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.


45 Responses to “Carrie’s Analysis of Urban Fantasy Part III: Deconstructing Urban Fantasy”

  1. Dan Says:

    I really don’t know what exactly to respond with. Your analysis is excellent, and, well, right. Sounds like you could have put out a term paper or thesis on this if you had the time. 🙂

    I’m one of those guys out there who’s all for equal rights, so I agree with a lot of what you are saying. Looking at it though, I think part of the problem is that guys /like/ strong women, but not women who are /strongER/ than them. We guys are insecure creatures, the presence of the flaws and the submission to the alpha (which could actually be role reversed, I think a lot of strong guys would jump at a chance to just let go for a while with an alpha female, as it were) male can help the highly insecure of us be reassured that we are still on top.

    I know that sounds a bit sexist, that’s not my view, but my theory on society’s view, and why some of the tropes that are counterproductive and undermining feminist ideas and strong women are so popular.

    From what I can tell so far from your books, the best example I can give of a male like that is, ironically, Carl. The way he needs reassurance of his place on top, when it’s clear to an outsider who’s REALLY in charge of things is a good way to give example of many male’s mindsets.

    Anyways, I’m starting to get on a bit of a rant here, sorry. I just found this really interesting and fascinating to read. Looking forward to Dead Man’s Hand next month!

  2. […] Vaughn is continuing on with her analysis of the Urban Fantasy genre with Deconstructing Urban Fantasy.  As a recap, Carrie has already shared with us her views on When Things Go Wrong and […]

  3. Jenn Says:

    This actually makes me very happy because it matches in general with my own observations before I started doing research. I’d like to add to some of what you said, based on some studying I’ve done. There’s actually some positives in all the trauma and violence.

    I consider all the violence to be good because women have a problem with bullying, and its something that we as a society don’t address. Because girls are taught and internalize the ideal of being a good girl (quiet, attentive, nurturing even when they don’t want to) and are not given a constructive way to vent anger. While good boys may be rambunctious and energetic, occasionally getting into play fights, good girls should remain quiet and not be that physical. This sort of anger deficit with no training in how to constructively deal with it leads to bullying. Girls bully and exert power through different means than boys. They exclude their victims and get their friends to do so as well, simply seeming to choose not to play together. And girls don’t talk about how hurt they are when this happens because then maybe the other girls won’t like them. They gang up together and get others to do their dirty work: Meg with Carl and the other werewolf she turned, for example, men are less used to female forms of social power, so are easier to hide behind than other women. Or even Alette who achieves power through her family group, which she’s built up over the years (This is not to say Alette is a bully, merely that the female power structure is the same.). If you want a book on the subject of how women use social pressure to inflict emotional damage on each other, I’d recommend Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls. It’s a collection of true stories told by victims, bullies, and semi-henchwomen that’s absorbing, and if you’re a woman and have avoided being any of the above, congrats, you had a great life (and chances are you are a Latina or African American girl who went to school where “minority” races were the majority. This one place where minorities are actually better off so long as they’re not in a majority Caucasian school.)

    Anyway, even the physical bullying in the book is an improvement over this system in my opinion because at least its now out in the open that women feel this way and that it makes us violent and that we can be aggressive. If we were still hiding the problem, we’d never be able to fix it. It’s like getting the alcoholic to admit he has a drinking problem before you can get him to fix it. All the violence is a step in the right direction.

    There’s a theory that women use Gothic modes of writing to work out societal problems they’re not able to talk about. I have research to prove the subgenre is the latest strain of Gothic. So, books featuring kickass women are popular because they’re exploring new modes of problem solving. There’s even actually a difference in this sub-genre between the early writers working in the 20th century (only four that I know of, and LKH is the only one still publishing the same series. I’d say that era ended, in fact, with her Obsidian Butterfly) and the writers working in the 21st century. The kickass heroines of the early days were much more motivated by traditional feminist rhetoric and integrating that, than the kickass heroines currently out there. The change is likely because the majority of the 21st century writers grew up in a post-feminist age, and they have already internalized the old ideals that worked and know that which ones didn’t. The current readers, who have tried those old ideals or grown up with them are on the same search for redefinition that the characters are on, and perhaps the authors too.

    Kitty, for example, was raped repeatedly by her packleader and was “raped” in the way she was made a werewolf and arguably “raped” again when exposed as a real werewolf. Despite this extreme trauma, we meet her just as she begins to find a way to recovery for herself through her advice show (using traditional tend/befriend female tactics in a way that empowers her in a way everyone respects). Helping others with their problems helps her. Kitty’s character builds on traditional female skills, but still retains power for herself and gains confidence. Basically, the story of Kitty shows readers a potential path to recovery and later strength (that which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger). She even uses the media overexposure weakness to her benefit and the benefit of others through her lawsuit (when women help other women it’s a huge step toward confidence, trust, and power in most of the books I’ve read.)

