Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Analyzing urban fantasy: Sex, violence and the supernatural


Until I cracked my first urban fantasy book a couple years ago, I would have guessed that the genre was some sort of kinky Zane meets "The Lord of the Rings" thing. Not so.

Urban fantasy is a subset of fantasy defined by place; the fantastic narrative has an urban setting. Many urban fantasies are set in contemporary times or contain supernatural elements. Wikipedia...

The genre is also sometimes dubbed "supernatural romance." At any rate: Fantasy...romance...those books are not generally my bag. But when the first season of HBO's "True Blood" wrapped, I was jonesing for more sex, intrigue, female heroes and monsters, so I tucked into Charlaine Harris' series that spawned the popular show. After quickly dispensing with every book in the Sookieverse, where a telepathic waitress and her neighbors in fictional Bon Temps, La., deal with the "coming out" of the world's supernatural population, I moved on to Kim Harrison's "The Hollows" series. Harrison's world centers around a red-headed, leather-clad half-witch half-demon and her partners, a foul-mouthed pixie and a surly, bisexual vampire. Harrison's nine volumes consumed, I sampled one Laurell K. Hamilton Anita Blake book before finishing the whole of her Merry Gentry series, which follows the exploits of a fae princess and her multi-hued band of lovers. (No, not black, white and brown--more like green, lavender and rainbow with the errant pointy ear or tentacle.)

I've developed a fondness for the urban fantasy genre. The books make fast, fun reads. But for me, someone who is drawn to issues of race and gender, even trashy, literary confections represent an opportunity for social analysis. As you may have guessed by the descriptions of some of the more popular urban fantasy series, the genre is all about creating new worlds with new societal norms. In urban fantasy, werewolves walk among us, Elvis really is alive (or undead) and the American Vampire League fights for the rights of marginalized former people. What I find curious, is that though their chosen genre frees them from the replicating the hierarchies of the real world, most authors of urban fantasy still manage to re-create common biases surrounding race, gender and sexuality.

For instance, the aforementioned series feint at subverting mainstream beauty standards--heroines may be ginger-haired, rather than blonde, short rather than statuesque, and much is made of their supposed physical "imperfections" (Rachel Morgan's curly hair and freckles, Merry Gentry's large breasts). But important female characters are generally white (or white identified in the case of Anita Blake), slim and young. And paragraphs are spent on the description and worship of their pale skin and its beauty. (The villains in Hamilton's Merry Gentry series delight at threatening to mar the heroine's pure, white skin.) Whiteness becomes fetish. Darkness is often equated with menace.

People of color are rare in the urban fantasy worlds I have explored. When present, they are one dimensional, sometimes stereotypical, and they often embody the "magical __________" archetype. (Think Keasley, Rachel Morgan's elderly black neighbor) Women of color are even more rare than men, and they never, ever exist on an equal plane with the books' white heroines.

Harris, Hamilton and Harrison's ass-kicking heroines are refreshing departures from women in traditional action stories, who exist to be saved. These women can save themselves (and a few others besides). Still, Hamilton and Harris, in particular, focus on how much men want to save them. In other words, we are to believe that Merry Gentry is an exceptional woman partially because she is the object of extraordinary attention from men--mortal and otherwise. A significant part of her worth is tied to the male gaze. She may be tough and capable, but she remains just conventionally pretty enough, young enough, vulnerable enough and energetically sexual enough (Merry complains vigorously of wanting to perform more fellatio with her male lovers) that every man wants her and yearns to protect her. And don't get me started on the torture porn aspects of some of these novels. These heroines are repeatedly choked, bitten, knocked unconscious and sexually threatened. Sookie Stackhouse is always recovering from some beat down.

I'm not the only one who thinkgs the urban fantasy genre is ripe for analysis. A new book explores race, gender, sex and other issues in Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake vampire hunter series. In Ardeur (BenBella. $14.95), 14 writers pull apart Hamilton's most famous character.

