The Romance of the Older Woman

An older couple stands silhouetted against a view of Tokyo

©mrhayata

Liz offered us this brilliant essay on romance and the older heroine, and we jumped at the chance. You can find her at her blog Something More.

Outside of the red-hot New Adult subgenre, romance heroines in the 18-24 age range are much rarer than they once were. But despite an aging population and a readership of whom 65%, according to RWA, are 35 or older, heroines over 40 are still uncommon enough that two major romance blogs recently ran features collecting recommendations.

All About Romance is updating its “Older Couples” special title list. As they explain:

When the list was last updated in September of 2009 the definition was straightforward: “This list features romance heroes and heroines who are somewhat older than the norm.”  We’ve thought a lot about that definition and have . . . add[ed] the following text: “While heroes and heroines in their 30s were once unusual in contemporary romances, that is no longer the case. Contemporary romances will only appear on the list if both the hero and heroine are at least 40.”

Over at Dear Author, there’s a discussion of “Mature Romances,” defined as those featuring characters over 40.

40 may be the new 30, but in romance it makes heroines, in particular, senior citizens. Why?

Older Characters Challenge the Ideal of the HEA

 An author writing a heroine and hero in their 40s has to figure out what they were doing before they met. There are never-married people in their 40s, certainly, but many people assume that’s because there is Something Wrong With Them. Their single status has to be explained away.

More common are characters who are widowed or divorced. And they pose a problem for the romance expectation of a Happy Ever After with a One True Love. These characters can’t be at fault for their divorces, leading to the prevalence of Evil Exes in romance. Or maybe the marriage was a youthful mistake, quickly ended, but leaving the character so scarred s/he has remained single ever since. Many writers seem uncomfortable depicting a widowed character’s first marriage as truly happy, as if that would diminish the happiness of the new relationship—or as if the new relationship would then be a betrayal of the previous partner. If a first marriage, however it ended, was really happy, then the story undercuts the Ever After part of the HEA by revealing that a happy marriage can stop being happy or can be ended by tragedy.

Marriage until death do us part is still many people’s ideal (it’s mine), but it’s often not their reality, for all kinds of reasons including women’s economic independence, changing social and religious values, and longer lives. Recognizing that fact, The New York Times has added a series called “Unhitched” to its blog about baby boomers’ lives. The column, which will examine divorce after a long marriage, ran in my print paper opposite “Vows,” amidst the wedding announcements, normalizing divorce as part of the relationship cycle.

And the first one featured the writer Barbara Samuel. I wondered if Samuel (who also writes as Ruth Wind and Barbara O’Neal) would have agreed to be featured if she were still writing romance rather than women’s fiction, a genre in which her real-life story of remaking her life after divorce and finding new love is much more commonly reflected. Romance writers, by contrast, often seem to use their personal lives to reinforce the authenticity of their fiction, thanking their husbands (aka real life heroes/Prince Charmings) in acknowledgements and awards ceremonies and mentioning their great sex lives in professional venues (Please. Stop).

Although Samuel reports that divorce made her feel like a failure at first, she doesn’t regret it or her marriage, and her final comment is this:

Boomers are living better and longer. That makes an early marriage of “epic” length. “Do you even have a friend you would want to talk to for say 70, 80 years? Maybe it’s more realistic to have several long, happy relationships. If that’s the case, we need to work out the painful transitions between them.”

She’s in a new relationship, though she hasn’t remarried. Isn’t this the “emotionally-satisfying and optimistic ending” the RWA requires of romance fiction? I would love to see more romances that acknowledge that a prior “happy” that didn’t last “ever after” doesn’t necessarily make either of the parties involved bad people or failures; I’d love to see more widows and widowers who had happy first marriages, grieve, and are open to loving again without feeling they’re betraying their late spouse. It would make more room for older characters, and allow more readers to recognize themselves in romance.

