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