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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 07:14 pm (UTC)
I only read the first Toby book and wasn't immediately captured (burnt out on faerie books after the plethora of YA ones I've read) but I LOVED Discount Armageddon. AMAZING.
Mar. 29th, 2012 10:22 pm (UTC)
I haven't read enough faerie stuff to get there so I loved her take :P Never fear (for you) though! Each one of her books gets better than the last and since her books have gotten so good that means they can only continue on that trajectory! I have high hopes for the rest of the Incryptid series. (And her Mira Grant titles are spectacular as well)
Mar. 29th, 2012 10:34 pm (UTC)
Lordie. I have read so much faerie stuff. I swear to gods if I read another damn book with the Wild Hunt, I may just throttle something (because I think at this point it's nearing a dozen books with pretty similar takes on it).

I think I only read the first one and liked it but haven't gone back to it yet. My TBR list is huge. It's good I switched to an e-reader because um well *looks at the full wardrobe full of books and the three cartons of books on the floor*

I'm waiting on the release of the 3rd book to start in on the Mira Grant series. Since I have heard the 2nd ends on a cliffhanger.
Mar. 29th, 2012 10:55 pm (UTC)
The cliffhanger is soooooo good omg! I am itching for it to come out! :P

The Wild Hunt is in (I think) the third Toby book. I'm not sure how similar it is to others since the only other series I've read with one was Anne Bishop's Tir Alainn trilogy but it's a traditional fantasy series and the Wild Hunt is a pretty cool tool but more of a background to the story of witches reclaiming their heritage. ... I think other than that the only faerie series I've read was Rachelle Mead's and that is incredibly problematic.

Yeah... I don't have all my books out because I don't have room for them. Though I'm still buying hard copies of the books that mean the most to me because I am a bit of a collector *sigh* This is probably a bad thing. Luckily I've forced myself to stop clicking buy every time I see a new e-book I like.
Mar. 29th, 2012 11:01 pm (UTC)
Dear gods, I swear, EVERY single YA faerie related book (or series) I have read has had the Wild Hunt in it. EVERY. SINGLE. ONE. It's kinda ridiculous. (I know this is a me-thing at this point; I just want to see a faerie book without it once, pleeeeeease.)

I have only actually read Richelle Mead's Vampire Academy books. I have the faerie ones but haven't picked them up to read yet; what's up with them, if you don't mind my asking?

Oh, I'm glad I'm not the only one who has a bad habit of one-clicking ebooks. It's worse when they are like cheap. Cause, yeah. Fwee.
Mar. 29th, 2012 11:27 pm (UTC)
TW: Rape
Well the main character makes some (IMO) weird relationship choices. I get that domineering male lovers are a trope of romance novels and lots of people like them but there was something really squicky about one of the guys Eugine keeps coming back to. At least to me. I mean she's constantly learning that he lied to her to manipulate her into doing something she's vehemently opposed to and I just am not comfortable with that.
ETA: Actually, now that I think about it, both of the guys she's with off and on in the series lie to her and manipulate her for their own ends. She'll get mad at one then go to the other and forgive him and then find out about another lie and go back to the other and hate that guy she just left... It's really dysfunctional.

She also doesn't have a lot of female influence on her life for most of the series but that isn't the big thing.

The big one (to me) was that in the third book she is kidnapped by a man who wants to use her for the same reason that one lover of hers does and wants to unite their kingdoms. So he keeps her locked in a room for like a month and rapes her repeatedly. But - as so often happens - after she breaks free it is sort of forgotten. It's not entirely forgotten but most of that is because she's mad at one of her lovers for making the "wrong choice" about her rapist when he came to rescue her. There are a couple other times when she thinks about it vaguely but pretty much after she enacts her revenge being locked in a fucking room and raped repeatedly has very little impact on her mental well being.