Older Women Are Not Sexy

This cultural attitude is so engrained and widespread, do I even have to explain? (For the record, I recommend against Googling any phrase containing “sexy” and “older women” unless you want a deluge of misogyny and/or porn). Let’s take Hollywood as a reflection—but also an exaggeration—of common perceptions of aging men and women. Actors over 40 (or 50, or 60) continue to headline action franchises and play romantic leads. Meanwhile, their love interests don’t age, so actresses over 40 have a hard time finding meaty—or any—roles. They’re relegated to playing mothers, often to actors/actresses scarcely younger than themselves. This post by a fan of Korean drama suggests the problem isn’t only a Western one. Once a woman has kids or hits 40 (30 if you’re a real douche), she’s not sexually desirable anymore; if she’s still sexually desiring, she’s comic, pathetic or predatory—a cougar.

For all its vaunted positivity and frankness about female sexuality and sexual agency, Romanceland too often buys into these cultural assumptions. It’s no surprise. Authors, like readers, are mostly female, and they aren’t immune to the expectations of their culture. Spend any time at all with them on Twitter, and you’ll know many, like their readers, worry about aging and attractiveness. They wax and dye with the rest of us. I think these anxieties about whether older women are still attractive help explain why there are so few heroines over 40—and even fewer past the early 40s. These older heroines rarely have bodies marked by child-bearing, arthritis or gray hairs, just a few charming crow’s feet. Secondary romances may feature parents or grandparents in their 60s or 70s, but these are usually either sweet and sexless or played for laughs. We’re sex-positive if you’re young and hot. OK, maybe 40ish, “curvy” and hot, but that’s as far as we’ll go.

But whatever Hollywood tells us, if we look around the real world, we see plenty of women in their 40s and older who still feel sexy, are interested in sex, and find partners who think they’re hot. People well into their 80s are still having sex, too, a fact that’s raising complex questions about sexual rights, privacy, consent, and safety for the growing nursing home population. Younger people, though, are generally uncomfortable thinking about this. And the sex these older people are having is likely not up to genre romance’s fantasy standards. As we age, our bodies become less flexible. More things ache, and not in a good way. We may be physically weaker. With hormonal changes, Tab A and slot B don’t work quite like they used to.

Many readers look to romance for escapist reading. They don’t want to be reminded of the changes age will bring (or has brought) them. Much as we like to proclaim that Romance Is Not Porn, most romance novel sex is fantasy of some kind—not impossible sex, necessarily, but idealized sex. And in our culture, that means sex between attractive, young(ish) people. Make the protagonists 60-something, and plausibility is stretched past the breaking point unless you depict sex differently from the genre norm.

We Have A Narrow Understanding of Romantic Love

 I just finished arguing that older people are still sexy and still have sex. But the opposite is also true. We’re likely to become less interested and have less of it as we age. And that doesn’t fit with the understanding of “romance” prevalent in the genre and in our culture as a whole. We tend to think of romantic love as intense and passionate, physically and emotionally. Even “sweet” romances like inspirationals or traditional Regencies at least hint at physical delights to come once the hero and heroine are properly married. A typical romance ending imagines the couple building a life together, making a home and having children, and having hot sex forevermore.

But love might look different for characters who come together late in life, especially after long marriages to other people. Sex might be less important, or not important at all. They may be looking more for companionship and quiet affection. They’re not going to have children. They may make a practical decision not to marry for financial reasons. Their ever after won’t be decades long, but it can still be happy. It can be hard for readers not to see such a relationship as “less than” rather than “different from” a 50-year marriage that came before it.

Imagine this story: The heroine is 82, the hero 79. They meet when he moves into the nursing home where she’s a resident. They’re lonely. Their children and grandchild don’t visit often. They love to talk about music, their favorite books, the ups and downs of their lives. They watch TV, play cards, and do crosswords together. And they fall in love. They fight their families and nursing-home administrators for the right to private conjugal time together, and they win. Maybe they have sex in that time, maybe they hold hands and kiss, maybe they just talk uninterrupted. But they’re happy.

Would you read it? (Would I?) I certainly can’t imagine it being published as genre romance. Maybe women’s fiction. Yet it has the “two basic elements” that, according to the RWA, “comprise every romance novel: a central love story and an emotionally-satisfying and optimistic ending.” That definition makes the romance genre a very big tent, but we still leave a lot of people and stories standing outside it.

Why don’t we see more older heroines in romance? Our own prejudices. We have met the enemy, and she is us.

