There are those who’d prefer a different moniker because ‘seasoned’ brings to mind images of salt and pepper, which, when you stop to think about it, is totally fitting since we are talking about characters who may have grey hair. Frankly, I’d be happy to just call it romance, because that’s what it is, but this industry is driven by the need to know where to shelf a genre. Whether you want to think of it as mature romance, later in life romance, or silver fox romance (and that silver foxiness includes women), Seasoned Romance is a sub-genre of romance fiction with a central love story where, typically, couples (m/m, f/f, m/f) of a ‘certain age’ are front and centre as lead characters in a story that comes with all the hallmarks you love and expect in a romance novel, right down to sexy times and the all-important Happily Ever After.
It’s important to point out that Seasoned Romance is not Women’s Fiction, which may have elements of romance, but a romance is not what drives the plot in Women’s Fiction. Seasoned Romance is utterly driven by the romance.
As for the certain age part? Some of us writing Seasoned Romance suggest the line for ‘older’ starts at 35. My academic research (trust me on this, I have a doctorate in this stuff) indicates the ageist line is more heavily drawn for a heroine at 40, while, and this won’t come as a surprise, the line is far more age fluid for heroes, who get to be that ‘silver fox’ trope.
Although men have had the advantage of being silver foxes heroes, now, with Seasoned Romance, women of the same or similar age are finally being positioned as protagonists who challenge ageism, rather than act as a stereotype or joke. There is, as Cindy Gallop has noted, “little nuance in the way age is portrayed.” Too often, older people are reduced to ridiculously comical parodies and caricatures, especially women. Seasoned Romance demonstrates that age is a characteristic, not an attribute that defines a person or a story. While stereotypes like cougar may serve as a shorthand, a convenient way to contextualise accomplishments and standardise expectations, the shorthand is reductive, usually faulty, and often comes with fixed meanings that people assign to it, which causes us to reduce people to labels such as cougar and codger. Further, since so much of how ageing is portrayed in negative ways, the shorthand denies many of us an image of a future we may look forward to. Why would you want to imagine a future when all you’ve ever been shown is the stock of disease, and decline, and doom?
This comes down to representation. Representation is the kernel of every cry for inclusivity and diversity. What we see and what we read can shape our identity, and shape how we see others. We like to see ourselves reflected in advertising, in film, in fiction, and older people are not tokens, comic foils, secondary characters, or stereotypes. With Seasoned Romance we see men and, especially women of a certain age, represented and portrayed as intelligent, interesting, confident, powerful, active, social, sensual, sexual, whole human beings who just happen to be older. Rather than adhering to stereotypes that portray getting older as a wasteland of negative decline, with Seasoned Romance we show ourselves an authentic and positive future, we show ourselves a true reality with all the hallmarks you love and expect in a romance novel, right down to sexy times and the all-important Happily Ever After.
Did I mentionall my booksare seasoned Romantic suspense, seasoned rom-coms, and seasoned rom-com-mysteries? Did I mention that I hit all the hallmarks you love and expect in a romance novel, right down to sexy times and the all-important Happily Ever After?
Last night, as part of the upcoming online Romance Writers of Australia conference, I sat on a panel of romance authors and editors who were also academics and scholars in romance fiction. We talked about our experiences as doctoral students and the challenges some of us faced when we submitted proposals to critically investigate romance fiction, a genre that was, for far too long, not taken seriously or considered less-than worthy of study. Things have gotten better in academia. We academic types and scholars studying the genre are being taken seriously now, more seriously than women over the age of 40 appearing as lead characters in romance novels are.
Reminiscing with the panel, and my frustration with the ongoing sexist ageism in the romance genre, reminded me of a conversation I once had with another romance fiction author about my romance novels being taken seriously. We talked at a conference for writers, back when I was a fledgling grad student and author on the cusp of being published. Our discussion focused on the age of romance heroines and how they have traditionally been young women, usually under 35. At the time, this author assured me that my writing was good, but she was adamant about two things: romance readers wanted to read about younger women because the springtime womanhood bloom of love was an essential part to the fantasy of romance, and a fundamental part of the traditional structure of romance fiction. She said that, if I was serious about being published, if I wanted to sell lots of books, I’d need to make my heroines younger.
