50 Shades, Not Yet Grey


All the hand-wringing surrounding the recent casting of a certain movie raised an issue that’s been on my mind for a while. Not about the casting, or how they’re going to manage to maintain the ‘integrity’ of the book on which the movie is based while securing an R rating. No, the issue is with erotic romances themselves.

Mind you, I’m a sucker for this genre. I love the escape, the fantasy, and yes, the sex. As a Women’s Studies major in college, intellectually, I know I shouldn’t. In fact, I’m sure they’ve long since rescinded my degree. But whether it’s because I’ve lost my youthful idealism, or I’m just looking for a break from reality, I am an erotica junkie. I read a new book every few days. And here’s the rub: I’m also a lot older than any of the characters I read about. So, while my biggest beef should probably be with what some of these characters do for love, or the improbable story lines, it’s less with that and more with the fact that almost all the protagonists are just barely women in their early 20s.

I get it, it’s fantasy, and as a writer, I peddle in fantasy to a certain extent. So if an entire narrative is unbelievable, why get hung up on a small detail like the main character’s age? Because, it’s the reader’s fantasy, too. And some of us are in our 30s or, gasp, even our 40s, and we want to relate to these characters. We want to read about women who aren’t 22, but who are still damn sexy and having amazing sex. I know the likelihood of being swept off my feet by a charming, handsome billionaire is lower than the chance of winning the lottery, getting struck by lightening and being hit by an asteroid, but a girl (woman) can still fantasize, no matter how unlikely. The one thing I can’t hope for? Being 22 again. And, just to set the record straight, I wouldn’t ever want to be in my 20s again. As far as I’m concerned, clarity far outweighs gravity, pun intended.

So if 40 really is the new 20, then why don’t our romance novels reflect that? Give me a character who has a little life experience. She can still be hot. In today’s pilates-yoga-no carbs obsessed society, it’s not a stretch to be as sexy, or sexier at 40 than many women decades their junior.  

Still, it seems so many authors think if they’re writing a love story, and steamy one at that, it can only work if the female lead hasn’t aged out of her second decade. With the majority of romance and erotica authors being female, why are women perpetuating the stereotype? Where are the strong, sexy 30 and 40-somethings being swept off their feet and having mind-blowing orgasms? Have we truly come such a long way if only inexperienced, virginal, impressionable young women are still the archetypal characters?

TV has somewhat embraced the notion that experienced women can be sexy, too. While the landscape isn’t littered, the mold was broken long ago, starting with the ladies of Sex and the City. Ironic, and perhaps proving my point is that they’ve been replaced by the less than sexy young Girls. Carrie and Co. showed us that over 30, and 40, could indeed be fabulous. And poor Hannah reminds us that sex as a 20-something is so often about insecurities and all of the horrible, awkward, uncomfortable experiences. It’s ok, Hannah. It gets better. Trust me. If you don’t trust me, trust Samantha.

I’m not suggesting that TV is the promise land for positive, progressive or realistic female role models. But as mass media, even though it’s still doing whatever it can to get that coveted 18-49 year old audience, it realizes that two-thirds of that demo is in their 30s and 40s, and as such, has strong sexy characters like Alicia Florrick or Rayna James.

So if TV has realized that its audiences might want relatable characters, what’s taking the literary world so long?

It doesn’t take an advanced degree to understand that men fantasize about and idolize young, nubile, moldable virgins. But by and large, men are neither writing nor reading these books. Women are, and we’re the ones perpetuating the notion that only young women can be desirable. So let’s stop contributing to the sexualization of younger and younger girls, and embrace the strong, sexy, experienced protagonist. Maybe then they’ll reinstate my degree. Unlikely, but a woman can dream.