Visibility, Invisibility: Grey Hair Breaking Down the Wall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And it’ll be because of flowing grey hair.

Systemic Isms and You

‘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.”

 

Charise, A. (2020) Rising Tide, Grey Tsunami: Charting the History of a Dangerous Metaphor. http://canadiangeriatrics.ca/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/Rising-Tide-Grey-Tsunami-Charting-the-History-of-a-Dangerous-Metaphor.mp3

Ng, JH, Bierman, AS. Elliott, MN, Wilson, R. Chengfei. Xi, Hudson Scholle, S. (2014). Beyond Black and White: Race/Ethnicity and Health Status Among Older Adults. Am J Manag Care. 2014 Mar; 20(3): 239–248. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4474472/

Weinstein, F. (2020).The Power Of Words To Shape Culture, Instigate Change And Confront Ageism.  June. https://www.youareunltd.com/2020/06/16/the-power-of-words-to-confront-ageism/

Economic Security for Seniors Facts. National Council on Aging. https://www.ncoa.org/news/resources-for-reporters/get-the-facts/economic-security-facts/

Older Women and Poverty. (2018). https://www.justiceinaging.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/Older-Women-and-Poverty.pdf

 

Flying By The Seat of One’s Puzzle

There are things that puzzle me. First, I’m always amazed by writers who plot things out to the tiniest detail, you know, those authors who storyboard and collage and outline their tales. I’m not like that. I try to put any structure in place and my story disintegrates. I’m not a seat of the pants writer either. I lack the pants one usually flies from.

Truth be told, I am not a fan of pants (as in trousers, not knickers/panties/ full-coverage briefs). They are restricting, twist and bind the way collages and storyboards and outlines do when I try to do them. When it comes to writing, I have a box box in my head. It’s full of puzzle pieces made up of dialogue like this:

“We’re onto disguises now, are we?”
“You don’t like my hat?”
“You look better in the cowboy hat you wore on New Year’s Eve than in that ugly baseball cap.”
“You miss my cowboy hat.”
“Go on and think that if it makes you feel better.”
“I feel just fine.”
“Which is why you took your time getting here.”
“I was being thorough.”
“Thorough. Is that what you call chatting up Ms Goedenacht?”
“She was doing the chatting up. Weren’t you listening?”
“No. The earpiece stopped working when the discussion turned to marital aids and splinters.”

No speech tags, no description, just the two leads talking. They are always talking. And probably eating. There’s always food involved somewhere. Perhaps that’s one reason why True to Your Service took so long for me to write; I was always eating, as one tends to when one has a house full of visitors, or when one was on holiday someplace that may or may not become the setting for the next book in the series I didn’t realise was a series when the two characters started talking way back in 2011.

The other thing that puzzles me is that women over 40 are treated as a conundrum by publishing and Hollywood, both puzzling over how to structure a story with a woman over 40 as the lead, and scratching their heads over what a woman over 40 looks like as the lead.

It’s not that hard to show a woman over 40 as a whole human being, but Hollywood and publishing are anxious about that and stick to the sexist, ageist structure that has, well, worked for them . Film and fiction are risk averse. Film and fiction will stick to what makes them money; franchises make them money, and something new (well, actually, something older)  scares them because it’s different, it’s not what’s been selling, and what’s selling is what gets replicated or rebooted, or remade. Repeat sexist ageism and a lack diversity across the board…

I will concede one thing. I applaud the way Hollywood has grabbed onto the empowered badass-ass-kickin’ older woman we’ve seen lately onscreen. However, there is more to being an older, empowered, ass-kicking woman than we’ve seen. Being an older empowered arse-kicking woman with life baggage can be even more complex and exciting in telling a story, and it doesn’t mean an older woman has to be superimposed onto a male action hero narrative to be ‘acceptable,’ or adhere to the ageist and sexist stereotypes we are so used to seeing. I want more. Maybe you do too.

I’m all for showing ass-kicking-badassery, only I’m gonna do it like a middle aged woman would–with all that empowering, complex baggage and life experience, possibly slower, or maybe faster and with more ass-shaking like J-Lo at the Superbowl. The point is, there is MORE THAN ONE WAY to portray a powerful, attractive, capable, intelligent, sensual, sexual woman over 40, and it’s not simply making her an action lead, which is a start, but

True to Your Service, the third of the In Service Series features a middle-aged female butler and the slightly younger middle-aged spy who loves her. It’s genre-blending and crossing with a good measure of meta, seasoned romance, sex, tulips, murder, danger, and true love.  It knocks ageist and sexist stereotypes on the head and places a woman well past 40 as the lead. It pokes fun at spies and mysteries and crime stories. And it all came from a box of puzzle pieces in my head.

You can pre-odrer True to Your Service from your favourite e-tailer here and from Amazon

 

Ageism, (the sly ‘ism’ we’ve ALL been conditioned to accept) Is Inherently Sexist

Happy New Year!

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.

Yes, I’m still pissed off about that.

 

Jacynth. (2019). The Bias Cut. Ageism, Is Inherently Sexist- This is Why. 12 July.

