Visibility, Invisibility: Grey Hair Breaking Down the Wall

Karen Booth, the author, advocate for Seasoned Romance, and co-founder of the Seasoned Romance Facebook group has a new book coming out in February, and it is an important book. Have a look as the title and cover and you may understand why—if you are over the age of 40, you may, at last, feel seen.

Visibility and invisibility slot together with discussions about inclusion and diversity, which boil down to the need to be seen. In Karen’s upcoming seasoned romance, Gray Hair Don’t Care, visibility and invisibility hinge upon a full head of hair. For some women, grey hair is fraught with meaning that is usually not positive. In our society, many equate grey hair with with decline, particularly if you’re female. Women are told in subtle and not so subtle ways that grey hair signals the decline of not merely youth, but of desirability, of their worth as a human being.

Grey hair is a human being’s badge of successful living, a sure sign of age and ageing well. I say ‘ageing well’ because growing older, that is, not dying at a young age, is what humans seek. We search for ways we can exercise better to maintain our bodies, eat foods that may help us live longer. If you are female living longer, going grey, a perfectly natural aspect that comes with bypassing that early grave, is signposted as something ugly, as something shameful, as something to deny, cover up, to erase. I don’t know about you, but  I’m sick of that directive. While there is a growing backlash against covering one’s grey, the message that grey hair must be denied and dyed is powerful, deeply embedded in our culture, and it continues to, along with the plethora of anti-ageing products aimed at women, reinforce the notion that women and ageing do not go together. Sexism, ageism, and sexist, ageist practice is embedded in society and runs deep, so deep may people fail to notice it at all. This is why seeing a cover like Karen’s is so important. Many women will, at last, feel seen.

If you haven’t noticed how deep ageist practices go when it comes to women and grey hair, allow me to point out that you have most likely been indoctrinated to accept that a woman who has managed not to die and continues to live a long life is not a necessary depiction in advertising, on screen, or between the pages of a novel. Especially if she has grey or white hair. When an older ‘grey’ woman is represented it is in roles that cast her as secondary character, such as mother or grandmother, or, more often than not, as an ageist stereotype, such as cougar, lunatic, harpy, menopausal comic relief, or as sexless crone. Without realising, you have witnessed the regular ageist practice against women in advertising, film, and fiction, especially in romance fiction where older women are seldom seen, or not seen at all. You may not even notice that a male lead, the hero, is allowed to be the silver or grey fox, with distinguished grey temples, while a woman the same age, combined with the perceived ugliness of her grey hair, leads to devaluing and outright erasure.

Perhaps you are aware of this all because you are a woman who’s wondered why you no longer see other women like you in films, on TV, or in books. You may be a person of colour, or Muslim, or disabled, or fat and you want to see women who are like you, and you long to be represented. In this case, representation, visibility and invisibility comes down to the few hairs I’m splitting here, as you, if you read my pieces on ageism and romance fiction, would expect me to.

Karen and I share a few things. We are advocates for seasoned romance and women over the age of 40, and we have both written books that feature older women with grey or white hair as leads in romance fiction. The older female protagonist, or, as the genre prefers to call her, an older heroine, remains an anomaly in the genre. Still. I’ve been writing and studying older heroines in romance fiction for nearly two decades. Seven years ago, my second book, For Your Eyes Only, was published. It had taken me close to ten years to find a publisher who didn’t tell me I had to make my heroine younger. I was thrilled and so grateful that I had found an editor and a publishing house who were open to the idea of an older woman positioned as the heroine rather than as a secondary character or as a stereotype of a woman of a ‘certain age’. The silver foxy heroine in Karen’s Gray Hair Don’t Care is 47. The heroine in For Your Eyes Only is 50 and had white hair. Karen’s cover is gloriously representative of her heroine’s age. My cover is…well, as you can see, the victim of my publisher’s concern about my heroine’s advanced age. The cover model is 15 years younger and blonde rather than white-haired.