The idea that younger women were essential to the romance fantasy, the ‘springtime’ issue of a female’s fertility being fundamental to falling in love (sorry for the alliteration), was an issue I addressed in my masters and doctoral work. I’m still addressing that notion now. We know fertility is not fundamental to falling in love. The only fundamental here is risk-averse publishers telling authors that books outside the ‘traditional’ parameters of romance “won’t sell”, or that no one wants to read granny sex, y, or z.
The panel, recollecting what that author and a few romance fiction editors have said about younger being essential to the romance novel, reminded me about a blog post I once ready by author Fay Weldon, best known perhaps for her novel The Life and Loves of a She Devil.
Have you ever seen She Devil, the Meryl Streep/Roseanne Barr adaptation? It’s kind of fun and at the same time not fun. It’s basically a story of revenge. What’s fun and not fun for me in the film, is how Meryl is a pink-wearing romance novelist prone to flouncing and histrionics—you know, that glorious Barbara Cartland-eque stereotype of romance novels and writers that still gets volleyed about, which, of course, adds to the genre not being taken seriously. Meryl, as usual, does a stellar job and makes a shallow, self-absorbed, horrid woman more than a caricature in frothy pink, but back to Weldon and all the recollecting. I went and dragged out my resource files, also known as Ageist Shit That Pissed Me Off and I Will Write About Someday.
Obviously, that someday is today.
Weldon, who teaches creative writing, has a section on her website that offers writing tips for authors. One particular post asks What Age Are You Characters? The piece mentions that if you want to be publishable it is important to keep the age of your characters in mind because, as Weldon states,
“readers come in all sizes, sexes, shapes and ages, but all prefer their novels to feature young women rather than old.”
ALL? Really? Ooooh! I love a good sweeping generalisation as much as I love flouncy pink-clad stereotypes of romance authors, don’t you? Stereotypes and generalisations always seem to go hand in hand with ageism and romance fiction, don’t they? Weldon also gives this advice:
“Get your juvenile lead on the front page: lure the reader in. 25 works better than 35, 35 than 45 – after 50, forget it.”
Which is quite similar to what the author said to me at the writers’ conference, but the thing in Weldon’s post that really chaps my hide is how she believes readers…
“…prefer to identify with themselves when young, not as they are now, in the days when they were sexually active, agile of limb, and not afraid of adventure.”
Okay then. I prefer to see myself as I am, to identify with characters who are of a similar age to me, not younger than me. Personally, I am affronted by the notion which assumes that, as I age, I will no longer be adventurous or that I will be afraid of something new. I fully expect to still be curious and adventurous about a range of things as I get along in years, despite how poorly ageing is portrayed and presented in advertising, film, and fiction that favours younger people as better. Why, I continue to wonder, is your younger self perceived to be your better self? I don’t want to be 25, I don’t want to watch or read about characters who are 20 very often, and I don’t think my 20s were my best days—they were far from my best anything. This notion that gold-plates your 20s also shoves down our throats the notion that women over 40 have ‘seen better days,’ that her best days are behind her. Might this be because, as Weldon notes,
“Publishers, who these days tend to turn away novels by middle aged women about middle aged women on the grounds that they are depressing, are probably wise to do so.”
Are older women depressing? Are their stories depressing? Or are women middle-aged and older just written that way? Frankly, when you read a lot of books and watch a lot of films and TV, you notice that older women are absolutely written that way. Younger women are viewed happy and as essential, while older women are constantly cast and represented in roles that are negative, that are depressing, frightening, secondary, non-essential.
If a young heroine is seen by many as an essential aspect in romance, and, as Weldon suggests, other forms of genre fiction as well, I’m gonna throw this a random thought. Could it be that, perhaps, one reason romance fiction may not have been taken seriously is not only because it is often written by women, and therefore a lesser form of writing, but it is also due to heroines having a long history of being overwhelmingly young women? Young women are often not taken seriously due their perceived lack of life experience. At the same time, older women cease to be taken seriously due to their experience, end of fertility, and depressing natures. Ageism swings both ways when you are female.
I understand fledgling writers want advice, fledgling writers take creative writing courses, undertake postgraduate degrees, attend conferences, search the web for guidance, and take heed of what successful writers and writer-teachers have to say. And lots of author-teachers have stuff to say. Here’s where I mention that, in my undergrad days, I had a creative writing teacher who had a one very successful book that lots of high school kids had to read and had been made into a well-received film. His big serious advice was to tell us all A writer must to suffer to write well.
