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.

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