Friday, May 18, 2012

The Problem With Female Werewolves

Of all the creatures in Urban Fantasy, it seems that werewolves more than any other are intrinsically masculine. Female monsters are often much rarer  - and often problematic at that - but female werewolves in particular seem to be an extra rarity.

In many ways a werewolf is the utter opposite of how we view womanhood, especially white womanhood. In many European traditions (and, we have to remember, the shapeshifter tradition is a broad one) the werewolf is an uncontrolled, hairy, animalistic creature. Something utterly unrestrained, something that is unleashed, something aggressive and violent. In short - everything a woman “should not be”. A woman should be restrained, delicate, gentle, always in control and most certainly not hairy! This unrestrained, unrefined, uncontrolled aggressiveness (and hairiness) is the very antithesis of pedestal womanhood.

When we do see female werewolves they usually have difficulties above and beyond what is experienced by other werewolves. They have extra angst, or extra problems or some other issue dealing with their werewolfdom.

Unfortunately the few times we do see female werewolves they are clearly less rational than their male counterparts. It is only when the text in question has only a male werewolf that the werewolf is allowed to become unglued, and subject to call of the moon.  The degree to which they are affected by the curse of lycanthropy, is directly related to the position of the moon. In some texts, the waxing gibbous is enough to cause significant change to their behavior pattern.  Oddly enough, regardless of the position of the moon, the female werewolf is generally effected by the curse. Her reason for a loss of control, has nothing to do with the moon, which I found odd because menstruation is often referred to as moon time. 

Debbie Pelt of True Blood, is clearly out of control and when you cast this against her would be boyfriend Alcide, there is a clear difference.  With the exception of the full moon, Alcide is always in control; he is extremely rationale.  Alcide possess all of the qualities needed in a pack leader.  Debbie on the other hand is violent, a drug addict [note: vampire blood; known as V is her drug of choice], jealous, and vindictive.  Many of her problems are at first blamed on her drug addiction; however, at the end of last season, Pelt was sober and once again her jealousy and rage flared.

Kelley Armstrong’s Otherworld series brings us one of the few female protagonist werewolves out there and certainly another werewolf who struggles extremely with what it means to be a werewolf. Despite being part of the Pack - a lofty status among werewolves - she has extreme trouble integrating with the pack. In fact the whole plot of Bitten revolves around her leaving the the Pack and moving to Toronto -- to try and flee not just them -- but being a werewolf entirely. She seeks a normal, human life regardless of how dangerous or impossible that is. She’s certainly not the only werewolf to leave the Pack - but they have left the pack because of objections to the Pack itself - Pack politics, Pack restrictions, Pack personalities - not being a werewolf. The whole world of the series is set up to make her an oddity because she is the only female werewolf - female werewolves are not supposed to exist, they’re never born and don’t usually survive the bite. And we see that same impossibility of her existence as a werewolf in Broken, where she has constant doubts over whether she can actually have children because she can’t imagine a werewolf being able to be pregnant or carry children. Being a werewolf and being a woman is a constant impossibility that plagues Elena’s life - whether her own doubts and trouble integrating or by making her a bauble or novelty to possess.

The idea that female werewolves can’t give birth is not uncommon - Laurell K Hamilton’s Anita Blake series has the same idea - the power of the change causes miscarriages, rendering all female shapeshifters infertile (except the weretigers). It’s another idea that cis womanhood and werewolves are not compatible. And, again, we see a paucity of werewolves, certainly in any major roles. Other than bit characters we have Raina (an aggressive, sadistic, monstrous character) and Silvie who is a Lesbian - and is shown assuming a more masculine role in the pack compared to the other women; it’s a repeated and damaging trope that Lesbians do not count as “real” women and can be exceptions to feminine roles.

What is interesting about the Anita Blake series is that there are several female shapeshifters who are not werewolves. We have a number of female wereleopards, we have werelions and the weretigers are even matriarchal - so why feline weres and not canine? But what are cats regarded as? Elegant, beautiful, sleek, graceful, quiet, subtle... a different animal entirely from the uncontrolled savagery of the werewolf mythos. Cats are more acceptably feminine and so werecats can be women.

The movie Gingersnaps, has the distinction of being the only move to revolve around a female werewolf. Ginger is attacked by a werewolf and her behaviour quickly changes.  It is important to note that in Gingersnaps, lycanthropy is a metaphor for puberty; however, since this is seen through a strictly female lens, gender is clearly an issue. Shortly before being bitten, Ginger gets her period for the first time.  She sees this as a curse, but little does she know that the real curse is soon to come.  Ginger who had shown little interest in boys because highly sexual and extremely violent.  She kills not because she is threatened, but because she is irritated.  All along the way it is her human sister who attempts to help her control her behaviour and save her from the curse. In the end Ginger does not even recognize the sister that she loves and there is no semblance of who she once was. Because of the link to puberty, Gingersnaps implies that the process of moving from girl to woman, renders one irrational, aggressive and a problem that needs to be fixed, and ultimately managed.

Another good example is Nina from Being Human U.S.  From the moment that Josh is bitten, he is ashamed of who he is.  Josh is desperate for a way to become human again, or at the very least, lead as much of human like life he can. There has yet to be a murder committed by Josh, because he sees this behaviour as animalistic. Let’s contrast that to his girlfriend Nora. When she first becomes a werewolf, Nora is scared but, she quickly embraces her werewolf side. When given the opportunity to run with the purebloods she jumps on the opportunity. Brynn is the only other female werewolf that we have been introduced to. She also embraces her werewolf nature. In the end, it is revealed that between Brynn and her brother Connor who is killed, she is by far the more vicious and animal like one.  That means that we have two female werewolves, with two male counterparts, who are both more aggressive, and irrational than their male counterparts. Rather than reading like a simple counter gender message, it in fact reinforces gender controls because it is the women that need taming i.e. help to control their wild ways by the calm rational man in their lives. By virtue of their gender and not the curse that affects them both, female werewolves are off balance.

Naturally, with any trope there are counter-examples that subvert it and I can think of none better than Carrie Vaughn’s Kitty Norville. She does start in a very weak position and she does spend a lot of time fighting and considering how to integrate or suppress here werewolf nature. However, ultimately she becomes an almost national poster child for a werewolf who is in control and has integrated her wolf into her life and being - her radio show even has her giving advice to other wolves and her position as alpha

It doesn’t change, however, that Kitty is very much an exception - a rare stable female werewolf in a genre replete with absent or out of control portrayals. Similarly, in Blood and Chocolate we see a number of female werewolves - though the vast majority of them are disposable and it is only the protagonist, Vivian, who is of any note or value. The male werewolves still want to possess her as they do the other female werewolves, where this falls apart is the fact Vivian fights back and demands the right to love as she pleases. Vivian is also the chosen one in this story, as werewolf mythos is actually describes her as being a game changer.  The problem of course is that Vivian is only one female werewolf in a host of others. She is the exception to the rule.  This is not exactly a challenge to the rule when most of the female werewolves presented in the film are negligible.

Ultimately, there could be many reasons for this, but when we consider how a werewolf is so much the opposite of everything an idealised woman is “supposed” to be, it’s no surprise that there is a reluctance to smoothly integrate women into this role.