There are those who’d prefer a different moniker because ‘seasoned’ brings to mind images of salt and pepper, which, when you stop to think about it, is totally fitting since we are talking about characters who may have grey hair. Frankly, I’d be happy to just call it romance, because that’s what it is, but this industry is driven by the need to know where to shelf a genre. Whether you want to think of it as mature romance, later in life romance, or silver fox romance (and that silver foxiness includes women), Seasoned Romance is a sub-genre of romance fiction with a central love story where, typically, couples (m/m, f/f, m/f) of a ‘certain age’ are front and centre as lead characters in a story that comes with all the hallmarks you love and expect in a romance novel, right down to sexy times and the all-important Happily Ever After.
It’s important to point out that Seasoned Romance is not Women’s Fiction, which may have elements of romance, but a romance is not what drives the plot in Women’s Fiction. Seasoned Romance is utterly driven by the romance.
As for the certain age part? Some of us writing Seasoned Romance suggest the line for ‘older’ starts at 35. My academic research (trust me on this, I have a doctorate in this stuff) indicates the ageist line is more heavily drawn for a heroine at 40, while, and this won’t come as a surprise, the line is far more age fluid for heroes, who get to be that ‘silver fox’ trope.
Although men have had the advantage of being silver foxes heroes, now, with Seasoned Romance, women of the same or similar age are finally being positioned as protagonists who challenge ageism, rather than act as a stereotype or joke. There is, as Cindy Gallop has noted, “little nuance in the way age is portrayed.” Too often, older people are reduced to ridiculously comical parodies and caricatures, especially women. Seasoned Romance demonstrates that age is a characteristic, not an attribute that defines a person or a story. While stereotypes like cougar may serve as a shorthand, a convenient way to contextualise accomplishments and standardise expectations, the shorthand is reductive, usually faulty, and often comes with fixed meanings that people assign to it, which causes us to reduce people to labels such as cougar and codger. Further, since so much of how ageing is portrayed in negative ways, the shorthand denies many of us an image of a future we may look forward to. Why would you want to imagine a future when all you’ve ever been shown is the stock of disease, and decline, and doom?
This comes down to representation. Representation is the kernel of every cry for inclusivity and diversity. What we see and what we read can shape our identity, and shape how we see others. We like to see ourselves reflected in advertising, in film, in fiction, and older people are not tokens, comic foils, secondary characters, or stereotypes. With Seasoned Romance we see men and, especially women of a certain age, represented and portrayed as intelligent, interesting, confident, powerful, active, social, sensual, sexual, whole human beings who just happen to be older. Rather than adhering to stereotypes that portray getting older as a wasteland of negative decline, with Seasoned Romance we show ourselves an authentic and positive future, we show ourselves a true reality with all the hallmarks you love and expect in a romance novel, right down to sexy times and the all-important Happily Ever After.
Did I mentionall my booksare seasoned Romantic suspense, seasoned rom-coms, and seasoned rom-com-mysteries? Did I mention that I hit all the hallmarks you love and expect in a romance novel, right down to sexy times and the all-important Happily Ever After?
Last night, as part of the upcoming online Romance Writers of Australia conference, I sat on a panel of romance authors and editors who were also academics and scholars in romance fiction. We talked about our experiences as doctoral students and the challenges some of us faced when we submitted proposals to critically investigate romance fiction, a genre that was, for far too long, not taken seriously or considered less-than worthy of study. Things have gotten better in academia. We academic types and scholars studying the genre are being taken seriously now, more seriously than women over the age of 40 appearing as lead characters in romance novels are.
Reminiscing with the panel, and my frustration with the ongoing sexist ageism in the romance genre, reminded me of a conversation I once had with another romance fiction author about my romance novels being taken seriously. We talked at a conference for writers, back when I was a fledgling grad student and author on the cusp of being published. Our discussion focused on the age of romance heroines and how they have traditionally been young women, usually under 35. At the time, this author assured me that my writing was good, but she was adamant about two things: romance readers wanted to read about younger women because the springtime womanhood bloom of love was an essential part to the fantasy of romance, and a fundamental part of the traditional structure of romance fiction. She said that, if I was serious about being published, if I wanted to sell lots of books, I’d need to make my heroines younger.
