Disappearing Women

by Tess Gerritsen

Now that I’m in my fifties, I’m noticing more and more what generations of women have complained about: that right around this age, we start to disappear in the eyes of the world.  As we grow gray we become invisible, dismissed and ignored.  No wonder there’s a spike in suicides as women pass the frightening threshold of fifty. Invisibility happens to us all, whether we were once fashion models, prom queens, or hot actresses.  (With the possible exception of Betty White.)  When we lose the dewy glow of reproductive fitness, suddenly society thinks we are no longer worth the attention.  Yet men in their fifties still get plenty of attention, both in real life and in the movies.  Harrison Ford, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sean Connery, were alll playing sexy action heroes in their fifties.  Silver-haired men, at their peak of political or financial power, are considered hot catches and Hollywood producers don’t bat an eye at the thought of casting a 50-year-old film hero with a 30-year-old heroine.  But a celluloid romance between a young man and an older woman?  Well, that’s got to be an outrageous comedy, right?  A story that no one would really believe, like Harold and Maude. Because while fiftyish men can be sexy as hell, a fiftyish woman is just, well, somebody’s boring mother.

Life is so unfair.

It’s unfair in crime fiction as well, where you don’t find many sexy, kickass heroines in their fifties.  Which strikes me as surprising, considering how many authors are women in their fifties. You’ll find plenty of fictional heroines in their twenties, thirties, and forties.  But then women vanish as heroines until they suddenly pop back into view on the far end of the age spectrum as sharp-eyed, inquisitive Miss Marples in their seventies.  And these older heroines are often objects of amusement or even ridicule, the troublesome old biddies who solve mysteries only because they can’t mind their own business.

I try to remember any older heroines in the books I’ve been reading.  The only recent one who comes to mind is the narrator in Alice LaPlante’s TURN OF MIND (a terrific novel by the way).  Alas, although that heroine is tough, smart, and determined, she also has Alzheimer’s disease.  Not exactly the sexy heroine I’m looking for.

I confess, I too have been guilty of ignoring the fifty-year-old heroine.  Part of it was my desire to meet the demands of the fiction market.  People want to read about sexy heroines, don’t they?  And if I want to sell film rights, wouldn’t a younger heroine be more attractive to Hollywood?  Years ago, I wrote a book that featured a number of senior citizens (LIFE SUPPORT), and one of the discouraging comments I got from my then-Hollywood agent was a dubious: “Gee, there are an awful lot of old people in this story, aren’t there?”

When I started my writing career, it made sense for me to focus on young heroines, because I could identify with them.  As I got older, so did my heroines.  They matured into their thirties and then their forties, just as I did.  But suddenly I hit fifty, and my heroines didn’t cross that line with me.  They stayed frozen at forty-something, the oldest age that I believed the marketplace would still accept them as romantic heroines.  I certainly know that women can be sexy at all ages; I just didn’t have any faith that readers would think so.  Or that they’d accept a 50+ woman as an action hero.  

Then, a few years ago, I came across an article about martial arts master Bow Sim Mark.  Now in her seventies, Master Mark is credited with bringing Chinese martial arts to Boston, where she still teaches at the studio she founded.  How cool, I thought.  Here’s an older woman who really can kick ass.  And swing a sword.  And even take down a Navy Seal. If a woman like this exists in real life, why couldn’t I put her in a novel?

So I did.  In THE SILENT GIRL, the character of Iris Fang is a 55-year-old martial arts master who not only swings swords and takes down bad guys, she’s also sexy.  So sexy, in fact, that Detective Barry Frost, who’s two decades younger, develops a wild crush on her.  Unlikely, you say?

No more unlikely than a real 70-year-old female martial arts master.  Or a 98-year-old woman who just earned her tenth-degree black belt in judo.

As I scan popular fiction and film, I find that on the rare occasions when an older woman does play action hero, it’s a real crowd pleaser.  In the movie RED, about retired CIA agents called back to action, the scene everyone seems to love best is Helen Mirren grabbing a gun and shooting up the place.  In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part Two, the audience whooped in delight when staid Professor McGonagall went wand to wand in a fierce duel with Snape, and when mad mama Molly Weasley finished off evil Bellatrix LeStrange.  Call it hot flash fury; these women are forces to be reckoned with.  They may be silver-haired but they’re also capable, powerful, and ready to fight.

We all know such women exist in real life.  Now it’s time we start seeing more of them in fiction.

 

(I am in Australia on book tour so won’t be able to respond to comments.  But I’m looking forward to reading what you all have to say!)

 

 

24 thoughts on “Disappearing Women

  1. Gayle Carline

    My BFF and I created a hero for our generation: Peri Menopause, Private Eye. She solves every case by eating chocolate, crying, and bitch-slapping people until someone confesses.

    When I decided to write a mystery, I took our little joke and made her a real, 50-year old woman who is physically fit, has a steady boyfriend (with a healthy sex life), and basically lives her life as if she's got a good 75 years more to go. She's not as much of an ass-kicker as your Iris, but she's unafraid of a little confrontation and she gets the job done.