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22 comments for “The Romance of the Older Woman

  1. August 25, 2013 at 10:13 am

    Awesome post! To be honest, I still don’t understand the huge draw of YA/NA for ‘mature’ women readers. Why would a fifty year old woman want to read a coming-of-age story about teens having sex? I don’t get it. I am 47, and I want to read about characters my age. And to answer your question, I would LOVE to read a sweet romance with characters in their 80s at a nursing home. Why? Because romance is about hope and optimism. What is more hopeful, lovely, romantic than the notion that we don’t actually keel over and expire at the ripe old age of 40, but rather find love in our lives at any age? My dad died several years ago, and my mother (age 75) has a new boyfriend, new love, new life. God bless her! It’s freakin’ adorable.

    The notion that only young, perfect-looking people are worthy or capable of love is so junenile, I don’t know what to say.

    Thank you for a wonderful post!

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  2. Nan
    August 25, 2013 at 10:29 am

    I am a reader and writer of romantic fiction and I adore stories with older heroines. I can’t write young heroines myself because that’s not my world. I’m so far past my 20s that I’m not really interested in learning about the language and the lifestyles of current 20-somethings. I write mature heroines who’ve lived a lot of life but are ready for more. Women my own age who still want love, sex, and an HEA…and that’s the real key–HEA. Definitions are different as you point out so well in this article…we each have to find what works for us happily ever after. Thanks for great food for thought!

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  3. August 25, 2013 at 10:32 am

    They wax and dye with the rest of us. I think these anxieties about whether older women are still attractive help explain why there are so few heroines over 40

    Not all of “us” wax and/or dye. But I agree it seems likely that a widespread feeling that older bodies are less attractive has a lot to do with this.

    they pose a problem for the romance expectation of a Happy Ever After with a One True Love

    I think Lynne Pearce ( writing in the Journal of Popular Romance Studies) supports you on this:

    it is clear that temporality has always been a key determinant in both defining and ascribing value to love. Similarly, wherever one looks in the history of Western literature and popular culture—be it folk-songs, Arthurian Legend, or, indeed, popular romantic fiction—there are few instances of love that are not tested, to a greater or a lesser extent, by time: through non-repeatability, simple longevity, or love’s capacity to survive the use, loss, or death of the beloved object.

    ——-

    They love to talk about music, their favorite books, the ups and downs of their lives. They watch TV, play cards, and do crosswords together. And they fall in love. [...] Would you read it? (Would I?) I certainly can’t imagine it being published as genre romance.

    You could argue that that’s at least partly because romance, as a whole, currently seems to favour more intense types of relationships; there are a lot of readers who are looking for angst and/or “alpha” heroes and there aren’t huge numbers of “beta” heroes and romances which focus on “couples painting a house together, working on car repairs, cooking dinner, or holding hands. Talking to each other about their lives. You know, the things real couples do and build relationships out of” (Lawless)

    —–

    Another reason why romance readers might be resistent to reading about protagonists in their 70s and 80s is that there’s a high probability that the “happily” won’t last “ever after”. I do think romance readers want to imagine characters living happily together for a very long time, even if not exactly “ever after.” In other words, readers might feel it’s not really “optimistic” enough. I suspect they might feel the same way about very much younger protagonists who marry in England in 1913 or 1938, for example. In fact, in that time period, maybe romance readers would prefer to read about older protagonists.

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  4. August 25, 2013 at 12:19 pm

    Thanks for this insightful post.

    I’ve been reading a lot of NA/YA books and loving them, but was wishing for characters I could relate to more as a “older woman.” So I wrote my own book.

    My novel, Geoducks Are for Lovers, features characters in their 30s and 40s doing crazy things like falling in love and finding their soul mates. Crazy.

    I’m beginning to see more characters in their 30s and 40s popping up in contemporary romance. Here’s to this trend continuing!

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  5. August 25, 2013 at 1:43 pm

    Yes to all of these thoughts. As an actress, and the mother of another, I’m keenly aware of the limited roles for women 40 and older in popular entertainment; as a divorced woman, I don’t regret my 15-year marriage, but I am much happier in my current relationship. I suppose it is the fantasy element that keeps a woman like me from being a romance heroine: I’m a secondary character or a candidate for women’s fiction, I guess.