    As for the other things: Beauty and desirability have been measures of female success for millennia. I’m sad this hasn’t changed. The tramp stamps are most likely codes for alternative religious outlook/ancestry.

    The sex dominance is likely reflective of women who have had bad relationships with their mothers, and who were strong enough to forge their own separate identities and ideals. There is some evidence that such women, if they open up, do so only for their mates. On a personal observation with no evidence to back it up, as a beta female and proud of it, I suspect many of the authors, now that they’ve written a kickass alpha heroine, don’t know how to let the character yield to males or other females in a place other than bed without making the heroine appear weak to critics and readers. Which is about typical, alphas are alphas because they don’t yield.

    I hope I was helpful rather than a distraction. I really need to sit down and write out everything coherently, this is just a small snippet of the stuff I’ve been reading up on.

  4. carriev Says:

    Holy cow Jenn, that’s awesome, and exactly why I posted this whole analysis — so someone could tell me “You’re right” or “You’re wrong” or “Yes, and…” Which is what you’ve done. You’re also reminding me what I loved about grad school. 🙂

    I’m so glad to see a positive in all this — that this really is working out some of these issues, and working forward, esp. reflective of a post-feminist generation.

    I specifically made Kitty as non-violent as I could. That’s my own proclivity, but I also wanted to see what it would do to the genre. What I’m learning is that Kitty often recruits people when she needs skills (like ass kicking) that she doesn’t have. Something I’m working on is Kitty as leader, bridge builder, and mediator, rather than Kitty as lone wolf killer.

    But the #1 complain with the first book is how passive Kitty starts out. 🙂 My response is always, “Yeah, I meant to do that.”

    Dan, you have an interesting perspective. I still find it interesting that this kind of conciliation would go on in a genre written primarily by women about empowering women.

  5. Dan Says:

    By all rights I could be wrong, I’m a sophomore at a community college right now, but that is what popped into my mind. I’m not speaking for all men, or even with an educated guess- it’s just what came up when I thought about your comments regarding how strong women are portrayed, and how/why that can be counterproductive to empowering women. And I think you’d be surprised how many guys read women’s literature, or literature meant to empower women, etc.

    Because, frankly, most of it is much better than some of the stuff we put out. Most of my favorite authors are actually women, now that I think about it. 🙂

  6. Marissa Says:

    I’ve read many books where the strong woman is being that way to prove she can roll with the big boys. While I’m all for a woman being kick-ass and in charge, it’s also these female characters who hate anything about themselves that might come off as nurturing. Wanting family, caring, or even being nice is shunned and looked down upon.
    Women have one of the hardest roles in society, in that we’re expected to be the Good Girl and still be the Business Girl, Family Girl, and to sometimes act like a Call Girl for the significant other.
    I’m prone to being rough, and occassionally downright violent. I don’t mean to be, I was never a bully in school (I was usually the victim) and I don’t mean it to be hurtful. I grew up around guys, most of my friends still are male, and they treat girls differently. It’s a cross between wanting to treat me like their little sister they must protect and ‘one of the boys’.
    It comes out in my writing. Friends who’ve read my stuff comment that my female characters go from being Susie Homemaker to Sarah Conner and everything in between.
    I honestly don’t think our society will ever be ready for strong women; there is always going to be someone who sees her as stronger than he is, and he won’t like it. I can only hope that those same guys who see the woman as stronger than he is aren’t the kind to try to beat it down.

  7. Jenn Says:


    I remember reading negative reviews of your first book on Amazon about how “weak” Kitty was because she didn’t kill Meg and Carl at the end of Midnight Hour. My reaction was always “well, duh. You don’t realistically go from victim to kickass in one book and the author obviously meant to do more long-term character development. And she was outnumbered even if she could muster up the courage.”

    Her avoidence/escape to return to the problem later seems like a much more healthy (and sane) recovery step. I actually need to reread the first four and go buy books 5 & 6 so I can find out where she went from there on building her life.

    I’ll also add that there’s a lot of tension in female culture (women collectively tear eachother and themselves apart) over settling down and having kids vs. persuing a career and no children vs. trying to do it all. I’ll be interested to see Kitty’s reactions and feelings about both marriage and not being able to have children.