I should have fought harder for a different cover. I should have pushed and clawed for an image that conveyed that a white-haired, middle-aged woman was worthy of being a heroine on the cover, but there were a few things happening that prevented me from doing so. I was a new author, I had no clout, and, as I mentioned, my publisher was the only publisher willing to take a risk on a new author writing a heroine who sat outside the age norms of romance fiction.

Karen and I, as well as many other authors who have submitted books to romance fiction publishers, have faced the ageism and the ageist brick wall that exists within the industry. The brick wall often came—and still comes—in the form of statements such as, ‘we’re not sure how to market this book’ or ‘we don’t think there’s an audience for this book’ or ‘this book won’t sell unless you make the heroine younger’ or my favourite, ‘no one wants to read granny sex’. The way our culture has been conditioned to accept ageist practices as normal, feeds ongoing publishing concerns that putting a more ‘mature-aged’ woman on the cover would turn off readers, that a book featuring an image of woman with grey or white hair would not sell. Of course, any business would be apprehensive about a product that might not sell. No one wants to lose money. As I have said so many times before, film and fiction are actually losing out on making money by ignoring a specific population with money to spend. Being ignored as a consumer is one more form of invisibility.

Visibility and invisibility. Cover art comes and goes, from Fabio’s flowing tresses and drooping bodices to the current illustrated trend in romance fiction. If you didn’t know, many publishes use stock images to create cover designs, and this is where I admit I am not a huge fan of the illustrated cover. I’m also not a fan of a bare chest, the floating head shot over a country background, or the genre’s iconic clinch cover, yet it is obvious the illustrated cover solves issues that publishers find insurmountable, such as finding stock cover images to present curvy or fat heroines, disabled heroines, heroines of colour, heroines from non-western cultures, older heroines. It’s sad. It’s shameful in the way grey hair is not. It’s exasperating as hell. Things have changed a little in the last 2 years, but what’s out there is merely OK. It needs to be better. While silver foxy men are a cinch to find, peruse stock image companies for older women and you’ll find lots of attractive middle-aged women touching their faces. Search for mature couples and you’ll see lots of picnics.

As Karen notes in her cover reveal for Gray Hair, Don’t Care, rather than face the frustration of wrestling with the ingrained preconception romance fiction editors and CEOs have about grey-haired women, or trying to find a decent stock image, she decided to indie publish Gray Hair Don’t Care and commission a cover artist. That was one smart move. While Karen addresses, directly, the embedded ageist notions represented by a woman with grey hair, I went in a different direction when it came to choosing cover images for my indie releases, the In Service series about a middle-aged female butler and the spy who loves her. I decided to lean into the vector silhouette images one might find in spy fiction because of how incredibly difficult it is to find stock images of middle-aged women. I knew what I was up against. Then again, so did indie author Maggie Christensen. Publishers who adhere to the notion that a woman aged 40+ has no business being on a cover have their arses squarely kicked by Maggie, a Scotswoman living in Australia. When it comes to her seasoned romance covers and heroines, she knows her audience, writes fabulous romance fiction featuring women 40+, and Maggie puts those more grown-up women on her book covers, using the same style as romance novels featuring women in their 20s.

Maggie, like Karen, Natasha Moore, Maggie Wells, Kristen Ashley and I sell books and garner great reviews from readers who have sought out seasoned romance with more grown up heroines, older female leads, mature female protagonists whatever you want to call women over 40 who are the main characters.