    I consider my books as one small attempt to let the world know us old chicks ain't dead yet.

    BTW, there's a website devoted to women who are not willing to be invisible. It's http://womenover45speak.com.

    Reply
  2. Sarah W

    They aren't hot flashes . . . they're power surges. But Louise is right—terrific title!

    My first drawer mystery featured a widow of retirement age who happens to be a self-taught, naturally-talented car thief. It's just a hobby, reallyโ€”a way to punish people who park in handicapped spots or take up two spaces or just tick her off. She usually gives them back or just re-parks them somewhere else. But then she relocates the wrong car, finds a dead man in her own trunk, and receives visits from two different sets of men in dark suits . . .

    She also dates the owner of a high-end used car business (where she found the wrong car) and, potentially, one of the be-suited men.

    (as I recall, it was dreadfully written, but I've been practicing since then . . . maybe I should take another look)

    Reply
  3. Linda Rodriguez

    Tess,

    You might want to check out Sophie Littlefield's books, A Bad Day for Sorry, A Bad Day for Pretty, and A Bad Day for Scandal. Her heroine, Stella Hardesty, is in her 50s and about as kickass as you could want–with a sexy sheriff interested romantically. The books are a lot of fun.

    Linda

    Reply
  4. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Great post, Tess! I read about the ninety-eight year old woman last week and was blown away. I'm glad you're going with your instincts and not "playing to the market," because nobody knows what the market wants. I think your fans will go wherever you take them.

    Reply
  5. Pari Noskin

    I've noticed the same phenomenon, Tess. It's aggravating, but I'm glad we're starting to see at least a few heroines who'd lived through menopause and found their inner warrior.

    Reply
  6. Jill James

    Tess, just started The Silent Girl, can't wait to read it all now. I don't understand the young heroine so well anymore that 50 is fast approaching. I don't feel old. If I didn't have my wonderful husband I would like to think I could still find someone. 50 is older, not dead!!! I love Sophie Littlefield's Stella Hardesty. She is awesomeness.

    Reply
  7. Zoรซ Sharp

    Hi Tess

    What a great topic. And I'm another one who's in for THE SILENT GIRL. Sounds like my kind of heroine.

    I'd never considered the onset of encroaching invisibility. Maybe because I've never thought I had much by way of looks to lose, that aspect of aging doesn't bother me. As long as my brain stays sharp (no pun intended) that's fine with me ;-]

    Oh, and Sarah – definitely have another look at your car thief book – sounds like it could be a blast!

    Reply
  8. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I think writer/director Nancy Meyers has done a wonderful thing with a couple of her last films – IT'S COMPLICATED and SOMETHING'S GOTTA GIVE – portraying strong and sexy romantic comedy heroines (although I didn't find the older woman/younger man pairing in SGG any more appealing than I find the older man/younger woman pairing – it's icky either way.)

    Unfortunately we're probably going to see FEWER strong older women in TV and film – the numbers are out on the current percentage of women directors and writers and they're dismal – 50 percent fewer in prime time television this year as compared to last.

    http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/news/la-et-women-in-tv-20110823,0,1107244.story

    So we're going to have to make up for it in our books, looks like.

    Reply
  9. Reine

    SILENT GIRL. Definitely. Cannot wait to read it! I may let my hair color grow out and take up wheelchair rugby. Thanks Tess.

    Reply
  10. PD Martin

    Great post, Tess! And it's definitely true about male action heroes (your examples of Harrison Ford, Sean Connery) playing kick ass characters and picking up the younger woman! Mmm…and I think people were/are WAY more surprised at Demi Moore's relationship with Ashton Kutcher than the many relationships in the public eye of an older man and younger woman.
    Phillipa

    Reply
  11. Laura

    Great post! I loved "The Silent Girl" and really enjoyed the character of Iris Fang. She was a force to be reckoned with. Hope you're enjoying your book tour down under! I look forward to seeing you this weekend! ๐Ÿ™‚

    Reply
  12. KDJames

    Oh, I love this post. My current ms features an old (in her 80s) very tough and mentally sharp female character.

    Quote: Whoever had decided to poke this old tired bear would do well to remember that she was, after all, still a bear.

    I love her. She reminds me of all the exceptionally strong women in my family. So much fun to write.

    Moving THE SILENT GIRL up a little higher on the TBR pile and hoping that doing so won't destroy the delicate balance. Or at least that I survive the resultant avalanche.

    Reply
  13. Sylvia

    Wonderful post! Yes, give me women in their 50's who are kicking ass, taking names and thanking the stars that the kids are off to college (or even done paying college tuition). Let men in their 50's be the fuddy-duddies because, well, they really can be.

    Love it.

    Reply
  14. Micki D.

    Those aren't hot flashes!!! They are power surges!!! now you have me wondering how old is Temperance Brennan???
    lol right now I am so past 50…. it does my heart good when a more mature woman kicks ass!!
    I wonder how Debt with Helen Mirren is going to go??
    Have a better day… take care of you… post some pictures Lady!!!! lol go look at Nora Roberts FB page… you could do something like that??!!! surely there are plenty of pretty sites over there!!!!