I withdrew from his class because I wasn’t into suffering as much as I was using my imagination to tell a story.
My point is, it’s time to toss out shitty advice like suffering to be a good writer, time to retire ageist advice that demeans, time to take women of all ages seriously—as we have finally begun to take seriously the romance genre and the academic-scholar types who choose to study it.
Thank you to PhD candidate, Rachel Bailey, Dr Laurie Ormond, Dr Amy T Matthews, and Dr Michelle Douglas for inspiring this ranty post.
‘Isms’—like racism, sexism, ageism—single out, judge, victimise, oppress, and change lives. I am prone to single out ageism and sexism as forms of judgement and oppression, particularly because I write fiction with female protagonists over the age of 40 in a genre where the majority of female leads—or romance heroines as the genre prefers to call them—are aged in their 20s. There’s been lots of discussion about representation, and why representation matters, but the discussion often fails to include age as a necessary part of representation. I find this frustrating because ageism is the equal opportunity ism that intersects race, ethnicity, gender identity, religion, sexuality. I have suggested that ageism, the ‘last socially acceptable ism’, could be viewed as a learning tool; it’s the one prejudice that humans can, and most likely will, experience at some point in their lifetime. Why does ageism sit on the periphery of representation?
The intersectionality of ageism could be key to opening eyes to what it is like to be judged, victimised, oppressed, and excluded, but the tricky thing is how ageism hits women harder than men. So much harder. That wallop is evident in how we treat women over 40. While men aged 40+ are allowed to be heroes and silver foxes, women of the same age are turned into stereotypes, shoved to side lines, or rendered invisible in advertising, film and fiction. And, as they say in advertising, but wait, there’s more! Add racism to the sexist double standard of ageing and women of colour are walloped even harder. Studies show that, thanks to ingrained ageism and systemic racism, in their later years Black women in the US have the highest rates of poverty, the lowest incomes, as well as the most severe health disparities.
Worse than how ageism crosses race, ethnicity, gender identity, religion, and sexuality, is the fact that (like teaching someone to hate), ageism and ageist practice begins in childhood and spans a lifetime across the continuum of all the other isms. One can almost say, “Everybody’s ageist” because ageism is entrenched in our language, in widely accepted expressions that subtly influence our idea of age and ageing, usually in a negative light. Geezer, coot, little old lady, cougar, grumpy old man, dried up hag, you look good ‘for your age’ are all familiar terms we use on a regular basis without giving them any thought. Dr Andrea Charise, notes that the metaphors, words, and images, such as the above expressions, as well as emoticons and short-hand symbols that portray older people hunched over with walkers or canes, are actually dehumanising and dangerous phrases and images that we have been unconsciously conditioned to recognise and use from an early age. We have been taught to deny ourselves a positive, vibrant future.
You may wonder what you can do about this.
First, think about how you see ageing. Think about if you buy into the notion that ageing is something you have to fight tooth and nail. Think about how ageing is too often portrayed as a disease, as decline, as a future fraught with loneliness and unhappiness. Think about the anti-aging advertising movement that is so aimed at women. While it’s wise to try to think before you speak, to choose your words with deliberation, it’s not something human beings are always capable of actually doing. The way we respond is often so quick and without much thought since we’ve been using ‘perfectly acceptable’ expressions since childhood. As a writer I have the time to think, sometimes long and hard, for weeks, or, because I don’t plot out a book, for months at a time. I can ponder ‘isms’ oppressing and changing lives. I can try to confront ageism the way many other writers are trying to confront racism and other isms in romance and other genres of fiction, even when the stories I write are part of the escapist In Service Series about an Irish, middle-aged female butler and the middle-aged British spy who loves her — I had to work in a book plug. I can challenge a publishing practice that has stated no one wants to read granny sex, that sees ageing characters as stereotypes, secondary characters, that sees women over 40 as mostly white, sexless grannies, as cougars, as anything but vibrant, intelligent, sensual, sexual whole human beings with a lifetime still to live. In my case, writing older female protagonists in a genre that favours youth challenges the ageism and sexism in in the industry, and fosters change for a better future—or rather it gives us the chance to see a future for ourselves — as middle aged Irish butlers, undercover FBI agents, house flippers, personal shoppers, and former race car drivers… Yes. I wrote those heroines.
