Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Strong vs Feminine in Urban Fantasy

I read an article over at Bastard Books last week written by Sarah from Bookworm Blues that really got me thinking about why certain urban fantasy heroines really turn me off. Sarah hits on the difficulty of relating to characters that are too tough, too sexualized, and just too damn badass to be believed. I get her point, and I can't deny that this type of protagonist can grate on the nerves, especially if they're prone to constant snarkiness or mean-spirited judgments of those they see as less than them.

While we can agree that true strength comes in many forms, not just leather-clad, gun-toting super women, I think it would also be nice to see a more feminine side to these heroines. It may be shallow and unrealistic to portray these women as relying solely on their physical strength in every situation, but to me it's just as troublesome that their lives are devoid of all femininity. Sure, most of them are law enforcement, P.I.'s, or bounty hunters (yawn, yawn, and yawn) who live in that boy's club kind of world. I'm not saying they have to be beauty queens or Barbie dolls, but wearing a dress once in while isn‘t a crime, even if you have an edgier personality.

Having a girlie side was one of the things that made Charmed such an appealing show. These women loved fashion, girl talk, possessed domestic grace, and still whooped ass at their competitive day jobs while vanquishing demons and saving lives on the side. In contrast, I caught the first few episodes of the Witchblade TV show from 2000, where a NYC cop comes to possess a mysterious mystical power and proceeds to stomp various bad guys with it. The lead, Sara Pezzini, is very much a typical UF heroine, and not in a good way. On top of the fact that there's not a single other significant female character (at least in the beginning), Sara has no female friends or any interests that are remotely feminine. I‘m not saying women like that don‘t exist, I just don‘t want to read about them every single time I pick up my favorite genre.

Of course, I'm not the first one to gripe on this trend, but I feel it bears repeating. Thankfully, we are seeing more and more UF heroines avoiding this one-note trap and broadening the scope and appeal of the genre. Nicole Peeler's Jane True, Allison Pang's Abby Sinclair, along with several of Kelley Armstrong's female leads are all great examples of the new UF woman. There's a delightful scene in the first Jane True novel, Tempest Rising, in which Jane spends an afternoon questioning a siren while trying on an assortment of designer clothing in the woman’s boutique. Jane isn't exactly a fashionista, but she doesn't reject the opportunity to indulge herself, nor does she berate herself over not having the perfect body or feel the need to bemoan every flaw.

Bottom line, it's okay to be girlie and strong. Most women are, and having a balance of varied characteristics is what makes a person substantive and interesting. I can enjoy a hero who kicks ass and takes names, but I'm more likely to relate to and care about one who also likes knitting, yoga, scented candles, and finding the perfect nail polish color.

I realize that in these modern times there’s a lot of overlap between the genders, and I’m certainly not trying stereotype anyone or say that women can‘t or shouldn‘t do the same things as men and vice versa. I’d just like to see more girlie girls in urban fantasy, and fewer characters who essentially behave more like a man who happens to have a vagina.

I'd love to hear what you guys think about it, and many thanks to Sarah for starting such a wonderful discussion.



Anonymous said...

Love the post and I agree whole-heartedly. I've got nothing to add other than an attagirl!

Violette Malan said...

I was particularly struck by your observation that so many female UF protagonists have no female friends. It's absolutely a salient feminine characteristic to to network, and to maintain a community of friends. I can understand why writers need to keep their character lists down, but this is something that would certainly add a touch of the true feminine without detracting from any level of kick-assery.

Ella Gray said...

booksbyjason - Thanks! :)

Ella Gray said...

Violette - I couldn't agree more. Especially when you think about the capability women have of building such strong support networks. I know if I'm in trouble, I'm calling my girlfriends before hooking up with some half-demon sexpot I just met, LOL. Thanks so much for commenting :)

Chantal said...

It's an interesting point. I am currently reading Fury's Kiss by Karen Chance and I can't help but compare the MC with Cassie Palmer from Chance's other series who is softer and more feminine. Personally I prefer Dory, but then is isn't always tough - she has a soft heart.

Ella Gray said...

Hi Chantal - I'm not familiar with either series, but now I'd love to check them out and compare. And sometimes less feminine characters are super cool, I'd just like more of a variety in general :) Thanks for commenting!

Bastard said...

I personally don't care much about a female character showing her girly side or not, but those are just my interest. I'll say these much, it's good to see diversity in characters, but I don't have anything to complain about tough characters acting and being tough.

That said, I find an interesting observation of the friendship angle. And that's one of my main complaints, not with the main character but how they act and how it translates to friendship. Even the uber bitch, even if the narration wants to make us believe other wise, in the interest of building a core group of characters, the main character will be surrounded by characters who become friends with them, many which make no sense based on personality. So I have bit more problem with that more than anything. Ironically, I have loads of friends, and I'm bit of an asshole lol, though I guess I'm also nice?

But continuing on the friendship trend, I'm glad you brought it up. It's the first thing I noticed when I finished reading My Life as a White Trash Zombie by Diana Rowland... where are the female supporting characters? I found it hard to believe that apparently Angel didn't have female friends, and she barely interacted with a female character in the whole book. Which struck me as strange. I loved the book though, but felt the need to share that observation.

In any case, thanks for continuing the discussion. Next week I'll have another guest post, which is on a similar theme, which I think you guys should enjoy.

Ella Gray said...

Hey Bastard - Yes, friendships should be a key asset to most characters, and it still surprises me that sort of thing is lost in urban fantasies. I commonly see the ocassional female work friend, but not usually someone the MC considers an equal.

I also find it frustrating when all kinds of "friends" fawn all over a hero and will do just about anything for them even when said hero has done very little interpersonal work to earn that sort of devotion. Seems like cheating somehow.

I'll definitely keep an eye out for that guest post :)

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