Book publishers and movie and TV producers don’t know what to do with middle-aged individuals, especially women. Think about it.
Many of the middle-aged women in novels and films are victims - mothers who lost their children and wives abused by their husbands and/or the welfare and penal systems. They’re often pathetic, and they certainly don’t radiate a positive image for middle-aged women, at least at the start of the novels.
Successful professionals in many romance, suspense, and mystery novels are unrealistically young. Most physicians are close to thirty-five by the time they complete medical school, their basic residency, and their fellowships. Less than three percent of the principal investigators on major grants from the National Institutes of Health are thirty-six or younger. However, physicians and scientists in novels are world-class experts in their field in their early thirties. Wow!
Sometimes, writers create “fortyish” physicians and scientists as protagonists in their novels, but the characters are transformed into thirty-year-olds in TV series and movies. A prime example is Kathy’s Reichs’s Tempe Brennan character in the TV series Bones.
Middle-aged protagonists are problematic in thriller and adventure fiction. The comic book action heroes (Superman, Batman, Spiderman, X-Men) grew out of cartoons and more recently video games designed to appeal to adolescent males. Not surprisingly the characters never aged past thirty-five. The fate of women protagonists – Lara Croft and Superwoman — in this genre is worse. They seem to stay eternally in their twenties.
The more “realistic” action heroes, such as John McClane, Indiana Jones and Rambo, were conceived of as sexy, active men in their thirties. However, middle age has snuck into action films as Bruce Willis, Harrison Ford, and Sly Stallone aged. Screenwriters ignored the problems engendered by middle-aged stars, and producers hired more stunt doubles and starlets twenty years than the stars. One exception to my statements is RED (Retired and Extremely Dangerous). The scriptwriter let the characters show their age and eliminated extreme action scenes or gave them a humorous twist. The film even has woman action hero – Helen Mirren.
Most middle-aged characters in novels, TV shows, and movies are forgettable. The cast of Downtown Abbey supplies good examples of the fate of middle-aged characters. Julian Fellows wrote the most interesting lines for the elderly, sharp-tongued Violet Crawley, played by Maggie Smith. The under-thirty crowd provides all the action and romance in the series. The two main middle-aged characters, the Earl of Grantham and his wife, are costumed background pieces, who spout trite phrases. Similarly, Agatha Christie’s Jane Marple is an elderly spinster, not a middle-aged woman.
There is one class of novels, which defy the norms. Protagonists of most cozy mysteries are middle-aged women, but often they are so addled they’re contemptible.
Why don’t writers make their protagonists be articulate, fit women in theirs forties and fifties? Women who could be portrayed by Helen Mirren, Judi Dench, Sigourney Weaver, or Alfre Woodard.
Don’t laugh at my question. The middle-aged market is large. According to the census in the U.S. in 2000 and the census in the U.K. in 2011, about one-half of the females in these countries are between thirty and sixty-five years of age. The Motion Picture Association of America found a quarter of all moviegoers are over fifty, and the percentage is growing.
My message is: authors should populate their novels with more smart, fit women in their forties and older.
I practice what I preach. The heroine in my medical thriller series is Sara Almquist, an epidemiologist who retired early to get away from the male-dominated academia. She’s energetic and attractive, but doesn’t attempt to be twenty again. Here’s how Rachel Jones, twenty-nine-year-old blonde beauty describes Sara in Malignancy.
What do Chuy and the other men see in her? She does have guts, but look at her. She has no style. Her pixie haircut accentuates the small sags in her jaw line, her slightly droopy eyelids, and her ten pounds of extra weight.
I can tell Rachel what the men see in Sara: a resourceful woman who helped to find a cure for a deadly flu epidemic in Coming Flu, consulted on public health problems in Bolivia in Ignore the Pain, and helped set up exchanges between scientists in the U.S. and Cuba in Malignancy. And that’s the only the work-related side of her life. She never flinches (well, not much) when she confronts a drug czar in the Albuquerque area with strong ties in Bolivia.
Bio: As a professor in nutrition at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I honed my story-telling skills as I lectured to bleary-eyed students at 8:30 in the morning. Students remember chemical reactions better when the instructor attaches stories to the processes.
Now I have two great passions – my Japanese Chin dog, Bug, and travel. I’ve included both in my novels: Coming Flu, Murder: A New Way to Lose Weight, Ignore the Pain, and Malignancy. You can learn more about me at my website: and blog (JL Greger’s Bugs): . I also answer question directed to: JLGreger@oaktreebooks.com
MALIGNANCY: Men disguised as police officers shoot at Sara Almquist twice in one day. Albuquerque police suspect Jim Mazzone, a drug czar who Sara has tangled with several times, will order more hits on Sara. Thus when colleagues in the State Department invite Sara to arrange scientific exchanges between the U.S. and Cuba, she jumps at the chance to get out of town and to see the mysterious Xave Zack, who rescued her in Bolivia. Maybe, she should question their motives.
Malignancy is available (paperback and Kindle formats) at Amazon and Oak Tree Press: firstname.lastname@example.org.