What makes me most cranky about this ongoing struggle with sexist ageism is that publishers are ignoring readers. Readers responding to Karen’s cover reveal ought to be evidence enough that older women want to see themselves reflected in the books they read. Visibility and invisibility. There are two things at stake here: the inclusion and representation of women of all ages on book covers and between the pages, whatever colour their hair might be, and instead of publishers telling authors that books with grey-haired women on the cover won’t sell, perhaps it’s time to take note of how readers have been ignored for far too long. I say this because, at the online Romance Writers of Australia (RWAus) conference I attended last weekend, the same editor who once told me that no one wanted to read granny sex also stated that authors were the ones pushing for seasoned romance. I believe, wholeheartedly, that this editor is wrong. As an author and as a reader, I’d like to point out that readers are driving the call for older heroines, for seasoned romance. Readers make up the overwhelming majority of the 3K+ Seasoned Romance Facebook group, as well as the nearly 2K membership of Romance In Her Prime. It is readers who are searching for heroines who look like they do—women with greying or grey hair, crow’s feet, with lines on their faces, life experience and the baggage that comes with it. It comes down to visibility and invisibility, to representation and inclusion. It’s obvious that publisher demographic studies, like so much advertising market research, fails to include older people, especially older women in their investigations or even take them into account as consumers—unless it’s for cruises, funeral insurance, or osteoarthritis relief. In their endeavour to make money, companies seek out the next generation of consumers, dropping the consumers they may already have, which in this case are readers. Romance readers, the editor at last weekend’s RWAus conference said, read down, meaning they read about younger characters, but this is only so because there are so few books like Karen’s, like mine, that offer older readers, grey-haired or not, the visibility they crave.

My books with silver, white, & grey haired heroines are available here and here. Karen Booth’s Gray Hair Don’t Care is out in February 2021. It’s now available for preorder. It’s going to be huge, the book that breaks through and breaks down the wall for seasoned romance.

And it’ll be because of flowing grey hair.

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?

Wanna Sneak Peek a Chapter?

Perhaps you’re after a break from the incessant VIRUS and other glum news and you’re looking for a bit of a European springtime getaway, one bursting with new season colour. Maybe you’re wanting a bit of romance, mystery, and thrilling adventure, the sort spies and the middle-aged Irish butlers they love seem to have, except flying is out of the question, you know, with borders being closed, social distancing, and no one but hoarders having toilet paper.

This is why reading is SO AWESOME. Reading transports you to other seasons, to other places, and gives you the opportunity to step into a seasoned romance full of suspense, mystery and spies, where toilet paper isn’t really an issue–unless it’s used as a weapon, which, in the case of True to Your Service, I can assure it is not. But other things are, and they are jungle green.

Allow me to transport you to London’s Regents Park in early May. And if you like London, maybe you’ll want to snag a copy of True to Your Service and travel on to beautiful gardens in Amsterdam and the countryside of the Netherlands. Or perhaps a sex shop in Amsterdam tickles your, uh, fancy and you’d enjoy reading about a seasoned butler and the equally seasoned spy who are very much in love, secretly married, and willing to risk life and fingers to keep that love–and each other–alive.

Get ready for mystery, thrills, true love, sex, spies, scrambled eggs, and bar full of monkeys!

Amazon, Apple, Kobo, and Nook 

Chapter One

A dog and a wife, two things one didn’t typically associate with a man in his profession. Married spies in fiction or on screen were few and far between—unless one counted tales of Russian sleeper agents living in plain sight. Married spies with smallish dogs best known for being the favourite companion to noblewomen in the Middle Ages were also an anomaly.

As the dog in the back seat nudged his snout between the headrests, Kitt glanced at the woman driving his car, and joy, unanticipated, vast joy enveloped him. He smiled. The last few months with Mae had been filled with moments of joy, joy that was as unexpected as having a wife and a dog, but with unexpected happiness also came an immeasurable sense of responsibility that stretched beyond his own self-preservation. It was a sober counterbalance to the giddiness of his joy and he frowned until his wife’s sniff of disdain brought another smile to his face.

He watched Mae give the Bentley’s ash veneer dashboard a once-over full of scorn. At the traffic lights, she looked at him in the passenger seat, picked a wad of fluff from the shoulder of his jacket, her mouth pursing, lips bunching like the white spring clouds over London. “Three months,” she said, hazel eyes crinkling at the corners.

“Three months?”

