Fun Feminist (Urban) Fantasy in the #MeToo Era

I remember the exact moment I discovered the urban fantasy genre. I was in a Barnes & Noble browsing the SF/F paperbacks section and I spotted the book Dead Witch Walking. The title caught my attention: as an avid reader and then a grad student in English, I enjoy allusions to other words in titles and prose. The cover was also very interesting: a sexy woman’s back, wearing black leather pants with a pair of handcuffs tucked into her waistband. Next to it was the two next books in the series: The Good, the Bad, and the Undead and Every Which Way But Dead. Okay, this Kim Harrison likes to riff on movie titles.

So I read the blurb on the back of DWW and then the first couple of pages and bought all three books on the spot. What sealed the deal? The premise: a red-haired female bounty hunter named Rachel, who also happens to be a witch, kicks ass and takes names in a cool alt-history timeline where a large percentage of humans died in a pandemic and now all the supernatural beings of lore, from vampires to elves, fairies, pixies, gargoyles, and so forth, are “out.” I loved Rachel immediately. She was tough but fair, powerful, and confident, even as she faced all sorts of dangers, both magical and mundane.

And so began my love affair with the urban fantasy genre. It was the strong female characters that captivated me, along with the magical worlds they inhabit. (For more on the world-building in the UF genre, read my blog “The Wonders of World-Building.”) But it’s always the main characters that make or break the series. We demand a lot of our MCs: they must be tough but still have heart, be powerful but not overpowered, they must love and be loved by someone powerful who is their partner, not their keeper or protector. It’s a tough genre to write well, but there are many authors who have brought us characters we have come to think of as friends: Jane Yellowrock, Kate Daniels, Mercy Thompson, Charlie Davidson, Anita Blake, Cat Crawfield, Cassandra Palmer, Dorina Basarab, Gin Blanco, Elena Devereaux, Sookie Stackhouse…the list is long and wonderful. Strong women. Powerful women. Self-rescuing princesses, all of them.

But is urban fantasy feminist? That’s not a simple answer. Much of it is: the women are resilient and fully developed characters who rarely find themselves helpless or in need of rescue by their male counterparts. That toughness is one of the genre’s biggest appeals, at least for me. The women I mentioned earlier aren’t just brawn, either: they have hearts, and they love with passion and intensity when they find a partner capable and willing to fight at their sides. They also have real bodies, bodies that get hurt, bodies that have been trained to fight, bodies that desire. Bodies that enjoy pleasure as a mutual experience, between partners. The women I listed are the MCs of series I would call sex-positive, where the sex is always consensual and enthusiastic and fulfilling in both the physical and emotional senses of the word. The women and their partners are reciprocal and equal in their pleasure, and their respect for each other is the same in the bedroom as it is in the battlefield.

The #MeToo movement has brought attention to the ways in which power can be used to victimize, rendering women in particular vulnerable to unwanted advances and assault and then undermining their ability to seek justice for their victimization. Inequality creates an environment that makes victimization not only easier, but likely. As anyone who investigates these crimes will tell you, sexual assault is not about sex; it’s about power. Dominance. Enforcing the “rules” of patriarchy, which state women are objects for the taking and that it is the victimizer’s “right” to take what they want. Systemic misogyny and sexism rigs the system against the victims and in the vast majority of cases allows the perpetrators to walk scot-free while their victims suffer twice over.

The MCs I listed above represent urban fantasy for the #MeToo era. Not only are these series feminist in the ways they tell their stories, but in the way they present sex and relationships. There is nothing sexier than enthusiastic consent, and anyone who reads the genre can immediately think of a dozen great, steamy scenes from their favorite series where the central couple (FINALLY!) get to that point and the clothes fly off. No coercion, no misuse of power, no one taking without giving in return. Now that’s hot.

Just because the MC is a “strong female character” (and ugh, isn’t that just the most tired cliché?) doesn’t make a book “feminist.” I have had the misfortune of reading quite a few books in the genre that despite their tough protagonist, are far from “feminist,” and far from sex-positive. Some even depict violent or abusive behavior as “romantic” or “sexy,” from stalking to coercion and even sexual assault. Sometimes an assault occurs on the MC and it is treated as a simple plot point, just one more thing that moves the story along. It’s exploitative and anti-feminist. It’s also misogynistic and lazy, bad writing. I won’t name names, but you probably can think of some books where these scenes take place.

So, other than a well-written, powerful female protagonist and their partnership, what makes a series “feminist urban fantasy”? A few thoughts. Violence against the MC isn’t used as a plot point, or based on their gender. The MC is rarely if ever a damsel in distress, in need of rescuing, and when she is, the circumstances are not exploitative and if the situation was reversed—the rescuer held in place of the MC—the situation would have been the same. The MC is not dressed for the male gaze, but instead for her own comfort and to suit what she’s doing and who she’s fighting. A great example of this is Jane Yellowrock, who routinely dresses in her “fighting leathers” when the situation calls for it, but not because it’s sexy. She’s protected by the leathers, and she’s intimidating as heck dressed that way, as she says. Her partner George “Bruiser” Dumas thinks the fighting leathers are sexy as hell, but he wears fighting leathers too sometimes, and Jane thinks that’s pretty sexy too.