  8. Trai Says:

    This may be random, but I remembered what it was other than the tramp stamp that drew my eye to the Midnight Hour cover the first time I saw it. The tank top. I thought the tank top Kitty was wearing was awesome, haha.

    One of the things I like most about the series is that Kitty *is* so non-violent. I got tired of reading dark fantasy (my preferred term) novels where the heroines just killed everyone to solve their problems. I like that Kitty tries to talk things out. One of my favorite scenes in the entire series is when she talks Cormac out of the assassination attempt– kudos to you, Carrie.

    I’ve been re-reading the series in preparation for 5 and 6, and this is from someone who rarely, if ever, re-reads books. This will be my second time reading all of them, and I’ve been with the books since November 2005, so it’s been quite a stretch of time. Kitty’s growth as a character is natural. I agree with Jenn; it’s not like she could have killed Carl and Meg at the end of Midnight Hour without a serious about-face in character (not to mention morals).

  9. caericarclight Says:

    “But the #1 complain with the first book is how passive Kitty starts out.”

    I’m trying to convince a friend who is having trouble with that aspect to stick with the book (and go to the next ones, of course).

    It’s part of what I love about the series, personally. She’s growing in ways series characters rarely do in my experience. It seems like they either are tough as nails from the get-go (and never really change after that) or at some point a switch is flipped they can suddenly do anything.

    Oh…and what initially attracted me to the cover of “Kitty and the Midnight Hour?” The wolf, of course.

  10. Gillian Says:

    Ahh, feminism. A noun for the doctorine in which we fought for the right to work harder. And before I go any further, yes, I am a feminist and want equality for myself and my sisters but just because we’re equal to men doesn’t mean we’re the same. (End of caveat)

    I think this is where some authors go astray with the characterisations of their heroines. In order to keep up with the boys, they make their heroines act like emotionless action figures. In order to reclaim ass-kickage from male characters, the female protagonists have to be like Arnie (in his early days without the overblown muscles and with longer hair, of course). They try to remove themselves from responsibility to get the job done and subvert their crocodile brain into thinking that the obigatory victim/s they’ve come across during their mission is the bane of their existance, rather than having a little empathy toward someone less strong and giving them the assistance they need (which, I reckon, most people would do in that situation, regardless of sex).

    To use her as an example, Kitty doesn’t do that. She has limitations, knows them and works within them. She doesn’t go straight for a weapon to beat the crap out of anyone – she uses her head and plays to her strengths, whether that strength is her ability to talk down an assassin or utilising the skills of others whom she knows will get the job done better than she could, even if she had the ability. She seems more realistic than a lot of other heroines I’ve read because of this (setting aside the lycanthropy. I’m talking about Kitty’s personality). It would have been out of character for her to do in Carl and Meg. She tells us time and again she’s at the bottom of the pack and liked it there for a time. Her walking away from the alphas shows her climbing up a rung on the ladder, but not the top. In the real world no one goes from the bottom to the top in such a short space of time.

  11. Carrie, I’ve been thoroughly enjoying this series of posts by you. For starters, your debut was the very first UF I ever read and therefore has a special place in my heart (and bookshelf), but it’s also still my favorite of the current trends in UF. Like Jen mentioned above, the character development of Kitty has been fantastic over the course of the books, and reading all these comments makes me want to go re-read them. 🙂

    The other reason I’ve enjoyed these posts is because I finally gave into a UF story idea I’d been kicking around and started beating the crap out of it, trying to pull what I liked out of UF while taking out the stuff I didn’t. I don’t blame you for not naming specifics in your posts, but I would like to raise a couple of opposite questions, if that makes sense:

    1) What books of urban fantasy (and not necessarily the market’s current definition of) would you raise as stellar examples of the genre? If someone were intending to write urban fantasy, can you think of any books that aspiring (or even current) UF writers shouldn’t live without reading? Obviously, writing is influenced by all genres and tends to get richer when we read outside of it, but after reading this series of posts, you’ve got me curious to what you feel succeeds in the genre. 🙂

    2) How would you turn your own analysis to your own work? Do YOU feel you’ve committed your own pet peeves in any way, or do you feel you’ve skirted them by twisting certain elements? And I’m sure you’ve answered this before in your blog, but given your peeves of the genre and your concerns, what drew you to write in it in the first place?

    Thanks for your time, and here’s to books five and six, which I can’t wait to get my hands on. Cheers!

  12. Markysan Says:

    Let me respectfully play Devil’s Advocate for a moment.

    To me… the ass-kicking heroine is an unlikely character from the outset. While possible, the character would (from a real-world perspective) have to be extraordinary. For an author to translate this, the remaining female characters would almost have to be the complete personification of ordinary.