We all age—living a long life is something many strive and hope for—however so much of our language around getting older indicates that the rest of life after 40 is nothing but decline. Remember this from The Power Of Words To Shape Culture, Instigate Change And Confront Ageism:
“Language matters. It can empower and inspire, but it can also insult, misrepresent and pigeonhole. Its detrimental effect can be long lasting and have life-changing consequences. Once an expression is ingrained in popular culture, it can be difficult (but not impossible) to erase. That’s why every word matters.”
There is something I have been stewing over, trying find to a way to deal with my rage and put it into words without, well, simply ranting. I really, really want to rant. The suggestion one ought to give up their life for the good of a country’s economy is disturbing, like this pandemic is, but I realised the vile idea serves to underscore the ageism I often discuss. Sometimes hashing out an issue in writing helps to quell my urge to rant. At least that is what I am hoping. Like ageism crusader Ashton Applewhite, I’m going to use the term olders instead older people or elderly, which often conjures an automatic inference of infirmity. And yes, eventually I’ll relate this to how the media, that is film and fiction continue to portray olders as stereotypes, especially when it comes to women.
Strap in. These are weird times and it may get a little weird in here.
As we’ve witnessed with this pandemic, there are those who are fine with allowing olders to die, some even going as far as saying olders should be willing to give up their lives for the good of a country’s economy. The reasoning is, older individuals have lived a full life and ought to move over, or on, for the people who are making a contribution to society. Boomers, retirees, elderly in assisted living communities, olders sponging off taxpayers need to give up using the ventilators and consent let someone younger and probably in better health, with a higher probability of survival, use them. Olders are already ‘on their way out’ so they should be willing to just lie down and die for the good of others.
If you have been lucky enough to not hear about this, here is a sample of what I mean. An Article in The Telegraph mentions that the death of older people could actually be beneficial by “culling elderly dependents.” As if that isn’t horrifying enough, the Human Rights Watch article Rights Risks to Older People in COVID-19 Response: Combat Ageism; Ensure Access to Health Care, Services, Human Rights Watch reports that Ukraine’s former health minister suggested people aged 65+ were already “corpses” and the government need to focus all COVID-19 efforts on people “who are still alive.” This blatant ageism devalues human beings, is basically eugenics, and I don’t know about you, but it sounds a lot like something a Nazi would say. Nazis were big into eugenics.
Eugenics, by the way, is, judging a group to be inferior and excluding them while nurturing others judged to be superior, all to improve the quality of life, but in this case, instead of a selective ‘breeding out’ of undesirable genetic traits, it’s a ‘weeding out’ of an undesirable portion of the population for the ‘good of others.’ The undesirables here are olders.
Older. Undesirable. You can set the practice of ‘weeding out’ against the sexism and ageism women face as they move through life. If you are a middle-aged woman, you probably have noticed the ‘you are already on your way out’ notion. Maybe you started to see—or felt—your undesirability around the time you turned 40 or 45. Western society asserts 40 is an age when a woman’s value suddenly diminishes; it’s time for her to suddenly shrivel up, dry up, and tumble downhill all the way to nothingness, invisibility. The devaluing is often attached to the warped idea that a woman who is no longer fertile has nothing to offer to society, beyond being a caregiver or looking after grandchildren. Evolutionary biologists do research into why post-menopausal women live, and it’s a conundrum wrapped up in the concept of reproductive purpose and the contribution these women make in their later years. There’s the occasional scientific mention of post-fertile female killer whales who lead their pods, but unlike matriarchal older non-reproductive female whales, non-productive human females who lead are still an anomaly. Older and older woman are wrapped up in sexist, ageist practices and images we have been exposed to since birth. You’ve seen them over and over. Familiar stereotypes of harpy, dried-up, sexless, middle-aged hag with saggy breasts go hand in hand with the dottery, hard-of hearing, sexless, grumpy, olders with canes and walkers.
Thankfully, there has been a very small shift in the presentation and portrayal of women who have crossed the It’s Over at 40 line, a number of women have risen to leadership positions, and there has been some representation not wrapped up in an older woman’s fertility or, let’s face it, fuckability. It is a start, but there remains this persistent thought that chronological age equals undesirability, decline, and infirmity across the board, and it is devaluing. It hinders our ability to envision our future selves in realistic, positive ways. While it is true that olders are more susceptible to illness, AGE IS NOT an indication of a person’s worth any more than being a woman over the age of 40 is.
