Monday, November 15, 2010

Why I Don’t Read Much Urban Fantasy

Daniel Abraham had an interesting post up about rape and urban fantasy  that I’ve been chewing on for awhile. To sum it, it’s some thoughts on women and power as they’re portrayed in urban fantasy. Or, “urban fantasy is a genre sitting on top of a great big huge cultural discomfort about women and power.”
True and true.
Much of urban fantasy, he argues, exists to explore and unpack – among other things - women’s fear of sexual violence. So the best way to explore the issue of women and power and sexual violence may be to not state it explicitly. After all, once you state a book’s overall theme out loud, “Why yes, I am immune to sexual violence and find it quite liberating, but I am also interested in how it has re-shaped my life” it loses some of its power.
I thought it was an interesting thesis, and mulled on it for awhile. I was reminded of the Buffy episode – one of the most disturbing for me – when she loses her powers (taken away from her by a guy, her mentor, as a test. Talk about worst nightmare) and walks down the street, small and afraid, as a group of guys leers and heckles her. It was a profoundly unsettling moment, to see the heroine you love so much for her physical strength get demoted to, well… a woman like us. She doesn’t confront her hecklers like she would have done when she had her superpowers. She just does what we’ve all done at one time or another – hunches up her shoulders, doesn’t make eye contact, and scurries quickly away back into her house.
What Abraham came to realize over the course of the dialogue that ensued after the post went up was that, actually, urban fantasy and its predecessors (i.e. the warrior woman books of yore – which I have a much firmer grasp on, and will talk about more than UF here) pretty much all explicitly use rape and/or sexual violence in the narrative more than you might think. It’s a big old honkin’ cliché that in order to give your heroine an “excuse” to be violent, you have to give her a good, violent reason – like a past rape or intense fear of sexual violence.
There is a long history of literally weaponizing your heroine in response to attack. It happens to guy characters all the time, too (you know, the ones whose wives and daughters are raped and killed in order to spur him on to revenge. Once again: we all get weaponized in response to rape, which is THE WORSE THING THAT COULD EVER HAPPEN!!).  So on the one hand, powerful female characters are weaponized because their guy counterparts were. The thing is, they’re just more likely to have personally felt the violence themselves in addition to acting out violently in retaliation against violence done to others. We made weaponized women heroes who were also victims. The first couple times you read it, it’s interesting. And then it’s not. 
I’m re-reading Jennifer Roberson’s Sword Dancer series right now, which I read back when I was 14 or 16, and there it is right there: the ass-kicking female heroine was raped and her family was killed, which spurs the entire arc of her narrative. She becomes cold and hard and goes on a blood rampage after the guy who raped her and killed her family. Red Sonja gets her powers from rape, too. Ash gets raped. Hell, even Veronica Mars gets raped (yes, yes, I’m mixing my media – stories are stories. I am also reminded of “That was the end of Grogan... the man who killed my father, raped and murdered my sister, burned my ranch, shot my dog, and stole my Bible!”).
In Tamora’s Peirce’s Alanna books, she said she created the character with the explicit intention of NOT having her become a warrior based on past experiences with rape or violence. It was just so incredibly overdone, in her reading experience, that she wanted to do something different. She wanted to create a heroine who wanted to be powerful because it felt right and made her feel powerful, not because of what someone had done to her
One commenter in particular took issue with Abraham’s post, and I followed the dialogue with interest. I didn’t find anything he’d said particularly offensive (not loving UF all that much, myself), though the more I thought about the “books about women and power don’t talk about sexual violence” thing the more it seemed weird to me.  
