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

 

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/

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.

Just The Way It Is Not, Baby

The Rembrandts, the 90s musical sensation, had a big hit with I’ll Be There For You, the theme song from the TV show Friends. Perhaps not quite as well-known is their song That’s Just The Way It Is, Baby. After reading another article about the invisibility of middle aged women,  I have that song stuck in my head; it’s a persistent earworm that I am trying so very hard to kill.

Why is the lyric line “That’s just the way it is, baby” a block of concrete in my brain?

The Roundabout Theatre Company writes about the production of Skintight at The Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theater/Laura Pels Theater in New York City. Skintight focuses on the repercussions of the cultural obsession with youth. The article itself discusses ageism and sexism, and being made to look ‘younger,’  being airbrushed to fit with the UNREAL world of the ideal image of beauty. The topic of middle aged women being I-N-V-I-S-I-B-L-E  is mentioned. The article, Invisibility of Middle-Aged Women, says:

“Because media has traditionally been created by and for men, and women face gender discrimination behind the camera as well as in front of it.”

And there, the title of the article, the Invisibility part and the “traditionally” bit in that quote, that’s the reason for the bag of cement that’s solidified the Rembrandts’ That’s Just The Way It Is, Baby.

Airbrushed models, twenty-something female characters paired with fifty-something men on screen, in fiction, in advertising is the norm.  Culture creates content, and content creates culture. The books you read, the movies you watch, the advertising you see matters; it shapes our identities, colours our view of the world. Girls and women seldom see realistic images of females in the media. Girls and women rarely see women over 40 portrayed in positive or realistic ways. Girls and women, boys and men are conditioned, socially programmed by the images they see–or don’t see. And what we don’t see often is middle aged women, except in stereotypes roles, sidelined roles, roles that diminish their value. That’s just the way it is, baby.

“While men gain status as they age, middle-aged (and older) women are considered less valuable than their younger counterparts. This devaluation effects how how women are hired, promoted, and paid; how they are (or aren’t) depicted in the media; and how they see themselves.”

We KNOW women are underrepresented in the media, but the underrepresentation hits middle aged and older women especially hard. Women over 40 fade away until they are invisible. That invisibility is something we’ve grown used to. It’s what we’ve been shown, what we come to expect, it threads its way through film and fiction. When we are presented with a female character outside the norm we are shocked. Some of us don’t realise we’ve blindly accepted the standard, or realise that the standard does NOT mirror reality becasue that’s just the way is is…

Are you humming the Rembrandts yet?

Sexism and diversity are issues vital to address within society, yet ageism is seldom highlighted as an issue that is sexist, and it is rarely included in discussions about diversity.  Ageism is insidious. The perceptions about ageing treat a natural part of life as a disease to be battled. This anti-ageing crap has an impact on men and women, but it has a greater impact on women. Older men remain visible, while women … cue the Rembrandts.

If you always do what you’ve always done, then you’ll always get what you’ve always got. It’s beyond time to change what we’ve always done, to alter what we’ve blindly accepted to be just the way it is, baby, when the way it is isn’t true to life.  We change the standard, change what we are used to seeing by being genuine, by tearing down the sexist and ageist attitudes in the media, in film and publishing industries that persist shoving the usual younger-is-better images down the throat of society. Film and fiction must stop treating older women with disdain, stop overlooking middle-aged women –a sizable portion of the population– who have money to spend if they can see themselves portrayed as they really are. We do this by writing stories that better include an array of age.

I’m doing it with every book I write. My latest, At Your Service, has a middle aged female butler.  I put women over the age of 40 front and centre in narratives that portray them as whole as interesting, intelligent, capable, and attractive, sensual, sexual, and vibrant.  That’s just the way it is, baby.

Preorder links for At Your Service

Kindle

Kobo, Nook, and more 

 

 

 

Roundabout Theatre Company. (2018). Invisibility of Middle-Aged Women

https://www.broadwayworld.com/article/Invisibility-of-Middle-Aged-Women-20180716

[Rhino].  (2015, June 15). The Rembrandts -That’s just the way it is, baby. [Video File]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/k6KfhOpq2n8

 

 

The Image Problem of Granny Sex

Older women have an image problem, a negative one that has become normalized. What do I mean by normalized? Representations of women of a certain age have become ingrained in society and have resulted in stereotypes—you know the ones I mean, the acceptable roles; grandma, crabby crazy cat lady, old hag, peddler of adult diapers, retirement communities, denture creams. Women over 40 are seldom presented as attractive, intelligent, sensual, sexual, whole human beings the way men are. This needs to change.

