in roles that are negative, that are depressing, frightening, secondary, non-essential.
If a young heroine is seen by many as an essential aspect in romance, and, as Weldon suggests, other forms of genre fiction as well, I’m gonna throw this a random thought. Could it be that, perhaps, one reason romance fiction may not have been taken seriously is not only because it is often written by women, and therefore a lesser form of writing, but it is also due to heroines having a long history of being overwhelmingly young women? Young women are often not taken seriously due their perceived lack of life experience. At the same time, older women cease to be taken seriously due to their experience, end of fertility, and depressing natures. Ageism swings both ways when you are female.
I understand fledgling writers want advice, fledgling writers take creative writing courses, undertake postgraduate degrees, attend conferences, search the web for guidance, and take heed of what successful writers and writer-teachers have to say. And lots of author-teachers have stuff to say. Here’s where I mention that, in my undergrad days, I had a creative writing teacher who had a one very successful book that lots of high school kids had to read and had been made into a well-received film. His big serious advice was to tell us all A writer must to suffer to write well.
I withdrew from his class because I wasn’t into suffering as much as I was using my imagination to tell a story.
My point is, it’s time to toss out shitty advice like suffering to be a good writer, time to retire ageist advice that demeans, time to take women of all ages seriously—as we have finally begun to take seriously the romance genre and the academic-scholar types who choose to study it.
Thank you to PhD candidate, Rachel Bailey, Dr Laurie Ormond, Dr Amy T Matthews, and Dr Michelle Douglas for inspiring this ranty post.
‘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.”
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.
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