You’ve heard it all before. It’s not new. It’s the same story, over and over. Nothing changes. There’s a gap in pay and a gap in age. Women get, as Marilyn Monroe says in Some Like It Hot, “The fuzzy end of the lollipop,” or, if you’re a woman over 40, no lollipop at all.
The pay gap can be attributed to the dominance of action blockbusters and to a dearth of opportunities for older women. In the list of top 10 actresses, the oldest woman is Julia Roberts (49). All but three of the male top 10 are aged 50 or over.
No big surprise there. While I applaud the reporting of the ongoing disparity, this news is now tedious and commonplace. Story after story indicates that, despite all the reporting of the gap, nothing has changed, that there’s still a “dearth of opportunities for older women,” and it is boring. So very boring. We know about the disparity.
Some of us are trying to alter the pay gap and and the age gap. We are telling stories about women of a certain age, in case Hollywood and the Romance fiction industry haven’t noticed. Writers like me are trying to be proactive and smart. We SEE the audience the industry doesn’t. We want to ensure that both men and women are afforded the same opportunity to have a lollipop that isn’t fuzzy–or a just a damned lollipop.
For years, I’ve been writing for an overlooked audience. Now, finally, I’m writing for a slowly emerging market, one a few publishers are, after years of ignoring, only just beginning to cater to. Despite the presence of a target audience, that is readers over 40, two stumbling blocks remain when it comes to marketing romance fiction to readers over 40: WHAT to call this subgene, and HOW to market romance with older couples.
The WHAT: The front-running suggestions for this romance subgenre (Thank you, Laura Boon Russell for reminding me to mention that this is a subgenre), from those of us who write romance fiction with lead characters over 40, have been Adult Contemporary Romance, Seasoned Romance, Mature Romance (MatRom), and Silver Romance. The new category line from Entangled is called August, which is a charming moniker, but the line is limited to stories of characters 35-45. Now, here’s where you come in.Do you have any ideas of WHAT to call romance fiction with both lead characters who are over 40?
If you do, leave a comment.Better still leave a comment about the search terms you use when you go looking for romance tales where both characters have been around the block a time or two? You as a reader have the power to pick the name that REALLY sticks.
Groovy, say we come up with a consensus on a name for this subgenre, for Romance of a Certain Age, Granny Lit or Hag Lit, (Can we agree now NOT use any of those?), but what about the HOW?
HOW to market these books is fraught with the same issues Hollywood has when it comes to marketing any film featuring a woman over 40 as the lead. Artwork and advertising, which in the publishing world means book covers, can be tricky for a tale with younger leads. A book cover, like a movie poster, is supposed to be shorthand for the story presented. Marketing departments for Romance fiction have always found a way to work around finding cover art for troublesome novel, usually steering clear of the stereotypical clinch cover in favour of something benign, such as a pair of shoes, a dog, an empty Adirondack chair sitting on a beach. In Hollywood, the usual thinking is:
If the older woman appears on the advertising, be sure the image includes an object that obscures her age, such as a coffee cup in front of her face;
If the older woman appears on the movie poster, ensure only a small percentage of her body is shown, no full body shots;
Reduce the size of the woman’s image, place her in the background in a setting, such as on a dock, on a boat, behind Bruce Willis or Morgan Freeman. Seriously. Go look at this poster for Red, right now.
Obviously, in fiction and film there’s a similar workaround showing the ageing body, which is primarily horrifying because ageing and the bodies of older people are continually presented as ugly and something to fear. These images lead to an unconscious bias against older people, particularly older women, and that bias keeps women from appearing roles other than mother, granny, harpy, crone, or keeps them from appearing at all. ON book covers and movie posters.
The chief antidote to treating ageing as a disease is to present it as normal, as everyday, but creating a new standard and breaking down pervasive image stereotypes of age—or any stereotype—takes time. People need to ‘get used to’ something new. I understand starting small, put the aged female face behind that coffee cup a few times, or reduce the size of Mary-Lousie Parker and Helen Mirren on the poster for Red. Use those benign beach-front images that suggest peace, use the dog, the shoes. Then, slowly, because, people need time to adjust to change, get rid of the coffee cup, enlarge the size of the woman, move her to the foreground, right beside the acceptable male silver fox in that Adult Contemporary-Seasoned-Mature-Silver-August Romance.
March 12, 2015: Time Magazine’s Sarah Begley discusses How the Romantic Comedy for Senior Citizens Became Film’s Hippest Genre.The Time piece states, “that these stories are usually more grounded in the real world than many of their younger counterparts,” and that movies that show the diverse experiences of senior citizens is a good thing, both for the viewers who recognize themselves in the aging faces of Bill Nighy and Judi Dench in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and for younger audiences who can learn to see the elderly as the multifaceted people they are.”
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and its sequel do well to present mature-age in a romantic comedy, yet the really awesome thing would be to have Rom Coms for the over 40 crowd where sex IS a regular part of the narrative, where older adult sexual intimacy is shown as healthy, rather than a punchline. That is, there are no jokes about erectile dysfunction, Viagra or anything that views ageing as a running gag (as was the case with ‘old’ buddies Michael Douglas-Robert DeNiro meeting up in the movie Last Vegas) or a disease. Sexual intimacy lasts longer (no Viagra joke intended) than a few decades, and if we are mature enough (and I mean mature in the ‘we are all adults here’ way) to show BDSM relationships (even toned down ones) and explicit sex scenes on screen, then aren’t we also adult enough to view accurate portrayals of mature sexuality on screen as well?
Now, if we could translate ‘film’s hippest next genre’ to fiction, particularly to romance fiction, then we could about a real trend worth applause.
PORTRRAIT PAINTING / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA
But wait. Is the mature-aged romance novel a trend? On 8 March 2015, in a piece titled Forget Bridget Jones, divorce comedy is the new romantic fiction, Hannah Furness of The Telegraph reports that Man Booker Prize Nominee David Nicholls, believes that stories of unconventional families and romance in older age are likely to become more common to reflect “huge cultural change.
In the words of Matthew McConaughey ”Well, all right, all right, all right, all riiiiight! In fact, Nicholls says that he wrote a protagonist to defy the stereotypes of middle-aged men in love. Well, gee, that sounds familiar, only I write about middle-aged women in love.
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…