    Reply
  15. Elle B | Later Bloomer

    So true! And it's no help that many self-help gurus over 50 (let alone actresses) look completely unnatural. Every time I see Suze Orman, I cringe. Thank goodness for Helen Mirren!

    Check out Eugenia West's thriller series. Her protagonist is a former opera singer in her 50s and West wrote the first one at 84!

    Reply
  16. Tonya Rice

    Awesome points. I thought about this the other day as I worked on my draft of my first novel. My primary character is a woman well past the age of fifty: the feisty matriarch, brought from the traditional background of fiction to the front. There aren't many stories of middle-aged (and beyond) women out there. It's a shame, they have so much more to bring.

    Reply
  17. NBrown

    I have always thought there should be more mature women in popular fiction. In my own work, I have a character in her 70s who was supposed to be a minor character, but she just won't shut up and she keeps doing things that bring her into the main storyline. I hope I'm like her when I'm in my 70s.

    Reply
  18. Rosa St.Claire

    Tess, I truly enjoyed The Silent Girl. I admire you for writing about a woman in her fifties with a younger guy, Frost. The sad part is that this invisibility mantle ia also applied everywhere else. It has been extended to the parts offered actors and actresses. Where was Meg Ryan years ago? She played those delicious America's Sweetheart's roles, mostly with her romantic counterpart, Tom Hanks in Sleepless in Seattle, Joe Versus the Volcano, etc., but now Hanks is still playing romantic roles, while Meg has disappeared from the screen. Like Ryan, there are so many actresses, who have been ignored, because they are older. Helen Mirren, bless her, has been an exception. Good writers, like you, and Agatha Christie, among a few, ignore what almost everyone else does, and march to your own drum. Did Christie do a survey if an older woman character would be accepted? For Heaven's sakes- No! She created Jane Marple, who went on to be one of the most successful characters in the history of books, like your character, Iris Fang. But in order to fight those committing this "crime" of discarding older women characters,for younger ones, we have to write emails whenever possible to complain. Words stay in the air, but the written word is permanent. a few minutes to dash off an email to Hanks, or whomever is in charge to suggest that older women characters CAN BE JUST AS SUCCESSFUL, will not only throw the word out there, but it'll also give the writer such a great feeling of exhiliration.

    Reply
  19. Rosa St.Claire

    Tess, I truly enjoyed The Silent Girl. I admire you for writing about a woman in her fifties with a younger guy, Frost. The sad part is that this invisibility mantle ia also applied everywhere else. It has been extended to the parts offered actors and actresses. Where was Meg Ryan years ago? She played those delicious America's Sweetheart's roles, mostly with her romantic counterpart, Tom Hanks in Sleepless in Seattle, Joe Versus the Volcano, etc., but now Hanks is still playing romantic roles, while Meg has disappeared from the screen. Like Ryan, there are so many actresses, who have been ignored, because they are older. Helen Mirren, bless her, has been an exception. Good writers, like you, and Agatha Christie, among a few, ignore what almost everyone else does, and march to your own drum. Did Christie do a survey if an older woman character would be accepted? For Heaven's sakes- No! She created Jane Marple, who went on to be one of the most successful characters in the history of books, like your character, Iris Fang. But in order to fight those committing this "crime" of discarding older women characters,for younger ones, we have to write emails whenever possible to complain. Words stay in the air, but the written word is permanent. a few minutes to dash off an email to Hanks, or whomever is in charge to suggest that older women characters CAN BE JUST AS SUCCESSFUL, will not only throw the word out there, but it'll also give the writer such a great feeling of exhiliration.

    Reply
  20. Rosa St.Claire

    Tess, I truly enjoyed The Silent Girl. I admire you for writing about a woman in her fifties, with a younger guy, Barry Frost. The sad part is that this invisibility mantle is also applied almost everywhere else. It has been extended to the parts offered actors and actresses. Where was Meg Ryan years ago? She played those delicious America's Sweetheart's roles, mostly with her romantic counterpart, Tom Hanks in Sleepless in Seattle, Joe Versus the Volcano, etc., but now Hanks is still playing romantic roles, while Meg has disappeared from the screen. Like Ryan, there are so many actresses, who have been ignored, because they are older. Helen Mirren, bless her, has been an exception. Good writers, like you, and Agatha Christie, among a few, ignore what almost everyone else does, and march to your own drum. Did Christie do a survey to see if an older woman character would be accepted? For Heaven's sakes- No! She created Jane Marple, who went on to be one of the most successful characters in the history of books, like your character, Iris Fang. But in order to fight those committing this "crime" of discarding older women characters,for younger ones, we have to write emails whenever possible to complain. Words stay in the air, but the written word is permanent. a few minutes to dash off an email to Hanks, or whomever is in charge to suggest that older women characters CAN BE JUST AS SUCCESSFUL, will not only throw the word out there, but it'll also give the writer such a great feeling of exhiliration.

    Reply

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