The idea that younger women were essential to the romance fantasy, the ‘springtime’ issue of a female’s fertility being fundamental to falling in love (sorry for the alliteration), was an issue I addressed in my masters and doctoral work. I’m still addressing that notion now. We know fertility is not fundamental to falling in love. The only fundamental here is risk-averse publishers telling authors that books outside the ‘traditional’ parameters of romance “won’t sell”, or that no one wants to read granny sex, y, or z.
The panel, recollecting what that author and a few romance fiction editors have said about younger being essential to the romance novel, reminded me about a blog post I once ready by author Fay Weldon, best known perhaps for her novel The Life and Loves of a She Devil.
Have you ever seen She Devil, the Meryl Streep/Roseanne Barr adaptation? It’s kind of fun and at the same time not fun. It’s basically a story of revenge. What’s fun and not fun for me in the film, is how Meryl is a pink-wearing romance novelist prone to flouncing and histrionics—you know, that glorious Barbara Cartland-eque stereotype of romance novels and writers that still gets volleyed about, which, of course, adds to the genre not being taken seriously. Meryl, as usual, does a stellar job and makes a shallow, self-absorbed, horrid woman more than a caricature in frothy pink, but back to Weldon and all the recollecting. I went and dragged out my resource files, also known as Ageist Shit That Pissed Me Off and I Will Write About Someday.
Obviously, that someday is today.
Weldon, who teaches creative writing, has a section on her website that offers writing tips for authors. One particular post asks What Age Are You Characters? The piece mentions that if you want to be publishable it is important to keep the age of your characters in mind because, as Weldon states,
“readers come in all sizes, sexes, shapes and ages, but all prefer their novels to feature young women rather than old.”
ALL? Really? Ooooh! I love a good sweeping generalisation as much as I love flouncy pink-clad stereotypes of romance authors, don’t you? Stereotypes and generalisations always seem to go hand in hand with ageism and romance fiction, don’t they? Weldon also gives this advice:
“Get your juvenile lead on the front page: lure the reader in. 25 works better than 35, 35 than 45 – after 50, forget it.”
Which is quite similar to what the author said to me at the writers’ conference, but the thing in Weldon’s post that really chaps my hide is how she believes readers…
“…prefer to identify with themselves when young, not as they are now, in the days when they were sexually active, agile of limb, and not afraid of adventure.”
Okay then. I prefer to see myself as I am, to identify with characters who are of a similar age to me, not younger than me. Personally, I am affronted by the notion which assumes that, as I age, I will no longer be adventurous or that I will be afraid of something new. I fully expect to still be curious and adventurous about a range of things as I get along in years, despite how poorly ageing is portrayed and presented in advertising, film, and fiction that favours younger people as better. Why, I continue to wonder, is your younger self perceived to be your better self? I don’t want to be 25, I don’t want to watch or read about characters who are 20 very often, and I don’t think my 20s were my best days—they were far from my best anything. This notion that gold-plates your 20s also shoves down our throats the notion that women over 40 have ‘seen better days,’ that her best days are behind her. Might this be because, as Weldon notes,
“Publishers, who these days tend to turn away novels by middle aged women about middle aged women on the grounds that they are depressing, are probably wise to do so.”
Are older women depressing? Are their stories depressing? Or are women middle-aged and older just written that way? Frankly, when you read a lot of books and watch a lot of films and TV, you notice that older women are absolutely written that way. Younger women are viewed happy and as essential, while older women are constantly cast and represented in roles that are negative, that are depressing, frightening, secondary, non-essential.