In the book, my blogging friend Mikhall Lybansky writes about vampires as a stand in for traditionally marginalized people and also tackles the "Magical Negro" of the Anita Blake series:

There are, to be sure, a handful of non-White characters, including her mentor Manny Rodriguez[2], but other than Manny, none have prominent roles and only Luther, the human bartender who works the day shift at Dead Dave's[3], is ever essential to the plot. As such, Luther can be seen as the series' symbolic representation of the racial other, in general, and blackness, in particular. Indeed, unlike other non-white characters, Hamilton takes some extra effort to establish Luther's blackness. Luther is not merely black; he is "a very dark black man, nearly purplish black, like mahogany" (Guilty Pleasures, 120).

Although human, there is something vaguely magical about Luther. He is fat, but his fat is "rock solid, almost a kind of muscle" (120), and despite being overweight, chain-smoking, and on the up side of 50, he is apparently never sick. Luther represents a literary and film device known as the "magic negro[4]", a supporting, usually mystical fictional character who, by use of special insight or powers, helps white people figure things out. This is Luther's role. He is Anita's informant, the person who somehow seems to know some bit of information that Anita happens to need. He seems to be a good guy, and he seems to like Anita. Indeed, Luther's collegial (and plutonic) relationship with Anita could be viewed as a representation of racial harmony. Film critics and race scholars see it differently. As Washington Post film critic Rita Kempley pointed out in The Black Commentator, magic negro characters[5] may be "likable, valuable or redemptive, but they are without interior lives. For the most part, they materialize only to rescue the better-drawn white characters." Read an excerpt of Lybansky's essay at his blog at Psychology Today...

Ardeur, edited by Hamilton herself, who responds to the essayists' analysis of her work, also includes a piece by Natasha Fondren, who explores the "domestication" of Anita Blake over the book series:

Anita Blake is a monster killer, a sometimes murderer, a once-in-awhile torturer. She's an executioner of vampires--the shortest executioner of vampires in the United States--but don't let that fool you: Anita Blake has the highest kill count of any vampire executioner in the nation, possibly the world. And that's just counting the legal kills.

She's not exactly someone you want to take home and introduce to your mother, someone you imagine making dinner, walking the dog, or droing the kids off at soccer practice.

...

In the end, it is the wild monsters who tame Anita, who show her how to love, and who give her the comfort of home and family.

Melissa L. Tatum, a writer with a background in law, explores the absence of a strong judicial system in the Blake books. Cathy Clamp looks at the series' humor.

It is an interesting choice to have the creator of the Anita Blake series edit Ardeur. I wished sometimes, while reading the book, to have the essayists' analysis alone without interjection or "answer" from the author. That aside, the book is well worth a read if you are an Anita Blake fan or someone like me, who can't help dissecting urban fantasy.

19 comments:

k8dee said...

Great work, Tami. I, too, am a fan of Hamilton. But, what about L.A. Banks' Vampire Huntress Legend Series? The lead character, Damali Richards is a regular black chick with locs from the neighborhood who happens to be the millennium Neteru (basically, the slayer with more religious connotations). And she leads a multi-racial crew of guardians and has a chicano love interest. The first book is a bit weird to get through (first novel of a series, trying to lay too much foundation) but after that, it really rocks. This is a twelve-book series that centers on a non-white supernatural couple. Awesome!

Tami said...

k8dee,

Oooh! I am off to check that series out. Sounds awesome! I need something to tide me over until True Blood comes back in June.

Niki J said...

Tami, you should read the Vampire Huntress series by L.A. Banks. There are 13 books in the series, and I believe another to follow. They are AMAZING! The characters are multi-racial group of vampire hunters. I read through this series with a quickness! Check it out.

roslynholcomb said...

Seressia Glass has started a new series with a AA heroine as well. Shadowblade is absolutely awesome.

http://www.amazon.com/Shadow-Blade-Shadowchasers-Seressia-Glass/dp/1439156794

k8dee said...

Oooh, thanks Roslyn! I will definitely check out the Seressia Glass series! I love her romance novels!

J'Abena said...