Tackling the age discrimination—the widely, most practiced and acceptable prejudice that crosses all boundaries of culture, race, gender, and sex—early on is the one way we can begin to combat all forms of discrimination. While skin colour, your ethnic background, the gender you embrace vary, all of us age; it is our commonality, something we can relate to as we move through life. If we are lucky enough, we will live a long life. Long life is what most of us strive for, hope for, but quite bizarrely, we deny the fact that to have a long life one ages, and we ridicule ourselves for daring to ‘get old,’ we deride and punish others who get old or have lived a long life and are old, and suggest that it’s better sacrifice themselves for being old. We, from governments, film, fiction, advertising, to young children, need to rethink, re-educate, recognise and respond to intersecting types of discrimination. These months may push us apart, yet this is the time for us to come together to change the way we choose to value human beings, and we must not base this on a procreative, economic contribution to society, or any other discriminatory habit. We must change the way we choose to value human beings, and we must not base this on a procreative, economic contribution to society, or any other discriminatory habit we have come to accept without question.
Stamping out and calling out ageism, especially when it comes to women, is my mission. I try to fight and challenge ageist stereotypes with the older-than-the-standard characters I create in the books I write. I try to defy the sexist and ageist practice that exists within the romance fiction publishing industry. Diversity is the battle cry, but age is a diversity issue too often left out of the call. It’s a small thing, and it may seem silly to some of you, but I am passionate about presenting and representing women over 40 as lead characters, rather than as the cockamamie stereotypes we have had forced down our throats decade after decade after decade.
I have a new book out, the third of my In Service series. True to Your Service is a gritty, occasionally witty romantic suspense cosy spy thriller mystery about a middle-aged female butler and the spy who loves her. It’s available as an ebook from all e-tailers here and paperback here. It’s had a few very nice reviews.
I’ve stewed on things long enough. I’m mostly done ranting. I have another book in the series to write. I’m doing my part in kicking ageism arse.
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
Now, with that out of the the way I’ll try to make this short and tart because I’m kind of both and I have a deadline.
This morning, smart cookie and Ageism crusader Ashton Applewhite, author of the This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism (go read it NOW), flagged an article by Jacynth, the founder of The Bias Cut– Shopping With Attitude – Where Ageism Is Never In Style. Love that tag line, don’t you? Anyhow, I like to think my nose is pretty good at rooting up articles on women and ageism, but I missed Jacynth’s l’il gem from last July.
Maybe it’s all the Star Trek I watched growing up (Star Trek is a very multicultural TV series that tried to be inclusive and stamp out ‘isms,’ ICYMI), or maybe i’m merely über naive and idealistic, but it’s 2020 and I am über annoyed that we’re still not embracing diversity and equity in society. Nope, nope, nope. We’re still wrestling with racism, xenophobia, sexism, and ageism.
You know I’ve spent a long time talking about ageism in film, genre fiction, and the publishing industry, especially the romance fiction industry (and we know how things are, and have been, in Romancelandia). Ageism is particularly heavy-handed in romance fiction where men are ‘silver foxes’ who get their own trope, while women of the same silvery age are hags, grannies, evil stepmothers, cougars, raging lunatics, old — or invisible. Stereotypes of age and sexist ageism are so rampant in romance fiction you’d think someone would have pointed this or out done a study of it.
Oh, wait. I did.
Go look if you want to. The links to my academic works are up on the menu under Other Writing. The results of my studies weren’t startling, didn’t tell women over the age of 40 something they didn’t already know, but the study did support how a bias operates in the romance fiction industry. And if you didn’t know, ageism, like so many other ‘ism’ biases, doesn’t care about race, culture, gender (more on that in a moment), sexual identity, disabilities. Women of all colours and ethnicities get the fuzzy end of the ageist lollipop — but did you know ageism hits woman of colour even harder?
I am in no way suggesting that ageism does not have an impact on men. It does. In the workforce, men are passed over for promotions in favour of someone younger, they are viewed as dinosaurs with outdated ideas, however, as Jacynth she notes,
“the difficulties these [white] men face may seem to them more pronounced because they haven’t experienced other prejudices in their life.”
Interestingly, the impact of a man experiencing ageism for the first time might work as a tool to open the eyes of old white guys entrenched in sexist practices, or –and here’s where my idealism creeps in– open their eyes to all the other biased practices they’ve never noticed. Pointing out and challenging biases might function better if one has actually experienced the brunt of a bias. Nothing opens one’s eyes quite like ridicule or exclusion.
