I love and write fantasy. I love the fairy tale retellings and rebellions, the mystical worlds and magic systems, the mystery and betrayal/complications, the self-realization and empathy that come with the world of fantasy, but I have a question–
Where are all the older women in the fantasy genre?
Fantasy is almost always stories of young women coming of age, single, the secret savior or princess with major subplots of budding romance. It’s rare to find a fantasy novel that feature women past their 20s as the main characters. While I understand why the young adult fantasy genre features younger women, even within adult fantasy novels it’s rare to see a female protagonist past her 20s or early 30s.
But why? Can older women not play in the fantasy genre?
Where are the stories of women long married or raising kids or going gray?
Can we not lead rebellions?
Can we not be badass and victorious?
Can we not be heroines with stretch marks?
Can we not be heroes and queens AND mothers and wives?
Can the domestic and bucolic not be fantastical?
Can we be something other than the wise sage or the evil witch?
Is that really the only place for women past their 20s?
There is a prizing of youth in our culture to the degradation of women past their early to mid-30s. Even by female storytellers. It seems the idea is if a woman is older then her character arc is boring and she is worthwhile only in as much as she helps the young protagonist succeed.
I’m in my late 30s and it would be nice, every now and then, to see a reflection of myself or my years to come in fantasy novels. That’s rarely the case and when there are older female characters in fantasy (or any genre really), they always fall into one of these tropes:
- the wise sage (or witch or fae) whose only job is to guide the younger protagonist when they’re in trouble (message: you’re only good for what you can give to others)
- the abandoned wife whose husband leaves her for a younger, more attractive woman who’s full of life (message: your husband will leave you if you don’t stay desirable and meet his needs–submessage: a wife’s job is to keep her husband satisfied)
- the lost woman who doesn’t know who she is after motherhood or marriage (message: marriage and motherhood steals and kills your personality & soul–submessage: a spouse and children are enemies to a fulfilled self)
- the lonely caretaker whether she’s caring for ailing parents or children she’s often painted alone and without support (message: to devote yourself to the care of others will be a life of isolation)
- the powerful queen/witch/boss, but an awful human being (message: to be a strong, powerful woman you have to be ruthless and uncaring)
- the crazy, fun aunt who’s also screw up (message: fun, adventurous older women are irresponsible)
- the dowdy spinster who needs a makeover or lifechanging experience–when she does she finally gets to have fun and, usually, a man (message: women need a certain look or experience to enjoy life and be desirable)
- the anti-aging woman who is trying to preserve her youthful beauty and fight aging at all costs. She’s either a joke or bathing in the blood of virigns. (message: even as women age they need to look like they’re 23 and those that try to bend to society’s unspoken rules are a joke or vain…there’s no winning)
- the evil seductress who uses her sexual allure and prowess to get what she wants–usually power (message: your body is a commodity to trade for power and authority)
Is that really all the imagination we have for older women?
What do these tropes say about our imagination? We don’t have much of it for women “past their prime.” This tells me two things:
- We view aging, getting older, as an unfortunate bane of woman’s existence.
- For a woman to be valued, maintain her desirablilty, and be useful to the world she must be young or maintain the appearance of youth.
That’s a sad state of affairs. No wonder women and advertising rush to preserve the fountain of youth–that’s where the cultural worth is at.
But it also reveals what we believe about ourselves, our worth, and our age. We must be young, agile, and wrinkle free. And we can often fall into the trap that we are less of a woman and have less to offer the world as we age. How sad a narrative that is!
In the United States, the average woman lives to be 81, but so often the cultural peak and appreciation of womanhood is between 25 to 30 years of age. That leaves women who an average of fifty years of life left to be lived. That’s a lot of years to relinquish and allow cutural standards’s to determine a woman’s worth, even in fictional narratives.
It’s easy to believe the lie that we’ve hit our peak by 25, or 35 to 40 if we’re a late bloomer. That’s what is prized all around us.
But are we as woman really okay with that narrative? Do we want to live the next 40 to 50 years of our lives on the sidelines? Do we not see ourselves as poweful, beautiful, and highly capable even with our gray hair, achey bones, and mommy belly?
There are so many worthwhile ideas to explore for older female protaganists within the fantasy genre. Older woman don’t need to be left to subplots or tropes within the fantasy genre–or any genre!
What if the queen was the one to train warriors and lead armies?
What if the old witch was the key to saving the kingdom? What if the old witch was actually the secret queen?
What if the quiet mother in the garden is the one who stumbles upon a secret threat, but no one will believe her, so it’s up to her to save the land?