Back in 1972, Susan Sontag wrote about the Double Standard of Aging, and nowhere is this more evident than in film and romance fiction. In movies and books, men get distinguished as they age, and they are allowed to age. Men at 45 are silver foxes, while women of the same age are merely ‘old.’ Women become mutton dressed as lamb, cougars, are shoved aside, or dropped into those acceptable stereotyped roles because, unlike men of the same age, women are now toothless hags who need denture cream.

What you see is what you’ve always seen, and it is what you accept because that is all you have ever been shown. You may not be aware that you buy into the negative image. After all, the imagery you’ve seen about adult diapers, creams that lift sagging skin, and late fortysomething Daniel Craig’s James Bond romancing twentysomething Lea Seydoux rather than fiftysomething Monica Bellucci, reinforces the information you see about women ‘getting old,’ and men being hot silver foxes. Who would blame you for believing the double standard of aging?

Although you’ve had plenty of movies and romance novels where the older guy silver fox gets the girl, and gets it on with the girl, how often have you seen a couple who are roughly the same age getting it on? Age equivalent sex suddenly becomes problematic—and it’s all because of the woman. Add a woman with sagging skin and she’s a grandma, and granny sex is gross because grandmas don’t have sex—even with silver foxy grandpas.

Give us silver fox smokin’ hot grandpas, but no grannies and their saggy this and that. I had a romance publisher tell me no one wanted to read granny sex, quite recently in fact. I was prepared to show this publisher evidence contrary to her statement (have a look at the Seasoned Romance Facebook page). Unfortunately, this was at a conference, others stepped in, and my opportunity to continue was lost. That moment indicated that, for some publishers, romantic interludes in romance fiction, like onscreen, is still considered to be a venue open only to young women.

For many publishers the status quo remains, silver foxy men, but no silver foxy women, and THIS is the root of the image problem. We get what we’ve always had because of this pervasive attitude that older women aren’t attractive or sexual. The image problem is a vicious circle, but I’m pushing for change. While I’ve posted about what to call this subgenre of romance (I’m still leaning toward just calling it Romance), this time I’m asking for reasons why you think portrayals of sexual women over 40 is so problematic. 

Is it really about sagging breasts and lined faces?

Is it really that romance is a tale for younger women, or readers who want to remember what it was like when they were younger?

Is sex after 40 just plain gross?

Or is it because we have so rarely been shown positive images of mature female sexuality?

The image problem boils down to a lack of representations showing us that women over 40 are attractive, intelligent, sensual, sexual, whole human beings. This means it’s time to make a NEW status quo, to normalize how life really is, and how women over 40 really are. If a publisher thinks granny’s saggy boobs are distasteful (not something a romance hero would care about), the solution is simple. Romance has various ‘heat’ levels. That is, an array of how intimate sexual activity is described–from a chaste kiss and closing the bedroom door, to graphic sex. There is a spectrum of readers, those who like the bedroom door closed and those who want explicit description. There is a spectrum of readers who want romance tales featuring women 40, 50, 60, and beyond, those who want granny to close the bedroom door, and those who want to see granny in all her glory.

Leave a comment about what you think is problematic. Meanwhile, I’ll keep writing my sexually active silver foxy heroines over 40.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Introduction to an Old Character

Wielding my Shield of Smartass

The Pink Heart Society’s May newsletter discusses romance fiction with older heroines, and asks, as I do, if the romance genre thinks love has an age limit. The newsletter features interviews with Dee Ernst, Amanda Ward, Liz Flaherty, Morgan Malone and the Pink Heart Society’s (PHS) editor, Trish Wylie—all romance authors who place women of certain age front and centre of romance. It’s exciting to know I am not alone in being passionate in my desire to stamp out ageism and sexism.

Why is it exciting?

An Introduction (for you newbies)

Hi, I’m Sandra Antonelli. I write older romance heroines—silver foxy women over 40 as the lead characters, not as secondary characters, and not as protagonists in Women’s Fiction, but as the romantic leads. I represent this demographic of women and demographic of romance readers who want female heroines with all my heart, and I am passionate about continuing to do so.