As I said, I’m keeping this sweet because I’m trying to finish writing True to Your Service, the final book in my trilogy about the middle-aged female butler and slightly younger spy who loves her (Hey, look! A book cover!), and dammit, they get a happy ever after, just like their younger counterparts, just as, I am hoping, silver fox James Bond does in the upcoming No Time to Die — except, in the film trailer, the woman Bond seems to be living his life with is half his age and really should have been Monica Bellucci’s underused, age-appropriate character from SPECTRE.
Consider this a follow-up to an earlier post, the one where I got ranty about how believing your youth is the “Best Time of Your Life” and how that belief keeps you from living your best life. The ‘younger is better’ thing is a notion that has congealed into the psyche of the media—that’s advertising, film, and fiction. The ‘younger is better’ perception is especially hard-set within the romance fiction industry, which functions under two common mistakes: younger is better, and older people, specifically older female romance readers who are past their springtime-youthful-fertile prime, yearn to be young again and find reading about younger romance heroines as a way to ‘recapture that glow of youth.’
As Glinda the Good Witch says in the Wizard of Oz, “Oh, rubbish!”
While the yen to recapture one’s youth may be true for some, the majority of older people, especially women over 40, do not feel this way, and maintaining a very persistent, very mistaken, nearsighted vision that touts ageist and sexist folderol within the romance fiction industry, a genre that is written mostly by and for women, is, as I have been saying for years, essentially shooting the romance publishing industry in the foot. There is a ready-made audience overlooked in favour of millennials, and it is made up of readers who are NOT just boomers, as the media would have you believe, but also often-overlooked Gen X and Xennials and there is money to be made by taking these readers seriously, rather than solely trying to figure out how to capture the millennial market.
“But what about millennials?” publishers cry, “how can we attract them as readers of romance?”
Guess what? Millennials are going to grow up to be older people one day. Doesn’t it make sense to have in place books that are aspirational to people who are younger now, books that paint an image of a future where being older does not mean blue hair, walkers, dementia or an end to love and sex, as the utterly wrong, completely cliched and ageist aspirations the advertising and entertainment industry has relentlessly shown us?
Advertising’s job is to make something attractive so that people will buy a product. HOW IS THE PUBLISHING INDUSTRY MISSING THIS POINT? Maybe because advertising is doing such a crap job of paying attention to older people.
There is money to be made here. If advertisers (and film, and fiction) took the time to talk to older people and made them the primary target, rather than a stereotyped caricature of decrepit and worthless, we GenXers, Xennials, and Boomers would spend up. Older people know what matters in life, have experience with life and relationships and know how to express their individuality—all things younger people aspire to. As Cindy Gallop points out, if advertisers “Lead with what’s aspirational about being older,” that is, if they give us role models, portray older people, especially older women, as the confident, vibrant, attractive, sensual, sexual, intelligent, whole human beings they are, younger people, as in those worrisome millennials, will notice, they will see what they can aspire to, and follow.
Yes, there are a few of you, one publisher in particular (yes, again I am looking at Entangled’s August imprint) that could lead by example but, and this is important, little has been done to garner attention, next to no time has been taken to MARKET to readers who want to be your primary target, readers who want to read what we’ve come to call–not that you or any other publisher has noticed–Seasoned Romance. Come on romance publishing. Get off your arse. Pull your finger out. Pay ATTENTION. Include age as an issue of diversity in the discussion. Latch on to the Seasoned Romance subgenre many of us are reading and writing, and include it on editor wish lists when looking for fresh new voices and fresh new stories. Make something attractive to older readers already looking, and they will buy a product.
I’ve said it here often, but in case you’ve forgotten, there’s money to be made.
Did you really need a survey to discover that women over 40 feel misrepresented, underrepresented, that there are not enough books featuring older women, and it’s past time to end the perception that women washed up the minute they hit 40?
Apparently you did because you haven’t you been listening. You haven’t been paying attention. I know this because I’ve been paying attention. I’ve been listening and watching and waiting and writing the books your survey says women over the age of 40 have been waiting, and waiting, and waiting for.