    As a man with few “issues”, I have no aversion to strong(er) females. I agree that society is biased towards males, but the question remains… who is “society” exactly?

    Who decides that men make more money than women for doing the same job? Who decides that women should raise the kids while the men should be the providers?

    In “my” house, I make significantly more money than my wife. From an economic standpoint, my job is more “important” than my wife’s job. Should an issue arise where one of us needs to be home for the kids, she stays. This isn’t out of tradition but out of sheer economics. We lose less money if she misses work than we do if I miss a day.

    We end up playing the traditional roles through no fault of our own. But who’s fault is it?

    If fiction is an exaggerated reflection of real-life, then the strong, ass-kicking heroine WOULD stand out amongst the other female characters. There is nothing ordinary or subservient about my lovely wife, but she gets forced into that role anyway. I don’t force her there… and I can’t figure out who does… but she’s there…

  13. jackie Says:

    Markysan –

    the kick ass heroine IS an exception to the rule. So is the kick ass hero, in most real life. There are few places in adult american life where pulling out an uzi and spraying the room solves anything. Might make the hero/heroine feel better temporarily, but it rarely solves anything and generally makes everything worse. So I guess there shouldn’t be many characters like that in any one book or series, should there? Now I know there are probably more men than women who are tempted to kick ass and that is because we expect it of men more than women.

    As far as who “forces” your wife and you into the roles you accept, no single person forces you, we each accept them because we see them as necessary for a good life. Every time a lower paying job is offered to a woman, every time she accepts it. Every time a man is offered more money and less chance to be a homemaker or active parent and accepts it we keep those roles alive. But less of us are accepting the expected roles as we try to find the ones that fit us as individuals. It ain’t easy being green, but sometimes we don’t have a choice.

  14. Jenn Says:

    Markysan: “I don’t force her there… and I can’t figure out who does… but she’s there…”

    That answer I can guess at based on research: She’s the one who forces herself to stay because of 1) Mother guilt — what I’ve read indicates if their children are in need, the woman will choose to stay home with a child even if their spouse offers to do the duty instead because women feel guilty if they don’t. Society has very firm opinions on people who abandon children and women are particularly sensitive to the social pressure not to do so (Feeling like a Bad Mother is almost as bad as not being a Good Girl) and 2) Economic necessity — you make more. So if she made you stay the family would have less money and she’d be guilty of depriving everyone of the comfort that money would provide just because she didn’t want to be the one who stayed. Society trains women to deny their own desires and sacrifice for others.

    I could elaborate more, but that’s likely what applies to her in this scenario. Don’t forget to both tell her and show her that you appreciate her. Depending on her job, she may also be feeling guilty that she didn’t go to work.

  15. carriev Says:

    Markysan: thanks for posting. This issue you bring up is one that feminists have been grappling with for a hundred years. These are institutionalized roles that have been in place for thousands of years — I hesitate to say anyone is forcing anyone to do anything at this point. What feminism is trying to fight against is this institutionalized belief that women OUGHT to stay home and take care of the kids, that men OUGHT to be paid more because they’re better at it, etc. etc. etc. The goal is for everyone to have the social and economic freedom to choose the roles and lifestyle that are best for them.

  16. carriev Says:

    So many questions:

    Shara, as disingenuous as this sounds, I didn’t choose to write urban fantasy. In fact, when I sold Midnight Hour, the term wasn’t in wide usage. When I wrote the first Kitty story, there was Buffy, Anita, and that was it. When I sold the novel, I hadn’t heard of Kim Harrison, Kelley Armstrong, and Charlaine Harris, who were all just starting to hit the bestseller lists. I had heard of LA Banks. One of the agents I shopped the novel to told me he wouldn’t know how to market the book, and he turned it down. A year later, I’m betting that would have changed. So, I didn’t set out to write UF. I just got very, very lucky in landing in this genre just as it became mega-huge.

    I started with what I thought was a silly idea, and the character of Kitty came to life to the point where I’ve been able to develop the series, and along the way I’ve developed pretty strong opinions about the genre. I actually try to write against it more often than not.

    As for stellar examples, I actually tell people NOT to read too much in the genre. I think if you want to write stand out UF, you’d do better NOT following the template and formula. I’ll have to think about stellar examples — I may email you privately.

    My favorite movie kick ass heroine is Alice from Resident Evil precisely because she is able to maintain her empathy and humanity. Also, I love the moment in Terminator 2 when Sarah is so gung-ho, blasting the shotgun at the scientists house, and she realizes that she’s become what she despises: a killing machine.

