A word of advice to urban fantasy heroines: cowgirl up

Ivy is an international woman of mystery who would totally dispatch urban fantasy vampires if she weren’t so darned busy learning to be a superhero in a number of real world genres instead.

Several people have linked to a Daniel Abraham post about urban fantasy heroines and their narratives, in particular:

The typical UF heroine (as I’ve come to understand her) is a kick-ass woman with a variety of possible lovers. She’s been forced into power which she often doesn’t understand, and can face down any danger while at the same time captivating the romantic attention of the dangerous, edgy men around her. She’s been forced into power ā€” either through accident of birth or by being transformed without her permission ā€” and is therefore innocent of one of the central feminine cultural sins: ambition. She is in relationships primarily with men rather than in community with women.

This annoys me about many protagonists of the genre… they are somehow dropped into the plot without agency, and they often don’t seize agency either because that might make them competent bad. Rather, they are manipulated by scheming ancient vampires, just happen to have superpowers that make them *have* to sleep with half the known universe (but only the boys) or are continually torn between them, were born with a curse/a power/a prophecy, etc. Okay, that sucks.

But really — it’s not *that* hard. Come on, urban fantasy heroines. I realize that I don’t have a cursed sword living in my mind, nor am I the prophesied hero of Chicago/Shannara, nor have I had to fend off zombies with a shotgun and an attitude. Nevertheless, I assure you that it’s completely doable to have a few dangerous, edgy men as your partners without them killing each other, and that you don’t have to give up community with women (or partnerships with women, or meaningful friendships with women) to do it. Admittedly, you may have to dump a few whiny master vampires along the way. But I’d still rather that than listen to emo-undead-is-never-happy-with-anything for the rest of my life. Also, ambition? Kind of fun! Looking forward to your future adventures where the woman who chooses her lovers and still wants to be queen *isn’t* the villain.

10 thoughts on “A word of advice to urban fantasy heroines: cowgirl up

  1. jeff

    I wonder what the author thinks of Carrie Vaughn’s Kitty norville series…

    It’s a pretty typical UF heroine, except that the first book is all about how she gains her own agency via syndicating a radio show against the wishes of her abusive boyfriend.

    Actually, now that I think of it, there’s a pretty shocking incident in the second book which–while not actually rape–is such a gross abuse of the main characters privacy and agency that it could be called such.

    1. Ivy

      I read the first book of those… it was kind of 101, and I’ve read a ton of similar stories. That’s not to say that they’re not valuable — I think it’s worthwhile to have models of women ditching abusive partners and getting their own priorities and goals front and center. But when that’s the perceived extent of what it is to be a strong woman, the escape, that’s kind of limiting. So, I’d really like to read books where the protagonist didn’t have to struggle against the “romantic” manipulations of those who claim to love her — I want stories about something else. Kitty the crime-fighting therapist, whose supporting-character boyfriend is actually nice to her, or something. Kitty, who decides she wants to have the #1 radio show in the nation, rather than going “gosh, tee hee, look how unexpectedly successful I seem to be despite not feeling like I know what I’m doing”. That’s that same power without agency. It’s a believable state for someone emerging from an abusive relationship where she was regularly stripped of power, but it’s a really common narrative for UF heroines, and that’s annoying.

      Now, I haven’t read the later books, so maybe the author goes there. (And that’d be great!) But there’s so much focus in fantasy on stories of emergence, becoming, and transformation that it seems like some authors shy away from having protagonists who are confident and ambitious and know who they are. And this does seem to be gendered — male early protagonists are far less frequently plot-driven by the machinations of their powerful would-be romantic partners than female early protagonists are. I can’t think offhand of an UF male protagonist whose early arc was primarly about trying to get over his controlling ex. Sure, sometimes they get their hearts broken, but it’s rarely with the same degree of power-over-your-life that we see in UF heroines and their would-be lovers.

  2. Azz

    I’m very glad that my current Promising Draft of urban fantasy just happens to have an interesting community of women who are never going to give each other up, let each other down … okay, so they do let each other down from time to time; most of them are human.

    Though it occurs to me that perhaps monogamy (both het and lesbian) is a little over-represented in it. I shou– oh. Whee. BRIGHT IDEA FOR BOOK THREE, COMING THROUGH. …Er, as I was saying, it’ll be nice to see if anyone in there happens to have a low-drama triad or something, where the major romantic plot conflict is something other than OH WOE HOW SHALL I COPE WITH ALL THIS HOT SEX or ALL MY LOVERS HATE EACH OTHER.