Why’s it weird. Well, because UF exists in a version of this world. Even if you can defend yourself from a rape… you are still going to fear rape. Why? Because, you know, you’re a woman. And our society pretty well grinds it into you from day one that rape is THE WORST THING THAT COULD EVER HAPPEN TO YOU. Worse than dying, even. You see it much more explicitly in other cultures where women are literally stoned to death or hang themselves after being raped, but you still see it here a lot too. There’s a lot of cultural baggage around rape, which is yet another reason women don’t like to report it. If you report it, you’re presumed guilty in one way or another. Even if you didn’t wear a short skirt, and you fought back, and you weren’t walking “somewhere” alone, or going to your car without pepper spray, or whatever reason people make up so they can make it your fault that somebody attacked you, just being raped still carries the stigma of taint. Of badness. Of brokenness. Dishonor.
So, you know: you are going to carry a lot of internalized stigma around about being raped, even if, you know, on some level, your new shiny powers protect you from it.
After much back-and-forth, Abraham’s anonymous commenter got there, too. She said it much more pointedly than I did, tho:
I don’t read much urban fantasy, as stated (the heroines have all started to blur together for me), but I’ve suggested Abraham’s MLN books to others, and I had a few people say that it sounded like it was written by a guy – folks who didn’t know who the pseudonym was for. When people say things like this, I always wonder what they mean. Nobody could really articulate it. But I suspect it has something to do with the above. Because even if you’re Superwoman… you’re still a woman. And the world you live in makes certain that you remember it - superpowers be damned.
Urban fantasy is, indeed, about women and power. Learning to wield it. Negotiate it. Have meaningful relationships while wielding it. In a world where women are starting to make as much or more money than men (in some areas), and are pushing ahead in terms of formal education, this weird power sharing is something we’re all trying to negotiate in real life, too.
Why are guys so intimidated by strong women? Not even Mad Men knows.  But urban fantasy books are interested in exploring those themes, too.
The thing is, even with all this perceived power, we still have a lot of cultural baggage trying to push us back down. Outdated ideas about virgins and whores, continued hysteria over what women do with their uteruses, sexual violence and the stigma around it (still primarily for women – when was the last time you heard the epithet “rapist” used against a guy in a negative way?), tricky power negotiations, social baggage around pregnancy and taking time off to be with your kids, stigma around being a stay-at-home mom and stigma about being a working mom (basically, if you’re a woman, you must be doing SOMETHING wrong), and etc.
Having superpowers doesn’t peel away all the social baggage. In fact, it actually HIGHLIGHTS the social baggage so it stands out starkly and ridiculously for what it is. Superpowers say, “Hey, I’m buff and tough, so… why do I still think all these made-up rules apply to me? Why do I still care so much about being skinny and having a boyfriend?”
It’s a lot easier to critique society when you obviously no longer fit within its confines. It’s also easier to talk about how lonely you are in it because you don’t fit in it.
So, women and sexual violence. A lot more of it in your woman-power fantasies than you might think. Because, women with superpowers are still women.
Which, if you think about it, is also a really good sum up of women’s places now: We can make our own money, get great high-power jobs, take boxing classes, mouth off, have sex outside of marriage (and even enjoy it!) and take on all the trappings of power… but… well… at the end of the day, we are still women – and being called “Women” means we get to deal with all that that means to our culture. And there are still men (and other women) who go to great pains to remind us of this, and who try and use those reminders to strip away our power.
Now, all that said, and understanding Anon’s issues with a guy boldly stating that his heroine just wasn’t going to worry about rape because she was just never going to get raped cause of her powers… I have to say that I’ve got a pretty similar stance in my fiction - though I've had to take my heroines off this planet in order to do it in a way that I feel is believable, sadly. 
I have that stance in direct reaction against the “strong woman got raped and now she’s allowed to be violent!” cliché. I prefer working in worlds where rape carries no stigma. Or carries some other stigma (preferably a horrifically negative one for, you know, the person perpetrating the crime as opposed to the victim). I want worlds where rape makes no sense. Where it’s not a weapon of war or control. It’s a violent thing, certainly, but not socially acceptable as it is in this society (yes, it is. I just skimmed some recent rom-com where the heroine turns down our hero half a dozen times – he shows up at her work, her apartment, and calls her a lot. She turns him down every time. Then, at time number eight, changes her mind and they hook up. What message is this kind of story sending to guys? Mass media still markets “passion” and “romance” to guys as “not giving up when she says no.” And then we all wonder why there’s a disconnect).