  17. carriev Says:

    I had another thought and now I’ve completely forgotten it…

  18. Carrie:

    Thanks for answering my questions! I makes sense that the genre chose you, and it’s really cool that you “stumbled” into when you did. Luck is a wonderful thing indeed.

    In terms of template and formula, that’s definitely one thing I’ve tried to be aware of, especially since I do read the genre. Most of the UF I read is for fluff and entertainment, and it’s easy to get irritated at seeing how some authors handle it, which gives me something to work against or twist. But yes, if you can think of some stellar examples (and not just in the trendy definition of UF), I’d love to hear them. 🙂

  19. Sassee Says:

    Excellent analysis, Carrie (and Dan and Jenn!). I noticed the same trends but haven’t been able to voice it quite like that. Many good things to keep in mind here for aspiring writers.

  20. Meg Says:

    This has been a fabulous essay series, and it means so much more coming from an author who understands what’s necessary to create a REALISTIC kick-ass heroine and who actually practices what she preaches. This is why Kitty and J. D. Robb’s Eve Dallas are my favorite genre fiction characters. They’re realistic, intelligent, they don’t play the martyr, and don’t always go straight to blowing up the room to solve their problems. They have concerns about justice and morality that are real and not just an attempt to create some artifical conflict.

    While reading Kitty has ruined most other urban fantasy for me, I’m grateful for it. It’s nice to know there’s an UF heroine who isn’t primarliy concerned with sexing it up and proving she can kill everyone else in town.

  21. Griggk the goblin Says:

    Well reasoned and insightful, but I believe there’s a simple answer to a lot of the questions you posed.


    ( )

    In Mary Sue fiction, you can’t have another strong, sexy, capable woman, because that would distract attention from Mary Sue. One or two of the other available men might actually pay attention to the secondary character, and that blows the whole fantasy of being the baddest, the sexiest, the ass-kickingest woman in the universe.

    Yeah, sometimes Mary Sue is insecure about her incomparable beauty or fixates on the one person in her past who didn’t love her as much as the rest of the sentient universe does. This is, in my opinion, a clumsy attempt by the author to manipulate the sentiments of the reader. “Look at Mary Sue…she suffers insecurity just like you, even though she has none of your flaws. Dontcha feel for her? She needs a hug!”

    Now, why is this trope so popular? I’m convinced that the majority of people who lap this stuff up don’t read to think…they read to feel. They’re in it for the vicarious trip. In short, they are Mary Sues as well, and really don’t want to be bothered with inanities like a well-built universe, logical antagonists, or competent secondary characters.

  22. Tia Nevitt Says:

    Excellent analysis! It makes me wonder if I’ll ever sell my fantasy. It’s urban, but it takes place 200 years in the past. My very ladylike character has never hit anyone in her life, and the one time she uses a gun, she aims for the legs. She also gets her pretty little nose broken.

  23. Hi! That was most useful and interesting — thanks for posting it.

    Question: to what extent do you think alienation and estrangement plays a role in urban fantasy? I mean the frequent way in which the kick-ass female protagonist is progressively cut off from routine domesticity, family, and ordinary society as their transformation/journey into paranormal society continues — lack of access to hospitals, police, that sort of thing seems to be a regular hallmark of the field; what do you think it tells us? (If anything.)

    I’m also wondering about the on-going common trope of the heroine slowly becoming less and less human. (The Anita Blake books are a classic example; the logical thematic end-point of the series is “Obsidian Butterfly”, in which Anita visits her former mentor, the psychopathic assassin Edward … and she turns out to have become far more of a monster than he was.) There seems to me to be something not terribly healthy going on here …

  24. carriev Says:

    Hi Charlie. I think that’s a very useful observation. Most of these characters start out cut off from their families — parents are dead, or the main character was abused and fled, etc. I’d say this alienation feeds into the idea that these powerful kick ass characters are somehow “chosen” and “special.” They’re strong because they’re not like “normal” women, who are more integrated into society. And as I think someone said earlier, for a woman to have “normal” domestic connections would somehow make her seem less strong, less able to kick ass.

    Maybe these characters — their power, violence, etc. — are more acceptable if they’re isolated and inhuman? i.e. It’s okay for them to kick ass, they’re not threatening any societal status quos if they’re “special” and inhuman?

    I also find it interesting how much these characters cut _themselves_ off from normal human contact (like Anita moving out to the house in the country) because they’re a threat to their friends, to their nice would-be boyfriends. Their very power and talents make them too dangerous to live in society. It happened to Buffy, to some extent, in the last couple of seasons.

