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.

Big Girl Pants: Authors Should NEVER Comment on Reviews for Their Books

Recently, as in a week ago this Friday, I released Forever in Your Service, book 2 of the In Service series. Reviews began coming in immediately, which was surprising because that means people are finding and reading my books about the female butler and the spy who loves her and her scrambled eggs.
Since reviews came all whizz-bang fast, and I actually read them when someone pointed out I had a review, I suddenly felt like I was in an old movie about an actor in a Broadway production after opening night, looking at the newspaper reviews of the show the next morning, you know when the actor sees something along the lines of “A Triumph!” Or “A bloated, dire attempt at genre crossing; Antonelli knows nothing about plot, pacing, or how to make scrambled eggs.”  Or “It’ll make you cry.”
That last quote is ambivalent and, if I had received such a review, I would have chosen to see as a good cry rather than bad cry because I’m like that.
Yeah, so reviews. Authors are advised to NEVER to comment on reviews, but…
I read something this morning that made me laugh. This is all couched in humour. I swear on a cup of coffee this is not really about me commenting on how a reader did or did not enjoy Forever in Your Service, or the comment they left on the review, which was in, essence, their review. This is more my reaction to a reader’s response to a character’s choice of UNDERPANTS/knickers/panties/undies, which I totally appreciated since it was about underpants, something I put on every day with very deliberate choice.

This is more of an Author’s Note* I could have placed in the book, an author’s need to do some ‘splaining, or more rightly confessing.  Practical, like Mae the butler in the series, Big White Underpants (BWU)  are the most comfy kind of pants to wear under tights. I’ve worn them since, well, forever. I am a huge fan of BWU, cotton ones, the big briefs that come up to, or just below, my belly button, the kind Dr Shrinkee calls Bombay Bloomers and Granny-panties, the sort that I have worn since I was a kid and a fashion-conscious teen aware of the VPL one got with bikinis and g-bangers (g-string for you in the US), the pants with which there is never a VPL, the pants I will still be wearing when I am 90. I love them THAT MUCH.
I’m pretty sure this isn’t a comment about a review of Forever in Your Service as much as it is a review of my very deliberate choice of underpants for a practical heroine who also wears aprons like I do.
*Author’s note: Poor Mae was subjected to a pair of more ‘fashionable’ knickers that got stuck in uncomfortable places in the previous book, soon to be available in print, At Your Service.

Discovery of the Obvious

The hardest thing any author faces is discovery. We write the book, we try to get the book published traditionally, or go indie and put the book out ourselves. That’s the easy part. The thing that makes us pull out our hair is trying to get noticed. Or in my case noticed and HEARD

This week, I was very kindly invited to be a guest and post on Breathless in the Bush, “an eclectic group of writers who share a love of Romance, the enjoyment of a good laugh, and a dedication to learning all we can about the craft of writing.” These wonderful Australian writers have graciously allowed me to tell them and other readers and writers about Seasoned Romance and, of course, my books. It’s a lovely way to  have readers discover my upcoming release, Forever in Your Service, the second book of the In Service series, which again features a middle-aged female butler and the spy who loves her. It comes out 29 March.

If you enjoyed At Your Service and the short story Your Sterling Service, I think you really might kind of like Forever In Your Service. It has a dog in it. Also, the leads, Mrs Valentine and Major Kitt, discover things about each other as they discover the world around them is made of cowboys, charlatans, wine, snow, and obvious lies.

Where was I ? Oh, yes, discovery. You know I write novels with an emphasis on the portrayal of women over 40 as heroines, I write older romantic heroines and I always have. I’ve been going on and on–okay, I’ve been ranting about older romance heroines, ageism and sexism in Hollywood, in publishing, and especially in romance fiction. Whether you want to call what I write Adult-Contemporary romance, ‘mature’ romance, grown-up romance, later-in-life romance, or to use the term author Maggie Wells coined, Seasoned Romance, they are central love story where the female lead, where couples 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.

Guess what? I’m not alone in what I do. Others have joined my voice, have given credence to my academic and ongoing scholarly research, the stuff about an overlooked audience of readers eager to see older heroines and older couples in their fiction, and the viability of women aged 40+ as romance heroines.  There are other like me out there, writers and readers. We’ve been here and now we’ve joined forces. Visit the Seasoned Romance Facebook Group to find out more about the authors and readers and books.  JOIN US!

We’ve been out here all along, writing, and writing, and having some of our books traditionally or Indie published. We’ve been waiting for you to notice, to discover us, and I’ve been telling you, I’ve been shouting, “We’re here!  We’re here!” like a little Who from Whoville.

I’m not going to say it.

Okay, yes I am.

I told you so.

 

A Valentine, The At Your Service Edition: or Inside the Mind of a Novelist

There’s that thing a lot of writers do. They base a character on someone they know, or model a character on a well-know figure. For example, at the recent Golden Globe awards, during his acceptance speech for his win as best actor for his role in the film Vice,  British actor Christian Bale (You did know he was British, didn’t you?) thanked Satan for inspiring him to play a morally-dubious character– the real-life former American Vice President Dick Cheney. The Lord of Darkness was what gave Bale a model to inhabit. And trust me, Bale DOES inhabit his role in Vice.

Writers, like actors, find inspiration in someone. The character of GP in my novel A Basic Renovation was modeled on my coffee-drinking, surly, often hilarious grandpa who was born in 1906. I occasionally find inspiration in someone and some thing, be a it mannerism, a habit, a certain sense of fashion. While I don’t know any real life spies (although there is the one friend we have whose work is so complex and intellectual that when he explains the complexity of what it is he does, it makes us think he’s got to be a spy because his explanation is so obfuscated by the complexity), I do like spy novels, spy movies, Daniel Craig, Sean Connery, Jason Bourne, Matt Helm, Our Man Flint, George Smiley, and Austin Powers.

Lots of authors write about spies. Nowadays, fictional spies are, let’s face it, a cliché. By God, I love the cliché. The spy cliché is my inspiration. Mostly.

I play a lot with the spy cliché in At Your Service, the upcoming, Forever In Your Service, and the short story Your Sterling ServiceI poke some fun at the cliché-riddled superspy genre. At the same time, I wanted to take the well-known iconic superspy and retool him around the clichés without resorting to Austin Powers-esque parody, but I still wanted readers to see the self-assured, expert, erudite, womanising man trip over his own feet and emotions– and recognise him as that familiar spy figure. Yet the thing, my inspiration to make my spy, Major Kitt, human amid all the fictional clichés hinged upon two facts: Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, loved scrambled eggs and I eat eggs for breakfast every day. 

Eggs. Scrambled eggs for breakfast became Major Kitt. Eggs and breakfast became the running theme for the In Service books. Eggs are the motivation for the character, an item that makes Kitt think of things, of someone he never dreamed of wanting. Scrambled eggs (not Satan) are what make Kitt have a heart, the kind runny with emotion.