Mae adjusted her grip on the steering wheel and accelerated through the intersection. “Three months is when the restlessness typically begins, when the inactivity of office-based work has burrowed beneath your skin, and it becomes evident, in subtle ways, that you believe the sedentariness of desk work is turning you soft in mind and body. I worked for you long enough to know the pattern. The occasional pulse in your jaw, the long sigh when you finish your scrambled eggs, the tension in your shoulders every time I turn onto the Outer Circle. You’ve been out of the field and in an office since mid-February. Three months is your limit.”

“Valentine’s Day to the first week of May is only two months and three weeks, and my mind turned to mush the day I confessed my feelings for you, which was nearly a year ago.”

“My, how time flies when you’re soft and in love.” She gave him a quick, sidelong look and blew a tendril of blonde hair from her eye.

His transition from field agent to station-based intelligence officer had happened a little earlier than he had planned. He had actually been reassigned to Section SOST—Special Operations Selection and Training—as a result of breaking protocol in an unauthorised, yet successful action, where he lost bits of two fingers, nearly died, and uncovered ties funding terrorism through the sale of stolen cultural artefacts and counterfeit luxury goods. Most intelligence officers departed the harshest field work at fifty-five, leaving the more hazardous postings to younger women and men. The Consortium viewed all intelligence officers as assets to be utilised, it was ‘once a field officer, always a field officer’, regardless of age. How very broadminded of them.

The selection and training of new intelligence recruits was a challenge, and not the sort of challenge that stirred more than a generic enthusiasm in him. He lacked the patience for instructing officers who had some experience, yet were basically still novices, like Eaton, his current field trainee. Bryce had suggested his making an application to become head of Section SOST—an attractive prospect if it hadn’t been for all the bloody paperwork Section Heads necessitated. At the moment, what he’d envisioned, and what Bryce had suggested, didn’t matter, seeing as his reassignment was temporary and held him in limbo at HRM’s—or more rightly, Llewelyn’s—pleasure. His transition had yet to move from cocoon to chrysalis.

Kitt sighed exactly the way he had when he had finished his scrambled eggs this morning. “I admit I’m a bit bored, a bit impatient. I’ll grow accustomed to it, as one does any change, but how do you think I’m soft?”

“Shall I start with this car?”

“You’ve never liked my car.”

“Yes, because it’s soft. For example,” she gave another disdainful sniff, “it has a heated steering wheel.”

“It’s designed to warm the hands of a man with a cold heart.”

“Your heart’s not as cold as you think it is.”

“And I’m not as soft as you think I am, but my hands are certainly like ice in winter.”

“You could wear gloves when driving in the cold.”

“The steering wheel is heated, so there’s no need for gloves.” A cool nose poked into the side of his neck again, this time, a little tongue licked his ear. Kitt pushed Felix’s snout away. The Italian greyhound strained against his harness and set his narrow, ginger head between the front seats again. Somewhat absently, Kitt scratched beneath the dog’s white chin.

Mae shook her head and continued her critique, eyes on the road as she passed York Bridge at the edge of Regent’s Park. “There’s also the matter of the wooden dash.”

“It looks pretty.”

“Yes. Your car is very pretty, very soft and pretty.”

“That little Sunbeam Alpine Julius Taittinger had in New Mexico, the one you said was the perfect car for me, had a walnut dash.”

“That car was hot pink.”

“Yet you said it was the car I ought to be driving instead of my Bentley.”

“Which, I’d like to point out, you haven’t driven in over a month.”

“One must keep up appearances, Mae. That aside, I think, in embracing my soft life, I’ve come to enjoy your chauffeuring me about.”

A loud ha burst from her mouth. “Did you learn nothing about how to lie when you were a young lad at spy school?”

“What should I have said?”

“Driving is difficult with my stubby fingerlings, Mae,” she said, voice low and plummy.

“Yes, I sound just like that. I am always amazed by your uncanny talent with mimicry.”

“And mockery.” Eyes on the road, she caught the wiggling of stunted fingers on Kitt’s left hand. He’d lost the tops of his fingers in a fight last year, and lived to tell the tale.

“Is there anything about this car you like?”

Her mouth pursed again. “It’s a nice colour.”

