Secrets of Older Heroines

This week we welcome a guest post that exposes us to a simple notion, Age ain’t nothin’ but a number. Please help us welcome Samantha Bryant.

Some of the most fascinating people I’ve ever known are older women.  My grandmothers, aunts, and mother; librarians, friends, other teachers; moms who are ahead of me in the parent game, other writers; that woman I fell into a conversation with at the grocery store the other day when we stood there so long that my ice cream nearly melted. Older women are full of stories.

Older women don’t play games. They’ve figured out what they want and are taking the necessary steps to get it. They’re not waiting for someone to help them get there; they’re taking matters into their own hands.

Older women have history, and with history comes experience, skills, and secrets. They know things.  A lot of the time, they themselves are a well kept secret. They aren’t the names and faces on everyone’s lips, but they’re pulling the strings all the same.

As a writer, or maybe just as a human, I’m drawn to the hidden story. I like exploring the mess in the closet and understanding the things that were locked away. I’m interested in what people don’t want others to know. That’s the fun part. I don’t understand why more writers aren’t making use of older heroines.

No wrinkles? No thanks.

Heroines in most fiction, whether between pages, on the small screen, or on the big one, are unattached, traumatized or damaged in some way, and very very young. A look back on the heroines I’ve admired in my forty-year history as a fan of heroic fiction shows a lot of smooth, unscarred skin. From Charlie’s Angels to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Red Sonja to Black Widow, Sydney Bristow of Alias to Sarah Manning of Orphan Black, it’s a string of independent, tough-minded, and well trained women. And not a stretch mark or a gray hair among them.

When I’m feeling generous, I can interpret this as wish fulfillment rather than rampant sexism and ageism. Writers can sometimes get a bad case of “if I knew then what I know now” and write characters capable beyond what their age, training, and expertise makes likely or even plausible. Mostly, I’m too much a realist and pragmatist not to see it for what it is: a sign of the status of women in our culture. It’s depressing to think that all these years of fighting for women’s rights still haven’t made a place for fully adult women in the role of hero in our fiction. There’s progress. We’ve got heroines who are more than love interests for the male leads. But there’s room for more.  

There’s been a lot of discussion about what a strong, female character really is. In contemporary representation, largely she is some kind of paragon of physical prowess. Quite literally, a strong woman. I like this kind of character way better than I liked the doormats of the past, but she’s still not often a fully-developed, well-rounded and interesting person yet. In my view, a strong female character isn’t really any different than a strong male character; she needs to be fully developed, allowed to have flaws, history, motivations and doubts.

Maybe the one-note nature of some of these strong female characters comes about because our heroines are all so young. They are young adults, just finding their way in the world and getting to know themselves. They don’t have history and experience to pull on. They don’t yet know what they don’t know.

A few female characters are breaking down these walls in recent years: characters like Judi Dench’s M, Helen Mirren’s Victoria, and Ming-Na Wen’s Agent May or The Calvary. Women with history and experience, treachery and expertise. I’ve been thrilled to see more of these women showing up on the imaginary hero landscape. Now, I want more women like that who also have people they love in their lives. There are plenty of loner heroes, not so many heroes with a family. At least we have Helen Parr, even if she still lets people call her girl, Elasta-girl that is.

Menopause and Superpowers

My friend James Maxey (a great writer, and the person who introduced me to the superhero novel, a sub-genre of fantasy and science fiction I was previously completely unaware of, with his Nobody Gets the Girl) teaches writing classes at our shared public library sometimes. I’ve attended a few. One of my favorite insights from him is that story ideas spring from disparate and seemingly unrelated things clattering around together in that mysterious cauldron we call the writer’s brain.

So, here in Samantha’s brain we have: a love of secrets and being in the know, admiration of the elder women in my life, a lot of superhero stories from reading too many comic books, more than a little feminism and stubborn independence, and a fascination with old movies, especially old horror movies with mad scientists. Pour in writer’s brain, mix and let simmer until done. The result: Going Through the Change: A Menopausal Superhero Novel.

That interest in secrets (curiosity or nosiness, depending on who you ask) is probably what drew me to superhero stories in the first place. Superhero stories are full of secrets after all: secret identities, secret lairs, secret plans, secret weaknesses.  Whether or not that’s why, I’ve had a long-abiding love of superhero stories in all their forms: from cheesy television shows to glossy movies, in the comics, on the radio, and now in novels.  There’s something about the cape and tights set that has always captured my imagination, as far back as Underdog and Mighty Mouse.

One of my favorite kinds of stories to read is what I call the back-door story: the one that sneaks into a story you think you already know from another angle and makes you reconsider it. A great example is Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, which totally changed my reading of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.  Sure, we all know Rochester had a crazy wife in the attic. But Rhys was the one to wonder who she was and how she ended up there. (If you haven’t read it, you really should: brilliant).

So, my back door into superhero stories: menopause. After all, it seems that hormones cause superpowers. Why else would so many superheroes and heroines be somewhere between fourteen and seventeen years old? In mutant-superhero stories, puberty is sometimes the literal trigger. And if hormones cause superpowers, then who has the corner on that market? Menopausal women.

The more I thought about it, the more I loved the idea. I could have some fun playing with ideas I love and things that scare me, like doctors and getting old. And unlike angsty teenage superheroes, my women would have careers, families, mortgages, and responsibilities. What if your heroines weren’t footloose and fancy free, svelte and flexible? What if they weren’t particularly interested in being heroes?

Why I Love Writing Older Women

Once I developed some characters and started writing, it was clear that these women were full of fodder for great stories.

Part of the fun in writing is creating imaginary people, then messing up their lives. Doing this with older characters was even more fun because their lives were more fully established. They had families, children, grandchildren, careers, vacation plans, book clubs, and exercise regimens. They had worked hard to set up their lives the way they wanted, and then along came a meddling author to throw them a curveball in the form of superpowers.

Since my women had a few years under their belts—the youngest of them is thirty-two, and the oldest sixty-seven—I had a lot of history to play with. In all these years, you can bet they’ve had time to build some resentments, regrets, and losses. They’ve also had time to build resilience, persistence, and some impressive skill sets. Like the older women I know in real life, my imaginary heroines know things, lots of things.

Including secrets.

Samantha Bryant is a middle school Spanish teacher by day and a mom and novelist by night. That makes her a superhero all the time. Her secret superpower is finding things her family members have lost. Her debut novel, Going Through the Change: A Menopausal Superhero Novel is now for sale by Curiosity Quills. You can find her online on her blog,  Twitter, on Facebook, on Amazon, on Goodreads, on the Curiosity Quills page, or on Google+.

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