Carrie’s Analysis of Urban Fantasy Part III: Deconstructing Urban Fantasy
January 7, 2009
So. In urban fantasy (again, using the current popular marketing definition), we have violent, kick-ass heroines who are also subject to insecurities and exhibit several other problematic traits that bring their real, functional strength into question. This genre is admired for its strong women characters — that’s often the reason given for its appeal and popularity. But is the genre also guilty of undermining some of those strengths?
This is where I put my academic hat on. I’ve been studying urban fantasy with kind of a morbid fascination because I think it says something about our culture. When the same tropes appear over and over again, and are this popular, it means something.
A good example, from another time and place: In late Victorian England a certain kind of story became very popular: the boys’ adventure tale. Something like H. Rider Haggard’s She might be the ur-example of this genre, which was also practiced by Arthur Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling, and even Joseph Conrad. The basic formula: upstanding English adventurers travel to the deepest, darkest parts of the world (i.e. Africa); discover strange and mysterious wonders; come to the horrifying realization that these strange and mysterious wonders threaten the existence of the whole of the British Empire should they ever make their way out of the jungle and back to England; they defeat the creeping menace and return home, but with the lingering dread that the Empire may still be in danger. Once again, formula is no indication of quality. Haggard’s She and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness both fit here.
Interestingly, bits of this formula find their way into many works of Victorian literature, whether or not they’re explicitly adventure stories. Think of Dracula, and the foreign fiend who wants to claim Mina and take over London with his undead brethren. Think of Jane Eyre’s madwoman in the attic, Rochester’s Caribbean wife who destroys his mansion and blinds him.
These tropes are symptomatic. That they appear so often in so many works in late Victorian Britain reveals a pervasive anxiety within Britain about the Empire: the fear that the distant, mysterious colonies would somehow make their way to the heart of England and destroy all that is British; the fear that good English men would travel to these distant, mysterious places and come back changed, damaged, subverted. The anxiety that maybe the great and glorious British Empire couldn’t possibly last.
I can’t help but look at the popularity of urban fantasy and ask, What is this symptomatic of? What anxiety in our culture is being expressed so eloquently in these works that they’re striking such a powerful chord in the readership, leading to phenomenal popularity?
The answer is pretty simple: these books are symptomatic of an anxiety about women and power. We have made so many gains over the last few decades. Women really can do anything, pursue nearly any career, become influential and powerful in any area. And yet. Women are still ostracized for appearing powerful. Women are still told that their role is to be deferential, nurturing, humble, self-deprecating, and they’re still criticized and marginalized when they don’t fit conventional images of femininity. Women still have to fight for acceptance in so many areas. You think this dichotomy, these mixed messages, aren’t real? Look at the coverage of Hillary Clinton’s (aka The Bitch) and Sarah Palin’s (aka Caribou Barbie) runs for office and get back to me.
So many of my pet peeves are symptomatic of this conflict: these aggressive yet conflicted women characters who are simultaneously strong yet exhibit low self esteems, who kick ass with violence but submit to the sexy alpha male. Another symptom: so many of these books only have one strong woman character, and many other female characters are stereotypical and inconsequential. Maybe lots of urban fantasy isn’t really about strong women, but about one special, chosen woman. (Thank you, Suzy McKee Charnas, for articulating this so well at Bubonicon.) There’s still anxiety about toppling the status quo. It’s possible in these worlds to have a strong woman, but not strong women.
We really like strong women. But as a culture, we’re still apologizing for them, undercutting them, tempering them. Because Western culture is still ambivalent about them.
A Vague Conclusion
Most of this started with my unhappiness with violent women characters, who seem to prefer spraying down a room with an Uzi rather than using intelligence and diplomacy to solve their problems. I keep asking the question, can’t women (and men, for that matter) be strong without being violent? What does it say that we equate strength with violence?
In some ways, the violence of kick-ass heroines comes out of anger. It’s overcompensation for the past. “Goddammit, we’re sick of being cast as victims and we’re not going to take it anymore!” Still, it’s funny how many of them still exhibit symptoms of victimhood. Many of them even have abuse in their backgrounds to explain it. But none of them ever feel the need to get counseling.
To most of us, ambivalence about strong women won’t come as a surprise. But I wanted to draw a line connecting that ambivalence to this genre where it seems to be playing out in a deeply symbolic and entertaining way. And to say that we still need feminism.
Credit where credit is due: While I came up with most of this during my own bouts of woolgathering (ably assisted at times by Daniel Abraham and MLN Hanover as sounding boards), I’m not the first person to articulate these ideas in public. The Smart Bitches, who are goddesses of all things romance and analysis, have talked about the appeal of powerful women in paranormal fiction. Lilith Saintcrow talks about Angry Chicks in Leather, with a follow up.