A couple of you publishers are gonna say you’ve tried this already. Don’t we remember Harlequin’s NEXT, Berkley’s Second Chance at Love, Ballantine’s Love & Life, and Kensington’s To Love Again. There are one or two of you sort of trying now, but seriously HarperCollins HQ, a SURVEY? This really proves you’re not paying attention. This proves you haven’t heard me shouting–or readers saying that they want to see female characters over the age of 40 as lead characters.
Forgive me. For those of you who are not publishers allow me to explain my beef with this survey.
The HarperCollins imprint HQ, an imprint of HarperCollins UK, was once MIRA and MIRA Ink, both romance imprints that rebranded to ‘commercial fiction.’ HQ joined up with Gransnet (Grans as in Grannies, an offshoot of Mumsnet–because yanno, all women are mums and grannies), a “social networking site for over 50s”), to conduct a survey of 1000 women aged 40+. This study “reveals” that women over 40 feel misrepresented, that there are not enough books featuring older women…oh, and pretty much everything we here already know, and all the stuff my damn doctoral dissertation noted–the stuff I post about often.
Now HQ is trying to fix this lack of representation with a contest open to women writing novels with female lead characters aged 40 and beyond. They are even running a competition.
“Together with HQ, an imprint of HarperCollins, we are launching a fiction writing competition for women writers over the age of 40. We will specifically be looking for stories featuring a leading character aged over 40.”
Two or three publishers saying they are looking for older women or older couples isn’t enough. Despite HQ, Entangled’s August imprint & Facebook groups like Seasoned Romance and Romance in Her Prime, in romance, the older couples are often secondary characters, or hero is older; the silver fox paired with younger woman, or the heroine is portrayed as a ‘cougar.’ More often older females are reduced to stereotypes like the survey explained, like I established in all my academic research.
One big issue no one bothers to mention in this survey is that many rom editors are still not open to older heroines, even the ones who say they are. Authors who write older heroines, like I do, are told to ‘make heroine younger’ because older ‘might not sell,’ or as one editor said to me, “no one wants to read granny sex.” For example, when it originally launched, Entangled’s August line HAD a a character age limit of 45.
Currently, their commercial fiction line Sideways has an age limit of 50.
Back in 2012, when I conducted interviews I with romance fiction editors, I was told older women have too much life experience & baggage for rom & were a better fit for Women’s Fiction–and yet there’s an age limit of 50 in Entangled’s Sideways commercial fiction line, which includes Women’s Fiction.
As I said, many romance authors have written older heroines only to be told to “make them younger.” They’ also been told, “older won’t sell, or, like I was told, that “no one wants to read granny sex.” Yes, I know I bring that chestnut up a lot because that was the response I got three years ago, when I asked Entangled’s CEO why the August imprint had that 45 age limit. However, age limits may be a thing of the past. Maybe.
HQ executive publisher Lisa Milton said:
“We publish many books by women over 40. Many of our books have female characters over 40. Many who also defy stereotype. But not enough.What amounts to a handful of books, in a genre (written mostly by and for women) that is clinging to the Hollywood version of how to treat women over 40, i.e. stereotypes, punchlines, is not enough.”
Like I said. Maybe. A competition, and what amounts to a half a handful of publishers and a handful of books, in a genre written mostly by and for women, in an industry that clings to the Hollywood version of how to treat women over the age of 40, that is as stereotypes, punchlines, or invisible is STILL not enough.
So back to my Open Letter to (Romance) Publishers
Dear Fiction Publishers,
Here’s a hint on how to fix what the HQ UK Gransnet survey discovered, and it’s not really that hard to change:
Stop telling romance authors who submit stories with heroines over the age of 40 to “make their heroines younger,” quit believing that books with older heroines “might not or won’t sell, or that no “one wants to read granny sex.” Have a damn look at the Seasoned Romance Facebook page, take a look at what the readers there say they are looking for. Check out the conversations on Twitter. Have a good look at the books on Goodreads reviews and pay attention to comments and reviews, like the ones for At Your Service, the first book of the In Service series about that middle aged female butler and the slightly younger spy who loves her:
“The plot is twisty and complex and the dry, witty banter flows thick and fast; it’s an exciting, fast-paced story, and I really appreciated the protagonists being older than usual for romance novels – he’s late forties, she’s early fifties and they’ve both been around the block a few times.”
If you want or need help I’m here. And I am more than happy to help because conducting a survey and discovering it’s not enough is not enough. Running a contest as a response to the not enough is not enough.