 

Diversity and the Hidden Value of Ageism: A Weird Theory? Maybe.

Last weekend, I attended the Romance Writers of Australia conference in Melbourne, Australia. To be honest, I didn’t attend this conference with the intention of participating in workshops or sessions that would help me further my career as an author as much as I did to be present at a panel session about Diversity. This session was a long time coming and, frankly, well overdue. The author-panel was made up of a Queer woman, a Black woman, an Asian woman, while the moderator was a white woman who happens to be Chair of the Writers Board of South Australia, as well as an academic currently examining intersections of race and gender in historical romance.

I sat right up front. The panellists were all romance writers, and I was interested in what it was, or is, like for those members of the panel to be, or have been, overlooked as a leads, incorrectly portrayed, rendered to stereotypes or rendered invisible.

If you follow the ranty Sandra Soapbox Mature Content Stockpile stuff I usually post here, what the panel discussed may sound rather like what I ranty Sandra Soapbox about. That’s because being overlooked as a lead, incorrectly portrayed, rendered to stereotypes or rendered invisible it is exactly what I ranty Sandra Soapbox about. All the time.

Imagine then, how pleased I was when, at the start of the panel, slides popped up to INCLUDE AGE AS AN ISSUE OF DIVERSITY! My research and the Seasoned Romance subgenre got a little shout out. I kinda wanted to jump up and down when I saw the slides. I wanted to jump up and down—while simultaneously hiding under my chair because I’m an introvert and everyone was looking at me. But holy shit, there was a nod to my research (Thank you, Amy), and a slide that mentioned my work on the sexist ageism entrenched in the romance fiction industry, and the quote included that line I keep repeating on this blog, the “no one wants to read granny sex,” comment that shows how the industry overlooks, incorrectly portrays, renders to stereotypes or renders invisible.

I felt so validated, yet at the same time, I admit, if that nod hadn’t happened, despite my introversion, I was quite prepared to stand up on a chair (because I am short) and make sure that the room full of people knew WHY it was important to include age in the discussion of diversity, but I didn’t want to hijack the panel. It was vital to hear Renee Dahlia, Nicole Hurley-Moore and MV Ellis convey their experiences, give their opinions, give a history lesson on whitewashing and yellow face, on being portrayed as victims and villains, of having history erased—and then leave room for questions, to generate discussion from the floor, to open eyes and get RWAus authors to think about how they write whole real, human characters of colour, characters of different ethnicities, LGBTQ+ characters when the author is none of those things.

Some people just don’t quite get it, and an hour-long panel discussion plus a short Q&A isn’t enough to educate or have that lightbulb moment. However, I am not under a time constraint here. I can take more time to explain and offer a theory to those who still don’t get why this is important, to those who believe they can’t empathise or identify with or see their life reflected in a Black, Asian, or Queer hero or heroine. It’s because you are a cis, straight, white woman and have never experienced what it is like to be anything other than what you are since you have never—or rarely—seen anything other than what you have been conditioned to see because you have never been excluded from having your story, your truth, your life portrayed. This is what you need to know: One day, perhaps sooner than you think, you are probably going to experience ageism. You are going to experience what it is like to suddenly be seen as “other” and fade into the background or be erased from your own future. If you cannot fathom what it is like to be excluded or erased on the basis of your ethnicity, your skin colour, your gender identity, or your sexual identity, Ageism is there to help you understand.

Wielding my Shield of Smartass

I’m going to make a bold statement and say I have a theory. I believe the key to understanding the need for diversity and inclusion may lie within the framework of ageism—the last acceptable prejudice. Ageism affects everyone. Why? Regardless if you are Black, Asian, White, Queer, Straight, Transgender, Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Hindu, male, female, transgender, non-binary, ageism is an equal opportunity prejudice. Ageism excludes, renders to stereotypes, and erases. Ageism has a greater, often more obvious impact on women than men; after a certain age, women are more quickly stereotyped, side-lined, devalued as human beings, and rendered invisible. Sound familiar? Do you see the connection?

Ageing is an inescapable fact of life. I am getting older. So are you. You have seldom seen anything other than what you have been conditioned to see. I whole-heartedly believe we need to change what has always been presented as the norm because in reality it IS NOT the norm. Life is not all one colour, ethnicity, or one sex. It never has been. If you don’t think change is necessary, if you don’t want a better reflection of actual humanity, then keep reading your young, cis, het, white leads, the ones you say you can empathise and identify with, and will probably escape back to when you see your older self incorrectly portrayed, rendered to stereotypes or rendered invisible.

Let me know how that works for you.

 

Misrepresentin’: An Open Letter to (Romance) Publishers

Dear Fiction Publishers,

Did you really need a survey to discover that women over 40 feel misrepresented, underrepresented, that there are not enough books featuring older women, and it’s past time to end the perception that women washed up the minute they hit 40?

Apparently you did because you haven’t you been listening. You haven’t been paying attention. I know this because I’ve been paying attention. I’ve been listening and watching and waiting and writing the books your survey says women over the age of 40 have been waiting, and waiting, and waiting for.