    It’s funny, I think of the Anita Blake books as “before Obsidian Butterfly” and “After Obsidian Butterfly.”

  25. I suspect if the kick-ass protags weren’t distant they’d be deeply unsettling to folks who’re just after comfort reading; because for a KAP to go toe-to-toe with monsters, sooner or later they’re going to become a monster, and the idea of monsters living among us certainly isn’t pleasant to contemplate. Displacing the KAPs sideways and away from everyday life, so there’s no risk of running into them on the school run or at the supermarket, is good practice; it reduces their menace. Imagine the literary effect of werewolf or vampire politics showing up at the shopping mall on a busy Saturday afternoon instead of being nicely confined to dodgy night clubs or weird run-down hunting lodges? That’s not paranormal romance — that’s Stephen King with the dial turned up to 11.

    (Full disclosure: I’m working over book #3 in a series of horror/secret history/spy novels, and “we have met the enemy and they is us” seems to keep turning up as a thematic element. Which may explain why I’m obsessed with tracking alienation in urban fantasy right now. In other words, if it’s just me, tell me to shut the f*** up.)

  26. easol Says:

    I think that Jenn hit the nail on the head. I found it impessive that Kitty basically reclaimed her life and found her strength gradually. I preferred that she didn’t suddenly go “Rawr! I iz wummin! I iz strong! I haz gun! I haz sex!”

    I also like that she’s not violent by nature. I don’t mind violence in urban fantasy, but if the character does something violent then that should be portrayed in a negative manner (ex: Harry Dresden beating a Fallen with a bat, shown as being brutal and morally wong, and he lives to regret it).

    The biggest problem with trying to make these characters strong is also that too often femininity is labeled “weak” — as if putting on a dress, being nurturing (even to family members) or having family/romantic plans automatically makes you a wimp. And if any of these are done, they either revolve around sex or are seen as “feminine = weak.” Same as how often they see “polite = weak” — a heroine MUST be sassy and rude to authority figures, or obviously she is a wimp!

    I also like your observation that these characteristics are made more acceptable by having the person be traumatized and/or cut off. This is not exactly a new trope — look back to Arthurian legend, or mythic characters such as Lugh Lamhfada and Perseus — but I think it’s only recently that it’s been applied in this way. It supposedly gives the heroine an instant sense of depth and tragedy to give her a traumatic background (Add water for instant character development!), and also serves to divorce her from the mundane.

    Awesome analysis of the current genre as it’s usually seen, and in what dominates it. And I’m looking forward to your next book.

  27. carriev Says:

    I think it’s all good grist for the mill. Personally, I think the idea of crossing vampire politics ala “Underworld” with everyday life ala, oh, “Mall Rats” would be AWESOME. But that’s just me.

    “we have met the enemy and they are us…” crops up in lots of places. The old Star Trek saw, “We can’t resort to their methods or we become them” and so forth. I like making Kitty’s antagonists normal humans — she never knows who the bad guys are going to be.

    And back to the feminine = weak… I remember when “Aliens” came out, it came under some criticism for suggesting that Ripley was only seriously kick ass because she was protecting Newt — hard core maternal instinct. i.e. It wasn’t okay for her to just kick ass, she had to do it for a feminine/maternal reason. The pendulum seems to have swung the other way.

  28. denelian Says:

    sigh. had i read this instalment before i commented on the second one, i would not feel stupid. you summed up my thoughts on UF and feminism better than i did!

  29. […] Part Three: Deconstructing Urban Fantasy […]

  30. Sandra Says:

    Hi Carrie,

    I saw your essays posted on my friend Archetype’s website, and I wanted to let you know I thought you did a great job of analyzing the genre. I share many of your pet peeves that you listed in Part Two, and I have a WIP that subverts some of them. It may never sell, but I think there’s a need for books where women work together and rely on skills other than kicking ass.

    Are you familiar with WisCon? If you aren’t, it’s the world’s leading feminist science fiction convention, held every Memorial Day weekend, in Madison, Wisconsin. (Their website is at I’ve been going there for years, and it’s a fantastic con. They’re accepting program ideas right now, and I think this essay would make a great topic for a panel. May I submit the idea to the committee? I would love to hear you discuss this topic in more detail!

    Sandra Ulbrich Almazan

    P.S. I’m also a long-time fan of Kitty.