    When I returned to reading romance about five years ago, one of the first contemporary authors I tried was Nora Roberts. The first of her books that I read had a terrific secondary romance with an older couple (The Villa), and then I read her In the Garden trilogy and met Roz, the heroine of the second book (Black Rose). Widowed and divorced, with adult children, and still a sexual being! I’m sure I’d have appreciated the book even more if I’d known how rare that was in the genre. I wish there were more books like that, because I do want to read about women my own age, at least some of the time.

    I know that our kids don’t want to think about their parents as sexually active (ew!), and I suppose that’s natural. It’s the double standard that bothers me. As you say, the action heroes get older and their heroines mostly don’t. A man is virile easily into his 60s, but a woman not so much. Is it any wonder we have a thriving cosmetic surgery industry? Does this all stem from biology, that women lose their sexual attractiveness with their fertility? Considering that our lifespans are getting longer, it seems likely that we’ll continue to find love and companionship well beyond child-bearing years, and not always in the golden glow of a decades-long marriage. I’d like to see more stories about that in the genre.

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  6. Miss Bates
    August 25, 2013 at 3:22 pm

    One of Miss Bates’s best friends is a stunning woman of 55, a spinster, with wildly grey hair, tall, slim, fit, green-eyed, an actress, interesting, educated. She sat at the local café one day and noticed a young man (late 20s, 30?) giving her the “eye.” She preened, she smiled … she batted some eyelashes, but he directed his gaze over her shoulder. She turned and saw a lovely young woman behind her who was the object of his scrutiny, not Miss Bates’s friend. When I related the story to a colleague, a spinster of 54, a writer of cozy mystery, a real wit, she said she could write the book on the experience; she’d call it, “One Woman’s Story: From Object to Obstacle.” Her comment was caustically funny, a little bitter, but also accurate. When we’re younger, we contend with objectification … this is still true for young woman, I think, and it’s as much self-directed as male-directed. As we age, we contend with erasure, with being invisible.

    All of this to say that one of the things that romance does is acknowledge a woman’s sexual power, even in an inspirational, yes, because it is centered on her unmitigated desirability. The fact is, however, that the undesirability of the female body and its sexual prowess at 50 or 60 or 70 or 80 is no different for a man; just as we don’t read about arthritis or slack skin in a female character, we don’t read about it in a male. The robustness and beauty of the romance character is an evolutionary imperative, I think, not something that marks only the female characters, but the male as well.

    I remember I read in this marvelous book by Caroline Bynum, THE RESURRECTION OF THE BODY, that, in the Middle Ages, the idea of the age at which you’d get that body back in the Second Coming was “you” at 33. Now, the obvious reference, yes, is to the fact that Christ “died” at 33; but the flip side of that for Miss Bates is that most bodies, if they’re healthy, are pretty darn magnificent at 33. They’re at the height of their power, or as the same witty colleague says, “the pudding face is gone and decrepitude hasn’t set in”. All of this to say, however, that we are not only made of evolutionary imperatives, but the ability to transcend them. Your imaginary romance between the 80-year-olds? It’s time has definitely come (pun intended).

    Don’t know if this made any sense or was of any interest, sorry about the length, but I loved the post and wanted to drop a line … and the loquaciousness set in.

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  7. August 25, 2013 at 4:55 pm

    Please could someone pull my comment out of moderation? I think I must have included too many links.

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  8. August 26, 2013 at 12:14 am

    I get more interested in reading romances featuring older protagonists as I get older myself. When I was 20 I don’t think I wanted to imagine “oldies” having sex. But as time marches on and I approach (*shudder*) becoming an “oldie” myself, it doesn’t seem anywhere near as out there an idea as it once was. :)

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  9. willaful
    August 26, 2013 at 10:18 am

    I’ve been running across more “caregiver” romance lately — Sarah Mayberry’s latest at the moment — and I wonder if that’s one way for some of the realities of older readers to be included in romance without the characters having to actually be older.

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  10. August 26, 2013 at 10:37 am

    Thanks for the great comments, everyone. You’ve all given me more to think about.

