Intersectionality: Ageism and the Older Romance Heroine

Wielding my Shield of Smartass

Yes, I’ve been saying this and I keep saying this.

Age is often overlooked as an issue of diversity, especially within the publishing world. As a result of this disregard, romance fiction, so often at the forefront of social change for women, is losing its place as a feminist trailblazer, especially for older women, and it’s missing out on an opportunity to make money.

I write romantic suspense and contemporary romance featuring lead characters over the age of 40 (that’s heroes and heroines aged 40+) who fall in love and get it on, because unlike what you see—or don’t see—men and women 40, 50, 60 and beyond still fall in love and have great sex. Some of you may be familiar with my novels, my academic investigations into portraying older women as heroines in romance fiction, my occasional ranty soapboxing about the roles that have typically been given to women 40+, about the stereotypes of age, and the importance of including older women as leads in romance fiction.

Yeah, well, I’m ranting. Again.

Hollywood and publishing have had a much-needed kick up the backside, one that has called out the overdue need for diversity and inclusion on screen and in fiction. There’s been a call for more stories featuring POC as leads, more stories of people with disabilities, more stories showing a wider spectrum of cultures, of sexual orientation and gender identities, of people long overlooked as real, as whole. We’ve had the success of Crazy Rich Asians and Black Panther, the #metoo movement, Hollywood and romance publishing standing up to sexism. Hooray! However, in spite of the discussion around diversity and inclusion, like I said, age diversity is often left out of the conversation and that exclusion is ageist. Ageism can have an effect on everyone, regardless of skin colour, cultural heritage, disability, gender identity or sexual orientation. We all age, yet it remains acceptable to  to degrade, ridicule, devalue and fear older people. Especially older women.

The intersectionality of ageism is seldom acknowledged, but the reality is that ageism, sexism, and racism are all linked, people of all colours and cultures experience ageism, it hits women much harder than men, and this intersectionality, especially in western society, results in a culture steeped in ageism. We (women in particular), unconsciously accept and participate in widespread and invisible ageist structures, stereotypes, and biases that show up in books TV, movies, advertising. This conditions us to see things one way, and the images you see are powerful. What you don’t see is even more powerful, and you rarely see older women as romance heroines.

The age bias is evident in the romance fiction industry, where the standard has been for the heroines to be young, which means romance is conceptualised as a younger woman’s tale. It’s something of a vicious circle. What you don’t see effects what you do see, and we have been conditioned to accept only young women as heroines. We lack older female role models. Hollywood and fiction embrace the silver fox hero, yet you seldom find a silver foxy heroine. The older man paired with a younger woman is ubiquitous in film and fiction, but the roles for women 40+ boil down to mother, wife, cougar, granny, crazy and/or evil old hag—roles many of us take on board without realising they’re stereotypes. Women 40+ are rarely portrayed as complex, confident, sensual or sexual, and are more frequently sidelined to secondary characters, or written out the narrative entirely. This is sexist and ageist. Thankfully, things are beginning to change in Hollywood.

I write the complex, interesting, confident, sensual, sexual romantic older heroines I want to see. My latest releases, At Your Service and Forever In Your Service, and Your Sterling Service feature a 50-ish female butler paired with a slightly younger spy. In my academic investigations, I established that there is an audience for stories featuring older protagonists like mine, and it’s one that can attract money. I’m repeating myself and I’ll keep repeating myself because over the last 15 years, this waiting audience has grown, and they STILL want romance novels featuring older, or ‘seasoned’ lead characters. It is this audience who are pushing to refer to this ‘later in life’ romance subgenre as ‘Seasoned Romance’ (SR). If you want evidence, beyond mine, of this burgeoning, waiting audience, check out the Facebook Groups Seasoned Romance, and Romance in Her Prime, with over 3,000 reader and writer members and growing. Hollywood may have recognised the power of the ‘silver or grey dollar,’ and begun to cater to the audience craving older characters, but, like me, many older readers eager to buy SR find romance publishing lagging behind.

