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I love urban fantasy. I have for years. I started out with Mercedes Lackey's Diana Tregarde series, then discovered Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake books, and longed for more. For a long while, it just didn't exist. Annnnnd then it boomed.

Unfortunately, there's a pattern in urban fantasy that I have a huge problem with and has been turning me off the genre more and more. And that's the treatment of women in urban fantasy. You would think this wouldn't be an issue. After all, most urban fantasy these days features a tough, competent, kickass heroine. What could go wrong? Well, a lot of things.

Most prevalent is the overwhelming tendency to completely defang women. Hear me out. Most modern urban fantasy has a heavy romantic subplot and borrows heavily from romance tropes. Being a writer myself, I follow a lot of writing circles, and I can't tell you how many times I have heard someone say, "I have this awesome heroine, but she's so capable, she does everything! And I need to make the hero sexy! And nobody will find the hero sexy if the heroine can do better than him!"

Ignoring the obvious solution of having the hero and heroine have completely different and complementary strengths, far too many writers go for the TSTL solution. If I had a penny for every time I saw a heroine do something completely out of character... *sigh*

Like, oh, storming off for no good reason and doing something utterly stupid that nobody competent in their field would do. Usually because, well, the hero suggested it, and thus he must be wrong. And if there was a good reason for the heroine to disagree, great! But that's often not it at all. It's a matter of cutting off her nose to spite her face. It's a plot device to put the heroine in a position where the hero has to come to the rescue and save her from her own stupidity -- and frankly, this is just insulting. And it's common. Ridiculously common. And it's lazy writing.

It's one thing if, hey, the heroine runs into odds that she can't beat, or an enemy that's stronger than her, or gets outwitted by someone equally as capable. But that's not what's happening. These are situations the author is forcing the heroine into by making her act out of character for the purpose of giving the hero a moment to shine. Why not put the characters in situations where both their skills are needed? But, that wouldn't allow the heroine to be the damsel in distress, now would it?

One of the other major issues in urban fantasy in regards to women is how the heroines relate to other women. In a genre that is so focused on strong female characters, it is pretty shocking how few heroines actually have relationships with other women. Often, other women are not friends and allies, but the enemy. Often, the heroine looks down on other women. And you see the same trope over and over again -- the leather-clad dark and tortured gun-toting heroine whose strength is all physical or perhaps supernatural.

This is really just the whole "girl in the boy's club" thing rearing its head. Femininity is derided while masculinity is put on a pedestal. Rarely do we see women who enjoy feminine things, and when we do, it's usually a slight touch rather than an integral part of the character. Even Anita Blake, with her stuffed penguin collection, dismisses and derides other women. It's been a long time since I read the books, admittedly, and I haven't read the recent ones, but of the early series, all the characters that I recall her being close to were male.

(Mind, the problem is not that masculine-leaning heroines exist. The problem is that they are the sole archetype that we see commonly in urban fantasy heroines.[1])

Very few urban fantasies actually pass the Bechdel test (two women, who talk to each other, about something other than a man). For a genre that is supposedly woman-focused, that's just sad. Where are all the relationships between women? Most of us have friends who are women, mothers, sisters, aunts, etc. Where are they?

So what's the solution here? It comes down to writers being aware of the social implications their fiction will have. Because words have meanings, and stories have power. If they didn't have power, Piers Anthony's Mode books wouldn't have helped me when I was a suicidal teen, and Mercedes Lackey's books wouldn't have helped me come to terms with my bisexuality.

When even supposedly strong heroines are undermined at every turn and cannot succeed without the aid of a man, the underlying message is that of Well, if $awesomecharacter can't do it, why should I believe I can? Women are already at a disadvantage in society, with all the negative messages lobbed at us. We should be able to read fiction that empowers us, not reinforces that we are nothing without a man.

I am not saying that heroines should be all-powerful, because that would be boring. But if you're writing about a top-notch FBI agent, you don't have her forget basic gun safety. You don't have her barging into trouble without thinking about it. You don't have her so distracted by the hero's good looks that she misses the villain's move and gets trapped (and yes, I have read this). It sends a very negative message.

So how do you get around it when you need the heroine to screw up somewhere? Well, make it a believable screw-up, not something that a rookie would do (unless your character is a rookie, but most of the heroines I've seen in urban fantasy are purported to be some of the best at what they do). Or, hey, maybe she doesn't have all the information, makes a decision on what she knows, and then finds out that she was missing a vital piece of the puzzle.

