TRR Forum:
It's Never Too Late:
A Protest Against Age Discrimination in Romance Novels

by Lesley Dunlap
It wasn’t all that many years ago that category romances broke the age barrier. Instead of the virginal heroine in her late-teens or early 20's, authors were allowed to write about “older” heroines in their late 20's with some (usually limited) sexual experience. Big whoop. Here’s a news flash, people: late 20's is not old!

Why is there a nearly universal attitude in romance publishing that once a woman reaches the age when she might need a bra for more than merely emotional support and when she’s becoming a bit more assiduous in checking out the SPF number in sunscreen products she’s past the age of rampant passions and into the age of sensible shoes? Women may hit their sexual peak in their 30's, but you couldn’t tell it based on romance novels. There seems to be an unwritten rule that around the age of 39 vibrant goes to vacuous. Characters literally and figuratively put on their most comfortable cardigan sweaters and comfy slippers because it’s all downhill from there.

If the ultimate goal of romance is a happily ever after for the vivacious heroine and her ardent hero, doesn’t that mean that final kiss in the last paragraph is the harbinger of years and years of passionate encounters to come?

Then why are all the “older” couples so passionless? The females are relegated to the edge of the dance floor. The males play cards and drink port. And they both have hearing problems. They’re garrulous and crotchety. They’re avuncular or eccentric. Not to mention that they don’t seem to have the intellectual capacity of a rock. All mental and sexual activity is consigned to the younger generation. Think about all those scenes where the virile hero is having a discussion with his aging mentor. The hero always brings an insight and intelligence to the issue while the aging mentor’s left with nodding his head in awed agreement. So much for the wisdom that comes with age and experience.

Studies have proved that many seniors are sexually active, and stars like Renee Russo and Sela Ward demonstrate that allure doesn’t stop at age 29, so why do most romance characters enter the realm of the dumb and sexless before they hit middle age? In a recent Susan Andersen romance, All Shook Up, a secondary character is suffering with hot flashes. Those hormones aren’t the fount of deathless passion but rather the butt of an over-long and slightly mean-spirited joke. (One wonders if Ms. Andersen will find them quite so funny when she experiences them herself.)

When older couples do get a little romance, it’s usually tepid at best. In Shirlee Busbee’s Gypsy Lady, the hero’s mother is reunited with her lover of her youth. She’s in her 40's, and the hero doesn’t believe they’ll do anything because they’re too old. (Of course, it’s a widely known fact that one’s parents never had sex.) The relationship of the older couple in Catherine Anderson’s Phantom Waltz is closer to worship from afar than lust up close and personal. Why are authors so reluctant to let their post-35 characters demonstrate a little lust?

In Susan Elizabeth Phillips’s Heaven, Texas, the hero’s widowed mother (sporting an estrogen patch on her tummy) becomes involved with a man. Rather than grabbing him and searching out the closest bed, she acts like a reluctant Victorian virgin. What happened to ‘been there done that’? The younger generation sinks to the floor or does it against a wall, but Mama’s too shy. Sure she doesn’t look like a Victoria’s Secret model, but everyone knows they’re computer generated and surgically enhanced so no one does!

A recent category romance by Sharon Sala, Familiar Stranger, features a hero and heroine in midlife, but they knew each other years earlier and had a child together (although, of course, he never knew because romance heroes would never willingly abandon a child). This is a matter of rekindling an old flame not igniting a new one.

Enough already.

What romance needs is a few more couples like Alinor and Ian (of Roberta Gellis’s magnificent Roselynde Chronicles), Claire and Jamie (of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series), and Buffalo Dreamer and Rising Eagle (of Rosanne Bittner’s native American Mystic series). It’s a sad commentary that I can count on one hand the number of fictional couples who pass the big four-oh and are still hot and horny for each other. An even sadder commentary is that these are all characters in a romance series–characters whom we met when they were younger and have watched as they kept the passion through parenthood and into grandparenthood.

In The Fiery Cross, the most recent Diana Gabaldon novel, Claire and Jamie are in their 50's and they haven’t lost a thing–in fact, they’re contemplating another half century of more of the same. Familiarity has not bred contempt or indifference. Claire’s put on some weight; Jamie’s getting gray, but that hasn’t cooled their ardor. And you get the impression that if they were to meet now for the first time, they’d still be irresistibly drawn to each other.

I’ll admit that I think a category romance series called Sexy Seniors is likely to have a limited audience (with an increasingly graying population, who knows?), but must we cater to an “oh, gross” attitude by ignoring reality? Must any age past mid-30's be synonymous with asexual? Once a female character reaches that magic age, the old madonna/whore dichotomy goes right out the window. She’s no longer capable of being either. Male characters (who get an extra five to ten years on the female characters) become either impotent or dirty old men. Not a great choice.

So here’s my plea to romance authors and editors: End age discrimination! Let’s have some mature characters who still have a few operating hormones coursing through their bodies. Let those men out of card rooms and onto the dance floor with their wives and lady friends. Let heated glances pass through bifocals. Let sexual experience mean years of loving with a spouse rather than sleazy encounters with bar maids and dance hall girls.

Romance is not solely the province of the young!

But that's my opinion. What's yours?

Readers, email The Romance Reader with your opinion. Have an idea for a Forum of your own? Let us know.

December 20, 2001

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