A couple of you publishers are gonna say you’ve tried this already. Don’t we remember Harlequin’s NEXT, Berkley’s Second Chance at Love, Ballantine’s Love & Life, and  Kensington’s To Love Again. There are one or two of you sort of trying now, but seriously HarperCollins HQ, a SURVEY? This really proves you’re not paying attention. This proves you haven’t heard me shouting–or readers saying that they want to see female characters over the age of 40 as lead characters.

Forgive me. For those of you who are not publishers allow me to explain my beef with this survey.

The HarperCollins imprint HQ, an imprint of HarperCollins UK, was once MIRA and MIRA Ink, both  romance imprints that rebranded to ‘commercial fiction.’ HQ joined up with Gransnet (Grans as in Grannies, an offshoot of Mumsnet–because yanno, all women are mums and grannies), a “social networking site for over 50s”), to conduct a survey of 1000 women aged 40+. This study “reveals” that women over 40 feel misrepresented, that there are not enough books featuring older women…oh, and pretty much everything we here already know, and all the stuff my damn doctoral dissertation noted–the stuff I post about often.

Now HQ is trying to fix this lack of representation with a contest open to women writing novels with female lead characters aged 40 and beyond. They are even running a competition.

“Together with HQ, an imprint of HarperCollins, we are launching a fiction writing competition for women writers over the age of 40. We will specifically be looking for stories featuring a leading character aged over 40.”

Two or three publishers saying they are looking for older women or older couples isn’t enough. Despite HQ, Entangled’s August imprint & Facebook groups like Seasoned Romance and Romance in Her Prime, in romance, the older couples are often secondary characters, or hero is older; the silver fox paired with younger woman, or the heroine is portrayed as a ‘cougar.’ More often older females are reduced to stereotypes like the survey explained, like I established in all my academic research.

One big issue no one bothers to mention in this survey is that many rom editors are still not open to older heroines, even the ones who say they are. Authors who write older heroines, like I do, are told to ‘make heroine younger’ because older ‘might not sell,’ or as one editor said to me, “no one wants to read granny sex.” For example, when it originally launched, Entangled’s August line HAD a a character age limit of 45.

Currently, their commercial fiction line Sideways has an age limit of 50.

Back in 2012, when I conducted interviews I with romance fiction editors, I was told older women have too much life experience & baggage for rom & were a better fit for Women’s Fiction–and yet there’s an age limit of 50 in Entangled’s Sideways commercial fiction line, which includes Women’s Fiction.

As I said, many romance authors have written older heroines only to be told to “make them younger.” They’ also been told, “older won’t sell, or, like I was told, that “no one wants to read granny sex.” Yes, I know I bring that chestnut up a lot because that was the response I got three years ago, when I asked Entangled’s CEO why the August imprint had that 45 age limit. However, age limits may be a thing of the past. Maybe.

HQ executive publisher Lisa Milton said:

“We publish many books by women over 40. Many of our books have female characters over 40. Many who also defy stereotype. But not enough.What amounts to a handful of books, in a genre (written mostly by and for women) that is clinging to the Hollywood version of how to treat women over 40, i.e. stereotypes, punchlines, is not enough.”

Like I said. Maybe. A competition, and what amounts to a half a handful of publishers and a handful of books, in a genre written mostly by and for women, in an industry that clings to the Hollywood version of how to treat women over the age of 40, that is as stereotypes, punchlines, or invisible is STILL not enough.

So back to my Open Letter to (Romance) Publishers

Dear Fiction Publishers,

Here’s a hint on how to fix what the HQ UK Gransnet survey discovered, and it’s not really that hard to change:

Stop telling romance authors who submit stories with heroines over the age of 40 to “make their heroines younger,” quit believing that books with older heroines “might not or won’t sell, or that no “one wants to read granny sex.” Have a damn look at the Seasoned Romance Facebook page, take a look at what the readers there say they are looking for. Check out the conversations on Twitter. Have a good look at the books on Goodreads reviews and pay attention to comments and reviews, like the ones for At Your Service, the first book of the In Service series about that middle aged female butler and the slightly younger spy who loves her:

“The plot is twisty and complex and the dry, witty banter flows thick and fast; it’s an exciting, fast-paced story, and I really appreciated the protagonists being older than usual for romance novels – he’s late forties, she’s early fifties and they’ve both been around the block a few times.”

Take a gander at Goodreads lists like:

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

Seasoned Romance

If you want or need help I’m here. And I am more than happy to help because conducting a survey and discovering it’s not enough is not enough. Running a contest as a response to the not enough is not enough.

Love,

Sandra

UK survey finds that older women feel misrepresented in fiction

UK survey finds that older women feel misrepresented in fiction

Gransnet and HQ writing competition

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

 

The (Ongoing) Image Problem of Granny Sex

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 & spy In Service series, 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.

And we’re worth a lot.

Ageist, Muther-effin’ Punchline

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Hollywood,

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

 

 

 

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

Old Habits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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.