What if we had older female characters who had to balance leading rebellions and fighting eveils with caring for their children?
What if we saw marriage difficulties that got worked out amid enchantments and secret plots?
What about a warrior woman in menopause or with aching joints?
What if a woman was still described as beautiful and enchanting in her 50s, 60s, 70s?
What if a husband still found his wife gorgeous and desirable in her 50s and beyond? (Thank you, Claire & Jaime Fraser!)
What if the queen wasn’t in competition with the young princess, but took her under her wing and taught her?
What would it be like to be a queen who struggles to see her children making poor choices and not take their responsibilities seriously?
What about a woman whose husband still loves her and believes in her and, maybe, he fights behind or beside her? What if shes’s the warrior and not him?
What if the adventurer riding out and ridding the land of evil was a woman–and that was her desire and duty–not to marry or mother–but to be protectoress of her land?
What stories there are to tell! Are you telling me none of that could be interesting? If you think those ideas played out would be boring, then you’re probably ageist.
How do we fix this?
While there is much more nuance and depth we could discusson one woman, aging, culture’s influence on beauty and worth, and even our own self-hatred, here are a few ways I believe we can embrace older women–our current or future selves–in the fantasy genre and reality:
- Dismantle your own misconceptions of youth and examine where you, as a woman, have believed the lies of aging–you don’t need to: be a certain size, be free of gray hairs, eradicate every wrinkle and bump, or stay quiet in the background or the lies that with aging your worth is in what you can give. Refute the lies that there’s no purpose, you’re not wanted, you’re just a baby factory/caretaker or a glorified (at best) household/project manager. Reframe how you view ourself!
- READERS–read books with older women in them. Watch movies featuring older female protaganists. Celebrate them and share them!
- WRITERS–write the stories of older women. While there are growing lists of older female protagonists in other genres, fantasy is still lacking. Authors make them your main characters and if they’re not the main character give them a solid storyline outside the tropes. Make aging something people look forward to.
- Embrace your age and season. Life is different for each of us and whether we’re in our 30s, 50s, or 80s we’re going to have different struggles, but we’ll also have different joys and freedoms. Share them! Celebrate the life you have lived and the lessons you have learned–speak them, write them out! We need your stories.
- Embrace the glory of womanhood, the beauty and wonder of who you are as a woman. Don’t hide. Don’t diminsh your personhood or ideas. Don’t live under the mantle your worth is in how you look or what you can do. You can be kind and humble AND a force to be reckoned.
It is a good thing to be a woman. It is a good thing to age. It is natural.
Let’s give the young woman coming after us something to look forward to. Let’s give ourselves permission to be wild and unexpected, even gray and wrinkled.
Let’s give a vision of older womanhood that breaks the tropes and free women to be all that they–we–are. Do it for yourself, do it for your daughters.
Woman, be magical.
Articles for Further Reading:
- Where are the Older Women? “By “older,” I mean women whose concerns are those of motherhood, middle age, old age: women who believe in their own mortality, who wear the weight of their pasts as well as their responsibilities to the future, who have a place in the world: a place that may or may not be comfortable, or suitable, but worn in around the edges and theirs.”
- Space ageing: why sci-fi novels shun the badass older woman “Many women are reluctant to describe themselves as elderly from fear of stereotypes that define older women as isolated and fragile. If a woman is smart and social and competent, the stereotypes say, she must not be old.”
- Sing Me a Song of Older Female Adventurers! “In real life, I’ve known and known of, women who were going out hiking, driving around the US in VW magic buses, leading kayaking adventures, and the like. But in fiction, these intrepid older adventurers are few and far between, especially in the realm of fantasy fiction, which I love to read.”
- We Are Not Middle Aged: What Medieval Women Taught Me About My 40s “So the wild swing of changes in this decade can go two ways. We can grieve what never happened or grieve moving beyond caretaking, or we can make the decision to see the decline of fecundity [fertility] as the beginning of something else: a fecundity of the imagination, an era when we become not creative, but creation.”
- Old(er) Women in Sci-Fi & Fantasy Part 1 of a two part list of science fiction and fantasy books featuring older women. Most of these I’ve never heard of.
- 20 Books Featuring Seasoned Female Protagonists (no fantasy) “And they don’t want these older women to be quirky old ladies, or magical grandmothers, or elderly curmudgeons who manage to charm you anyway—no, these readers want to read about women who seem real and relatable, whose fictional lives are similar to their own.”
PS – Do you know how hard it is to find stock photos of women that don’t look super young revelant to fantasy? Near impossible. Unless you want to be Queen Elizabeth.