Grace’s Musings: Women’s writing – and the fight against fluff

You don’t need to have seen The Idea of You, starring Anne Hathaway as a 39-year-old gallery owner who falls in love with a 20-year-old British celeb, to realise that “cougar” is still a label being slapped on women with tedious regularity.

But that’s not the real issue here. Because Robinne Lee, the author of the bestselling novel on which Michael Showalter’s film is based, has also spoken out about the way people have labelled her story – a tale of ageism, sexism, double standards, motherhood, female friendship and agency – as nothing more than “fluff”. When’s the last time you saw that happening to a male author?

Lee, a Yale and Columbia graduate, actor and now novelist, is no intellectual slouch. Her book – and the film, out on Prime Video – are escapist, to be sure, but so are Beowulf and The Odyssey. You don’t hear anyone labelling them as sub-literary, do you?

The Idea of You is about Solène (played by Hathaway), a sophisticated LA gallerist and divorced mother of one, who falls for Hayes Campbell (Nicholas Galitzine), the 20-year-old frontman of boyband August Moon. Here is a woman on the cusp of midlife reclaiming her sexuality, just at the point that society traditionally writes us off as desirable. There are complex ideas in here, rooted in the author’s personal experience.

After decades in Hollywood, Lee knows what it’s like to be marginalised. She found roles drying up at a time when she should have been hitting her professional stride. At 46, she could only conclude she was no longer seen as a sexual being. “You’re no longer the hot one,” she told Vogue. “You’re not the girlfriend. You’re not even the hot wife now. You’re the mom. It really broke my spirit, and I was angry about it.” All of that went into the book.

There’s a great meta moment in The Idea of You when Solène praises August Moon’s catchy pop, but really she’s skewering that age-old sexist stance. “We have this problem in our culture. We take art that appeals to women – film, books, music – and we undervalue it,” Lee writes. “We wrap it up in a pretty pink package and resist calling it art.”

What is it about fiction written by women that makes us view it as “less than”? Why can’t its ideas be complex and important? Why do we label it as “chick lit” or a “beach read”? Because, Lee believes, we undervalue women and their work.

If a man pens a love story, it is not seen as romantic fiction; instead, we are told, it offers a deep insight into the psychological condition. It is taken ever-so-seriously. A female author, meanwhile, is still said to be writing “a woman’s experience”. It all comes down to that profoundly sexist idea that whatever we produce is somehow “less”.

How do we fight back when society undervalues us in this way? By shouting louder. By making sure that the dominant narrative is no longer exclusively male. By putting women front and centre – launching female-founded business, making exceptional art – and believing in the importance of our work. There’s nothing fluffy about that.

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