If a young heroine is seen by many as an essential aspect in romance, and, as Weldon suggests, other forms of genre fiction as well, I’m gonna throw this a random thought. Could it be that, perhaps, one reason romance fiction may not have been taken seriously is not only because it is often written by women, and therefore a lesser form of writing, but it is also due to heroines having a long history of being overwhelmingly young women? Young women are often not taken seriously due their perceived lack of life experience. At the same time, older women cease to be taken seriously due to their experience, end of fertility, and depressing natures. Ageism swings both ways when you are female.
I understand fledgling writers want advice, fledgling writers take creative writing courses, undertake postgraduate degrees, attend conferences, search the web for guidance, and take heed of what successful writers and writer-teachers have to say. And lots of author-teachers have stuff to say. Here’s where I mention that, in my undergrad days, I had a creative writing teacher who had a one very successful book that lots of high school kids had to read and had been made into a well-received film. His big serious advice was to tell us all A writer must to suffer to write well.
I withdrew from his class because I wasn’t into suffering as much as I was using my imagination to tell a story.
My point is, it’s time to toss out shitty advice like suffering to be a good writer, time to retire ageist advice that demeans, time to take women of all ages seriously—as we have finally begun to take seriously the romance genre and the academic-scholar types who choose to study it.
Thank you to PhD candidate, Rachel Bailey, Dr Laurie Ormond, Dr Amy T Matthews, and Dr Michelle Douglas for inspiring this ranty post.
Let this serve as a reminder of what I do. A writer I know posted this on Facebook — it’s originally from The Best of Tumblr.
My thing is to smash the MYTH that’s decreed romance heroines should only ever be in their 20s since women over 40, don’t have sex anymore, and if they dare to knock boots it’s, as I heard one publishing executive say, “granny sex and who wants to read granny sex?”
Nope, I’m NOT going to let that publisher’s comment go. That there feeds right into the ageist and stereotyped bullshit I’m smashing. It also reminds me of something I read when I was doing my Master’s thesis. Now, I tend to keep EVERYTHING research related, but do you think I can find the reference about younger women populating romance while older women (that is women 40 and over) are kicked into Women’s Fiction? Do you think I can find the quote that says something like, ‘after 40, women are no longer interested in the frivolity of love?’
AS IF love is truly frivolous! It’s what everyone on the plant needs and wants and hopes for.
I’ve spent half the morning looking for the quote on my newest laptop. I have to assume it’s at home, still buried with all the masters stuff on my ancient (as in I had it in 2008) heavy, white MacBook with the dead battery and wonky touch pad. When I find the reference, I’ll post it because the premise that so often makes others look down their noses at Romance fiction is that the genre deals with love, which, for some reason, suddenly becomes frivolous if the protagonist is female and the writer is female. We all know when it’s a tragic tale of love, it’s literary, but if it’s written by a woman, and has an optimistic, positive ending where love triumphs, it’s not creative or literary, and if the protagonist is female, then the tale’s focus on love is not creative or literary, but frivolous.
AS IF love is frivolous.
Yes, I know. The impact of this post would be so much better if I could find the bloody, frivolous quote.
In the meantime, I’ll go back to writing True to Your Service, the third book in my In Service series about a middle-aged female butler and the spy who loves her. The first book, At Your Service and a companion short story, Your Sterling Service, are out now.
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
It’s coming up on two years since I put out my plea for your help. Back in February of 2016, I penned a post titled A Little Help From My Romance Reading Friends. Once again, I come to you, Dear Reader, you with your finger on the pulse of romance, your eyes on the words and covers and spines of books of paper, screen, and audio. I come to you asking for your help, asking you to tell me about the Romance novels you have read where the heroine is aged OVER 40. That is, the heroine is 40, 50, 60 and beyond. It’s time to update my list and I need YOU to do this because I am only one tiny woman with a TBR pile and books to edit and books to write so I can add to this list of mine.
I’m very specific here. I want representation of women over 40. Why 40? Because, like in Hollywood 40 is some kind of invisible line for women. Women under 40 get roles, but hit 40 and they dry up. Plus, I’m tired (aren’t you) of the sexist, ageist older man-younger pairing that is the staple of Hollywood and, let’s face it, most kinds of fiction.