    (Assuming I get it to a state where I can shop around for agents, and assuming it then gets published, I would be quite delighted to see what Geekfeminism thinks of it.)

    1. Ivy

      I would totally read that book! It does annoy me that of most of the poly arrangements out there in urban fantasy, it seems to be nearly a requirement that the characters can’t, you know, just be okay with that. Obviously, poly is not for everyone, but it would be nice to see it occasionally show up as something other than “cause of the trainwreck”. I can think of a few examples in sci-fi that handle it differently, but far fewer in fantasy.

      Also, did you just Rickroll the comment thread? [grin]

      1. Teresa

        I really love the KItty Norville books, and the monogamy in them was very refreshing. So there’s at least one series out there that breaks the mold a little.

        1. Teresa

          Oh wait, just delete that comment. I thought you guys were talking about how monogamy *isn’t* represented. Mea culpa. I tend to find it opposite though. Most I read there’s a good many lovers. Not that that’s bad, though.

        2. Terri

          Sorry, Teresa — I approved your comments anyhow rather than deleting them ’cause I think you’ve got an interesting point there. (If this bugs you, please let me know and we can remove or edit the original!)

          Is monogamy under-represented in UF?

          I personally find that in urban fantasy, monogamy isn’t too weird. But its very close cousin, paranormal romance, seems to love the non-monogamy (and I can think of one series with a relatively low-key trio, although it doesn’t start that way) and more serial monogamy.

          The thing with urban fantasy vs paranormal romance is that sometimes I think they’re really the same genre, and we only distinguish based on how much sex there is… which makes me wonder if the monogamy/non-monogamy is just showing ’cause authors want more variety in their sex scenes. ;)

        3. Ivy

          It seems to me that it is kind of uncommon for UF heroines to have just one partner and stick to them. So, there’s not much long-lasting monogamy, that’s for sure. But much of the time, it seems like that’s the ultimate ideal that the heroines are striving towards and never able to attain. So she bounces back and forth between possible love interests, sometimes dating several, sometimes just sort of tossed on the wind. This ends up not making the poly people happy (because it’s taken as read that it’s not okay to just have multiple partners where everyone’s happy, and necessarily casts things into a competitive mold), but I can totally see where it could make some monogamous people unhappy too (because they don’t feel that behaviour represents them either).

      2. Azz

        So far, the only multiple relationship drama I’ve got is something happening offscreen: prior to the time our series starts, one of the characters is notable for her philandering (outside of the parameters of the relationship). Her girlfriend gets annoyed, and the local senior wisewoman dispenses the Cluebat of Lovingkindness, and Monogamy Ensues. There’s still some debate about how much of a mention that gets, as neither of those two is the focus character.

        There’s also some heterosexual cheating (again, before things start properly, and in equal parts because Mr. Romantic Interest has previously been Crossed in Love, and also because Mr. Romantic Interest is a recovering dipshit and his [former] best friend was a lot more interesting and self-assured around the now-ex-girlfriend than Mr. Romantic Interest was).

        There’s definitely room for references to various stably non-monogamous cameo characters, but it’s tough to petition my cast for greater representation of non-monogamous characters, because so many of them have pair-bonded without much in the way of drama.

        My heroine and Mr. Romantic Interest have successfully monogamously pair-bonded; there was never a question of a second guy. The romantic conflict was whether they would get together in an unhealthy fashion, get together healthily, or not get together at all. (They’ve been so successful at pairing off that they decided to up and leave for Book 2, and they’re categorically denying it was a honeymoon at present, given that they’re not married and at this point look likely to remain perfectly happily engaged until her roommates’ daughter is old enough to officiate at the wedding.)

        I do have a heterosexual woman who’s in a relationship with a bisexual man, and they’ve both got a bit of a thing for a male (presenting, at least; he informs me that it’s complicated, and that it’s just simpler to present as male to Earth folks) demon.

        The original seed for the story of book 3 was “a romantic comedy that doesn’t, you know, suck”, and I knew which minor character’s romance it was going to be … just not how, or who with. But if it’s a happy plural relationship with two other women (identities yet to be determined), then maybe, just maybe, that plotline will work itself out too.

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