Why Is Your Younger Self Perceived As Your Better Self?

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.

 

Weldon, F. (2020).What age are your characters? https://fayweldon.co.uk/writing-tip/what-age-are-your-characters/ Retrieved 21 July, 2020.

 

 

 

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.

The Image Problem of Granny Sex

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is it really about sagging breasts and lined faces?

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

Is sex after 40 just plain gross?

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Ick Factor and You: The Origin of the Notion Older People Having Sex Is Gross

Sometimes it doesn’t take much for me to jump on my soapbox. Last week, after I read Ann Brenoff‘s column Dear Hollywood, I May Be Invisible To You, But I’m Very Real on the Huffington Post I got in quite a lather (see what I did there, soapbox, lather?) with another reminder of the ‘culture of invisibility’ in Hollywood. You know the thing, that misguided idea that deems any woman over 40 as unviable, unwanted, unfuckable, unbankable onscreen. All lathered up, I pondered, again, the source of the idiotic invisibility. Since I have a PhD and wrote a dissertation that examined the culture of invisibility in romance fiction, I’m going to share my theory with you.

wtfRemember when you were 5 years-old, and your mother explained the penis and peegina* sex thing that time you were precocious and asked at the dinner table one night? Remember when, a short while after learning the revolting details of where babies came from, you realized that all the kissing you saw on TV, and in movies, was another incomprehensibly revolting thing that grown-ups like your parents did, and you thought every time your parents kissed they were trying to make a baby and you couldn’t fathom WHY your mother would let your father put his penis in her peegina?

Do you also remember how incredibly disgusted you were, but how your confused little kid mind tried to make sense of how you didn’t get pregnant when Raymond Michaud kissed you that time you played in the treehouse the big kids built in the woods near your house?

Remember when the whole notion of sex was absolutely repugnant and then one day it wasn’t? It didn’t seem that far-fetched or icky. But then, when you were about 11, your older brother told you about anal sex and you were all sex was never going to be something you did.

Ever.

Remember when you were 17 or 19, or 22 and kissing and sex was like perpetual springtime and a raging thunderstorm of emotion and passion and excitement? Remember when you joined the club you never thought you’d join? You wondered how you ever thought sex wasn’t something you would want to DO and be DONE TO, and you finally, FINALLY got why everyone on TV, in books and movies wanted to do it. Everyone had sex, all the time—except your parents.

Or grandparents.

Or your unmarried, forty-something aunt.

You thought this because never saw parents or grandparents or spinster aunts on TV, in books or movies doing it or even interested in doing it. They were too mature, tool old, too busy with work and retirembunsent, and went to bed early after their 4:30 dinnertime. And movies, books, and TV didn’t lie. The message was subtle, but you noticed, unconsciously, that people only ever had sex when they were young. You never saw people over 40, like your grandparents, kissing or groping, grinding, or dry humping on TV, in books or movies, and because you never saw it the idea of people over 40 kissing—or humping—was as incomprehensibly revolting as your mother letting your father put his penis in her peegina. The only reason your parents and grandparents still kissed was because they were Italian, Italians are affectionate, and that sort display of affection was allowed on TV, in movies and books. Your parents and grandparents weren’t really passionate because passion was for the young. The perpetual springtime raging thunderstorm of emotion and passion and excitement was for the young you saw on TV, in movies, in books, in romance fiction.

The images of youth are everywhere in the media, on TV, in books, movies, advertising, and this is the insidious way the Ick Factor is enacted. You are indoctrinated without knowing. You are misled to believe sex and passion is only for the young since that is all you see. This perpetual lack of truth is the way stereotypes of age and sex are maintained. The erasure of a huge portion of the population from view has led to the notion that sex is something only human beings under 40 want and enjoy. But it’s worse. If you’re a woman, you notice there’s a double standard when it comes men and women and sex. As you get a little older, maybe when you hit 30, you realize there’s an additional aspect to the Ick Factor you didn’t notice before, when you were younger. Men over 40 continue to get it on in books, movies and on TV.