Let me be even more specific. I’m after Romance, not Women’s Fiction. In Women’s Fiction there’s often an element of romance, but the lovey-dovey stuff isn’t the primary focus. In ROMANCE the story is driven by a couple on a journey to find love, rather than, as you frequently find in Women’s Fiction, a woman’s journey of self discovery or tale of women’s friendship and/or relationship with friends and family. Call it Adult Contemporary Romance, MidRom, Seasoned Romance, Older Romance, MatRom, Vintage Rom, (I’ll bite you if you call it HenRom, GrannyRom or HagRom), I want all the romance, I want two people falling for each other and all the glorious, complex, baggage-filled mess that goes with it, the Big Misunderstanding, the (however much I despise them) Secret Baby, Enemies to Lovers, Friends to Lovers, the Marriage of Convience, I want all those familiar tropes you love and maybe even hate, but I want them to feature heroines aged 40 and over.
My aim, if it’s not clear, is to present women of a certain age in the genre of fiction that is and always has been female-focussed. I want to draw attention that there are older romance readers who are so damn ready to see themselves reflected in the genre they love. It’s about visibility. Older women deserve and need to be written back into the narrative of life and fictional tales. Because of it’s position as a vanguard for women and social change, Romance fiction holds the power to make older women visible. However, there are impediments still in place, sticky impediments. With this list as proof of a growing market and subgenre (not a niche, dammit), I want to clear way the cobwebs that still obscure some publishers minds, and show them the vibrancy of older women. The Romance publishers who are open to older heroines, but limit the ‘field of older’ to between the ages of 35 to 45 because, as one editor said to me, “No one wants to read about granny sex,” need to understand that this limit perpetuates the ageist and sexist attitude that older women aren’t attractive, sexual, or interested in sex, which implies women over 45 are lesser, other, unworthy of love, and their hideousness must continue to be hidden or kept out of the narrative–you see how ridiculous that practice is.
Have a gander at the list I already have. I know since 2016 there have been titles released by traditional and indie publishers (I’m looking at you, Maggie Wells), but as any author will tell you DISCOVERABILITY IS KEY to readers finding new authors and titles. I want to add books to my list of romance fiction featuring heroines over 40! Give ’em to me. Shoot those titles my way! Help me add to the list and help these books be discovered! Let’s wipe out sexist ageism one Romance novel at a time!
PLEASE Leave your book recommendation as a comment!
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.
As part of the ongoing expansion of The “Mature” Content Stockpile of articles regarding women and age on this website, I keep track of news and other items I can add to the stockpile. When I came across this fab piece by Mark Harris from NY Mag over at Vulture you know I fist bumped myself, and OH YEAH MAMA-ed while I jumped all my about my kitchen. I was so loud, so exuberant, the builder installing insulation in my garage called out to to make sure I hadn’t hurt myself.
The article is titled Actresses Over 60 Are the New Box-Office Powerhouses. As I read, the line that first stood out is pretty much what I soapbox about on a regular basis. Harris mentions “society’s tendency to write off older women as dear little “characters” without passions or aspirations of their own.” Then Harris goes on to discuss a 1968 study in Hollywood that examined the age demographics of film-goers. It’s that paragraph that truly hits home; it’s what I say about a certain overlooked demographic of romance readers with an appetite for a certain overlooked subgenre of romance fiction–the Older Romance, Mature Romance, Mid-Adult Romance, Seasoned Romance, Contemporary Adult Romance.