But you know what I'd love to see more of? I'd love to see more heroines who get themselves out of that pickle, rather than heroines who have to be rescued by the hero. But, how do I manage an alpha hero and heroine and their power struggle without having one or the other knuckle under? Not everything has to be a power struggle, although they can be fun to write. The best alpha heroes I've read have been adept in their own field but respected the heroine in hers and listened to her opinions. But what if they're both experts in the same field? Well, hey, they're probably going to argue -- but the automatic reaction shouldn't be for the heroine to be the one who's wrong. Mix it up a little. Or hey! Maybe they're both wrong.

There's a lot of focus on alpha heroes in urban fantasy and a need to make them sexy. You know what? The sexiest heroes I've read aren't the ones who are always rescuing the artificially created dumbass heroine -- they're the ones who respect the heroine, her abilities, her strengths, and love her for who she is. The ones who aren't threatened by a strong woman. The ones who know when it's appropriate to take a backseat. The ones who know when it's time to stand their ground, and when it's time to say, "Hey, you know more about this than I do", or "I don't agree, but let's compromise." It's not an all or nothing situation.

I'd love to see more women who have relationships with other women, too. I'd also like to see a greater breadth of heroines -- heroines of color, heroines with disabilities, queer heroines, etc! Or hey, maybe not the heroine but a lady friend who is one of the above, or someone deeply involved in the story. I'd love to see more focus on this, because the lone uber!heroine surrounded by a sausage-fest is getting old.

This is something that writers have the power to change. Let's change it.

[1] I know there are exceptions to this. Please do not focus on them. This is a widespread issue, and the fact that there are exceptions does not negate that the overwhelming majority of urban fantasy heroines fits only one archetype.

This entry was originally posted at http://nonny.dreamwidth.org/474028.html. Please comment there using OpenID.


( 85 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 29th, 2012 06:19 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I tend to hunt out those exceptions, tbh, and give them my money. I very much agree with you - I cannot stand the Laura K Hamilton books to be honest
Mar. 29th, 2012 06:26 pm (UTC)
I do too. I haven't bought much urban fantasy in quite a long while because of how women are approached. I've been reading a lot of steampunk lately, and while it certainly has its issues (like glamourization of colonialism in the UK based stories), I don't see nearly the amount of degradation of women as in urban fantasy.

YA urban fantasy also has its own set of issues which are different from adult urban fantasy, except they also have the same issues that are in adult UF. -_-

I adored the early LKH books. Part of that was that at the time, there wasn't anything else. Part of it was that Anita was a really gripping character, and she grew, at least in the early books. She started out very close-minded and prejudiced and then started to realize that, hey, the monsters weren't all so monstrous... but still a lot of other issues, particularly in her attitude towards other women. And the later books, I'm not touching with a fifty foot pole.
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Mar. 29th, 2012 06:34 pm (UTC)
I agree with you. Thanks for pointing this out. What's scary is that the best example I can think of is a heroine who isn't from urban fantasy - Silence of the Lambs, that relationship with Ardelia Mapp was wonderful, she was the one sticking her neck out, her coworkers varied but none of them were there at the denouement. Her mistakes were natural ones and she wasn't the one who let Lecter out.

Or a very old urban fantasy - Charles de Lint's novels set in Canada had a cast about evenly divided male-female and all the characters were memorable, they knew each other, the female characters had friendships with other women and the world seemed more natural. Mostly it was the subculture of bohemian artists and musicians being portrayed as a whole.

I'll keep this in mind when I write my Mage Cats series. The humans have friends. Or heck, their cats have friends so they meet friends. I'll try to put those friendships more on stage.
Mar. 29th, 2012 06:53 pm (UTC)
Seanan McGuire does a good job of bucking the trend. Oddly enough so does J.A. Pitts (who is a man) But there's two, two(!) authors out of how many? Yeah. Bleh.
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Mar. 29th, 2012 06:52 pm (UTC)
I have plans to change this! If I get published. ... Or at least help change it. If we both get published we could help start an unofficial club :P
Mar. 29th, 2012 07:11 pm (UTC)
Woot :)