If this is your first time reading one of my posts, and you don’t know, mature-aged romance heroines are my soapbox. Check out the Mature Content Stockpile tab for just how much soapboxing I do. There are many reports in the media discussing sexism and ageism in Hollywood, but there’s very little media dialogue on ageism and sexism in romance fiction. Strange, because there is such a parallel in the way women of a certain age are pigeon-holed in stereotyped roles (cougar, granny, witch, crazy cat lady) or rendered nearly invisible in both forms of entertainment. This really chaps my hide.

Years ago, before Harlequin’s NEXT line, which touted stories about women with a little more life experience, I went looking for older romance heroines and found next to nothing. So, I decided to write my own, thinking the world would catch up. I kept writing older protagonists in romance, and, like Liz Flaherty mentions in the PHS newsletter, I got curious about why there were only a handful to be found. I did a master’s degree and then a PhD on the subject to try to get to the core. The masters uncovered the demographic of reader looking for older romance heroines, the PhD examined why the demographic is overlooked. And in the mix of all that academic stuff, I kept on writing romance with older heroines AND heroes because no way was I going to be like Hollywood and let the hero be an older Bruce Willis-type while the heroine was 25 to 35-something. My books were published by Escape, a division of Harlequin Enterprises in ebook format—because ebooks are a little more open to taking a chance on something with a niche market, or outside the norm.

I have four books that sit outside the romance heroine age norm: A Basic Renovation, For Your Eyes Only, Driving in Neutral, and Next to You, as well as short stories Your Sterling Service, and Niagara Falls at Café Nixin the anthology It All Happened at Café Nix. I have more on the way. You can find links to all my books here.

Knowing that there are other books outside the norm besides my own, that I’m not the only one writing older romance heroines, that Dee Ernst, Amanda Ward, Liz Flaherty, Morgan Malone, Karen Booth, Josie Kerr, Maggie Wells, Natasha Moore, and the Seasoned Romance Facebook page with over 600 members of authors (and readers) are also writing heroines with life experience and–gasp–wrinkles shows that older equals OH HELL YES!

Can You Predict the Future?

Yeah, you guessed it! I’ll write romance, blog, tweet, post on Facebook, and do academic-type stuff on women of a certain age in romance, and I’ll keep on championing  until we’re not a stereotype of age, a niche market, or a trend.

I applaud you ballsy authors who, like me, want to show the entire world, not just the romance world or Hollywood, that foxy doesn’t end at forty.

April with a touch of May (via Shallowreader

My hat’s off to the librarian who swears like an dinky-di Australian and talks about female comedians dropping the balls when it comes to being funny, being crass, and being an ageist stereotype of ‘what not to wear.’

Vassiliki Veros and I met and bonded on Twitter, before we met IRL. I love her. She’s a PhD candidate and, well, a librarian who reads a lot and loves, loves, LOVES books and reading.

She’s got it in her head that heroes would rive hatchbacks–by choice, but I don’t hold that against her. In this post she talks about deselecting books in the library (I’ll let you read her post to find out what that means), being in a reading slump–which happens to everyone I know who has done a PhD, myself included–presenting a paper at the upcoming  Genre Worlds conference, going to Canada & the USA  for the Romance Readers Meetup, where she’ll meet MORE acepants twitter folk (I’m totally jealous), gives an overview of what she is managing to read, gives us a cool pic of herself wearing AND ROCKIN’ pigtails with a pussy hat, before she gets down to a review of seeing comedians bitch about women of a certain age wearing pigtails.

Check out Vassiliki’s Shallowreader blog post.

Shallowreader

I just realised that it has been a while since I wrote in my own shallows so I am going to use April’s Bingo sheet and SuperWendy’s super convenient TBR challenge topic of “Something Different” to describe my last 2 months of life as well as my reading:

Now (contemporary)

I have been incredibly busy. After a 12 month break, I am now teaching Digital Literacies at my uni’s pathway college. The content is really engaging and it is proving to be quite a different teaching space to what I am used to.

Dark Apollo

I continue to work twice a week at a public library in a ‘burb far far far away from my home. I am in awe of the excellent study culture in the community I work for. It is such a buzz seeing youth so deeply engaged in their studies. I am also a deselector for my…

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