Disappearing Women

Hands from a centenarianThis essay originally appeared on Murderati and is reprinted here with the kind permission of 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.

Tess Gerritsen is a physician and an internationally bestselling author. She gained nationwide acclaim for her first novel of suspense, the New York Times bestseller Harvest. She is also the author of the bestsellers Ice Cold, The Keepsake, The Bone Garden, The Mephisto Club, Vanish, Body Double, The Sinner, The Apprentice, The Surgeon, Life Support, Bloodstream, and Gravity. Tess Gerritsen lives in Maine.