The audience is real, and so is its appetite. And those who get it — who don’t simply view this particular group of movie lovers as the “about to die” demographic — may, a few years hence, look like very smart early adapters. In 1968, well before demographics were a subject of serious discussion at the studios, Variety reported the results of a study that showed 48 percent of American moviegoers were 24 or younger. For the middle-aged men who then ran Hollywood and thought they were making movies for themselves, the news was revelatory. Baby-boomers — the pig in the python — were coming of age, and over the next 15 years, the way movies were conceived, made, and marketed would undergo a revolution as a result. Now, almost 50 years later, that demographic is coming of old age, and making itself heard again. And if anyone wants it, they’ve still got money to spend. —(Harris, 1 Aug 2016)
Did you notice that first line Early adapters are smart?
Did you notice the last line? That last line means I have to rewrite a small part of an academic paper I am presenting at the upcomingUniversity of Loveconference in Adelaide, Australia. My paper is titled The (Saggy) Bottom Line: Women of a Certain Age and Romance Fiction. I have to include what Harris says alongside what a few other studies and authors note. That last line is a big fat flag I wave when I’m on my soapbox, a big fat signpost that is being overlooked by the publishers of romance fiction.
In case you missed it, because romance publishers miss it, so it must be easy to miss, that big fat signpost is MONEY.
I’ve said it before, I say it in my paper presentation, and I’ll say it here again, There is a demographic of romance fiction readers who MATCH this demographic of film-goers, and this demographic wants romance fiction that reflects the reality of their lives, not some hackneyed stereotyped bullshit about how a woman over 40 is dead below the waist, or, as Harris mentions, are people who buy “adult diapers and medic-alert systems and sit in their adjustable beds leaning forward with ear horns to make sure they hear the list of dangerous side effects in the commercials.”
This demographic wants romance fiction with heroes and HEROINES who are whole, intelligent, vibrant, active, sexual human beings, not diaper-wearing crazy, cat-loving, dried-up-old grannies with walkers. This demographic of romance reader wants a romance heroine who is like any romance heroine, only she just happens to be older. This demographic of romance reader is trying to make itself heard, and they have money to spend.
This Demographic HAS MONEY TO SPEND! What are you romance publishers waiting for? Early adapters WIN! Romance has been the Early Adapter of so many social changes regarding women– until now, and the industry is missing this goldmine right in front of them.
Thanks to Mark Harris for making me have to rewrite a small section my paper. I have to include this article because he’s given me more evidence that the romance publishing industry is overlooking a goldmine.
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.
Remember 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.
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 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 retirement, 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 do 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 human 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
In 2013, The United Nations Human Right council adopted a resolution making today, 13 June, International Albinism Awareness Day.
My book Next to You features a romantic lead with albinism and a deep abiding love of 70s Bubblegum pop songs. The book is due for release on 25 July, but is available for preorder on Amazon, review on Netgalley, and is also up on Goodreads. Yay, right? Okay but why did I write a character with albinism?
A rather obvious parallel. Read on and you’ll see what I mean.
The un.org information regarding International Albinism Awareness Day states, “The physical appearance of persons with albinism is often the object of erroneous beliefs and myths influenced by superstition.” Even in the western world, images of albinism are often based on myths and superstition. Naturally, this is something William Murphy, the silver fox hero of Next to Youunderstands. Will tries hard to educate other about the genetically inherited condition that affects his skin and, to less of an extent than many others with albinism, his vision. By the way, Will’s silver foxy because he’s 56, not because he’s albino.
I tried hard to dispel myths about albinism in Next to You, because when I began writing the story, so many years ago, I was surprised by how few accurate representations of persons with albinism there are. When was the last time you saw a person with albinism portrayed onscreen, in a book, comic, or graphic novel in a role that wasn’t a stereotype of evil or comic relief?
That sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Usually I soapbox about the representations–or lack thereof–of women over 40 in romance fiction. I write women of of substance, not tokens, comic foils, secondary characters, or worst of all, stereotypes: the crone, the crazy cat lady, the granny, the cougar. I write for a female audience that can see themselves, not as cat-ladies, crones, or knitting-cookie-baking grannies, but as regular women—who just happen to be older. Next to You is no different. Caroline is over 45, Will is older and just happens to have albinism.
