We may still be in February, but this post is focusing on a different couple of months in the form of May-December romances.
This trope is fairly new to me, one I happened across last year. Out of curiosity, I started looking more into it and trying to learn more about the trope because it doesn't seem as commonly written.
In a May-December romance, there’s a considerable age difference between the love interests. The range can vary, but the minimum appears to be roughly 10-15 years.
In the real world, age is often just a number, though it can fall under some scrutiny depending on appearances and how big that gap is. For example, although someone is an adult at 18 years old, an 18-year-old dating someone in their 30s is likely to cause some raised eyebrows and remarks, some of which may be expressed out of concern.
May-December romances are not new. We hear about cougars and silver foxes all the time. MILFs and an appreciation of Dad Bods have taken over the internet in recent years.
However, they don't seem as common in genre fiction.
In this post, my goal is to explore this trope while diving into the reasons it may not be as commonly seen in the mainstream.
Young and Restless
Typically, romance novels tend to follow younger adults. They may revolve around the character's first serious relationship or learning to love again after their previous relationship ended due to a breakup or the death of their partner.
This is where my characters tend to fall.
My protagonists are typically no younger than 21, as that was the minimum one could be to marry without requiring parental consent in Regency England, and tend to fall somewhere in their thirties at the oldest.
When we're just starting out as writers, a lot of us want to make sure we're doing the "right" things. That includes not so much copying the work of others but making our own a reflection of those that came before. So when the typical romance protagonists fall between their 20s and 30s, ours probably will, too.
This is not to say May-December romances are not being written at all. But I feel like they're marketed differently.
We all know about targeted ads and how quickly one Google search can alter the promoted content in our feeds. May-December romances tend to be treated as their own category, just like Scottish Highlander romances or Christmas romances, and if you're not actively searching for them,
And from my research, unless you're in the expected demographic for a May-December romance novel, you're probably less likely to see ads for them.
Where Are The Older Romance Protagonists?
That's a difficult question to answer.
Part of that has to do with pop culture and mainstream media.
Men in Hollywood are often compared to fine wine when it comes to aging and are given more challenging or suave roles as they get older.
For the women in the industry, it's a different story.
It's no secret that older women to be cast in roles like the mother or matron, which tend to be minor roles or even antagonists and envious of the younger main character; when these characters are the protagonist, the storyline tends to have some focus on their age.
Recently, Nicole Kidman said turning forty caused her to lose job opportunities. As she explained, "There's a consensus in the industry that as a female actor, at about forty, you're done."
Regarding her character in The Hitman's Wife's Bodyguard, Salma Hayek told AARP Magazine, "When I was going through menopause myself, I wondered, How come nobody talks about this in the movies?”
Themes like menopause or exploring your sexuality as an older adult aren't shown the same way. There's a feeling that they're ignored or glossed over, or used as a punchline. Menopause The Musical, anyone?
I remember being stunned by Grace and Frankie's arc of the characters creating a vibrator for older women, in truth because the invention of such a thing wouldn't have crossed my mind. But the device does bring awareness to the fact that women don't have to stop having sex or seeking pleasure when they hit a certain age bracket. But somehow we stop talking about it or get weirded out when it comes up.
So when you've got a romance novel, where there's always the possibility of a sex scene, featuring an older woman as a protagonist, it may not always be given the same reception by the mainstream as a younger couple.
Gray Hairs and Gray Areas
With phrases like "Robbing the Cradle" out there, there is a definite stigma towards significant differences in age, and that may impact the reception of May-December romance novels.
The age gap in these relationships can become a difficult subject if not questioned or even controversial. Part of that has to do with how old both parties are.
Celebrity couples like Zach Braff and Florence Pugh, born in 1975 and 1996 respectively, tend to prompt remarks about the nineteen years between them—and quite a few are negative.
Another May-December Hollywood romance is that between Nick Jonas and Priyanka Chopra, who are ten years apart.
On the age gap, Chopra told InStyle, "I find it really amazing when you flip it and the guy is older, no one cares and actually people like it," she told the magazine.
She's not entirely wrong. As discussed in the previous section, women tend to be judged more harshly as they age.
However, I would argue that there are times where the difference in age between partners can stir controversy regardless of who in the relationship is older.
Liz Gillies and her husband Michael Corcoran are roughly twenty years apart. When photos from their wedding were released, quite a few comments revolved around this gap and how old they would have been when they met. Corcoran was a producer for Victorious, which Gillies starred in as Jade. Based on this, she would have been in her late teens.
Gillies told Vogue that they had been, “been dating for six years when they decided it was ultimately time to get married.”
However, several fans expressed concern when the news of their nuptials came out. Much of this had to do with the two decades between them, but also Gillies being a teenager when they met.
While we cannot know these relationships beyond headlines and social media, we can observe the way they are treated and how that can impact the way a May-December romance novel comes across.
So much of critisim of May-December romances has to do with perspective and perception.
To say there's a ten year age gap between yourself and your partner is one thing. However, a 30-year-old and a 40-year-old being together might be viewed differently than a 30-year-old and a 20-year-old.
There's also the matter of not actually looking your age whether it's genetics or cosmetics.
This is where things like the Half-Plus-Seven rule come into play.
The half-plus-seven rule acts as a guideline for what would be a "socially acceptable" age difference. If you're 30 years old, the absolute youngest your partner could be with this rule would be 22.
When this equation is done using Braff's age, Pugh falls under the mark by a smidge. At the time they met, Gillies and Corcoran's relationship would have also fallen short, which is also complicated by Gillies being in her teens. This being adds to the criticisms of either Pugh and Gillies being too young for their significant others.
Using the half-plus-seven rule isn't mandatory when writing a May-December romance, per se, but it can help smooth out some of the questions you might face.
Why May-December Romance Novels Have A Place
Throughout this post, you might have assumed I would be warning against writing May-December romances. The opposite is true.
May-December romances offer representation in a way many others do not.
For one thing, it gives writers a space to feature older women and topics like menopause and gray hairs without it being brushed over or or discredited. It normalizes what is already normal for that stage of life.
It also gives writers a chance to talk about matters like career-shifts,
There's also the relationship itself. While being closer in age is the societal norm, that doesn't always happen. Some gaps can be viewed as problematic or concerning, but depending on the circumstances, age can really be just a number.
May-December romances aren't new, yet they're not seen as widely as those in which the characters are closer in age. Taking a chance on love can have you stepping outside of society's standards, and that can come with challenges. These challenges, though, can make for compelling conflicts your readers will get invested in—sometimes because it can give some a much-needed chance to see themselves in fiction.