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  11. August 26, 2013 at 11:00 am

    @Penelope:

    JUVENILE!

    My country for an edit button! Hee hee!

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  12. August 26, 2013 at 11:36 am

    Great post! So much to think about. One thought that springs to mind is that all of us have been young, either at present or at one time in our lives, so we can slip into that experience with relative ease. I think enjoyment of older characters in part depends on whether “slipping into” the story is your primary objective for reading a romance novel. Difficult/realistic details make you stop, think, question, make judgments, and occasionally feel uncomfortable, and that can sometimes disrupt the experience of escape/pleasure.

    I don’t see anything wrong with books that are easy to slip into. I read a lot of them. But I do like books that snag and challenge, too. I love older heroines for this reason, because they’re more likely to be distinct individuals with complicated histories and their HEAs are therefore more hard-won and interesting.

    I’d read a romance with 80-year-old characters, hell yeah! Somebody please write that book immediately.

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  13. August 26, 2013 at 7:02 pm

    I haven’t read it, but Julie and Romeo by Jeanne Ray was a popular and well-reviewed book with a romance between a couple who are in their sixties at its center.

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  14. August 26, 2013 at 11:16 pm

    Thank you for the very thoughtful post, Liz. As this topic is exactly what I examine in my PhD you’ve give me another article to include. I write older heroines in my novels.

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  15. Merrian
    August 27, 2013 at 7:25 am

    Roxie Drew is not an older heroine but is a good example of a heroine who loved her first husband well and had a good marriage with him. She is only a widow of 6 months when she meets the next love of her life, Fletcher Rand. ‘Mrs Drew Plays Her Hand’ by Carla Kelly shows how memory is important to relationships I think. Roxie remembers vignettes of life with her first husband Andrew and reflects on the strength and positive experience of her marriage to him. This shows how she is an emotionally richer and stronger person for having been happily married to him. Roxie’s memories of love and a good marriage give her the capacity to be the person that falls in love again. It is interesting too, how Roxie and her daughter’s connection to her new husband actually helps all of them deal with their grief for Andrew. I really liked how all Roxie’s relationships are integrated with one another.

    It seems to me that often there is a demarcation drawn by authors that seems to cut heroines off from their pasts rather than allowing them to grow organically from them. I wonder if this is one reason why older heroines are scarce in the genre? At 40 and 50 and 60 we all have past lives that include being shaped and growing through the relationships we have known. We don’t come to a relationship ‘pure’. I think heroines are expected to be more than physically virginal.

    I liked Cara McKenna’s ‘After Hours’ because it gives us a heroine who in some ways is the sum and fruit of her past relationships – especially family ones.

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  16. August 27, 2013 at 11:03 pm

    Many years ago, I had a 14 year old girl coming into my library who was a huge romance reader. She would borrower over 15 a week and I would find myself struggling to find books for her. I suggested she try Jennifer Crusie and she came in the next day and threw the book across my table and said “How dare you give me a romance with old people”. This stunned me. I can’t ever recall feeling that way about any of the characters I had read in romances even when I was a teen. But it did make me think about age of protagonists as an appeal factor in recommending fiction to others.

    Personally, I love reading about young love but I equally love reading about older love. Characters are welcome to be in their teens, 20s, 40s or in their 80s. My husband’s great-aunt was widowed at 65. She married again at 69 and spent 22 wonderful years with her second husband. That’s a lot more of an HEA than many younger people get. How sad life would have been if she had felt that a second romance was not possible at her age.

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  17. Meoskop
    August 29, 2013 at 9:46 am

    @Vassiliki: I think my days of suggesting books for that reader would have been over.

    Older heroines tough genre fit may be part of some authors crossing into women’s fiction. Once you tire of ingenues it seems to be the place to go unless you relegate them to the side. Signet Regency used to write a lot of older heroines but still cut that off well inside child bearing age.

    I have been trying to remember the recent series with the mother’s romance with a younger artist running through it. I found it the most interesting part of the trilogy and regretted they didn’t have their own book.

