Keeping ’em Young and Powerless

Old Ladies10 February 2015: In a study titled It’s a Man’s (Celluloid) World: On-Screen Representations of Female Characters in the Top 100 Films of 2014 Dr Martha Lauzen from the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University that found that a mere 12 % of the highest grossing films of 2014 had female protagonists. Secondary female characters and females with speaking roles were also underrepresented. Lauzen states, “As we grow older, we gain personal as well as professional power.”

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…

 

Lauzen. M. (2015). It’s a Man’s (Celluloid) World: On-Screen Representations of Female Characters in the Top 100 Films of 2014. Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University. Retrieved from http://womenintvfilm.sdsu.edu/files/2014_Its_a_Mans_World_Report.pdf .

Treat Her Like A Lady (Not A Hag)

Simon de Beauvoir suggested that few writers have championed age in women, and she's right. From evil stepmother to “cougar,” there are a number of not-so pretty representations of women as they age in romance fiction, which is odd considering that through its depiction of female protagonists, romance fiction has so often reflected the attitudes and concerns women face in society.

Think about it. In contemporary romance novels, issues such as divorce, being overweight, and the global financial crisis have made their way into the lives of a romance heroine. The one subject that hasn't been addressed, except in fearful terms, is women and ageing (or aging for you Americans).

You may not agree, but It's my theory that the portrayal of heroines in romance novels is bound by the constraints publishers place upon them. There are two no-no's a romance heroine can't be: a bitch or too old. The Too Old Rule is evident in the way female protagonists over 40 are pushed out of romance and into subgenres such as Hen Lit and Matron Lit. In these subgenres romance no longer exists, or romance is a marginal issue, rather than the main impetus that leads the story.

When a woman of a certain age does appear in romance she is seldom the protagonist. An older woman in romance (in print and on the screen) is more likely to be a secondary character in a stereotyped role such as a grandma, the menopausal friend, or worse–she's made into some kind of monstrous figure. She's turned into the bitch, an evil stepmother, the caricatured over-sexed cougar, the scared of getting older chick with the frozen-faced-collagen-trout-pout, or a smothering, no-one's-good-enough-for-my-boy-mother-of-all-mothers.

This shift from lead to, to villain, to background serves to highlight romance publishing's unwritten Too Old Rule. Some publishers (and some of you) may believe this progression from romantic lead to supporting player is because romance is all about the fantasy. To me, this forced progression suggests the fantasy has to fit certain criteria which exclude age. To me, this implies publishers (and perhaps some of you) think no romance reader is going to relate to an older romance heroine. We all know the fantasy of falling in love does not apply to anyone over 40 because people over 40 don't fall in love. Right?

That utter bullshit aside, let's take a poll. First, hands up. Can older women in romance be defended as romantic leads? Do they deserve love despite their age? Is age truly a monster to be feared? Or should women over 40 simply be nipped, tucked and slathered with vanishing cream? Now vote below!

Do you read romance fiction?
Yes
No

Is age a monster to be feared?
Yes
No

Can women 40+ be romantic leads?
Yes
No

Does a the heroine's age negate the romance fantasy for you?
Yes
No

Have you ever read a romance featuring a heroine over 40?
Yes
No

If you answered 'yes" to question 5, what novel did you read?