Thursday, July 21, 2011

Too old is ten years more than me!

Elizabeth Zelvin

The expression as I first heard it was “middle age is ten years more than me.” I used it as the punch line of a very clever song, “Middle Age,” that I wrote at the age of forty-five. Over the years, I’ve revised the song several times, adding verses as things got more difficult or impossible, creaked, ached, fell out or off, and popped up on my body and into my mind. The current version, which will appear on my album Outrageous Older Woman, is retitled “Creeping Age,” and the punch line is: “Too damn old is ten years more than me!”

The above is an explanatory preface to my justifiable rant about mysteries in which the protagonist, or perhaps a sidekick or quirky relative, is described as elderly, or alternatively, spry or feisty and resentful about being perceived as elderly—and then revealed as being in her sixties. It’s usually “her,” and the offending books are usually cozies, most often those their authors or publishers label humorous. I love my cozy writer friends, but if a book is really funny, it doesn’t need a label. Readers will figure it out when it makes them laugh. The term “humorous” is as unnecessary and irritating to some of us as the laugh track on a TV sitcom. For me, I’m less likely to find something funny if I’m coached to do so.

Oddly, the same writers who clearly consider their characters in their sixties over the hill sometimes make the currently fashionable comment that “sixty is the new thirty,” or as I recently read in one such work, “sixty is the new forty.” If they really believe the latter, the words elderly, spry, and feisty are out of place. Forty-year-olds have careers. They are sexually active without having to giggle about it. They acquire new knowledge and continue to develop emotionally. The same can be said of the women I know, including myself, who are eligible for Social Security and Medicare.

In the revered Nero Wolfe books, published between 1934 and 1974, Archie Goodwin has a way of referring to an older woman as “on the shady side of thirty.” When such a woman is attractive, he remarks on it with surprise. If you think about it, the fact that this sounds fairly absurd today (unless, perhaps, you’re a nineteen-year-old boy) illuminates the way in which sixty really has become the new thirty in our day. I’m not denying that some things, including my memory and my joints, don’t work as well at sixty-seven as they did when I was younger. But for heaven’s sake, write—and treat—women my age as grownups, not little old ladies.


Sheila Connolly said...

Amen. I recently read a book (which I will not name) in which the protagonist's children were encouraging her to move into a retirement community, because they thought her activities (including snooping around murder) were not age-appropriate. She was in her early sixties. Bah! Actually I was insulted because the writer suggested that the thirty-something children would think this poorly of their parent.

Check out Cynthia Riggs' series, with a protagonist who is well into her eighties--and a deputy sheriff. What about Jane Marple?

What ever happened to "with age comes wisdom"?

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Sheila, I'm sure I read the same book--but thanks to my aging memory, I can't remember the title or author. ;)

Sandra Parshall said...

Another amen from me. If you call me elderly, be prepared to learn just how "feisty" I can be. Women tend to "disappear" when they hit middle age, and by the time they're 60, a lot of younger people seem to look right through them, as if they're not important enough to acknowledge. Well, those 20-somethings and 30-somethings will be 60 someday too, if they live long enough. I hope they enjoy being invisible.

I agree completely that cozies are the novels that do the most to perpetuate the myth that women in their 60s and older are frail, out of touch with the world, and teetering on the brink of senility.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

I don't feel invisible, though the nature of the attention I get has changed somewhat. I do strive to be an Outrageous Older Woman (except when I'm wearing my virtual therapist hat). I'm thinking that when I finish the CD of that title and get a website for it up, I may run some kind of Outrageous Older Woman contest. I posted a great example on Facebook today, if you want to check it out. :)

Camille Minichino said...

I agree that cozies are guilty, especially since cozy reviewers tend to use words like (ugh) "feisty" and "spry" in their descriptions.

But "thrillers" also perpetuate the myth of sexless 60-somethings. I can't think of an action hero protagonist who "dates" any but the younger crowd. For them, attractive is ten years younger than they are.

Great post, Elizabeth.

Sandra Parshall said...

I just finished reading Tess Gerritsen's new book, The Silent Girl, in which Rizzoli's colleage Detective Frost (who I believe is in his 30s) becomes enamored of a Chinese-American woman two decades older than he is. Rizzoli makes fun of Frost for liking "old ladies" but Gerritsen writes this woman as a strong and fearless kung fu master who wields an ancient sword. She's an unforgettable character.

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Kind regards,