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A complaint about sex and ageism in fiction (& tangentially Hollywood)
Bella
ellen_datlow
Look, I'm not particularly articulate about cultural criticism so I rarely indulge in it. But once in a while I'll come across something I read that bugs me as a reader (not an editor) and so I feel compelled to rant.

I'm over 60 years old and I realize that I'm lucky as I've got very few wrinkles and my hair is still mostly dark brown and I don't color it. I have nothing to thank but genetics. However, I know I am not alone, so I get really tired of reading/seeing women over a certain age (generally over 50) described as wrinkled feeble unattractive hags wearing heavy make up to "cover furrows."

Most of the 60 year old women I know are in pretty good shape, are active, and look good. No, they're no longer the 20 or 30 year old knockouts they used to be but so fucking what? I'm not talking about those who feel the need to use botox and plastic surgery to keep themselves in the game (whatever the hell that is).

I do understand why women in Hollywood feel obliged to use artificial means to maintain a false youthful look despite the fact that it actually destroys their ability to be great actresses because it constricts the movement of their faces, something crucial to their craft (I'm talking to you Joan Allen--I didn't recognize her in one of the Bourne movies until I saw her name in the credits).

Culture both reflects reality but it also helps create it. I have no control over what Hollywood does but I do have some say in the literary world.

So I'll start right here right now. Male writers are not the only offenders. Female writers are too. Think before you produce your stereotypical "elderly woman" stereotype. Older women come in all shapes and sizes. They are sometimes feeble and others are active and good-looking at 100 years old (yes). The older woman stereotype is as offensive as the blonde bimbo, the gorgeous male stud (with no brains), add your own.

Go out and create real characters please. Help change the world. You as a writer can actually help.

And I will shut up now.

Having just reached 50, I have to agree with you here. Actresses my age are being stuck with 'cougar' roles, when they're not being stuck with minor mother roles. Same goes for characters in books. I'd like to see or read something about a woman my age who is not a stereotype, please.
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How many females above age 35, say, ever are in a relationship with a male cop or detective(who are usually in their broken down 50s or even 60s) in a crime novel or thriller?
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Clare Fergusson! And Russ Van Alstyne is so not broken down. Okay, the fact that I can think of one kind of proves your point, but-- hey, what about Kate Fansler?

Anyway, I bet women over 35 is the bookbuyingest demographic there is. And Clare Fergusson proves that we will buy the adventures of women who are not young if anyone publishes them.

Edited at 2011-09-13 03:08 am (UTC)
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BRAVA! I hope you never feel you need to "shut up now"--the world needs rants like these, and women like you!
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THanks Rose. There's a bit of a discussion going on at my fb page.(Although it always moves from text to movies--nothing to do. topic drift, I know :-)
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I hear you, Sister.

Some years ago, John Irving released a collection of his early short stories (several of them previously unpublished). In one of these was a female protagonist of 50 (he wrote the story in his mid-twenties). In the postscript to the story in the collection, Irving remarked that 25-year-olds have a pretty warped idea of what it's like to be 50, and that, if he were writing the same story "now" (when Irving was about 50 himself), the character's rigidity and indolence would make her "at least 100."
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Good for him that he realized that, albeit belatedly.
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Well, it is fair to say that rigidity and indolence are not necessarily age-linked. I've met as many rigid 20 year olds as flexible 60 year olds. And vice versa.

The whole wrinkled, faded, used-up trope, though? Fuggedaboutit.
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Thank you. I am 52, started turning grey at 15 (celiac/thyroid disease side effect) and began dying my hair at 30. I was often mistaken for someone older than I was until that point, but now I'm typically mistaken for someone younger.

Anyhow, as someone who's been assumed to be pretty much any age (under 50) that I'm not, I totally get your point.
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You've just reminded me about an asshole on a plane about 20 years ago who I could tell was younger than I but assumed he was older--he was utterly patronizing. I think I just sort of brushed him off and avoided making conversation.