Publishers are trying. There have been attempts to market to readers who are looking for older characters. In 2006, Harlequin launched the NEXT imprint, the late 80s gave us Berkley’s Second Chance at Love, and Ballantine’s Love & Life. None of these imprints lasted long. Second Chance at Love and Love & Life were poorly marketed and had unappealing covers that turned off reader (trust me on this, I have some of them). NEXT was essentially Women’s Fiction; romance was a sideline to the narrative rather than what drove the plot. The failure of these imprints was seen as proof that readers couldn’t accept older characters as leads, rather than as a marketing misstep. Marketing is savvier now and see potential. Recently, Entangled launched August with a focus on older couples, and Sideways, a Women’s Fiction imprint. Entangled recognises financial opportunity and the audience wanting SR. However, both imprints have, or have had, limits set on the age range for characters. Limiting character age demonstrates ageist (and, as you see with prevalence of silver fox heroes, sexist) structures and biases that continue to operate in publishing.

Although there has been some shift within the industry regarding an openness to age, I often come across SR authors recounting how romance editors have told them to ‘make the heroine younger,’ or stated that, ‘no one wants to read a story with granny sex,’ or that ‘older characters have too much baggage for a romance.’ Not only do these comments show some editors have lost sight that the love story is the core of romance, they also give credence of the pervasive ageism within the industry. Sadly, SR has to prove itself. There has yet to be that one best-selling big book.

Luckily, there are authors like myself, Karen Booth, Natasha Moore, Kerrie Patterson, Maggie Christensen, Kristen Ashley, Maggie Wells, Cecilia London, Josie Kerr, Jeannie Moon, Julie Hammerle and many others, who working hard to disrupt ageism with the stories we tell of complex, intelligent, interesting, confident, sensual, sexual, romance heroines who happen to be older. We are the new trailblazers.

You can be too.

Seriously, A Trilogy?

Here I am, on the cusp of the release for the second book of the In Service series, I mean it’s TWO days away until Forever in Your Service drops, and it only dawned on me, oh, about 5 minutes ago, when I shoved in a mouthful of this really delish cabbage salad, that I am writing the third book of a trilogy when I had no intention of writing a series when I started the first book.

Some cabbage may have fallen out of my mouth and onto my keyboard.

Honest. I had At Your Service and the short story prequel, Your Sterling Service, and I thought that was it. I didn’t know I was going write a second book about the middle-aged butler and the spy who loves her. I swear, I started writing the second book without realising there was going to be a second book. Ms Ainslie Paton, an author friend of mine asked, “Is there another book?” and I sorta looked down and kinda noticed that, yep, I was 2 chapters deep in a series I never knew I was going to write.

And here I am, mouth still full of shredded apple & cabbage salad, writing the THIRD book about a middle-aged butler and the spy who loves her.  My series is a Trilogy–The In Service trilogy.

Look, I’m a slow writer who often gets interrupted by my day job, family, headaches, holidays and ranting about ageism and women over the age of 40, but I aim to have the trilogy completed before the next James Bond movie comes out NEXT YEAR, as in 2020. The third book is titled True To Your Service. I already have a cover for it.

I can’t tell you much about the third book because I don’t plot, but I will say it battles the ageist structures that continue to keep older women from being portrayed as romance heroines, it positions a woman in her early 50s as the romantic lead, has tulips, banter, sexy times, is another genre-crossing romantic suspense cosy spy thriller mystery with older protagonists, and gives a middle-aged spy the happy ending James Bond never gets.

Now, if you’ll excuse me. I have to clean up spilled cabbage salad.

Five Reasons Why My New Release ‘At Your Service’ Is Important

Here are 5 reasons why my latest release At Your Service is important for women:

1. At Your Service breaks down ageist and sexist barriers that have allowed men to age, be adventurous, foxy, and paired with women 15-20 years younger while dismissing women over 40.

2. Portrays a strong, middle-aged female lead who is not an ageist stereotype or is typecast as a mother, wife, grandma, harpy, or crazy woman who lives in a van.

3. Portrays a middle-aged woman as intelligent, capable, attractive, sensual, and sexual.

4. Ageism is often overlooked as an issue of diversity. Young women will one day be older women. Positive, realistic representations of intelligent, capable, attractive, sensual, and sexual women over 40 create positive role models for younger women.

5. Sexism has rendered older women nearly invisible in all forms of media. The women over 40 in At Your Service get noticed.