It was actually part of the impetus to switch Alex to a woman in Stronger. I was reading an article about relationships between women in fantasy, and I stopped and thought, and realized that my heroine didn't have any female friends except her coworker, who was more like an acquaintance anyway. And I got to thinking how it would change everything if Alex was a woman... and Lex was born :)

And now I have a book full of queer characters, lol.
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Mar. 29th, 2012 08:05 pm (UTC)
I couldn't agree more. This is why I read so little urban fantasy now. I keep up with a few authors I previously discovered but I don't seek out new authors in the subgenre anymore unless I've read reviews and the books have been vetted by people whose opinions I trust. I don't write much urban fantasy, but when I do I definitely try to keep this in mind.
Mar. 29th, 2012 08:08 pm (UTC)
I'm not raising this as an exception (because it absolutely is, and the larger point should stand) but as a "you might find this series appealing," if that's OK.

Kim Harrison's Hollows series features an urban fantasy female protagonist who admittedly does make some dumb decisions, but not because she wants/needs to be saved by a guy; more importantly, the first dozen books or so emphasize a remarkable dance of seduction between her purportedly heterosexual self and her bisexual vampire roommate. (I won't spoil whether the UST ever becomes realized, but its mere existence was gratifying for me.) That roommate is also portrayed as incredibly, terrifyingly dangerous, which was satisfying to me in a different way; we so rarely get female characters who are presented as legitimately "will kill you and eat you like an unrepentant monster if things get out of hand."
Mar. 29th, 2012 08:16 pm (UTC)
I actually only got about 150 pages into the first Kim Harrison book because I found the heroine TSTL, LOL. It's been several years so I don't remember the details, but I do remember staring in bewilderment wondering how the character had survived to adulthood. LOL.
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Mar. 29th, 2012 09:36 pm (UTC)
Oh god, LKH. Do not even get me started. I read her until either Obsidian Butterfly or Micah -- I think it was Micah -- and decided, "Yeah, I'm done." I didn't mind her faerie series because it seemed designed to be porn, but then Anita started banging everything like a one-woman drum kit and yeah. Done. (And the rampant Mary Sue-ism! Holy crap!)

I'm thinking over the urban fantasy series I have been reading, and I definitely recognize the trend to which you're pointing. I love Patricia Briggs's Mercy Thompson and Alpha and Omega books, but she has a real paucity of recurring female characters other than her two mains. Seanan McGuire's October Daye books are probably the least problematic ones I follow: Toby is badass and getting badassier, and she's got at least three female friends I can think of off the top of my head. Not a lot of diversity, though.

Do you have any recommendations for ones that don't utterly suck? What are some of the good steampunks you've been reading? (I hear Meljean Brook's steampunks are amazing.)
Mar. 29th, 2012 10:03 pm (UTC)
Let me C&P from the comment I wrote over on DW :)

Black Blade Blues by JA Pitt. The heroine is a lesbian. Need I say more? I will note that one of the things that the heroine goes through in the book is dealing with her own internalized homophobia. It was a little offputting to me because it brought back a lot of bad memories, but! She gets over it and the second book is all ass-kicking lesbian chick. :)

Eileen Wilks' Lupi books. These are technically labeled romance but they are totally urban fantasy. They follow two couples through the serious, switching off which one is the focus, although both are in each book. The first one is kinda standard urban fantasy, but stick with it, it gets really amazing in book two and onward. Oh, and one of the heroines, Lily? is a POC; Asian. Her relationships with her mother, and in one of the books, her grandmother, are at the forefront, as is her relationship with Cynna, who is a kickass tattooed sorceress chick. And in the later books there is a... sorta genderqueer/gender neutral demon who ends up on earth and later decides to identify as a woman, and... there's lots of relationships between women and competent characters. Is amazing.

Discount Armageddon by Seanan McGuire -- OMG MUST READ. Awesome world setting, and the book starts off with the heroine and her telepathic cousin/best friend trolling for bad guys. Also, the heroine is a waitress at a strip club, and her relationships with the other women she works with is a major part of the story.

the Demonica books by Larissa Ione -- with the caveat that these are DEFINITELY more towards romance, and there is slightly more focus on the heroes... however, the women kick ass and take names, and they aren't treated unequally imo. It is... kinda like Angel in setting and tone, with lots more sex, and less refridgeration of women. I really am borderline on recommending these in this list because of the focus on the men, but, I really think they are worth reading.