So timely, Tami! I was just thinking about what I was going to read for leisure now that school is almost over!

Thanks for the suggestions k8dee, Niki J, and Roslyn!

~sassy j~

Jessica said...

That was a really interesting article, I started the Sookie books but got very bored after book 6. It was the same very book,getting beat up, getting saved etc so as a result I have never picked up any of the other books like that.

Renee said...

I actually had to stop reading the Hamilton series when it became nothing more than thinly veiled porn. I love stories about vampires but this quickly descended into the ridiculous. I also think that while Hamilton is trying to do the strong female lead alternating between Anita's instinct to be "pure" and then the desire to have sex is ridiculous. And why oh why does a guy without a shirt turn her into a babbling fool. I like men but this is ridiculous.
I think that I was so distracted with all of the sexist fails that I simply didn't even notice the treatment of colour or it could be that I am so used to POC being invisible that it did not even register with me.

Lady C said...

I tried watching "The Vampire Diaries," because I read that Jasmine Guy would be a main character, a witch from a powerful coven. The show is about 3 white characters. Damien, Stefan, and Elena. Jasmine Guy's character died after trying to free Catherine (vampire) from a tomb created by the elders of the town to rid themselves of vampires.

Jasmine Guy's characters' granddaughter is supposed to be a powerful witch, who should be intergral to the telling of the story, but we only occasionally see her. Oh, did I tell you? She is AA. Someone commented on a blog about "The Vampire Diaries" that "all the witches were black," and she didn't want to appear to be rascist for bringing it up. Oh, well.

brownstocking said...

I like multiculti paranormal romance, but the closest I've gotten to really liking an author is Shelly Laurenston. She has diverse couples, mostly were- and dragon-tales, but a great sense of humor.

I couldn't even finish Book 2 of Banks, when I saw where they were going with the lead's sexuality.

Hamilton is fail, Harris is boring except for that one 3-parter she did with the woman who sees how people die, but that was a PWT couple.

I keep looking for strong AA women and non-white men as protagonist/love interests, and it's hard. There is a book called "The Alpha Promise" by Hayat Ali that has BW/AM and it shows potential. Waiting for Book Two.

I liked Harrison at first, but that red-headed witch is playing with a lesbian vamp's feelings, and that's grating on my nerves. If you're bi, great, but don't string your roomie along!

Sorry, I really am a fangirl.

Vérité Parlant is Nordette Adams said...

My daughter reads Harris and Hamilton. I see someone has already mentioned to you L.A. Banks. I'll add a link to a piece I wrote last year, "The Indisputably Black Vampires of Octavia Butler, Jewelle Gomez, and L.A. Banks."

In addition, you may be interested in the work of Tananarive Due, who has a series of books about black immortals whose blood heals. And without reservation, I recommend any of the late Octavia Butler's other novels and short stories, more accurately classified as speculative fiction, as her settings are not always urban nor about vampires. I think you would find the character from her Patternist series, Anyanwu, a shapeshifter, intriguing. The series begins with Wild Seed.

Enjoyed your post.

vesta44 said...

Patricia Briggs has a series that is pretty good, Moon Called, Blood Bound, Bone Crossed, and Silver Borne. Mercy is a mechanic who is also a shapeshifter (coyote) living next to a werewolf pack. It's a very interesting series, deals with rape, queerness, etc. You might like these as well.

Rebecca @ DSB said...

Hi Tami - One of my readers linked me over here, and I enjoyed your article quite a bit. Overall I do agree that women of color are not represented adequately in urban fantasy. Here are three series I highly recommend that feature non-white heroines:

The Negotiator Trilogy by C. E. Murphy features a heroine who is half black/half white

The Casa Dracula series by Marta Acosta features a hispanic heroine

The Jane Yellowrock series by Faith Hunter features a Native American heroine.

This post is good food for thought... I'll need to think of a way to talk about this too. If I start digging I can probably come up with more series that feature non-white heroines.

Natasha Fondren said...