“It matches the green in your eyes,” Kitt said as Felix licked his ear. Mae laughed and the Bentley skirted Regents Park, along the Outer Circle.

The muscles in his shoulders began to bunch and Kitt forced himself to relax as Mae chuckled. “Oh, stop it,” he said, chuckling too. The mobile in his jacket buzzed. He pulled out the device. Morland, his superior’s chief assistant, had sent a message—Review relocated to Gray, 7:30.

Kitt tapped out a reply: Received. He shoved the phone back in his jacket pocket and gazed out the window, watching bright green spring leaves flutter in the breeze, scratching Felix under the chin as Mae turned off the Outer Circle onto Chester Road, the street lined by fresh, new green leaves, an explosion of tulips, and pink cherry blossoms. “There,” he said pointing to a parking space that had been vacated. “You can drop me there.”

She pulled into the spot not far from the Broad Walk and The Espresso Bar café, shut off the engine, and released her seatbelt. For a moment, she rummaged in the centre console’s cubbyhole and drew out the dog’s lead. “Not to sound like a wife, but when do you think you’ll be home tonight?”

“Not to sound like a husband, but after six.” Felix nuzzled into Kitt’s neck again. Gently, he pushed the eager-for-a-walk dog back and looked up at the parking signs, unlit streetlamps, and the open iron gate near the corner of the Broad Walk entrance. Yes, a wife and a dog, two things he never thought he’d want or have. “I like when you sound like a wife,” he said, his tone idiotically earnest, and not any way corny.

“That’s the benefit of being married to you rather than being your employee.”

“Yes, I no longer pay you and you still care.” He turned in his seat to face her. “Have you planned something for this evening?”

“Sean’s invited us for dinner. He has something he wants to show us.”

“Oh, goody.”

“He’s trying.”

“Yes, you brother is quite trying—and judgemental.”

“You can’t blame him. His baby sister married a spy. He’s being protective.”

“No, no, he’s being judgemental.”

“It’s taken years for him to step outside his comfort zone and make a change. He’s worried about relapsing, slipping into old patterns of thoughts and behaviours. It’s a challenge to start again in a new place, away from the support system he had.”

“Ah, the cloistered brotherhood of priests keeping each other’s secrets.”

“You do realise how absurd that is for you to say, don’t you?”

“I’m crushed by the irony.” He opened the door and paused. “I understand the complexities of combat exposure PTSD, symptoms relapsing, and the previous government’s inadequate support of veterans with mental health issues, but sometimes…”

“Sean is just a prick?”

“I was thinking misanthropic arse, but prick works well for Padre Sean Vincenzo.”

Mae chuckled and watched a white sedan pass. The dog strained forward between the seats, but the harness he was belted into kept him from getting in front and into anyone’s lap. Kitt glanced at the street lights and parking signs again. “Come here to the boot for a minute.” He got out of the Bentley and shut the door.

Mae checked that no traffic was coming and climbed out of the car too pretty for an ugly-handsome man like her husband. Felix scampered about in the car, barking at two passing young men playing with a football. Mae went to the rear where the boot sat open, Kitt leaned into the space where she’d put her handbag and he’d tossed his sports bag and a shabby, old leather satchel. Dark, ginger-blond head bent, he stood with his arms inside the grey-lined gap, head hidden by the boot’s lid. When he didn’t straighten, she said, “What is it, have you become so soft that bending over to fetch your bags has made you slip a disc?”

“Come here.”

She moved nearer. “Oh, you have hurt your back. Poor diddums.”

Diddums?”

“Would you prefer schnookums?”

“I would not.” He motioned with his chin. “Come closer. I want you to have a look at something.” The transit van behind them had its side door open, the driver unloading and stacking boxes onto an upright hand trolley on the footpath at the rear of the Bentley. Across the road, a mud-spattered Land Rover Defender, one that looked like it had come fresh from an expedition in the Amazon, had parked in the front of the bollards.