Okay, so At Your Service is a romantic suspense cosy spy mystery thriller and how realistic is it to have a female butler join up with a British spy… Ah. Yes. You get it. Fiction. Content here creates the culture, the positive role model of a female butler, which is unusual role for a woman, AND the fact she’s middle-aged, intelligent, capable, attractive, sensual, and sexual IS the spin on the content and culture we’re SO used to seeing. Breaking down the barriers of sexism, ageism, stereotypes, and the sidelining of older women we’ve come to accept as the norm is not reality and it’s not fiction either.

The reality is, women over 40 are not invisible, but they have been miscast and have, for far too long, been left off screen and out of fiction. It’s my mission, so to speak, to challenge this, to change this, to give the world a positive portrayal of women over 40 and a role model for younger women AND men, one book at a time.

Just The Way It Is Not, Baby

The Rembrandts, the 90s musical sensation, had a big hit with I’ll Be There For You, the theme song from the TV show Friends. Perhaps not quite as well-known is their song That’s Just The Way It Is, Baby. After reading another article about the invisibility of middle aged women,  I have that song stuck in my head; it’s a persistent earworm that I am trying so very hard to kill.

Why is the lyric line “That’s just the way it is, baby” a block of concrete in my brain?

The Roundabout Theatre Company writes about the production of Skintight at The Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theater/Laura Pels Theater in New York City. Skintight focuses on the repercussions of the cultural obsession with youth. The article itself discusses ageism and sexism, and being made to look ‘younger,’  being airbrushed to fit with the UNREAL world of the ideal image of beauty. The topic of middle aged women being I-N-V-I-S-I-B-L-E  is mentioned. The article, Invisibility of Middle-Aged Women, says:

“Because media has traditionally been created by and for men, and women face gender discrimination behind the camera as well as in front of it.”

And there, the title of the article, the Invisibility part and the “traditionally” bit in that quote, that’s the reason for the bag of cement that’s solidified the Rembrandts’ That’s Just The Way It Is, Baby.

Airbrushed models, twenty-something female characters paired with fifty-something men on screen, in fiction, in advertising is the norm.  Culture creates content, and content creates culture. The books you read, the movies you watch, the advertising you see matters; it shapes our identities, colours our view of the world. Girls and women seldom see realistic images of females in the media. Girls and women rarely see women over 40 portrayed in positive or realistic ways. Girls and women, boys and men are conditioned, socially programmed by the images they see–or don’t see. And what we don’t see often is middle aged women, except in stereotypes roles, sidelined roles, roles that diminish their value. That’s just the way it is, baby.

“While men gain status as they age, middle-aged (and older) women are considered less valuable than their younger counterparts. This devaluation effects how how women are hired, promoted, and paid; how they are (or aren’t) depicted in the media; and how they see themselves.”

We KNOW women are underrepresented in the media, but the underrepresentation hits middle aged and older women especially hard. Women over 40 fade away until they are invisible. That invisibility is something we’ve grown used to. It’s what we’ve been shown, what we come to expect, it threads its way through film and fiction. When we are presented with a female character outside the norm we are shocked. Some of us don’t realise we’ve blindly accepted the standard, or realise that the standard does NOT mirror reality becasue that’s just the way is is…

Are you humming the Rembrandts yet?

Sexism and diversity are issues vital to address within society, yet ageism is seldom highlighted as an issue that is sexist, and it is rarely included in discussions about diversity.  Ageism is insidious. The perceptions about ageing treat a natural part of life as a disease to be battled. This anti-ageing crap has an impact on men and women, but it has a greater impact on women. Older men remain visible, while women … cue the Rembrandts.

If you always do what you’ve always done, then you’ll always get what you’ve always got. It’s beyond time to change what we’ve always done, to alter what we’ve blindly accepted to be just the way it is, baby, when the way it is isn’t true to life.  We change the standard, change what we are used to seeing by being genuine, by tearing down the sexist and ageist attitudes in the media, in film and publishing industries that persist shoving the usual younger-is-better images down the throat of society. Film and fiction must stop treating older women with disdain, stop overlooking middle-aged women –a sizable portion of the population– who have money to spend if they can see themselves portrayed as they really are. We do this by writing stories that better include an array of age.

