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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.


Mar. 29th, 2012 07:13 pm (UTC)
Oh, I love the book by Cherie Priest. I haven't gotten my hands on the second one yet, though. I should see if my library has it in yet (last I checked, they didn't).

I've been a little put off by the Mercy books because I'd heard that there was a lot of focus around the women as being less important than the men, with the heroine being an exception because she is an alpha. And then the rape in the later book. I should probably get around to reading it for myself, heh.
Mar. 30th, 2012 12:26 am (UTC)
Oh gosh, what do I want to say about Mercy.

1) There are not a lot of women werewolves. It's established pretty early on that werewolves almost never give birth, because the power that lets them heal quickly tends to re-absorb the blastocyst before the pregnancy can progress. (There's one werewolf we meet who, as far as we know, is the sole exception: he's Charles and he's the male protagonist of the Alpha and Omega series.) So practically every werewolf in existence has been transformed, and to survive the transformation and control your wolf, you have to be... of a certain toughness? Compassionate people make terrible werewolves, evidently, because the wolf wants to hunt and kill things, and people who can't roll with that can't control their wolves and end up having to be killed. Now. This should not necessarily translate into a lack of gender parity, but it does. There are generally only one or two women per pack, IIRC, and they get ranked as less dominant than the men because they're women. Which is not to say they're not dominant: there's a fight in one of the later Mercy books that turns on whether or not a woman has the right to challenge another wolf. The traditional ranking says no, but everybody knows the traditional ranking is BS. On the other hand, there isn't really a feminist werewolf movement. I wouldn't say Mercy's an alpha. It's more that all of the werewolf rules simply don't apply to her because she's not a werewolf, which leaves all the werewolves sort of at sea about how she fits in.

2. The rape. Oh gosh. What do I want to say about the rape.

On the one hand, I completely get the argument for it being gratuitous and unnecessary and oh DID YOU HAVE TO GO THERE. More frustratingly, it's happened to both Mercy and Anna, the protagonist of the Alpha and Omega series. I really wish that once Briggs'd decided that was Anna's background, she hadn't done that to Mercy, because it ends up feeling like that's what happens to women in her books. (I kind of want to go, "But she's writing about hierarchical dominant predators who also happen to be mostly men and well, there you go," but that's not really fair to men.)

On the other hand... I do think she does a fairly good job of not sugarcoating it. It's traumatic for Mercy. It's still an issue for her at least two books after it happens. It's not something she just shrugs off. She does get into a relationship with the guy she's been dancing around with for a while at the end of the same book, but she has to put real effort into being intimate with him because she's still not over it. (There's a period of recovery time that gets elided over a bit; it's not like she gets raped and then hops into bed with Adam the next day. Well, she does, but it's for sleep.) Anna is raped before her series starts, and again, a lot of what we see in her is her working through that to grow closer to Charles.

I guess what I want to say about Mercy's rape is that I do think it was a bit gratuitous but it made sense in the context of the book, and that she tries to handle the aftermath of it with the seriousness it deserves. On the other hand, she does seem to keep doing this to her female protagonists which is annoying and I wish she'd stop. I'll shut up now.