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
Roundabout Theatre Company. (2018). Invisibility of Middle-Aged Women
[Rhino]. (2015, June 15). The Rembrandts -That’s just the way it is, baby. [Video File]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/k6KfhOpq2n8
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.
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 Nix, in 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!
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.
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.
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:
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.
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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The other day, over coffee in a café with a writer friend who lives around the corner from me, the topic turned from our writing to the great mystery of promotion and the elusive magical unicorn that leads readers to your books. We discussed when your new book comes out strong, gets well-reviewed, and then…slips into something like a zombie-like state where sales shuffle along, taking an occasional bite here and there. My friend and I wondered how much promo can you do for yourself, how can you market your work and get it noticed, get it ‘discovered’ without being annoying or spending a fuckton of money by hiring a marketing & PR firm.
Fun fact: Did you know fuckton is a now a standard unit of measurement?
The two of us talked and talked — and didn’t come up with any answers, had no suggestions to make, and we went back to sitting side by side drinking coffee, wearing headphones and writing. Because that’s what we do. We meet,we write, and drink coffee.
Like my friend, I’ve followed the advice I’ve been given, done blog tours, sent my books out for reviews, peddled my publications on Facebook, Twitter, Wattpad, Pinterest, in newspapers and local magazines, and radio, on my website, on other’s websites. I’ve gone to conferences, presented workshops and papers, and my books continue shuffling along. What I can say is that, while we spent quite some time discussing what to do, I don’t worry about my books doing a zombie shuffle. I set my focus on writing books. I write because THAT’S MY JOB.
I will be totally honest. I don’t write to make money. You may call bullshit on this, but I have a great life and I do not define myself as a human being by the amount of dough my books do or do not bring in. As a pragmatist, I know this business is a crapshoot, that there are a shit-ton (slightly smaller than a fuckton) of writers and books out there, and very, very, very few make any real sort of money from the work. Making lotsa money would be nice and I’ll admit that royalties are kinda awesome, mostly because they keep me able to sit in a café, drink coffee and write, but as pleased as hell as I am when someone reads my work and buys me another cup of coffee, I do not write my books FOR anyone other than myself. I’m my own audience. And I know what I like
I started writing because I couldn’t find what I wanted to read, which, by now, all of you probably know that’s stories with women over 40 as the lead. Some of you out there happen to like what I like, and like what I write, and that’s totally bitchin’! Thank you for buying me coffee!
While my next two books continue my placing a 40+ woman as the heroine, they are a slight departure from my usual romance snark, and I still wrote them for myself first. I also wrote them for my friend Elle because she shares my love of coffee and the Bond movie Quantum of Solace. Cult status, coffee money, and Elle aside, what I’m pondering again today is this:
- How soon is too soon to market and promote a new book? If I begin this Friday, as I had planned to last week, will it be overkill of the fuckton of promotion?
- Is it too early for promo, considering that one of the books has garnered a little interest, but no publishing deal—yet.
- Is it too early for promo if I indie publish it and become a hybrid author, and if so see question 1?
- Is it possible to overfeed the elusive unicorn and kill it before it has a chance to become a zombie book?
The point of all this is that I am a writer. I am not schooled in marketing or promotion—I don’t even know if there’s a difference between marketing and promo. I am a writer and a coffee drinker.
Maybe one of you could mull this over and get back to me while I’ll carry on writing to please myself, drinking coffee, because contemplating the path to ultimate promomojo sure does get in the way of my job.
The article is titled Actresses Over 60 Are the New Box-Office Powerhouses. As I read, the line that first stood out is pretty much what I soapbox about on a regular basis. Harris mentions “society’s tendency to write off older women as dear little “characters” without passions or aspirations of their own.” Then Harris goes on to discuss a 1968 study in Hollywood that examined the age demographics of film-goers. It’s that paragraph that truly hits home; it’s what I say about a certain overlooked demographic of romance readers with an appetite for a certain overlooked subgenre of romance fiction–the Older Romance, Mature Romance, Mid-Adult Romance, Seasoned Romance, Contemporary Adult Romance.
The audience is real, and so is its appetite. And those who get it — who don’t simply view this particular group of movie lovers as the “about to die” demographic — may, a few years hence, look like very smart early adapters. In 1968, well before demographics were a subject of serious discussion at the studios, Variety reported the results of a study that showed 48 percent of American moviegoers were 24 or younger. For the middle-aged men who then ran Hollywood and thought they were making movies for themselves, the news was revelatory. Baby-boomers — the pig in the python — were coming of age, and over the next 15 years, the way movies were conceived, made, and marketed would undergo a revolution as a result. Now, almost 50 years later, that demographic is coming of old age, and making itself heard again. And if anyone wants it, they’ve still got money to spend. —(Harris, 1 Aug 2016)
Did you notice that first line Early adapters are smart?
Did you notice the last line? That last line means I have to rewrite a small part of an academic paper I am presenting at the upcoming University of Love conference in Adelaide, Australia. My paper is titled The (Saggy) Bottom Line: Women of a Certain Age and Romance Fiction. I have to include what Harris says alongside what a few other studies and authors note. That last line is a big fat flag I wave when I’m on my soapbox, a big fat signpost that is being overlooked by the publishers of romance fiction.
In case you missed it, because romance publishers miss it, so it must be easy to miss, that big fat signpost is MONEY.
I’ve said it before, I say it in my paper presentation, and I’ll say it here again, There is a demographic of romance fiction readers who MATCH this demographic of film-goers, and this demographic wants romance fiction that reflects the reality of their lives, not some hackneyed stereotyped bullshit about how a woman over 40 is dead below the waist, or, as Harris mentions, are people who buy “adult diapers and medic-alert systems and sit in their adjustable beds leaning forward with ear horns to make sure they hear the list of dangerous side effects in the commercials.”
This demographic wants romance fiction with heroes and HEROINES who are whole, intelligent, vibrant, active, sexual human beings, not diaper-wearing crazy, cat-loving, dried-up-old grannies with walkers. This demographic of romance reader wants a romance heroine who is like any romance heroine, only she just happens to be older. This demographic of romance reader is trying to make itself heard, and they have money to spend.
This Demographic HAS MONEY TO SPEND! What are you romance publishers waiting for? Early adapters WIN! Romance has been the Early Adapter of so many social changes regarding women– until now, and the industry is missing this goldmine right in front of them.
Thanks to Mark Harris for making me have to rewrite a small section my paper. I have to include this article because he’s given me more evidence that the romance publishing industry is overlooking a goldmine.