I’m doing it with every book I write. My latest, At Your Service, has a middle aged female butler.  I put women over the age of 40 front and centre in narratives that portray them as whole as interesting, intelligent, capable, and attractive, sensual, sexual, and vibrant.  That’s just the way it is, baby.

Preorder links for At Your Service

Kindle

Kobo, Nook, and more 

 

 

 

Roundabout Theatre Company. (2018). Invisibility of Middle-Aged Women

https://www.broadwayworld.com/article/Invisibility-of-Middle-Aged-Women-20180716

[Rhino].  (2015, June 15). The Rembrandts -That’s just the way it is, baby. [Video File]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/k6KfhOpq2n8

 

 

Changing Your Perception: The Butler Who Does It

 

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 womanbutler 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

 

Calling All Readers: What Do We Call It and How Do We Do it?

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:

  1. 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;
  2. If the older woman appears on the movie poster, ensure only a small percentage of her body is shown, no full body shots;
  3. 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.

Introduction to an Old Character

Wielding my Shield of Smartass

The Pink Heart Society’s May newsletter discusses romance fiction with older heroines, and asks, as I do, if the romance genre thinks love has an age limit. The newsletter features interviews with Dee Ernst, Amanda Ward, Liz Flaherty, Morgan Malone and the Pink Heart Society’s (PHS) editor, Trish Wylie—all romance authors who place women of certain age front and centre of romance. It’s exciting to know I am not alone in being passionate in my desire to stamp out ageism and sexism.

Why is it exciting?

An Introduction (for you newbies)

Hi, I’m Sandra Antonelli. I write older romance heroines—silver foxy women over 40 as the lead characters, not as secondary characters, and not as protagonists in Women’s Fiction, but as the romantic leads. I represent this demographic of women and demographic of romance readers who want female heroines with all my heart, and I am passionate about continuing to do so.

If this is your first time reading one of my posts, and you don’t know, mature-aged romance heroines are my soapbox. Check out the Mature Content Stockpile tab for just how much soapboxing I do. There are many reports in the media discussing sexism and ageism in Hollywood, but there’s very little media dialogue on ageism and sexism in romance fiction. Strange, because there is such a parallel in the way women of a certain age are pigeon-holed in stereotyped roles (cougar, granny, witch, crazy cat lady) or rendered nearly invisible in both forms of entertainment. This really chaps my hide.

Years ago, before Harlequin’s NEXT line, which touted stories about women with a little more life experience, I went looking for older romance heroines and found next to nothing. So, I decided to write my own, thinking the world would catch up. I kept writing older protagonists in romance, and, like Liz Flaherty mentions in the PHS newsletter, I got curious about why there were only a handful to be found. I did a master’s degree and then a PhD on the subject to try to get to the core. The masters uncovered the demographic of reader looking for older romance heroines, the PhD examined why the demographic is overlooked. And in the mix of all that academic stuff, I kept on writing romance with older heroines AND heroes because no way was I going to be like Hollywood and let the hero be an older Bruce Willis-type while the heroine was 25 to 35-something. My books were published by Escape, a division of Harlequin Enterprises in ebook format—because ebooks are a little more open to taking a chance on something with a niche market, or outside the norm.

I have four books that sit outside the romance heroine age norm: A Basic Renovation, For Your Eyes Only, Driving in Neutral, and Next to You, as well as short stories Your Sterling Service, and Niagara Falls at Café Nixin the anthology It All Happened at Café Nix. I have more on the way. You can find links to all my books here.

Knowing that there are other books outside the norm besides my own, that I’m not the only one writing older romance heroines, that Dee Ernst, Amanda Ward, Liz Flaherty, Morgan Malone, Karen Booth, Josie Kerr, Maggie Wells, Natasha Moore, and the Seasoned Romance Facebook page with over 600 members of authors (and readers) are also writing heroines with life experience and–gasp–wrinkles shows that older equals OH HELL YES!

Can You Predict the Future?

Yeah, you guessed it! I’ll write romance, blog, tweet, post on Facebook, and do academic-type stuff on women of a certain age in romance, and I’ll keep on championing  until we’re not a stereotype of age, a niche market, or a trend.

I applaud you ballsy authors who, like me, want to show the entire world, not just the romance world or Hollywood, that foxy doesn’t end at forty.