Yes, yes, things have changed a lot. Women are doctors, lawyers, and CEOs. It’s ‘you’ve come a long way baby’ and all that, but certain jobs continue to be viewed as traditionally female and male positions. For instance, when you see the word ‘nurse,’ do you imagine a man or a woman? What about ‘maid’ or ‘housekeeper?’ If I toss out the word ‘butler’ I’m sure your mind automatically conjures up Batman’s trusted man Alfred, Bertie Wooster’s Jeeves, Downton Abbey‘s Mr Carson, or Mr Stevens from Remains of the Day. And why wouldn’t you think of those men, of those chracters? The butler is a particular role dominated by males in fiction and film and real life. However, remember that ‘you’ve come a long way baby’ thing?
You know I’m all about changing stereotypes for women, particularly women over 40. Female protagonists of a ‘certain age’ (man, how I hate that expression) are all I write. Naturally, I’ve written another. This time my older, or seasoned –as many are calling protagonists over 40– doesn’t just challenge the usual ageist stereotypes that cast older women as (say it with me now) cougars, grannies, evil stepmothers, hot flashing menopausal harpies, crazy cat ladies, and sidelined supporting characters only there to offer ‘sage’ advice to younger characters. This time my heroine challenges what has been a traditionally male role. This time my heroine is the butler.
Yep, the butler. Not the housekeeper. NOT. THE. HOUSEKEEPER.
I know I’m not the first to present a female butler. Linda Howard did it in Dying to Please. Helen Mirren took on the role of Hobson the butler in the remake of the movie Arthur, a role previously played by Sir John Gielgud. I happily add Mae Valentine from my forthcoming release At Your Service to that short list of female butlers.
My butler is older than your standard romance heroine, older than your usual romantic suspense romance heroine, but there are expectations she meets. The butler for a retired Army officer, Mae is efficient, professional, loyal. In other words, Mae is like all those other ‘traditional’ butlers you know so well, the ones who go that extra distance for their employer, the ones whose age doesn’t matter because the age of men seldom matters. Simply put, At Your Service is tale of a butler, a spy and a toilet brush. It crosses a few genres, plays with a few genre archetypes, subverts certain images we have in mind when we see words like older woman, butler and spy… Call it a romantic suspense cosy spy-thriller-mystery with a dash of humour. It’s Charade meets Remains of the Day. It’s set to release this September. You can pre-order it now. Kindle or Kobo, Nook & more
Valentine’s Day is nearly upon us. This means it’s the time when newspapers, magazines, blogs, and websites roll out the clichéd stories about Bodice Rippers, Fabio, heaving bosoms Romance fiction, lonely, bob-bon-eating, middle-aged cat-owning women who read romance, dating, pleasure, sex, and reading choices.
Like many other authors in the romance genre, I’ve had more than enough of the tired, poorly-researched, stereotyped drivel about romance fiction. The American comedian Rodney Dangerfield used to say in his shtick, “I don’t get no respect.” Readers, authors and academic scholars of romance know full well about the lack of respect afforded the genre. What I find rather fascinating is how these Valentine’s Day articles about Romance fiction are written by men and women.
The theory goes that anything written by women is demeaned and considered ‘lesser’ than the writing of men. Back in 1983, Joanna Russ’ How to Suppress Women’s Writing discussed the ways social forces hinder the recognition of female writers by the patriarchy. Russ ought to be required reading for anyone thinking of writing a piece about women’s writing, women’s fiction, and romance fiction in particular. Why? Russ highlights suppression with eleven common methods that are used to ignore, condemn or belittle the work of female authors. They are:
1. Prohibitions: Prevent women from access to the basic tools for writing.
2. Bad Faith: Unconsciously create social systems that ignore or devalue women’s writing.
3. Denial of Agency: Deny that a woman wrote it.
4. Pollution of Agency: Show that their art is immodest, not actually art, or shouldn’t have been written about.
5. The Double Standard of Content: Claim that one set of experiences is considered more valuable than another.
6. False Categorizing: Incorrectly categorize women artists as the wives, mothers, daughters, sisters, or lovers of male artists.
7. Isolation: Create a myth of isolated achievement that claims that only one work or short series of poems is considered great.
8. Anomalousness: Assert that the woman in question is eccentric or atypical.
9. Lack of Models: Reinforce a male author dominance in literary canons in order to cut off women writers’ inspiration and role models.