Thanks for blogging about Ardeur, Tami! :-)

I add to the L.A. Banks recommendation. The series is all kinds of awesome. The first couple books took me awhile, but then I was caught--hook, line and singer.

John said...

If at all I have to read something in the Urban Fantasy genre, I would rather prefer the riveting story of Bree Tanner, grippingly told by Stephenie Meyer in The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner: An Eclipse Novella combines romance, mystery and danger extremely well. Was lucky to get the book at huge discount, don’t know if others are also equally lucky or not.

Marta said...

Hi, Tami, interesting post and I often rant on the subject, which is what inspired me to write my Casa Dracula series, which are paranormal romantic comedies with a smart, funny, quirky, slightly delusional Latina heroine, Milagro. Her best friend, Mercedes, is Cuban-Scottish, but seen as African-American by others.

I'll second the Octavia Butler recommendation. Butler was an amazing, serious writer and her stories are gritty and wrenching.

Other women of color writing paranormal include: Caridad Pineiro, Sunny, Maria Lima, and Marjorie Liu.

Michele Lee said...

I think that you might have picked the most popular series, but also the most blatant examples of violators as well (that's okay, lots o people think Hamilton is the end all of urban fantasy ;).

Might I suggest Ann Aguirre's Blue Diablo and Hellfire? The lead is white, but none of the other main characters are. One love interest is Hispanic, the other Asian and the lead might be white, but she lives in Mexico, where she's a minority. It's all kinds of awesome.

Also there's Briggs, who's Mercy Thompson is Native American, and this fall Angry Robot Books is coming out with Kingmaker by Maurice Broaddus, which is the first in a black Arthur-themed trilogy, and also Servant of the the Underworld, an Aztec themed historical UF by Alliette de Bodard.

Leelia Mendoza said...

I totally agree with this, but think that it should include Latina authors too, because I'm latina.

I wanted to know if you do fan based recommendation on stuff lol?

I just wanted to let you know about this author I’ve been reading, Alexandria Infante, author of Teaching between Midnight and Dawn. I think she is a talented author (her book came out last year, but I just found it), and the fact that she is Latina (Cuban/Puerto Rican) in this genre is awesome.

In the paranormal field you don’t see many Latinas, and the ones that you do see, don’t seem to get the reconiztion that they should either.

Her book is somewhere between Twilight, Underworld and Interview with the vampire; all based off of Egyptian myths. (I'm not trying to promote her...well I guess I am hahaha, but not in that spamtastic kinda way, its just that La Rasa and pride for when I see minority authors who are amazing, but don't generate the fan base because people don't know!)

I love the fresh new characters, and the fact that her main female character is Latina/ black. I would say to everyone out there, check out her books and her site. her work is amazing! she takes every race that you can think of and mixes it with african-american, and there you have her main female leads. She does Contemporary and Historical as well.

Happy reads peeps
her site is www.poisonedpin.webs.com

leelia Mendoza

Leelia Mendoza said...

I totally agree with this, but think that it should include Latina authors too, because I'm blk/lat.

I wanted to know if you do fan based recommendation on stuff lol?

I just wanted to let you know about this author I’ve been reading, Alexandria Infante, author of Teaching between Midnight and Dawn. I think she is a talented author (her book came out last year, but I just found it), and the fact that she is Latina (Cuban/Puerto Rican)in this genre is awesome.

In the paranormal field you don’t see many Latinas, and the ones that you do see, don’t seem to get the reconiztion that they should either.

Her book is somewhere between Twilight, Underworld and Interview with the vampire; all based off of Egyptian myths. (I'm not trying to promote her...well I guess I am hahaha, but not in that spamtastic kinda way, its just that La Rasa pride for when I see minority authors who are amazing, but don't generate the fan base because people don't know!)

I love the fresh new characters, and the fact that her main female character is Latina/ black. I would say to everyone out there, check out her books and her site. her work is amazing! she takes every race that you can think of and mixes it with african-american, and there you have her main female leads. She does Contemporary and Historical as well.

Happy reads peeps

leelia Mendoza

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