At his side, Mae bent forward, hands on the rim of the boot as she looked into it. “Yes, I see. You need a new car and a new satchel.”

“I’d no sooner replace either one of them than I would replace you. Now, look.” His eyes darted to the Land Rover and the bollards.

Felix let out a little half-whine of a bark. “What is it you want me to see? Felix is doing his little need-to-pee dance.”

Blue-grey eyes met hers and he turned slightly. “Did you notice the street lights and bollards on either side of the Broad Walk?”

She shifted to straighten and look, but his swift hand kept her in place. He smiled softly, his fingers brushing over the top of hers. “The lights are there. Trust me.

“And you’re telling me because…”

“There are digital video cameras hidden inside. CCTV cameras in the bollards across the footpath too, and the cameras see everything.”

“As one hopes they would.”

“One must keep up appearances and away from prying eyes, yet, like most husbands, I’d like to kiss my wife goodbye before I toddle off to work to deal with people and,” he winced, “paperwork, but the cameras can see everything, Mae.”

“You are ridiculously melodramatic,” she said.

“Perhaps.” He brushed the two normal-sized fingers of his left hand over his lips then touched them to the hand she’d rested on the inside rim of the boot.

She laughed and straightened, patting the dog’s tennis ball bulging the pocket of her sporty pale-blue jacket and pulled at the waistband of cropped, black leggings. She was dressed for a run with the dog. Kitt’s eyes travelled over her as she pushed back a strand of silver-shot blonde hair loosened from a ponytail. These days, she seldom wore her old uniform of navy-blue shirt dress and apron, and, unless working on a renovation project, her hair was rarely in a French braid. Kitt looked down at her hot pink joggers. He smiled, chuckling. “I miss your Doc Marten Mary-Janes—and your apron. You don’t wear your apron anymore.”

“I’ll be sure to have it on when you get home.” She took his satchel and an umbrella with a curved handle from inside the boot. “Here,” she said, thrusting out the black, quintessentially British-looking object.

“It’s not raining,” he said, casting an eye at the blue sky.

She thrust the brolly closer. “Keeping up appearances?”

“Ah. Yes. The cameras.” He took the old briefcase and umbrella.

“I know. You think about my apron and it addles your brain, makes you so sloppy you forget about cameras that see everything.”

“You’re a nuisance and I love you.” He stepped away from the back of the car and their curtailed moment of marital normalcy. The transit van driver came back and shut the rear door, a small group of Lycra-clad men on bicycles hummed by, a woman wheeled along a baby in a pram.

Mae closed the boot and took Felix from the car. He’d pressed his nose and paws all over the rear-side windows, leaving damp smears all over the glass she’d polish clean later. She clipped on his lead, handed it to Kitt, and took his battered briefcase.

Umbrella in one hand, dog’s leash in the other, Kitt walked around boxes and the hand trolley. Mae fell into step alongside him on the footpath, Felix sniffing, stopping to pee, prancing along and sniffing again. At the mouth of the Broad Walk, just near The Espresso Bar café, Felix peed on a black bollard and Kitt exhaled in annoyance at the unexpected sight of his colleagues. Three men rose from a table at the café and began to approach. By the time the dog had moved on to the next bollard to continue his business, Bryce had joined them, the others a few steps behind.

“Morning, Kitty,” Bryce said brightly. He looked at Mae and peeing Felix.

Kitt wore no expression. “What are you doing here?”

“I’ve been reassigned from Shaw. I haven’t been informed to whom as of yet, but I can guess. I see you brought your entourage.”

“Ah, and you’ve brought Morland and Llewelyn.”

“They followed me here. Good morning, Mrs Valentine.” Bryce gave her a wink before Division Chief Brigadier Roger Llewelyn, and a stout bald man with a round, immobile face arrived to stand beside them. “Morland,” Bryce said, “this is Mrs Valentine, Kitty’s butler, and his dog, Felix. Morland is the administrative equivalent of you, Mrs Valentine.”

