Do Genre Restraints Create Ageism?

 

Wouldn’t it be nice to visit with Buffy now that she is middle aged?

Being a middle-aged woman who has been a fangirl most of her life, I find there is a dearth of middle-aged women characters in popular culture (unless you count all the evil stepmothers in fairy tales). And yet, with middle-aged women being one of the largest consumers and creators of pop culture and anything in the fantasy/science fiction genre, you would expect plenty of representation. I can only think of one or two really memorable middle-aged character; most female protagonists are usually very young or very old females.

My favourite is the menopausal witch, Jenny Waynest, in the Winterlands novels by Barbara Hambly.

This image is from the cover of Dragonsbane. That is meant to be Jenny being cradled in the talons of the dragon. As you can see, that damsel is a rather attractive young woman with a strategically torn dress. Jenny is meant to be short, mousy, and not fashion model pretty.

A quick search of the usual fan art sites on the internet comes up with just a few images of Jenny – with only one showing Jenny as a human. Most show her in her dragon form. If I turned up dressed as (the human) Jenny to a cosplay event, I doubt anyone would get my character right. Most would think I was Nanny Ogg or Professor McGonagall, who are considered elderly rather than middle aged (though McGonagall was only middle-aged in the books).

Lady Sybil with her husband Sir Samuel Vimes, the Duke of Ankh Morpork

Even Terry Pratchett has only a few middle-aged female characters, like Lady Sybil Vimes and Lady Margolotta (though, as a vampire, does Margolotta Amaya Katerina Assumpta Crassina Von Uberwald really count?). They are only secondary characters, though Sibyl does manage to play a major role in several Discworld novels. Middle-aged women are nearly invisible in Discworld, think Doreen Winkings (vampire by marriage), Mrs Evadne Cake, and the series of humorous landladies that pop up in the books. It must be noted that in all the Tiffany Aching books, we never learn what her mother’s Christian name might be, though we know her father’s name is Joe and her grandmother was Sarah.

(By the way Disney, you couldn’t do better than to convert Tiffany’s books into animated movies. The story for ‘Wintersmith’ will make everyone forget Frozen.)

 

Thanks to Doctor Who being such a long running show, we have had the opportunity to see characters age, including everyone’s favourite companion, Sarah Jane Smith. Sarah Jane managed to remain feisty, opinionated,and strong willed to the very end; it is a damned shame Elisabeth Sladen died so young and will never get to see an elderly old lady with grit and wisdom. And River Song has to be considered middle aged, even though she isn’t exactly human, as she is played by Alex Kingston who is 53 (same age as me).

Of course, genre has a major impact on the ages of your main characters. In Young Adult fiction, the protagonists are going to be teens or a little older (or at least look like teenagers, even if they are hundreds of years old – I’m looking at you Twilight). Older women might play secondary roles, but they are never going to be the protagonists. However, why does nearly every other television show, movie or dystopian novel assume only young people can be protagonists? Where are the middle-aged female superheroes suffering from menopause and finding it difficult to fit into the same clothes they were wearing in their twenties? Do the genre markers for our various narratives actually encourage ageism?

Captain Janeway – she never seems to garner the same enthusiasm in fans as Kirk, Picard, Sisko or Archer. (Except in slash fiction.)

Genre fiction is supposed to be able to take risks and envision strange, new worlds. So why are middle-aged women so under-represented? If you can think of a middle-aged lady protagonist in any Steampunk narratives (not a secondary character or antagonist) that will rock the world like Buffy, please feel free to let me know!

 

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4 Comments

Filed under Ageism, Characterization, Feminism, Gender and Sexuality, Genre, Genre Markers, Pop Culture, Steampunk Feminist, Steampunk Genre, Steampunk Writer, Subgenres of Steampunk, Uncategorized, writing, Writing Style

4 responses to “Do Genre Restraints Create Ageism?

  1. Briar Wilkes, female protagonist of Cherie Priest’s *Boneshaker* has a 16-year old son. She must be at least mid-30s. Qualified?

  2. Karen Black

    Take a look at “Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen,” the latest book by Lois McMaster Bujold. I think you’ll find in Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan the protagonist you seek. Or if you prefer fantasy to science fiction, Bujold’s “Paladin of Souls” is well worth reading.

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