Friday, March 2, 2012

The Importance of Critiquing Urban Fantasy

Urban fantasy is something that we both clearly enjoy.  It’s a break from the everyday with it’s fantastic flights of fantasy, and slightly warped version of our world.  What has always attracted me to fantasy is that it contains so much hope. Each time an author sits to tell a story, they have a chance to erase the problems of our current society and start anew. Unfortunately, in many cases, urban fantasy does not live up to its potential, because though authors are starting with what is essentially a blank slate, they have grown in a culture that promotes isms at every turn, which inevitably means that their fantasy worlds are as flawed as the world we live in today.

Because urban fantasy falls into the category of speculative fiction, and largely written by women, there is a tendency not to take it seriously.  This is a mistake on the part of consumers of this genre and reviewers quite frankly. The popularity of fantasy flares and wanes over the years. We are currently in an upswing, with movies like the Twilight saga pulling in large box office dollars -- if not critical acclaim -- and shows like True Blood, The Vampire Diaries, The Secret Circle and Teen Wolf etc., airing in prime time. Fangs and angst mean big box office dollars, large conference attendance, and constant social discussions.  Whether or not you like urban fantasy, there can be no doubt that it has had a huge impact in the last six years.  

It is because of this impact that we cannot ignore the messages that it brings.  Like many, I am tempted to ignore the work of Stephanie Meyer, who needs to send her thesaurus on paid holiday, because of the obvious abuse in her writing, but to do so would be a mistake.  Years from now it will not be the dry tome that is written by an academic that will be studied as representative of our time, but the work of popular authors like Stephanie Meyer. If you doubt that, think about the fact that Lady Chatterley's Lover was highly dismissed when it was first published, and today it is considered a classic that is studied in literature classes across North America.

What do you think shapes culture more? A verbose, dense literary fiction artistic epic read by English literature professors in universities, who in turn congratulate each other on how wonderfully dense and nigh incomprehensible it is? Or Twilight? Or True Blood? A series that has been read by thousands, if not millions, turned into a TV series or a film, and watched by yet more people? Personally, I think it’s the latter that will have the greatest effect on our culture.

Urban fantasy is the mythology of our time and this means that the treatment of historically marginalised people, who are being erased or placed into subordinate roles signifies an ongoing oppression rather that a fantastical world.  What will it say to future generations of readers that GLBT people are either erased, turned into side kicks, or die routinely?  What kind racial equality is being promoted in fantasy worlds, where protagonists of color are almost solely written by writers of color, or are otherwise erased -- or placed into secondary roles -- to sacrifice or serve White protagonists?

You cannot truly change culture without addressing the media. Ultimately, we can pass 100 laws saying that misogyny, homophobia, racism, transphobia, ableism et al are not okay. We can we fight, we can vanquish a thousand bigots, and make a thousand impassioned speeches, but if everyone goes back home to books and TV full of hate speech, stereotypes,  tropes, and marginalised servants/villains or – and most commonly – to fictional worlds where we don’t even exist – then how much can you change? “Hearts and Minds” are the key here – and it’s in the pages of books and the light of the TV screen where we will reach them.


The paucity of portrayal is further exacerbated by the limited roles that marginalised people are allowed to play, and this is particularly seen in the tropes we see reflected over and over again. When I consider straight, cis, able bodied white people in fiction, I can’t think of one single role they play, because they get to play every role. They’re the hero, they’re the villain. They’re good, they’re bad, they’re honest, they’re liars, they’re brave, they’re cowards. They’re smart, they’re foolish, they’re funny, they’re boring. They’re saints and they are sinners. They’re sexy and dull, they’re promiscuous and they’re chaste, they’re noble and they’re repellent. They’re soldiers and priests and wizards and bankers and lawyers and strippers, they’re singers and traders. They drive space ships and ride horses, they play games and fight wars, they colonise and are enslaved, they rule and they rebel, they lead and they follow.

They’re everywhere and they do everything. Their story is not only told a thousand times, but it’s told in a thousand different ways. When someone adds another story about them, it just adds to a huge diversity that is already out there – every characterisation is just one of a huge body of characterisations.

Now compare that to marginalised people. Not only do we not get even a tenth as many representations as privileged people, but the representations we do get are usually so very similar. And this is what makes them so dangerous and so damaging - this is why tropes hurt us. Is your portrayal of another gay couple who die young and tragically harmful? Probably not inherently - but when it piles up with all of the gazillion other dead gays, then it’s problematic. Are there no Middle Eastern terrorists? Yes, of course – but that story has already been told to the point of nausea. Are there no women who need rescuing? Of course there are - but there’s more to women than helpless damsels in distress, but their story is eclipsed by an endless stream of needy, desperate women rescued by men. These tropes hurt us in ways they can’t hurt privileged people, because privileged people have a gazillion other portrayals to insulate them. Privileged people can be anything, can be everything, while marginalised people walk the same tropes over and over again.

We also cannot deny the effects that such erasure - or such poor portrayals - have on marginalised people on an individual level, and especially on marginalised youth. Repeatedly we see book after book, and TV show after TV show where we don’t exist at all, or have only the most minor or reduced roles. The message is clear, over and over again that our stories aren’t worth being told. We don’t get to be the heroes, the saviours, the important people. We’re never centre-stage. If we’re lucky, we get to be important tools in someone else’s life. Adjutants to some privileged person’s important story - someone we can help, serve, support, be rescued by or, in some cases, die horribly so they can grieve and grow as people. We are secondary, passing references or mere extensions of a privileged person’s life. We don’t get to come out of the wings except for those few occasions when we get to stand behind a privileged person on the stage. We’re never centre-stage ourselves.

What does that do to people? What does it do to kids?

But beyond all these weighty reasons why what we do is important, and beyond the effect on  culture, on society, on our youth, on how we’re treated and on our own sense of self, there’s also a basic wish that we could enjoy fiction as well. Why can’t we pick up a book and escape to a brilliant world without having to leave ourselves behind as well? Why can’t we have a character we can identify with? Why don’t we deserve to be able to kick back, relax and read something or watch something that actually includes us in a way that doesn’t make us cringe?

We’re not asking for a lot. And this is why we do what we do - because we deserve to be included, because tropes need to be challenged, because we deserve to be presented as equal and valuable and, ultimately, we are part of this world. That needs to be acknowledged - we exist and we matter.The media seems to have no problem accepting our money but somehow respecting our person is unfathomable and they have structured these stories in such as way as to appear innocuous, even as we are suffering.  We deserve to see ourselves - and see ourselves presented well - in the media that we love.