Women grando not.

Even more sinister is way the Ick Factor works, the continual lack of truth is the way stereotypes of woman and age are maintained, the way women over 40 are cast in stereotyped roles (Hey, grandma!) or dismissed, excluded from appearing on TV, in movies and books. This is truly incomprehensibly revolting, and this is how we are conditioned to think. We erase women over 40 from being when we know this is NOT how women over 40 are.

In a world of reality television, isn’t it time to change the Ick Factor to a Truth Factor? Isn’t it time we show life as it really is, show people of all ages as whole, passionate, sexual human beings in love? Isn’t it time we grow up from being grossed out little five year olds who can’t comprehend how mommy would let daddy put his penis into her peegina?

I battle the Ick Factor. I write books that challenge the ‘younger’ norm of romance fiction. My lead characters are all over 40; the romance heroines are older than the standard twenty-something romance heroine.  The women I write are whole, intelligent, vibrant, sexual humAntonellicoverssmallan beings, not stereotypes of age. I write outside the norm because I believe it is beyond time to change. Discussing the Ick Factor and the ‘culture of invisibility’ is excellent, important, but what good is all the talk about age discrimination and sexism if no one challenges the ‘usual?” For decades, Romance fiction has been at the forefront of adapting to social and cultural change for women. What better place to shift the attitudes about women age, sexuality, make women of a certain age visible, and kill the Ick Factor?

Trust me on this. I’m a doctor who writes romance fiction.

*Becasue Pee comes out of a boy’s penis and pee comes out of a girl’s peegina

Yes, Your Granny Still Gets It On

Get this: Studies show mature-aged people STILL have sex!

ElderloveSee? Here’s proof from The University of Manchester and NatCen Social Research in a news release Love and intimacy in later life: study reveals active sex lives of over-70s. The study, titled Sexual Health and Well-being Among Older Men and Women in England: Findings from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing, was published in the Journal Archives of Sexual Behavior, (2015) and dovetails nicely into Indiana University’s Center for Sexual Health Promotion National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior published in a S Issue of the Journal of Sexual Medicine (2010). Both studies explore (no pun intended, but I’ll understand if you tee hee hee) sexual activity in to old age, the English study including sexually active people over the age of 80.

Yes, I said over 80, 8-0, EIGHTY.

The fact people remain sexually active well, well past the age of 40 isn’t news to me, after all, I have been looking at this kind of research for the past 10 years, but it may be news to you—and to countless younger people who are stunned that their parents and grandparents still get it on, partake in a little self-service, and think about sex on a regular basis. What may not be surprising is that the mature-aged population is frequently overlooked in sexual health research, which is why I include these studies in my “Mature” Content Stockpile.  elderlove3

And yet, what some of these reports also show may make you scratch your head and think, “well dang.” If you haven’t seen reports before on sex and the senior set, condom use is down and sexually transmitted diseases are on in the rise in the older population. As the New York Times ‘ Ezekiel J. Emanuel reported last year (2014), in the article Sex and the Single Senior, the STD (or STI) rates “among the Social Security generation that rivals what we imagine is happening in those “Animal House” fraternities.”

Gee, it looks like someone’s been sleeping in grandma’s bed — with grandma.

 

Emanuel, E. J. , (2014).  Sex and the Single Senior. New York Times  http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/19/opinion/sunday/emanuel-sex-and-the-single-senior.html?_r=0

Indiana University’s Center for Sexual Health National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior Special Issue: Findings from the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior (NSSHB), Center for Sexual Health Promotion, Indiana University, The Journal of Sexual Medicine:  October, Volume 7, Issue Supplement s5, pp 243–373.

Lee, D. M., Nazroo, J., O’Connor, D. B., Blake, M., Pendelton, N. (2015).Sexual Health and Well-being Among Older Men and Women in England: Findings from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing, Archives of Sexual Behavior.