10. Responses: Force women to deny their female identity in order to be taken seriously.
11. Aesthetics: Popularize aesthetic works that contain demeaning roles and characterizations of women.
Once you look at that list, you may think it’s about the patriarchy, especially when one notices how the books that make review lists are typically penned by men, or when one considers that special chestnut A Roundup of the Season’s Romance Novels penned by former one-time Simon & Shuster editor in chief Robert Gottlieb, the older white man in New York Times last September—you know which one I mean. Once you look at the list you might notice how it influences the piece Verity ran today, 7 Romantic Books That You Won’t Be Embarrassed to Admit Reading, which mentions dear Fabio and puts quotes around the words “romance novel.” Articles such as these hit the screechy stereotyped notes. Articles like these highlight the patriarchy at work quashing and devaluing work, any work, by women. It’s a sinister thing because it’s ingrained practice familiar to women; it’s what we’re used to, what we navigate on a daily basis across a spectrum of mundane and professional duties we carry out. But here’s the thing that really grates: number 2 on Russ’ list. Number 4 pisses me off too, but number 2 is particularly insidious.
Bad Faith: Unconsciously create social systems that ignore or devalue women’s writing.
This practice is so entrenched that women use the suppression, consciously or unconsciously, not only to demean the work of women, but even to inform women of their need to feel guilty or be embarrassed when they read subversive, feminist, substantive, social commentary that explores the human condition and the very human need to connect to others.
Russ wrote about suppressing women’s writing 35 years ago. Clearly, change is still needed in the way women’s work, be it domestic, professional, or creative, is presented and discussed in the media, in the way women are presented in the media (particularly women over 40—I know you were waiting for me to mention the lack of respect mature women get). Pieces like Jennifer Weiner’s We Need Bodice Ripper Sex Ed and Jamie Green’s Who Gets a Happily Ever After in 2018, place women’s pleasure, sexual and reading pleasure, first. Weiner and Green counter the usual claptrap about romance, trashy, sappy, porny romance fiction, and feeling guilty about sex or reading a novel.
Change is rolling in, slowly, but rolling in nonetheless, and it could use a little push forward. The next time I read a clichéd, crappy article about romance and romance fiction, I’m going to leave a comment directing the author to READ RUSS and do better research. I’ll also suggest reading Frantz and Selinger’s New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction, Rodale’s Dangerous Books for Girls, Wendell & Tan’s Beyond Heaving Bosoms. and contacting the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance, you know, to get the facts straight instead of relying on sloppy stereotypes. I’ll point out that romance authors like Eloisa James (Professor Mary Bly), Jennifer Crusie, Jodi McAlister (aka Dr Jodes ), Amy T Matthews (Tess LeSue,), myself, and so many others lead, or have led, double lives as romance fiction scholars and academics. I’ll be sure to mention that us scholarly types can tell you a thing or two about the romance genre, like how the genre is subversive, feminist, complex, political, how it deals with social and psychological issues, has been at the forefront of social change for women, and that Fabio hasn’t been on a romance cover in decades, but model Jason Baca has been on 500 or more.
In the meantime, screw the patriarchy and those clichés about Romance fiction. The only thing I am chained to is my laptop, and while I write my next book and continue to fight the good fight to place more women of a certain age as romantic leads, I’m left wondering several things. Does the romance community look at news articles about Romance fiction differently when they are written by women; does the community view the piece with a more or less critical eye than if written by a man? Or do we, as readers, authors, and industry members, judge each piece on individual merit?
What is it we romance ‘enthusiasts’ want to see in an article about the fiction we so adore?
Now, the next time you read an less-than well-researched article about Romance fiction, enjoy a game of ROMANCE CLICHE BINGO, inspired by and created especially for this post and you by author and spider-lover Ebony McKenna! Many thanks to you, Ebs!
Excerpt: Russ, J. (1983). How to suppress women’s writing. University of Texas Press. https://utpress.utexas.edu/books/rushow
You’ve heard it all before. It’s not new. It’s the same story, over and over. Nothing changes. There’s a gap in pay and a gap in age. Women get, as Marilyn Monroe says in Some Like It Hot, “The fuzzy end of the lollipop,” or, if you’re a woman over 40, no lollipop at all.
News items, like Anita Singh’s article in The Independent, Hollywood Gender Pay Gap Laid Bare as Rich list of Stars is Filled by Men, highlight the gender pay gap that exists between male and female stars in Hollywood, as well as the rampant ageism toward older actresses.
The pay gap can be attributed to the dominance of action blockbusters and to a dearth of opportunities for older women. In the list of top 10 actresses, the oldest woman is Julia Roberts (49). All but three of the male top 10 are aged 50 or over.
No big surprise there. While I applaud the reporting of the ongoing disparity, this news is now tedious and commonplace. Story after story indicates that, despite all the reporting of the gap, nothing has changed, that there’s still a “dearth of opportunities for older women,” and it is boring. So very boring. We know about the disparity.