It's strange how assuming a person's age makes one behave differently toward her/him (?) not sure if it's the same with males.
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Oh, THIS. This thissity this.

I'm only in my mid-30s, but it's pretty clear I've got "one of those faces" that will keep me experiencing obnoxious incidents like the one you describe for years to come. As you say, nothing to thank but genetics -- and sometimes it's not something to be thankful for at all.

(My "favorite" - being told, upon entering a bar (or buying tickets for an R-rated movie, dear gods), not "Can I see your ID" but "Hey! You can't go in there!")

The added smear of fail icing on the failtastic cake is when, in response to my disgruntlement at being treated like a child by a man my age or younger, I get told, "Take it as a compliment!" or "Enjoy it while you can!"

Enjoy WHAT? Being be patronized, condescended to, talked over or otherwise not taken seriously? Being assumed to be some sort of Galatea for this random stranger's molding? Being assumed to lack adult agency? The agist implication that younger is better than older? The aggressive assertion that women should somehow be ashamed of, want to hide, the hard-won experiences we've lived and learned from since our 20s? (I'm looking at you, beer-and-hot-dog vendor at Red Rocks who checked my ID and blustered out, "Oh, as far as I'm concerned, you're not a day over 23! No, no, I insist, if anyone asks me, you're 23!" Stop erasing my LIFE you asshole!)

Raaaaaage. And thank you so much for posting this. Sometimes it's just so cathartic to hear I'm not the only one who gets so frustrated with this, even if it comes with confirmation that it's not likely to stop any time in the next three decades.
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vortexae--no idea if this will actually show up in response to your post (tech is so unreliable)

You're welcome. And welcome to the family :-) (alas, probably not)
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I read somewhere recently that despite all the efforts made and, perhaps more importantly, all the progress we *think* we have made in feminist terms in the past 3-4 decades, female body image is actually worse now than ever before. Unrealistic expectations for women start at such an early age, and apparently are having a greater toll, and continue on for our whole lifetime. Yes, when has Harrison Ford ever been given a hard time for his 'distinguished' look. Rant away, rant away.
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Yeah. It's depressing.
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AGREED. I highly recommend Jean Kilbourne's Killing Us Softly documentaries, which address the way advertisements portray women. I also recommend the documentary The Famine Within about women and body image.
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Thanks for the recs (but 1) I know all this and 2) they sound awfully depressing) ;-).

I remember attending a fashion photography exhibit in the NY Public Library a decade or two ago and had a flash at how the male skin magazines and fashion did the same thing to women's images (self and exterior)--imagined them from the male gaze and both being an awful influence on real women (and men). On women for thinking most of us could look like the models and on men for thinking that's what most women do/should look like.
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I agree! If/when I write about older women, I think I will look to the women in my biking club as examples. They are amazing. (One of them recently turned sixty, and has just returned from a cycling tour of 1200km 0_0 ).
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What springs to my mind are the older members, both male and female, of my local rock-climbing gym. Watching them scale 5.12s like it ain't no thing, while I'm still floundering about on anything with a slight inclination toward overhang.

And then there's a dear friend of the family who's either in her 70s or rapidly approaching them. She runs marathons. She is fantastic.
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Great post! This is something I always end up thinking about whenever I watch a film with Maggie Smith, Helen Mirren or Judi Dench - it's like, can we not have MORE stories where one or all of them get to be awesome?

Two of my current POV characters (for two different books) are older women: one is human, in her 50s and an interdimensional traveler; the other is in her middle hundreds, the leader of a major magical/political institution, a mage and a martial artist. And seriously, they are SO MUCH FUN TO WRITE! I've got a ways to go yet before I'm in that age bracket, but there's something gloriously powerful and refreshing about writing women who have been around long enough to be competent, knowledgeable and awesome, and who can just roll their eyes at the antics of everyone younger.
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Beth Bernobich's Tor.com story did a great version of older female-younger partner - and the illustrations really showed it, too. One of my favourite stories on that site.
http://www.tor.com/stories/2010/09/river-of-souls
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What did you think of the characters in John Lindqvist's Harbour? I found Anna-Gretta quite refreshing (I think that was her name). But the fact I found her refreshing highlights your point, really, about the usual representation.

