Women in Urban Fantasy, and Mistreatment Thereof

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.

10 Replies to “Women in Urban Fantasy, and Mistreatment Thereof”

  1. And this is why I’ve drastically cut back on UF. Once the genre exploded, a great, great majority of what’s out there are merely derivative of one another to the point of blandness. I would also lump the once great Mercy Thompson and Sookie Stackhouse series’ in that group, as both women have issues with other women (in Sookie’s case, she might have a female friend, but they manage to get written out after two or three books and the focus comes back to Sookie+Eric/Bill/Quinn/man of the month). The Mercy Thompson series definitely fails the Bechdel Test, and I gradually grew uncomfortable with the portrayal of Mercy’s mixed race background. I wish I had the patience to write UF, because I miss what made the genre great in its early years.

  2. Great post! You’ve summed up everything that annoys me lately about UF and why I’m so determined to write the kind of heroines that I can relate to. Maybe I’m not a sharp shooter or six feet tall and physically strong but I’d like to think that my creativity and determination can be heroic traits as well. Hopefully UF will evolve and we’ll see more female characters other than the same tropes/stereotypes popular right now.

  3. @Evangeline,

    Somebody pointed out to me in my mirror of this over on my Livejournal that Anita Blake had a female friend too — who was also written out after the first few books. Sigh.

    I love urban fantasy, a lot, but it’s frustrating what’s out there. There are a handful of really great books, but they’re few and far between in comparison to how much UF is out there. It’s sad, because the genre has a lot of potential, and it purports to be woman-focused, but really, it’s not. 🙁

    I have heard folks talk about various issues with the Mercy books, but the mixed race part, I’m unaware of. If you don’t mind my asking, what made you uncomfortable? (I haven’t read the books, and I’m trying to figure out whether I want to or not!)

    1. What made me uncomfortable was that Mercy is half-Blackfoot/feet, but never took the time to learn more about her heritage, yet she used it as a scapegoat to explain why she could never fit in with any one or group (much less her white mother, step-father, and half-sisters, whom she pushed away not because she is a shape-shifting coyote, but because they’re blonde and white–it smacked of unconscious self-loathing). Briggs did tie Mercy’s heritage into the last book, but it was too little too late, and actually backfired for me because her Native American heritage isn’t another interesting facet to her character, the revelation of her background made her secretly Super Amazing Special! As a result, Mercy being mixed race seemed less like actual diversity in UF and more along the lines of injecting something “exotic” into her character. :/

  4. @Minx:

    Yay! This is part of why I wrote this post, actually — to get other writers to think actively about the choices they’re making in their fiction. It’s like theme, kinda. Most people don’t really focus on it when they’re writing, but it’s there in the story, underlying everything. And like theme, if you actively think about what messages you want to send, you can end up with a much stronger story.

    That reminds me, I have some links I should probably post…

  5. Anita’s best friend is Veronica and she stays throughout the series. Another female in those books is Claudia, the wererat. And the wererat doctor, Lillian. And Sophie, Richard’s second in command.

    It’s weird to me that you included Anita in this post because what annoys me the most about that series (even though I still love it) is that the men are all Anita’s bitches. Jean-Claude doesn’t say boo to her and she is constantly going against what he tells her with no repercussion. And don’t get me started on Richard.

    I don’t read much UF outside of Laurell K Hamilton, so I can’t speak to the genre, but I believe you when you say a lot of authors rely on weak reasoning to manipulate their heroines into distress. In the romance genre, I find a lot of instances where a character does something completely out of character and there’s no good reason provided for it. It’s frustrating, and you’re right, it’s lazy writing. Inconsistency for the sake of drama.


    1. Ah, I didn’t remember her being prominent in the later books. But even still, throughout the series (or at least to the point I stopped reading, which was around 11), Anita is heavily critical, sometimes downright insulting, towards other women, and makes a point of saying that she’s “not like those women.” This is really a problem, and a strong trend in UF.

      Yeah, the way Anita treats men in her life is definitely a problem too, but I wasn’t focusing on men in UF in this article. 😉

  6. I was just bitching about this the other day. I find that Patricia Briggs is bad for the lone female and defanged tropes (I mean, her protags are basically professional victims for all their supernatural awesome powers), although her last book was a bit better. And as much as I love Kelley Armstrong, she constantly makes her female characters (none of whom are stupid) behave as though they were incapable of rational thought to move the plot along. It drives me batty.

    1. I haven’t gotten around to reading Patricia Briggs. I’ve heard a lot of good things about her work, but I’ve also heard a lot of stuff that really annoys me. I hate when writers include in their world setting reasons for there to NOT be women around. I don’t mean stuff like, say, the book takes place at a boy’s school (but even then, All Men of Genius by Lev AC Rosen does exactly that; the whole book is about a girl disguising herself as a boy to get into the top science school, and the book has several well-rounded, involved women characters, including Ada fucking Lovelace — should mention this is steampunk, not urban fantasy) — but rather, decreeing things like “female werewolves are rare”. Which I think is in Briggs. And why? What is the point of that?

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