A friend of mine just released her first novel. When she first described the book and the series to me, she used the phrase “fun feminist urban fantasy” and my immediate thought was, “I want that book.” And since then, I’ve been thinking about what “feminist UF” means, and this post is the first result of that thinking.

Right now, we need feminist voices in all genres, in all mediums, in all disciplines, and in all aspects of our lives to speak and be heard. In the wake of the Toronto murders and increasing attention on the ways women’s voices are marginalized, ignored, and muted, it is important that we recognize what feminist means, in all contexts. We also need diverse voices and inclusive feminism that recognizes that the experiences of women of color are very different from white women’s. We need all of these stories to be shared and heard.

The #MeToo movement began ten years ago, when Tarana Burke, an activist from Harlem, was told by a young girl at a youth camp that her uncle had been abusing her. This is no “new” movement, and though it has gained national attention and momentum in the past year, the problem it addresses is certainly not new.

UF is a great genre in so many ways. Not all UF is feminist, but there’s a lot of great series that are, and we celebrate them.

What are your thoughts on this topic? Post them below, or reach out on Twitter to @Edmonds411

The Wonders of World-Building

The other day, a friend messaged me to ask how the phases of the moon might affect a fight between a werewolf and a vampire. (Yes, I get these kinds of messages. Damn right you're jealous.) She’d just come from a party where someone was pondering whether a full moon would benefit a werewolf, or a new moon a vampire. My response was twofold: first, she’s going to right kind of parties; and second, it would depend on the mythology of the world in which the fight was taking place.

Have you ever stood in the ice cream aisle at the grocery store and pondered the seemingly endless options available to you? That’s maybe the best analogy I can think of for urban fantasy when it comes to worldbuilding and mythology. So many flavors and combinations! Some are our world but with magical or supernatural elements; others are so different that they hardly resemble the world we know at all. My Alice Worth series is the former; our world, but with supernatural elements and magic and the complications that come with them. Of all the dozens of UF series I read (and have read), perhaps the best example of the latter I can think of is Anne Bishop’s wonderfully imaginative The Others series, which takes place in a fantastically detailed and very unique alternate timeline.

How does one go about creating a world? I’m sure every author answers that a little differently. It probably depends on how different of a world he or she wants to create. What elements of the setting should be recognizable from our own world? How many will be different? It’s a wondrous continuum of ideas.

For me, it began with the idea of criminal organizations using magic to amass power, influence, and profit. From there, I developed the magic system of the Alice Worth series: innate natural magic based on air, water, earth, and fire, plus blood magic—powerful and illegal. There are spells and wards that require intricate combinations of symbols and energy. Magic is a powerful resource, and whenever there is a resource, there will be people who want to control it (crime syndicates and government agencies). Add in supernatural entities (ghosts, vampires, and shifters for starters) and you have the basics of a world for your characters to inhabit. The narrative fills in the details and brings that world to life, if you’ve done your job well. If you’re very good, your readers can feel as though they are in that world with your characters, facing the same challenges and seeing the same wonders. When it’s done well, it’s just…magical.

Of all the series I’ve read (and wow, are there a LOT), my favorite “world” is that of the Kate Daniels series by Ilona Andrews. It’s so different from our own world. “Waves” of magic and technology alternate throughout the day, rendering first all technology and then all magic inert in turns. This affects literally every aspect of daily life. In addition, Kate’s world is inhabited by every supernatural and mythological creature known to man and then some—and the vampires are, hands-down, the most unique of any series. I won’t spoil anything more because if you haven’t read this series, you are missing out on what I think is the best in the genre, or one of the best. It's so good that I really can't even do it justice without giving away too much. Total package, the Kate Daniels world takes my top prize for Best Worldbuilding.

Really, as with ice cream, it comes down to taste. Some prefer worlds that are more like ours; others love the chance to jump into a world that’s very different but stops short of being high fantasy. Anne Bishop’s The Others series is about as different and fantastical as I like to go. I like to see elements of our world in the one I’m reading about.

What are some other examples of excellent worldbuilding? I love Kim Harrison’s Rachel Morgan/The Hollows series for that, as well as Nailini Singh’s Guild Hunter and Psy-Changeling series, Karen Chance’s Cassie Palmer/Dorina Basarab series, another (short-lived) Ilona Andrews series called The Edge, and Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim series.

This isn’t meant to be a complete list (goodness knows I haven’t read everything in the genre, and there are a dozen more I’d like to put on here), so I’d love to hear your thoughts and recommendations. What are some great authors and series I’ve left off the list, and why do you love them?

Thanks for reading! Now, I’m off to buy ice cream!