The Edge books by Ilona Andrews - these are sorta Southern fantasy books that feel like they could be in our world. There is a HUGE focus on family here because the setting is Deep South. So you do see a lot of the relationships between the women in the various books, and the women definitely hold their own.

Not quite urban fantasy but the Psy Changeling series by Nalini Singh -- again, more toward romance, this time futuristic... combine shapeshifters and PsyCorp from Babylon 5 and you have these books. But the women of the various packs play a huge role, and they are all very involved with each other. And Tamsin is awesome (she's kinda the mother hen). And they have less consent issues than a lot of romance, that I've found.

Steampunk... I LOVE the Meljean Brook ones. I will, however, note that there are dubious consent issues in the first one. I don't recall if that's the case in the novella she has in the Burning Up anthology (which is excellent; it's probably my favorite anthology ever because ALL of the novellas are amazing), but it's not really out of line for the romance genre. It didn't bother me because it was clear the heroine was attracted, but some people might have issues, so I mention it. Heart of Steel, the second book in the series, did not have the same consent issues, and also has a woman of color as the main character. (So does The Iron Duke for that matter; Mina is Asian). It... hm. Mostly? Stands alone. Some of the worldbuilding stuff might be confusing if you just read the second, but I think that Meljean has a cliff's notes style world guide on her website.

The Greyfriar books are awesome, too. Vampires + Steampunk = WIN.

The Parasol Protectorate books are excellent and totally capture the whole Victorian writing and speaking style without being boring as shit. The heroine is hilarious, and the supporting cast are pretty awesome. There are also gay and bisexual characters, although one is fairly stereotypical (but he's awesome so I'll forgive that).

All Men of Genius is amazing, and I loved it enough to actually write a review on GoodReads.

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Mar. 30th, 2012 01:10 am (UTC)
Thank you for this.

Something I've been noticing about my own writing: All my female characters pass the Bedchel test, and while most of them aere Caucasian, they are not heteronormative (in one novella, my main characters are same-sex lovers who are both bisexual). It wasn't deliberate.

My females are strong, independent, fragile but steel inside, deeply flawed, intellectual, disabled in certain ways (because I am), and in their own "club" so to speak. I don't even realize I do that. My male characters are just as fleshed out, and some of them are bisexual. I do occasionally have gender roles, but I do my best to equalize and even things out. My heroes and heroines treat each other like people, not genders.

I quit reading the Anita Blake books ages ago when it became clear that it was basically just sexist porn with Anita whining about being a girl in a boys' club, hating other women who were unlike her. I'm still a member of the LKH Lashouts community, just to learn how NOT to write my characters. If there is one author I actuall hate, it's Hamilton, and if there's one genre character I hate, it's Anita. She used to be pretty cool. Sigh.

Right now, I am completely in love with everything Seanan McGuire writes (so far, she has two urban fantasy series, October Daye and InCryptid, and the Newsflesh Trilogy as Mira Grant) and she's planning more and more stuff. The covers of her Toby Daye books are what would be coded as "traditionally masculine" (the heroine doesn't have tattoos or exposed flesh or sexy poses), unlike, say, the Mercy Thompson books (which I love to an extent).

You know, I have no clue where I was going with this...

Mar. 30th, 2012 01:23 am (UTC)
I love Toby so hard. Her fae powers are expanding, but she's not turning into Maeve Come Again or anything, and there are consequences to them expanding. She's had to make really difficult choices and she's never blithely assured that she's right. It's one of the most frustrating things to me about the Anita Blake series: things aren't hard -- er, difficult -- for Anita. Every time she's up against something, you know it's going to lose in a big bad way. Really, the only thing there's any suspense about is which of the new characters she's going to sleep with.

(Spoilers! The answer is all of them!)
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Mar. 30th, 2012 06:34 am (UTC)
Oh hey this tab is still open YAY.

I've toyed with ideas in my head that would probably fall under this genre, and reading this has made me a bit more aware of a really troublesome issue in pretty much all fiction where the lead is a woman, regardless of genre. So uh, you may have just saved my future writings from a really embarrassing thing.

Though the idea of "the male lead absolutely HAS to rescue the female lead" is one that just irritates the shit out of me in general.