Ray Cluley
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Hi Ray, I'm only about a third of the way through the book so far, so don't know yet. (It might be Anna-Graeta)
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One of the things I love about bellydance is that the movement style feels so organic, and we're not over the hill at 29. Generally Middle Eastern Dance enthusiasts revere dancers in their 60's and 70's because they "really have something to dance about."

I adore Princess Farhana, who is a vivacious bellydance and burlesque performer in her 50's. http://www.princessfarhana.com/ I think it's her verve and inner fire that makes her so amazing. I took a workshop with her a few years ago, and I told a friend: "I never want to be 47 the way my mom was 47, but I would love it the way she does it."

"I'd like to be 32 the way she's 47," he said.

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Although there seems to be a trend among older bellydancers, at least in New Hampshire, to transition to Hula once they hit their 70s. Me, I'm sticking with bellydance until my knees completely crap out!
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that it's so much easier for readers to imagine the older man/younger woman attraction than vis versa? Admittedly, throughout my life, I've always been attracted to older men, rather than men my age or younger. & there's that "bad boy" hang up so many of us have, as well as the awful urge to "fix" someone who is broken. So perhaps the PYT+SOB PI is not such a stretch. The men are not ADMIRABLE, but they're interesting, & they're a CHALLENGE. As one young friend admitted to me once, when faced with a decision between a nice, stable, & bright young man her age, & an older, admittedly talented, & thoroughly selfish asshole who was then quite the heartthrob in our circle "It's the thrill of making a Han Solo CARE." So perhaps the folks who are writing these things DO have a bit of insight, at least for younger, insecure women who can indeed be attracted to the dangerous type, however dysfunctional or roadworn.

Unfortunately, the reverse never seems to be true. It is the rare young man who seems to feel the thrill & challenge of winning an older woman, however good looking. I dunno, maybe with superior genes & an enviable position you get a lot more come-ons than I do, but for the last 6 years ago, I've been feeling more & more invisible, except (again) to older men. It's true that writers should use their imaginations, & I AM playing devil's advocate a bit here, but what if our young writers are writing what they know from their own tastes & those of their friends- that older women simply AREN'T attractive to them? No excuse, of course, for older writers who should know better, or for presenting all older female characters as wrinkled hags desperate for attention. Just wondering how much the stereotypes are a reflection of what we WANT & how much of what we SEE.

Edited at 2011-09-05 01:10 pm (UTC)
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Re: I wonder why it is...

vschanoes

2011-09-05 02:09 pm (UTC)

I think a lot of it has to do with hundreds and hundreds of years of most women having to depend on men for status and material security. When that's the case, older, more established men are going to be considered attractive by younger women, even on a subconscious level.

I think that's changing/going to change. When I was young, I was the only girl I knew who was attracted to significantly older men, and now that I myself am older, making my own money, and financially successful...let's just say that the appeal of youthful-looking skin and a full head of hair on a young man is making itself clear to me.
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Re: I wonder why it is...

ellen_datlow

2011-09-05 02:52 pm (UTC)

Makes sense, Veronica.
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Re: I wonder why it is...

ellen_datlow

2011-09-05 02:51 pm (UTC)

The last few men I was involved with were younger than I. I never was into older men-the oldest was my first major boyfriend who was 8 years older. But there's never been a gap that large (in that direction) since.

However, I've been out of the dating/relationship pool for many years. But I think I'm an exception. I was never a good "dater" and I've been exceptionally choosy in the men I've been with (not saying they were good choices mind you ;-)). I don't think I've met an available man in a very long time in whom I was interested--that way.

Most of then men writing the crime novels with the relationships I describe are not young.
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Re: I wonder why it is...

_twilight_

2011-09-08 05:41 am (UTC)

Good points.