UK survey finds that older women feel misrepresented in fiction
Older women have an image problem, a negative one that has become normalized. What do I mean by normalized? Simple. We’ve been conditioned to not see our own worth.
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.’ 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. 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. Of course, the upside of this is that an older woman can now wear white trousers and swim and box and be sporty without ever having to worry about periods or leakage.
Opps. I forgot about incontinence pads.
As I said, we’ve been conditioned to not see our own worth–except as consumers of products that tell us we have to fight the disease of ageing–or face a wrinkled, toothless future of pee pads and retirement living and funeral insurance.
What you do 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, for decades we’ve been bombarded with ageist and sexist imagery about adult diapers, creams that lift sagging skin, Cary Grant with Audrey Hepburn, and Daniel Craig’s James Bond (who was in his late 40s at the time) romancing twentysomething Lea Seydoux rather winding up with than the disposable fiftysomething Monica Bellucci in the last Bond feature, Spectre.
**Yes, I’m still irritated by that moment when the Craig Bond was poised to go on being different but failed to deliver. After SEVEN minutes (if I remember, that’s how long Dan and Monica had on screen) the story fell back onto the usual status quo that disposed of the older woman for the younger woman. By the way, if you’re wondering, I had already written the first book of my butler & spyIn Serviceseries, At Your Service before that movie came out.**
Sorry to digress and rant, but I’m sure you understand that advertising, that the persistent older man-younger woman construct, reinforces the information you see about women ‘getting old,’ and men being hot silver foxes. 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 do you seen a couple who are the same age getting it on?
I bet you can count the times on one hand, maybe two. Who would blame you for believing the double standard of aging?
In the celluloid world, in the fictional world, especially in the world of romance fiction, the silver fox smokin’ hot grandpa is easy to find, it’s even a trope in the romance genre, but smokin’ hot grandma? Age equivalent sex is viewed as problematic—and it’s all because of the woman. Add a woman with sagging skin and she’s automatically a grandma, and granny sex is gross because grandmas don’t have sex—even with silver foxy grandpas. What’s the point of a man having sex with a woman who’s probably no longer fertile anyway since everyone knows that a woman is only attractive if she’s fertile, like the Nile Delta, and able to bear children.
Go ahead and call bullshit on that. You know you want to.
I’ll leave the rant about the predominance of men writing, producing, and perpetuating the silver fox hero and masculine wish fulfillment that has kept older women sidelined or invisible (thanks for the reminder, Vassiliki) to another day, but what turned me to become a hybrid author was when I had a female romance publishing CEO tell me no one wanted to read granny sex. Yes, I’ve ranted about that before. A lot. I saw what I was up against, what I’d always been up against. The comment corroborated the findings of my doctoral work. I knew that, despite an offer from my publisher, and on-the-fence interest from another who worried about ‘where to place the book’, I could do a better job marketing my butler & spy series in what is still considered to be a niche or yet-to-prove itself audience my research demonstrated was and IS there. The CEO’s comment is revealing and points to the fact that, for some publishers, an older female protagonist is risky. A sexy, sex-filled romantic interlude in romance fiction, like onscreen, is still considered to be a venue open only to young, fresh-faced, fertile women.
For many publishers the status quo remains, it’s 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 the pervasive attitude that older women aren’t attractive or sexual and it’s a vicious circle. Keeping grandma out of the bedroom, that is, not allowing portrayals of older women as sexual or attractive serves to reinforce the attitude that no one wants to see grandma as sexual or attractive.
Here are a few questions to consider why some find 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?
Or is it because we are so rarely shown positive images of mature female sexuality, or that mature sexuality is too often portrayed as a joke where older women fan themselves or blush or giggle and mention Fifty Shades of Grey while whispering about viagra and their older partners with erectile dysfunction?
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 ‘Seasoned Romance’, Later in life 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.
Most importantly, there is a spectrum of people who want to see their lives reflected in the stories they see on screen and in the pages of a book. Love has no age limit. We’ve let advertisers, filmmakers and publishers tell us that love has an age limit. I want to point out again, that this is not a niche market. There is money to be made. Advertisers, filmmakers and publishers need to stop believing and peddling the old bullshit hype. They will, once there is a story that hits it big and makes them some coin because guess who has the cash to be instrumental in making this come to fruition this? Women over 40.
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.
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.