Some of us are trying to alter the pay gap and and the age gap. We are telling stories about women of a certain age, in case Hollywood and the Romance fiction industry haven’t noticed. Writers like me are trying to be proactive and smart. We SEE the audience the industry doesn’t. We want to ensure that both men and women are afforded the same opportunity to have a lollipop that isn’t fuzzy–or a just a damned lollipop.
Singh, A. (2017). Hollywood gender pay gap laid bare as rich list of stars is filled by men. The Independent. 24 August. http://www.independent.ie/entertainment/hollywood-gender-pay-gap-laid-bare-as-rich-list-of-stars-is-filled-by-men-36060056.html .
For years, I’ve been writing for an overlooked audience. Now, finally, I’m writing for a slowly emerging market, one a few publishers are, after years of ignoring, only just beginning to cater to. Despite the presence of a target audience, that is readers over 40, two stumbling blocks remain when it comes to marketing romance fiction to readers over 40: WHAT to call this subgene, and HOW to market romance with older couples.
The WHAT: The front-running suggestions for this romance subgenre (Thank you, Laura Boon Russell for reminding me to mention that this is a subgenre), from those of us who write romance fiction with lead characters over 40, have been Adult Contemporary Romance, Seasoned Romance, Mature Romance (MatRom), and Silver Romance. The new category line from Entangled is called August, which is a charming moniker, but the line is limited to stories of characters 35-45. Now, here’s where you come in. Do you have any ideas of WHAT to call romance fiction with both lead characters who are over 40?
If you do, leave a comment. Better still leave a comment about the search terms you use when you go looking for romance tales where both characters have been around the block a time or two? You as a reader have the power to pick the name that REALLY sticks.
Groovy, say we come up with a consensus on a name for this subgenre, for Romance of a Certain Age, Granny Lit or Hag Lit, (Can we agree now NOT use any of those?), but what about the HOW?
HOW to market these books is fraught with the same issues Hollywood has when it comes to marketing any film featuring a woman over 40 as the lead. Artwork and advertising, which in the publishing world means book covers, can be tricky for a tale with younger leads. A book cover, like a movie poster, is supposed to be shorthand for the story presented. Marketing departments for Romance fiction have always found a way to work around finding cover art for troublesome novel, usually steering clear of the stereotypical clinch cover in favour of something benign, such as a pair of shoes, a dog, an empty Adirondack chair sitting on a beach. In Hollywood, the usual thinking is:
- If the older woman appears on the advertising, be sure the image includes an object that obscures her age, such as a coffee cup in front of her face;
- If the older woman appears on the movie poster, ensure only a small percentage of her body is shown, no full body shots;
- Reduce the size of the woman’s image, place her in the background in a setting, such as on a dock, on a boat, behind Bruce Willis or Morgan Freeman. Seriously. Go look at this poster for Red, right now.
Obviously, in fiction and film there’s a similar workaround showing the ageing body, which is primarily horrifying because ageing and the bodies of older people are continually presented as ugly and something to fear. These images lead to an unconscious bias against older people, particularly older women, and that bias keeps women from appearing roles other than mother, granny, harpy, crone, or keeps them from appearing at all. ON book covers and movie posters.
The chief antidote to treating ageing as a disease is to present it as normal, as everyday, but creating a new standard and breaking down pervasive image stereotypes of age—or any stereotype—takes time. People need to ‘get used to’ something new. I understand starting small, put the aged female face behind that coffee cup a few times, or reduce the size of Mary-Lousie Parker and Helen Mirren on the poster for Red. Use those benign beach-front images that suggest peace, use the dog, the shoes. Then, slowly, because, people need time to adjust to change, get rid of the coffee cup, enlarge the size of the woman, move her to the foreground, right beside the acceptable male silver fox in that Adult Contemporary-Seasoned-Mature-Silver-August Romance.
This comes out on Saturday. I’m snuggled between two amazeballs authors.
I’m like the meat in the LOVEWICH!
Feel the love.
Taste the Love.
Here’s MORE LOVE:
I’m thrilled to be in the company of such wonderful authors. Not only are these women brilliant writers they are incredibly supportive and generous to other writers. I am constantly blown away by the level of their generosity to the romance writing community, and, personally, by how they have encouraged and supported me over the years. Truly, they shine as writers and as human beings. I am humbled by their skill with words, but more so by their skill as human beings.
So here’s where I say thank you to Ainslie Paton and Amy Andrews, and to our wise publisher, Escape Publishing, for snuggling me in the middle of you both. Thank you. Thank you. I hope you two rub off on me.
Between Boardroom & Bedroom is: A collection of full-length novels about what happens after business hours…
Insecure — Ainslie Paton
The worst thing a man can do is not be with the woman he loves.
Jacinta was the CEO in waiting. Mace was the geek from IT. She had an office suite on the top floor. He worked in cubicle hell.
She had power, influence, her life mapped out. He had big dreams, and an appetite for risk.