Being exclusively attracted--or most attracted--to youth would be one thing. Treating anyone--or anyone female--outside of that category like chopped liver is a sign that society still has a long way to go.
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Ellen, this is awesome. (And you are awesome, but that goes without saying.)

I was thinking about how in some other cultures (at least, where Western values haven't taken over), older people are still respected, so getting old isn't considered this horrible thing to be avoided at all costs. I wish we lived like that here.
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Thank you Shveta.

Same here.
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Publishing Links August 6, 2011

pingback_bot

2011-09-06 02:25 am (UTC)

User girliejones referenced to your post from Publishing Links August 6, 2011 saying: [...] challenges writers to create real characters – A Complaint About Sex and Ageism in Fiction [...]
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Thank you.

I've been meaning to do a rant on this issue for a while now, but I keep not writing it up because . . . um . . . not sure. Things are quite different in Hawaii than on the Mainland. Here, older women and men get a lot more respect and visibility, so much so that it's quite noticeable now when I go to the Mainland and feel/see the difference.
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You're welcome.

It's good that Hawaii hasn't lost its respect for older people--unlike the Mainland's embrace of youth at any cost.
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When I wrote a story with a 54-year-old female main character, one of my critiquers said it confused him because he spent the first five pages assuming that her 20-year-old protege was going to be the main character. I combed the text and asked my other critiquers, and we could not find any reason he would think that except--hey! Young person! Clearly the story has to be about her, right? So very frustrating.
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At least it was only one person in the group who expected that.

And by the way--good for you.
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Stories about young people have the appeal (or perceived appeal) of reaching a greater audience because more people have been 25 than 50 (well, maybe not now... with baby boomers and all), and young people are often at a crossroads or having new experiences simply because of their youth.

But, yes, I agree with you, and think more people should portray women over 25 (and over 60) as not being decrepit grannies.

When I was only 27-28, and trying to meet someone online, I was regularly told I was too old, or they were looking for someone younger. When I was 28, I looked 16-ish and people still asked me where my "Mommy and Daddy" were, so I was hardly Estelle Getty in her later years. A number of these "Sorry, not into old women," replies were from women several years older. I wasn't even 30, didn't even look like I was of legal age, and already the "too old" bs started.

So it's not *only* about looking young (not that it'd be okay if it were), but about actual chronological age, which IMHO moves the bias from shallow to hateful.

Kudos to the main post and all the great replies.

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Friday Links is interested in Novels now

pingback_bot

2011-09-09 02:57 am (UTC)

User cassiphone referenced to your post from Friday Links is interested in Novels now saying: [...] that bears further discussion. Ellen Datlow is angry about the portrayal of older women in fiction [...]
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Right on! It was great to see you ever-so-briefly at Readercon, where I got several compliments on my newly grown-out grey hair. Rocking the silver is my way of challenging this ridiculous stereotype. Brava to you for this post.
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User coffeeandink referenced to your post from Links saying: [...] t letters. Ellen Datlow, A complaint about sex and ageism in fiction (& tangentially Hollywood) [...]
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I had to come back to this post to comment about another stereotype in books that works my last nerve. The horrible Mother-in-law and the awful, white trash Daughter-in-law. Several books this summer that were enjoyable to read until they hit the lower denominator of stereotypes. Both are repulsive in their own way but equally wrong in painting relationships w. such a broad brush. The arrogant, nasty MIL who berates and verbally abuses the poor DIL and is written one-dimension, makes DIL's life miserable and takes pleasure in being mean and cruel. And the other side, the DIL that is not good enough for the sainted, suffering son, but who dazzled him w/ probably sex bc DIL has no morals and is lacking in manners and anything close to 'good breeding.' The last book I read w. this was "Folly Beach," Dorothea Benton Franks summer novel. It had the stereotypical DIL and despite the main character's desire to be a better person, it did not extend to her DIL. DIL was a cross to bear but DIL was written loosely and w.out much thought and did not have much form as a character other than the use of her to annoy the main character.
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Mothers-in-law have been getting a bad rap for for decades--in literature and movies.
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