  31. Will May Be Wise Says:

    Hmm, I just realised my favourate authors are also mainly women…

    The main thing I liked about the first book was that Kitty didn’t kill Carl and Meg. It was a lot more “real” for someone whose been raised in what what is specifically described as a stable and loving home to just try and find a way out. She *may* (emphasis on the may) have been desensitized slightly to violence and abuse by recent experiences and her lycanthopy (the wolf inside needing to feed on prey and defer to the alpha), but balanced against that is two decades of “normal” life, where you are conditioned to respect life, and the casual violence, up to and including murder, is veiwed with revulsion.

    And that doesn’t even touch on the way we’re conditioned that if we’re “good”, the police will protect us, and if we’re “bad”, the police will catch us.

    Plus, she didn’t have anybody to help her hide the bodies 🙂

    In fact, given that, (even though the events take place over a number of books) Kitty’s almost acidentally transformation into alpha felt quite sudden.

    It’s interesting to examine the tropes that “enable” protagonists to use violence causally. For male protagonists, they are almost always veterans of some violent conflict (usually military, especailly Vietnam, more recently the gulf or Afganistan, but can be gang wars [as police or gangbangers]). They can have a decent upbringing, but it is usually a recent event that damages them to enable the violence they need to serve the plot.

    Amongst the books I’ve read, the female protagonist is not allowed to have this sort of history. Of course they can’t have a history as combat soldiers in the US military, but with all nationalities arriving in the US, your protagonist could have a history as an Israeli combat veteran, or a palestinian insurgent (to use a current example of a dehumanising conflict). Never mind the hundreds (if not thousands) of conflicts around the world where women take up arms as readily as the men.
    But no. Females aren’t allowed to fight in wars. That’s men’s work. So the stories that get published feature history of damaged childhoods. At best, they have been trained from birth to kick arse by a loving family. At worst, they have a history of abuse and/traumatic events to deal with.

    There are exceptions to this rule. In Buffy, for instance, she has no traumatic childhood. Her parents splitting up happened when she was almost an adult, and *after* she got her powers. It is inferred (rather heavily in the later series) that the power of the slayer is what damages her, allowing her to commit rack up a tremendous bodycount with no sign of remorse. While she undergoes emotional trauma (where the watcher’s training regeme and the these experiences continue her ), it’s usualy becuase she’s been confronted with her own mortality. None of the traumatic scenes are to do with the fact that she’s just killed somebody (sometimes somebody she just had an in depth conversation with!). The one time she comes close, is not that her fellow slayer Faith just killed somebody, but that he was human!

    Anyway, back to the point. Books where the female protagonist doesn’t use immediately resort to violence to solve her problems are refreshingly free of the female history tropes.

    I’m also sure the stories have been written where the protagonist is both female, uses violence and is a recent war veteran. However, the point is, I haven’t heard of them.

    Is it so hard for a publisher to accept them? Do their marketing serveys suggest they won’t sell?
    Or do they publish, and the marketing is flawed, or the books simply don’t sell?

    Western society prides itself on equality. Given that equality doesn’t mean identical, you still see a few male characters given the standard female backstory. In turn, you should see the female characters with the male backstory.

    In my houshold, I earn slightly less than my partner.
    In my parents household, my parents income is about equal (though for a time my mother was the major bread winner).

    Yet people have a slightly disbelieving look when I reveal this, and that I’m *willing* to reveal this.

    So it seems gender stereotypes will persist for a while longer. I believe it was medical advances that ultimately allowed feminism to grow to the point at which people describe themselves as “post-feminist”.

    It might be a depressing thought, but perhaps true equality will lie in the creation of the uterene replicator!

  32. Dal Jeanis Says:

    There are some obvious formula-based and/or plot-based requirements behind some of the items that you note.

    1) In order for the woman to be free to have hot sex, she needs to be unattached. (no husband or long-term lover)

    2) In order to go into that violent world with impunity, she needs to have few dependents (kids, parents, friends).

    Of course, if s/he chooses, a writer can start with such targets and then wipe them out, but that reduces the “escape quotient” of the work. Just as with mysteries, dependents make for more advanced works.

    It would be an interesting exercise to write “Hush Now, Mommy’s Hunting Vampires”…

  33. Sandra Says:

    Dal Jeanis, you might be interested in Julie Kenner’s Demon-Hunting Soccer Mom series. The main character is a stay-at-home mom of a toddler and a teenager, but she still finds time to kill demons for the Catholic church.

  34. Jenn Says:

    Dal Jeanis: There’s a series by Julie Kenner about a Demon Hunting Soccor Mom (it’s actually called something like that.) I haven’t had a chance to read it as yet.

