As an avid reader, I’ve got to know lots of different characters over the years. Some I’ve liked, others I haven’t; some have been memorable; others have disappeared from memory like water down the drain. I’ve solved mysteries with genius detectives, chased down fortunes with fearsome pirates, fought in desolate wastelands with friends I’ve seen die and danced at balls in the company of lovestruck heroines and surly bachelors. I’ve sipped on butter beer with teen wizards, found myself trapped in the stomach of a gigantic whale, brought a monster to life with lightening and climbed through a wardrobe alongside four children. Yet there’s one group of people I have little to no memory of spending any quality time with; literature labels them as the ‘older’ women.
I say ‘older’ with a hefty pinch of salt for I don’t consider many of the women the name refers to as old at all. Rather, the title encapsulates any woman who has the care-free years of her youth behind her and who has already gathered a wealth a life experiences before the story begins. A mature woman, one often shaped before the story and not by it. Often, these are characters consigned to supporting roles within the main plot. We can all name examples of a kindly fairy godmother character or wicked and vindictive step-mother, but rarely do we find these characters as a protagonist. It is as if once woman have passed a certain number of years, they are doomed to be relegated to background noise in someone else’s story.
But why is this?
It’s a sad fact of life that ours is a society obsessed by beauty. Turn on the TV or flip over the pages of a magazine and you are confronted with myriad beautiful women with one thing in common; youth. Ageism is rife in Hollywood, yet it tend to be the women who fall foul of its disapproval rather than the men. In an interview with AARP, Actress Jessica Lange said:
“Ageism is pervasive in this industry. It’s not a level playing field. You don’t often see women in their 60s playing romantic leads, yet you will see men in their 60s playing romantic leads with costars who are decades younger.”
Sadly, archaic attitudes are hard to break. Women over a certain age seem to lose visibility in the media and in life. In a society that places so much emphasis on physical beauty, every day we are made to feel that ageing is the enemy, that our wrinkles make us undesirable, obscene. Every day, we are bombarded by adverts for anti-ageing products. Getting older, we are told, is bad. Rather than accepting the gradual ascent of time we are coerced into fighting it, encouraged to preserve our youth for as long as possible because isn’t that our prime currency of value? It’s laughable and raw all at once.
For writers, there is undeniably an attractiveness to youth. Its naivety and recklessness lends itself to storytelling. We laugh at juvenile folly and feel the tragedy of things so acutely. It is a stage of life that summons recognition and nostalgia. When I think of some of my favourite female characters from literature - Elizabeth Bennet, Jane Eyre, Tess Durbeyfield, Estella Havisham - I am ashamed to find that few of them are over thirty. On the other hand, I have no such struggle thinking of books that have men above the age of thirty as one of the primary characters.
Why has the middle aged woman become invisible?
Marketing plays a part. Statistically, books with younger female characters sell better and so are more likely to be picked up by agents and publishers. As of 2018, 84% of 18 to 29 years olds in the US buy books compared to 74% of 30 - 49 year olds and 71% of 50 - 69 year olds. When a certain demographic is more inclined to buy a book, sadly this ends up being reflected in the offerings.
A maturer character poses different, often uncomfortable questions for writers too, but also provide a wealth of content. Our own mortality nips at our heels. Musings about things we have already learnt, mistakes we have already made, decisions and ideas that have to a certain extent already shaped us. There are so many possibilities for narratives here, with so many different questions that can be asked. Love, loss, regret… all themes that become increasing prevalent in life and only grow in potency as we age.
So why aren’t more authors exploring this?
Women of all ages are complex and deserve to be visible. We can’t be the only ones who think it’s time for a shake up from the current trend of confining women to supporting roles in literature and films the minute they’re the ‘wrong’ side of thirty. Like a fine wine, people grow in complexity as they age. We’re more than a face and more than a body; it’s time women got to read about ourselves like that too.
Atonement - Ian McEwan
Miss Marple - Agatha Christie
Great Expectations - Charles Dickens
Mrs Dalloway - Virgina Woolf
The Blind Assassin - Margaret Atwood
Felix Holt, The Radical - George Eliot