Ah-huh-huh,” the Brigadier cleared his throat. “A very good morning to you, Mrs Valentine,” Llewelyn said, his tone rousingly cheerful.

“Good morning, Brigadier.” Mae said, her tone pleasantly professional, “Sergeant Bryce, Mr Morland.”

Llewelyn looked like an older version of an actor many saw as a contender to play the ‘new James Bond’. He had a rich, melodious voice and he watched Felix trot about on his lead, saying, “This is your dog, Major?”

Felix sniffed at his trouser leg.

Llewelyn chortled. “Hm. Not quite what I was expecting when Bryce said you had a sighthound. Now then, shall we carry on, gentlemen?”

Kitt handed Mae the lead and umbrella, and took his satchel. “Thank you, Valentine. If you get the chance today, Valentine, he needs his nails clipped.” He turned away to face his superior, ignoring the stout man beside him.

“Excuse me, sir,” Mae said.

Three sets of eyes shifted back to her. “There was a Chelsea bun left from breakfast,” she said. “I put it in your satchel. Have a pleasant day at work.” She watched Kitt’s hard face change from ugly to handsome as he flashed her a smile. She left the four men and took Felix across the inner circle and into Queen Mary’s Garden.

It was a lovely spring morning with a soft chill in the air. Green buds and tulips in full bloom showed their vibrant shades against the bright grass. After half an hour’s run through verdant, dew-dappled beauty and cascading cherry blossom petals, the dog grew tired and Mae turned about. There were things to tend to at home, errands to run.

She passed by The Espresso Bar café and a strapping man wearing black sunglasses and a grey pork-pie hat too big for his head. He fumbled with a tourist map and muttered in Spanish to his mate in orange sunglasses. His bulky body reminded her of a man she’d come across in Sicily, an Asian man who had been all muscle and no neck. When she reached the car, she wiped the dampness from the dog’s paws, shortened the lead of the travel harness, and secured him in the back seat. The Transit van remained in the parking spot behind the Bentley. Cyclists took advantage of the space to cross the street and head into the park. Mae got in the driver’s seat and shut the door. Felix settled down onto the rear seat and sighed.

She started the engine and looked out the windscreen. Up ahead, a small tipper lorry loaded with garden mulch turned onto Chester Road. More bicycles whizzed by alongside cars, cutting in front of the Bentley. On the other side of the road, the man in the orange sunglasses and his mate, the big man in the pork-pie hat asked two women waiting to cross for directions, showing them the map. The blonde in an expensive suit pointed to something, the thin brunette nodded and unbuttoned the front of an ice-blue jacket. Parents rolled along with prams on the footpath. A blur of man and bicycle flew past the dirty Land Rover still parked across the street.

Mae twisted slightly, and reached for the seatbelt. She pulled the metal buckle forward, across her shoulder, and the world exploded in a white-flashing thunderclap.

 

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

 

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.

Misrepresentin’: An Open Letter to (Romance) Publishers

Dear Fiction Publishers,

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.”

Take a gander at Goodreads lists like:

Best older hero AND older heroine romance books (the main couple has to be over 40!)

Seasoned Romance

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.

Love,

Sandra

UK survey finds that older women feel misrepresented in fiction

UK survey finds that older women feel misrepresented in fiction

Gransnet and HQ writing competition

https://www.gransnet.com/competitions/2019/gransnet-hq-writing-competition

 

The Imitative and Conformist Business Practice That Ignores You

It won’t surprise you to learn I follow a number of writers, websites, and professionals in various industries (Tech, fashion, health & heauty, marketing & advertising). I like Forbes, Ashton Applewhite (see her website Yo, Is this Ageist and her totally bitchin’ book This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism), Next Avenue, and MarketingWeek.com to name a few. Much of what I follow discusses discrimination on the basis of age—that is sexism, ageism, ageist practices and how it all has an effect on how we view getting older.