    As to the post-feminism/feminism comments, Post-Feminist really is the best way to describe a woman born after about 1976. There are benefits to being in this generation because things the last generation fought for, we accept as normal, just as women born after 1916 would take the right to vote for granted. (yes, I know, voting came in 1920, but if you’re a young child, you don’t notice.) There’s also something of a generation gap because the world feminists fought for isn’t necessarily what their daughters want.

    Sacrilage I know, but most of the post-feminist generation don’t even realize that they’re rejecting some of the tenants of feminism:

    1) “Women MUST work outside the home to be fulfilled. The economic downturns (like now) that cause women to have to leave their children with a sitter and seek a job of her own are wonderful. Kick those housewives out of the house!”

    It’s no wonder that women who enjoy a traditional lifestyle have a knee-jerk reaction against feminism. It really does want to tear them a way from their children, and says that their work taking care of their children is not to be admired. I’m a career girl myself, but I see no reason why I have to part mothers from children to justify my own life-style.

    2) “Who needs men? Screw’em and leave’em for the company of your gal pals. That’s what men are for.”

    So deep meaningful relationships with men are out of the question. Gee, feel the lack of love. Even sadder since men of this generation seem to have done a reasonable to wonderful job of getting trained as more involved dads who also do some amount of housework.

    3) “The patriarchy programs us to keep us weak and submissive.”

    So, now that we’ve fixed much of that whole patriarchy thing, which I’ll agree was/is a problem, Why do we still have problems and so many self-doubts?

    I posted about female bullying earlier. It’s one of the many issues women have with women. We have created part of our own problems in this society. We should really be working on taking responsibility for this mess.

    Feminism wanted to tear down the patriarchy, but the problem is that its proponants supplanted patriarcal demands with some of its own. Women born in the post-feminist generation grow up feeling this pressure, and often are caught in the middle trying to live up to both feminist and patriarchal ideals.

    Changing one ideology for the opposing ideology is just as limiting.

    We need to develop a new philosophy that teaches people how to choose well. And how to not see other people’s life choices as a threat. Grabbing at the term feminism when feminism has been a threat to some women will only keep women divided.

  35. 150 Says:

    This is a great series of essays. Your theory about the popularity of the conflicted, kickass heroine makes sense, but I have to wonder why the supernatural element is so popular. Going along with your theory, the answer might be that our society is comfortable watching women defeat monsters, but not men. I’m not sure, though. Why do we all want to be (or sleep with) vampires, werewolves and faeries these days?

  36. Okie Says:

    Fabulous analysis. I think you’re spot on about so many of these observations. I also feel (not having read a lot of “urban fantasy” yet) that a lot of these observations are being seen in a lot of the other genres out there as well. Many novels these days (and even a lot of non-fiction) are placing strong or developing female leads into difficult situations and allowing them to grow/transform/excel.

  37. carriev Says:

    I went to WisCon once, 10 years ago, and haven’t been back because I keep scheduling other things. Maybe this year…let me check the schedule.

    There’s a trend in futuristic/space opera SF to also have the strong, kick ass female protag. They also tend to be damaged loners, from what I understand.

    As for why the supernatural…the consensus seems to be that the supernatural makes it easy to dissociate with real life. You can do things with a vampire that you’d never do with a regular guy.

  38. Tommi Says:

    Well I’ve loved kick-ass women since Xena and Buffy. Power and confidence as an aphrodisiac is not just for the female sex. That’s it I think.

  39. carriev Says:

    Xena! Woot!

  40. […] check out Part II: When Things Go Wrong and Part III: Deconstructing Urban Fantasy. Via The […]

  41. […] category is hot right now, and has been for several years. Why? What’s the appeal? Carrie Vaughn argues it’s the kick-ass heroines. Lilith Saintcrow believes it’s angry chicks in leather. I think […]

  42. […] Via the Swivet, New York Times-bestselling urban fantasy author Carrie Vaughn’s three-part essay about urban fantasy: Part One: The FormulaPart Two: When Things Go Wrong (Item # 1 explains why I need to stop sending out queries describing my middle-grade novel as “urban fantasy”)Part Three: Deconstructing Urban Fantasy […]

  43. […] For more on the conversation about women and urban fantasy (from Carrie Vaughn, author and another former Occidental-ian–what can I say, socio-political analysis was beat into us):… […]

  44. […] urban fantasy pet peeves, which as a writer I found extremely useful, and she finishes with her Deconstructing Urban Fantasy Part III. I don’t feel like using her material and citing, so I’ve linked the posts for you. […]

  45. […] and if you do them wrong you’ll be accused of some kind of. . .I don’t know.  I’ve written before about the discomfort with powerful women we often see in fiction, how they’re often mitigated […]

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