They had one hot night written all over them, except the city conspired to turn that night into a weekend of unexpected passion and deep connection.
Will love be enough when Jacinta’s star falls and Mace’s dream takes flight, or will ambition, expectation and insecurity pull them apart?
Driving In Neutral — Sandra Antonelli (that’s me!)
A quick-witted romance about facing your fears — like love, the greatest risk of all.
Levelheaded Olivia Regen walks away from her car-racing career and the wreckage of a bad marriage to take on new work that’s far removed from the twists of racetrack. Her new life is about control, calm, and the friends that she adores.
But her first day on the job involves getting up close and too personal with her claustrophobic boss, alone in a broken elevator. Her unconventional solution for restoring his equilibrium shocks them both– leaves Olivia shaken.
Determined to stick to her plan, Olivia drives headlong into work and planning her over-anxious best friend’s wedding, leaving no room for kissing, elevators, or workplace relationships. But Emerson is not one to be out-maneuvered. Can he convince Olivia that her fear of falling in love again is just another kind of claustrophobia — one that is destined to leave them both lonely?
Risky Business — Amy Andrews
From bestselling author Amy Andrews comes a new romance about putting pleasure before business.
Samantha Evans’ life is going to hell. Not only has she rage-quit her beloved high-powered job, but she is suddenly afflicted by hormones, free time, and an unavoidable, undeniably gorgeous irritant in the form of Nick Hawke, her neighbor, an extreme sports star who has come home to take over the reins of his grandmother’s second-hand bookshop. Sam needs something to keep her from begging for her old job back and helping Nick at his bookstore might be just the thing.
Nick has six months to get over an injury. That means no sports, no danger and, above all else, no risks. It means playing it safe. And what could be safer than hiring a cranky, unemployed accountant to help run the bookstore? Sam is efficient and methodical and messing up her neat, post-it note world could be a fun way to pass the time…
Everyone thinks the story Beauty and the Beast is about Belle and the Beast, a cursed prince, but really it’s about Gaston’s ability to expectorate, decorate with antlers, and his slide into hell.
You can keep your pure-hearted heroines and heroes. I’ve always liked fairy tale villains best. Villains give a better example of what it means to be truly human. Villains face or ignore their own shortcomings. Villains illustrate the concept of free will. Villains demonstrate human frailty, human morality. Villains illuminate how to and how not to behave if one wants to be loved, accepted, and admired. We learn more about ourselves from the villain’s actions than we do from the heroine’s or hero’s actions.
Heroines and heroes can be kind of boring, particularly if they are all goody-goody, principled types. Why I think Cinderella is boring as dry grass is that I never learned anything from her, and I never learned anything from Sleeping Beauty, from The Little Mermaid, or Snow White either—other than if you’re pretty people hate you. But I learned plenty from the evil stepmother, nasty stepsisters, and The Evil Queens: If you do something mean it will, eventually, bite you on the ass and lead to your downfall.
Best to avoid being mean.
I love a well-fleshed out villain, but what I love even more is a character who has villainous traits. For me, what makes Mr Rochester far more interesting than Mr High Morals Darcy is that Rochester has a secret, a screaming wraith of a secret that makes him deceitful. The secret is in the attic and it very nearly ruins him. What do we learn from Rochester’s villainous behavior?
Polygamy is bad and don’t keep secrets from the woman you love.
Naturally, my love for a bit o’ badness points to the usual discussion about ‘niceness,’ as in how the leads, particularly the female lead in a romance novel, must be ‘nice,’ never nasty or bitchy, which points to the double standard discussion about how women ‘ought to behave,’ and how older women have been maligned for centuries, which points to a discussion on social mores blah, blah…
I want more female leads in romance fiction to be villainous, to have villainous traits the way Scarlett O’Hara and Rochester do. While Scarlett’s behavior in Gone With The Wind would never be questioned if she had been a man, she is, like Rochester, a perfect example of how good people, men and women, do bad things to protect what they love.
Yes, that is what I learned from Scarlett O’Hara and Mr Rochester.
What I learned from fairy tales wasn’t be pretty, be tidy, kiss frogs because they may be princes. My education came from the villains. I learned to never pretend to be something I wasn’t because that would get me shut up in a cask stuck with nails and dragged through the streets. I leaned to never be wicked to others because that would get me shut up in a vat with poisonous snake and then boiled in oil. I learned to be happy and grateful for what I have because, like the materialistic fisherman’s wife, I could lose it all in a flash, and its only ‘stuff.’
In Beauty and the Beast, Gaston’s utter ruin teaches us how to be human far better than the Beast does when he is transformed by love. Gaston’s transformation from man into a real hellish beast shows us that the villains are the true teachers in fairy tales and in life.