Committing sexual violence - which is a particular type of violence that goes out of its way to remind women that they’re women, and Other – has ridden off into the world of cliché for me. No doubt that, as Anon says, these books are helpful for survivors of abuse, which is still 1 in 4 in this country. They help us realize that yes, in fact, life does go on, and we can grieve, and go forward.  
But I'm tired of reading about abused women. My master's thesis looked at how the African National Congress recruited female fighters during the war against apartheid. I have stacks and stacks of real-life stories about violence perpetrated against women in every country. I'm a feminist blogger, and read the stats and facts and figures every day. I get images of women being abused all the time. Yes, it's real life. Yes, terrible things happen. 
But that's not all there is to life. And I feel that seeing only negative images of women - of women abused, hurt, scared, exploited, harrassed - every day all the time is only going to make you hate being a woman even more. 
Think about that. If all you ever saw about, say, an imaginary country called Valynna were sad, unhappy people, would you want to become a citizen of Valynna? What if you already were a citizen? Would you feel better or worse about being a member of that country if all you saw all the time was the worst of what could happen to you?
I made a conscious choice in my work on this blog waaaay back in 2004 that I wasn't going to post images of women being abused. I was going to post images of happy women, strong women, powerful women, successful women. Yes, I would talk about the unique challenges we have, the abuses, the power struggles, the objectification, but I carefully chose those sidebar images to portray strong, vibrant, happy women. I am tired to see suffering women all the time. Because though it may be *a* truth, it is not *the* truth, any more than any one experience stands in for all experiences.
When I look for heroines, I look for heroines who choose violence as a tool because it works for them, not because it’s thrust upon them. I want heroines who are powerful for power’s sake. Who are honestly, truly, really, scary. Not sexy-scary. Not girl-next-door-scary. But genuinely someone who you’d be terrified to bump into in a dark alley. Because they are so good and unapologetic about what they do.
And I just don’t find that in any believable character in UF. Not anybody who's got an interesting setting, at any rate. Because the setting... our world, even Changed... is still our world. With all the same bullshit.
Joanna Russ once said that the reason she started writing science fiction was because it was the genre where you were allowed to imagine how “things can be really different.”
UF lets us address issues of power and sex and violence as women in a changing world. Our changing world. I deal with that every day. I’m not so interested in writing it or reading it.  
What I’m interested in is what makes us women. And who we’d be… with the same parts… but somewhere else. I want to pull off all the baggage and put on some different loads and see how people interact. I am tired of rape and leering and cat calls and expectations to have kids or not, or get married or not, or whatever.
I want to imagine how things could be really different.
My turnoff with UF is pretty much the exact opposite of what Abraham argued as being not there (or what shouldn't be there): women in these books are still bound by the cultural rules of being women, including the threat of sexual violence. They are merely exceptions when people know about their powers. If they don’t know about their powers, they are still going to be treated like women. And though there is endless delight in watching them combat people’s stereotypes, there are still far too many of those moments when the heroine creeps away into the night, hunching her shoulders, leery of cat-calls.
It’s a not-fun world. An uncomfortable world. A world we’re certainly working on making a better place.
But not the world I'm primarily interested in writing my spec fiction in.
Because it's the world I have to live in and write non-fiction about every day.
I am tired of seeing women getting beat up and crapped on. I want to imagine something different.