Have a look at the UN’s statement again: The physical appearance of persons with albinism is often the object of erroneous beliefs and myths influenced by superstition.
Modify the statement slightly: Older women (or Older people) are often the object of erroneous beliefs and myths influenced by superstition.
There you have my reason. Marginalised populations.
Appearances are deceiving. Myths, superstitions, and stereotypes are appalling. Like any man, Will has life baggage, but it has little to do with his skin and eyes. Like any woman, Caroline has life baggage. While Will’s less-than-perfect vision does play a role in the story, I did my best to write an accurate representation of a man and a woman finding unexpected love a little bit later in life, leaving out the erroneous myths and stereotypes of albinism and age.
The UN notes that the erroneous beliefs, myths, and superstitions about albinism foster marginalisation and social exclusion. The beliefs and myths about albinism are centuries old, are present in cultural attitudes and practices around the world. You see this marginalisation in TV, film, books, advertising. The same can be said about older people. However, stereotypes, myths, and superstitions about albinism put lives at risk, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Here is information about International Albinism Awareness Day from the UN website:
Albinism is a rare, non-contagious, genetically inherited difference present at birth. In almost all types of albinism, both parents must carry the gene for it to be passed on, even if they do not have albinism themselves. The condition is found in both sexes regardless of ethnicity and in all countries of the world. Albinism results in a lack of pigmentation (melanin) in the hair, skin and eyes, causing vulnerability to the sun and bright light. As a result, almost all people with albinism are visually impaired and are prone to developing skin cancer. There is no cure for the absence of melanin that is central to albinism.
While numbers vary, it is estimated that in North America and Europe 1 in every 17,000 to 20,000 people have some form of albinism. The condition is much more prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa, with estimates of 1 in 1,400 people being affected in Tanzania and prevalence as high as 1 in 1,000 reported for select populations in Zimbabwe and for other specific ethnic groups in Southern Africa.
Violence and discrimination against persons with albinism: a global phenomenon?
While it has been reported that persons with albinism globally face discrimination and stigma, information on cases of physical attacks against persons with albinism is mainly available from countries in Africa.
Persons with albinism face more severe forms of discrimination and violence in those regions where the majority of the general population are relatively dark-skinned. … In other words, a greater degree of contrast in pigmentation often gives rise to a greater degree of discrimination. That appears to be the case in some sub-Saharan African countries where albinism is shrouded in myth and dangerous and erroneous beliefs.
The manner in which discrimination faced by persons with albinism manifests itself, and its severity, vary from region to region. In the western world, including North America, Europe and Australia, discrimination often consists of name-calling, persistent teasing and bullying of children with albinism. Little information is available from other regions such as Asia, South America and the Pacific etc. However, some reports indicate that in China and other Asian countries, children with albinism face abandonment and rejection by their families.
Lauzen also suggests the consequence of having few female authority figures portrayed onscreen (and as I suggest in fiction, especially romance fiction) means that, “When we keep them young, we keep them relatively powerless.” Further to this, Lauzen notes that “The chronic underrepresentation of girls and women reveals a kind of arrested development in the mainstream film industry…It is unfortunate that these beliefs continue to limit the industry’s relevance in today’s marketplace.”
While the study shows the majority of film roles lack racial and ethnic diversity (the majority of roles are white), the study also indicates that ageism is still hard at work onscreen.
Female characters remain younger than their male counterparts. The majority of female characters were in their 20s (23%) and 30s (30%). The majority of male characters were in their 30s (27%) and 40s (28%).
Males 40 and over accounted for 53% of all male characters. Females 40 and over comprised 30% of all female characters.
Whereas the percentage of female characters declined dramatically from their 30s to their 40s (30% to 17%), the percentage of male characters increased slightly, from 27% in their 30s to 28% in their 40s.
The percentage of male characters in their 50s (18%) is twice that of female characters in their 50s (9%).
I’m sure none of this surprised the female movie-going population. I’m sure it doesn’t surprise women who read fiction, write fiction, are awarded prizes for writing…