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.