This follows on to yesterday’s post about discrimination, ageism and the romance fiction industry. The Ad Contrarian Bob Hoffman (smart man, Bob, he was once named one of the world’s most influential marketing and advertising blogs by Business Insider) had a recent post titled The Stupidity of Ignoring Older People . Click on the link there o check it out. It’s a short clip from his presentation at the NextM conference in Copenhagen.

If you don’t have the time (or inclination) to watch it, Bob takes umbrage with statements such as “young people are more creative” and people, like Mark Zuckerberg, to task for saying something as dumbass as, “Young people are just smarter.” In the clip, Bob turns the ‘younger people are more creative’ schtick on its head by pointing those who won the 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature and Pulitzer prizes poetry, drama, and history were all over the age of 50. Bob also mentions that the female actors nominated for Oscars in 2017 were all over 50, which, if you know much about Hollywood’s obsession with younger women (like the world of Romance fiction) was something of a spectacular first, however the observation does hammer home his point about creativity being viewed as something only young people possess.

Bob gives a few other noteworthy facts that might be a little eye-opening. I’ll break them down:

 “In the US, people over 50 are responsible for over HALF of all consumer spending… [including entertainment]…”

 “[people over 50] account for 50% of all consumer package goods, they outspend other adults…”

[people over 50] are only the target of FIVE PERCENT of marketing activity…

Based on those few stats, s Bob says,“Do you REALLY think it’s a good idea to ignore these people?”

Bob goes on to mention that advertising and marketing ignores older people “because we hate them,” and that advertising is an “imitative and conformist business” that is difficult, or dangerous, to challenge because, and this is my take on it—OH DEAR GOD, WHAT IF IT FAILS. Or rather, as some authors might think, what if I FAIL?

Challenging the status quo is always a challenge and yes, there is a danger of failure. Fear is a powerful motivator. Fear motivates some people to keep things exactly as they are because change is scary and what you’ve always known is easy and, works. The status quo makes you money. If you’re a big company that publishes romance novels that feature younger women as the heroines and those books sell, have always sold, and you make money, why change what ain’t broke? Except that it is broke and, as Bob so amusingly suggests, not challenging the current status quo that hates older people is going to send you broke.

I, for one, see fear as powerful motivator FOR CHANGE. With the books I write, my In Service series (obligatory book plug!) about the middle aged female butler and the middle aged spy who loves her, I am challenging the status quo and facing the fear. Yes, I face the fear. I’ve given public presentations, the kind with slides and stats like Bob offers in his presentations—and I’m an introvert. Do you know how hard it is for me to face a room full of people, how terrifying that is? In terms of companies, like romance fiction publishers, the status quo means they simply can’t build a sexy marketing strategy based on the ingrained perception about older people, especially older women—you know the entrenched notion that women over 40 cease to be attractive or intelligent or useful because they are grandmas who don’t have sex. This is similar to what Bob calls “the boredom of middle age” or, as I like to put it, how can a marketing department in a romance fiction publishing house build a campaign with the status quo that presents ageing as something horrifying that reminds us of our impending death, because who wants a death fantasy as part of their romance fantasy?

They could take another look at the facts, at the demographics that Bob Hoffman presents. Reframe the fantasy of living, the fantasy of falling in love–the one fantasy that doesn’t ever change just because you’re over 40 or 50 or 60 or beyond.  Quit ignoring what is all cashed up right in front of you. Imitate what is THERE. Or keep doing what you’re doing publishing world, because it’s really workin’ for ya, innit?

I keep saying there is money to be made. Romance fiction could be, once again, at the forefront of social change for women, like it has been in the past. And be a front runner of better advertising to people of a certain age.

 

Hoffman, B. (2019). The stupidity of ignoring older people. Lecture. Copenhagen, Denmark. Retrieved from http://adcontrarian.blogspot.com/2019/05/the-stupidity-of-ignoring-older-people.html

 

 

Ageist, Muther-effin’ Punchline

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Hollywood,

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

 

 

 

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

Old Habits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Intersectionality: Ageism and the Older Romance Heroine

Wielding my Shield of Smartass

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

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

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

Yeah, well, I’m ranting. Again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can be too.