Defenders of shows like Dollhouse would say that you have to show all the bad stuff before you show the rebellion against it. I respect that.

Trouble is, people get lost a lot in the bad stuff, and they forget why it was it was bad in the first place. Instead of being "bad" it just becomes the "norm."

9 comments so far. What are your thoughts?

Jennifer said...

Yes, THIS! This post pretty much sums up why I've been making the choices I've been making with the fiction project I'm currently working on. Even when I set out with the explicit purpose of making my female protagonist a certain way, patriarchal ideas and roles keep creeping in and I have to go back and cut these things out. On an academic level I've always known that I've internalized these things, but it was a shock to see them play out in my own fiction, even when trying to keep them out. I've had to do a lot of editing for this purpose alone. Of all the work I knew I would have to do, having to do these kind of edits actually took me by surprise, even though I should have known better.

Kameron Hurley said...

@Jennifer I hear ya. I put my most recent heroine on another world in the distant future, in a female-run society, and what was the first thing I did? Had the primary "bad" guy rape the heroine off screen... to, you know, show how bad he was? I had no idea why. I just.. did it. It didn't even seem weird.

My first readers caught this immediately and called me on it (rape makes no sense in that society; it serves no purpose and has no baggage). But I'm still pretty amazed that I did this without even thinking about it. That's how embedded this stuff becomes. Hey, everybody cuts women up and stuffs them in refrigerators, right!?

Hey, wait a minute... Yeah.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this. There's a lot to think over, here.

In specific I want to mention that this:

Mass media still markets “passion” and “romance” to guys as “not giving up when she says no.” And then we all wonder why there’s a disconnect

Is why I (male) finally gave up my old guilty pleasure, romance novels.

Kameron Hurley said...

@danima And it's why I worry about romance novels as a category. If we had actual love/romance novels instead of what passes for it - the formulaic fetish-ization of monstrous masculinity and frantic femininity - they could be a lot more fun. But when they're held up as the ideal because we don't have a lot of really healthy love stories, that's a problem.

Scooter Carlyle said...

I have to say, though I'm a woman, urban fantasy is not about feminism in any way, shape, or form for me. Is my main character a strong female? In her own way, yes. I also have a character that could be a stereotypical, "Oh, save me, Batman!" kind of girl.

To me, urban fantasy is the drama that arises from the collision of the normal and the not-so-normal. Does it sometimes involve feminine/masculine issues. Sure. But for me it's not the main focus.

Kameron Hurley said...

@Scooter Yeah, we all write what we want to write. It just so happens the UF formula just isn't something I'm interested in writing. Works for plenty of folks, tho (and, as noted by the marketplace, it's wildly popular to readers, too).

Just not this reader :)

Scooter Carlyle said...

@ Kameron, Yup. There's no shame in not liking urban fantasy. There are two different strains of urban...the kind that drifted over from paranormal romance, and the kind that started with mashups and contemporary fantasy.

Most of the urban fantasy that leans toward paranormal romance doesn't really float my boat. I've tried to read two lately that left me feeling like I dipped my self-respect in sludge. I read pretty far into one of them because I liked her other works, but I gave up after I was completely grossed out by one of the scenes.

A.R.Yngve said...

Thank you for this post. It made me think.

Allow me to add another thought:

The strongest "reinforcer" of continued gender stereotypes in fiction doesn't come from the authors, or the publishers, or the culture.

The prime reinforcer is money.

For example: Every time someone buys a Barbara Cartland book, used or new, he/she invests in the idea/value system of Barbara Cartland's mental universe. You could say that the "stock" of her values goes up.

And this goes for the real world as well. There aren't simply free-floating ideas/value systems/prejudices/power structures -- there is an economy of such things.

The devaluing of women continues because it is profitable -- for some. (Ask any employer about why women's wages are lower. It all boils down to profit.)

Like the saying goes: Follow the money. Or, as I like to put it: "Who profits?"

Urban Fantasy, and fantasy in general, has one problem in this regard: Too often it depicts a world where there is power, but money does not play a significant role. But we know all too well that money IS a form of power.

Shouldn't Urban Fantasy try and be more upfront about money as a source of gender issues in society? If we as writers pretend that money isn't a problem, how can deal with it an adult fashion? Just an idea...

halojones-fan said...

It sounds like you're saying that you're not so much upset about UF, as you are about the co-opting of the UF genre by authors who are pretty much writing Mary Sue templates.