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  18. August 29, 2013 at 11:57 pm

    I write heroines who are at least in their late 30s, into their 40s. I’m writing one now about a heroine who is 54 and the hero is 50. I’m contemplating how much honesty to put into their “first time together”, but figure that hell, I’ve been baring my soul in my books for years. Why stop now?

    I’ve told my kids, “I’ve been your age. Every age I’ve ever been is still in my head. Only now it’s a much more crowded place.” Just because people have lots of life experiences, doesn’t mean they’re not able to fall in love. My brother got married for the first time when he was 52, and they’re about to celebrate their 3rd anniversary.

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  19. September 1, 2013 at 9:51 am

    I’m late to the party, trying to catch up on posts (and new blogs!) I missed while away for August. Great post. I agree with you 100%. I also love the comments. I have just a couple little things to add:

    1. Part of the appeal for me in reading protagonists who are younger than I am is the anticipation of all the wonderful things in store for them. Of course, rationally, I know an older protagonist has had many wonderful experiences, and can anticipate more, and if I like the character it shouldn’t matter when the wonderful experiences happened, but I want them to happen with the new partner, because that’s the relationship I am invested in.

    2. On the nursing home romance … I know it was a thought experiment, but it really got me thinking. One of the reasons this would be hard for me personally to read is that the assisted living setting is one in which adults are often, on the one hand, dependent (which is why they are there), and infantilized (totally unnecessary and objectionable, but all too common). Also, while we may live until our eighties, the way we age in the US is to collect chronic illnesses for the last 10-20 years of our lives, eventually dying from one of them. Although I’ve been glad to read a few romances lately with chronically ill protagonists, I think the combination of age, dependency, and debilitation, added to the societal attitudes you mention in your post towards sexuality in older adults would make this an impossible sell.

    3. I’m glad you mentioned the resistance of female readers themselves to reading older heroines. I’m definitely subject to that, although I recently enjoyed Sandra Antonelli’s A Basic Renovation, whose heroine is in her forties.

    4. So many great comments, but I 100% agree with Merrian’s “I think heroines are expected to be more than physically virginal.”

    5. I also agree with Sonomalass that we are moving to an era of more open acceptance and understanding of serial monogamy, and it will be interesting to see if the genre not only acknowledges that but makes it normative (i.e. not writing a first marriage that, say, lasted 10 years and produced two children and included a lot of love and great experiences but ended in divorce as a “failure.”).

    Anyway, thanks for a great discussion!

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  20. September 13, 2013 at 8:59 am

    Goodness, I am arriving REALLY late for this party, because I too, was away for all of August, and it’s taking me a long time to catch up with all the marvelous and interesting discussions that happened while I was busy driving around (roadtrip vacation) and turning 50.
    It’s making me smile to see that some of the great comments here were posted on my birthday. I must have heard “50 is the new 40″ a hundred times last month. And I have been thinking a lot about this question of the characters’ back stories, if they are older when the story begins. Liz, I love how you’ve deconstructed the various ways romance novels allow for widowed and divorced characters to have the “one great love” after a prior marriage that is usually portrayed as lesser in one way or another (and sometimes even a mistake/bad or abusive marriage).
    One of the reasons I think second-chance-at-love is one of my favorite romance themes is because I think it allows for older characters who don’t have to have had an unsuccessful first marriage, if the thwarted early love has caused them to eschew commitment, and they meet again when they are older and wiser. Persuasion has always been my favorite Austen! But this does require that the author incorporate enough back story to explain what each of them have been doing socially, emotionally, and/or sexually (depending on the context and whether historical or contemporary) over the intervening decades. It doesn’t work as well when the hero and heroine meet again and have all the same issues — then it feels like arrested development. I don’t want to read a 40 or 50 year old hero who still feels annoyed with the heroine who “got away” and acts like an adolescent when he runs into her again. This was the case in a historical I read last spring and it got me thinking about how authors who may want to explore the possibilities of an older couple, really have a challenging task in terms of having it make sense that someone would still be single, and not be kind of a jerk or otherwise undesirable. This is the “something must be Wrong With Them” problem that Liz noted. But there are plenty of people in real life who don’t meet their soul mate until they are very well seasoned, so there must be a way to make it work in fiction. I have a cousin who met and married her “true love” when they were both in their late 60s!

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