Thursday, May 09, 2013

Gender and genre, part two: the strong women of urban fantasy

No woman writer wants to be overlooked and undervalued for being a woman; but few, it seems, wish to be defined solely by gender, or constrained by loyalties to it alone.

There is one genre that seems to be mostly written by women, for women and about women. That is urban fantasy with its ‘tough chick’ heroines. The genre emerged in the early 1990s to fill a void in literature: heroines who are strong, capable operators in their own right. Women who face monsters – real or imaginary – head on and win simply didn’t exist before. The genre soon became popular and remains so today, an indication that it answered a genuine need among readers.

There have always been strong women in literature, those who keep up the home front and the life going when the men are at war. Everyday heroines with inner strength or women who have no choice but to be strong. My favourite has always been Scarlett O’Hara from the Gone with the Wind. She did what she had to in order to survive, no matter what it cost her.

Another type of a strong woman is that in crime fiction, the detectives and PIs who have to battle not only the criminals but gender prejudice from their male colleagues too. They come in different types, angry loners and professionals so good they have to be noticed. 

What all these women have in common, regardless of the time they live in or the country of their origin, is that they are operating in the men’s world, dealing with the conventions of a society ruled and defined by men. They are not free to define themselves. It’s this issue that the ‘tough chick’ heroines try to address.

The heroines of urban fantasy aren’t free from the expectations of the society either. What makes them so great is that they don’t conform to them. In a way, their resistance to society’s expectations is more remarkable than the existence of monsters in their parallel universe. Working as detectives or PIs like their regular universe counterparts, they don’t wait for the men to tell them how the world is saved from the monsters. They go out there and save it themselves. They create their own rules. It’s never easy for them, however, and so – more often than not – they find the people who understand them best are the monsters they hunt.

The greatest feminist tough chick urban fantasy heroine is, of course, Anita Blake who pretty much defines the genre. She first appeared in Guilty Pleasures in 1993 as a response to the gender inequality in crime novels, as her creator Laurell K. Hamilton has told. Somewhat supernatural herself, Anita has the ability to raise the dead, but her greatest skill is killing vampires and other monsters better than anyone else. Her supernatural abilities have multiplied over the course of the books, changing the balance between her and the monsters she hunts. But one thing has remained constant and that’s her feminism, her absolute refusal to bow to the expectations of the male led society. More often than not, her greatest adversary in any book is a human man instead of a vampire or a were.

Anita Blake was my first introduction to urban fantasy in any form. The experience was mind-blowing and caused me to order all the books in the series back to back. Luckily, I was over a decade late to the party so there were fifteen books out already; even a wait of a couple of weeks for the books to arrive felt too long sometimes. I was taken with her character, her resilience and even her skills with weapons, even though I’m against firearms; what counts is that she’s better than any man with them. The monsters seemed frightening and it was never certain that she would come out alive from her encounters with them. All this enthusiasm despite the fact that I’ve never really liked Anita as a person. She’s inflexible and rather selfish, and over the course of twenty-two books hasn’t grown at all as a human being.

After the first introduction to the genre, I read it voraciously. There are some wonderful heroines out there. They’re wittier, more flexible when dealing with the society – often without giving in to it – and generally happier people than Anita. And each in their turn carries the torch for strong women in literature. In addition, Anita Blake series have grown steadily worse over the years. Still, none of those other heroines have made the same impact than she did. The feeling remains with me, all these years later.

It can be said that urban fantasy is a marginalised genre and at any rate, 'tough chicks’ isn’t the only thing the genre is about. What’s remarkable, however, is that similar strong women haven’t emerged in other genres. Perhaps it truly takes a parallel universe before women can be as strong and independent as they are in urban fantasy.