I do not have a more intelligent response for this other than YAY and THANK YOU.
Mar. 31st, 2012 01:36 pm (UTC)
Aw, you're welcome :)

Part of my hope -- and why I also posted this on my professional website and linked it to one of my main writing communities -- is that fellow writers may find this and think about these things more. Because really, living in this society, it is all too easy for us to fall back on old standards. I mean, I've been writing for YEARS and it took me until last year to realize that NO, I don't have to write about men if I don't want to. That if I want, I can write most of the main cast as women. And I bloody might well do that.

I hope writer-type-folk read this, and think about it, and start making changes in their own way. Because really, as writers, we're encouraged not to write about women. And if we must, they must be the Right women, the warrior woman, the woman who has carved out her place in a circle of men, with no other women there for her. Like there's some kind of limit on how many women you can have in a book. It's screwed up. And I hope people realise that and start to write stories where women and the friendships and relationships between them are deep and complex and important. I would love to read more books like these. :)
(Deleted comment)
Mar. 30th, 2012 07:34 pm (UTC)
I have a few suggestions for you if you're looking for SF/F books where the main male character's aren't alpha males, I have a couple of suggestions:

The Cornelius Quartet by Michael Moorcock: The protagonist Jerry Cornelius is no alpha male and is as content to be led as to be the leader. The alphas in this quartet tend to be women rather than men. It's hard to explain the quartet, so I'm just going to leave a link to this review here: The Hipster on the Seas of Fate.

Nevermore by Kelly Creagh: YA paranormal romance where the hero's an artistic goth and the heroine's a cheerleader and it does a really good job of exploring that kind of relationship dynamic. Plus, the paranormal elements are based on the works of Edgar Allen Poe and are actually scary. Some of the writing can be a bit awkward, but it's nowhere near as bad as Twilight and its many imitators. I highly recommend it.

(Deleted comment)
Mar. 31st, 2012 07:32 pm (UTC)
Chiming late..
but I think the final draft finished of the novel i did finally write, ( nonny, you met the characters ages ago!) I did nail the balance between characters.

The women aren't helpless sods, they take charge of their own situation, and in more than a few spots, they're the alpha of the guys around them. Of course it varies by scene, but they stand out as strong, competent, non-"save me obi wan!" sorts.

The guys aren't all "rawr alpha save the lass".

There's balance, and I'm pretty darn happy with it. There's shifting relationships, and character growth and sex isn't a "tool" to win prizes but more of a 'human experience", take note, Ms Blake!

But I've largely stayed away from urban fantasy since it's just so hit and miss and when my reading time is at a near non existence, well..yeah.

I could do better on the non-caucasian front but I'm frankly terrified I'll biff it up.
Apr. 2nd, 2012 01:47 am (UTC)
Followed you over from naamah_darling, where I loved what you had to say and tried several times to come up with a good response but nothing sounded right.

One of the tricks I've seen to get the heroine to screw up is to have her do things that would be the right thing in any other situation, especially if it's a strongly in-character thing for her to do. Bonus points if the situation is confusing and tricky such that nobody really knows the right way to do it, or when there are multiple issues in play where following one's priorities to success with one issue could wind up blowing another one. It helps if the same tendency that leads her to be wrong sometimes also leads her to be right sometimes.

One of my favorites, the Cast series by Michelle Sagara, does this quite a lot with its heroine, Kaylin. At one point her boss is imprisoned for murder and tells her to leave him to it, but because she cares for him* (and quite justifiably hates his replacement), she digs for the evidence that he was set up, and winds up putting one of his wives and their daughters in the danger that he'd tried to keep them safe from by letting it seem that he'd committed murder. And then she fights with the same determination, intelligence, and drive to fix it.

*not romantically, but a close friendship with a strong hint of parent/grown child relationship, which is in character for someone who has come in at age thirteen and made a home and family of her workplace and coworkers. (This is, incidentally, the opposite of the vampire-banging drum kit lady mentioned above---she has two potential love interests which are much more to her, in various directions, long before anything of the sort is mentioned; it takes seven books (perhaps as many months in-story) before she and the guy she trusts have a talk about it and the guy she doesn't trust hints at it in book three and book six (after disdaining rape as beneath him in book one when she was outright afraid of him). And it works, it suits the character---she's not getting laid right now and that's fine.)
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