The last thing is a bit of a spoiler and I wasn't the only person who was bothered by this but I'll cut it in case you don't want to read it. It's not triggering and it's not a usual problem but I just found it weird. Really weird. Especially given the fact that she wrote part of this book while pregnant. I find it a little off putting as a writer because it was lazy and off putting as a feminist since it seems like a bit of a judgement on motherhood

[Weird stuff about motherhood]So I know Mead doesn't think an action heroine should be a mother and I get her reasoning but she decided to have Eugine get pregnant at the end of the second to the last book. It was a huge deal since literally the entire series is about how if she gets pregnant she might give birth to the man who will destroy humanity. So the end of the book is a big build up to her decision and what not. Then the first half of the last book is almost entirely dedicated her pregnancy and what's going to happen when her babies are born. There are some brief mentions about some other Plot Stuff that will matter later but mostly it's about the babies.

Then she has the babies. So goes to huge lengths to protect them and goes to this out of the way place for a month or something and has her children.

And almost immediately takes off.

Ok, whatever, she is an action hero but the last half of the book is so not about her children it's disturbing. And at the end she decides she's pretty much never going to see her kids even though the reason she had them hidden is no longer an issue. She decides to start a life with their father and never tell him they were his kids and then doesn't bring her kids with her. It just felt flat and strange - especially from someone about to become a mother herself though it wold have been strange in any case - and some sort of weird judgement on working mothers. After putting up with a terribly handled rape - which is something I really have issues with - and continuing with the series it felt like a massive let down. And it is the last book in the series so it's not like that will be resolved.

Edited at 2012-03-29 11:32 pm (UTC)
Mar. 30th, 2012 12:19 am (UTC)
Re: TW: Rape

That is some disturbing shit, ngl. I'm really not sure how to react besides "BWUH??"
Mar. 30th, 2012 12:42 am (UTC)
Re: TW: Rape
I sorta almost feel like she got bored halfway through the book and distracted by her other projects and forthcoming baby. There's really no excuse for the rape thing (other than Trope) but that last bit is just sooooo confusing. I haven't read her Succubus Blues series (it's too romancy for me) but the Vampire Academy books were really good as so was the first book in the new spin off series so it's not like she can't wrap up a series...
Mar. 30th, 2012 12:43 am (UTC)
Re: TW: Rape
Yeah, I am still trying to wrap my brain around the logic of that last bit that you're describing. I loved the Vampire Academy books (need to get ahold of e-copies so I can finish the damn series because my hands cannot handle hardbacks anymore) ... it's a shame. :-\
Mar. 30th, 2012 12:59 am (UTC)
Re: TW: Rape
It took me about a week to process. I know that sounds weird but I just was so disappointed and trying to figure out if it was because I was being a bad reader or not. She wrote a post to address all the "disappointment" that was pretty much "not everyone can be happy and I like open endings" which didn't really address my problems with it but gave me pause. I eventually decided that no, my feelings were legit and not just a fan girl who was mad she didn't get what she wanted.
Mar. 29th, 2012 11:57 pm (UTC)
The thing about Seanan McGuire's Wild Hunt is that it's really fucking creepy. At least, I thought it was. The hunters aren't just fae, they're perverted fae: fae that have been twisted by the huntmaster into unholy amalgamations of different types. Oh, and they're fae children. The mounts, likewise, are transformed-but-aware human children. I mean. CREEPY. I can't remember another treatment of the Wild Hunt that had the same idea.
Mar. 30th, 2012 12:18 am (UTC)
Ooo. That sounds quite a bit more interesting. Most of the versions I've seen of the Wild Hunt have been -- really really weak and leaving me wondering "Why am I supposed to be scared here?" With the exception of Melissa Marr's, but, um, the protagonist of one of the books is a member of the Hunt, so it's not like they're particularly bad guys either.
Jul. 12th, 2012 03:26 am (UTC)
Don't forget the "soft" option of running away, getting shot and turned into a tree, because that's kinder.
Jul. 12th, 2012 03:52 am (UTC)
Sometimes, when a situation becomes unbearable, your only choice is to leaf.

(I'm so sorry, but I couldn't resist.)