Friday, June 15, 2012

Anita Blake: Faux Champion of Sexual Agency

Many people, especially ex-fans of Laurell K Hamilton’s Anita Blake series have become very strong critics of the series, especially after Narcissus in Chains. Myself included. Before this point, Anita was a strong, determined female character, she made her own rules and decisions, she was the dominant actor in her own life – she had issues, certainly and was far from perfect, but she was a strong character in a rich, diverse world with interesting and often surprisingly deep issues.

And then the ardeur landed, after which opening each book came accompanied by bow-chika-wow-wow porn music. The plot and the world took a back seat to random sex scenes and unnecessary and not very edgy orgies which occasionally sprouted new magic powers (humping to level up!) and people were disappointed that such a great series had devolved into such a plotless wonder.

And in response to the criticism, the straw man was raised that the critics were prudes who were against a sexually pro-active, powerful woman and there’d be no problem if the protagonist was a man. Which is a shame because it misses the actual complaint – that the books were a really well written, fascinating series of books that had all the plot and development cast aside. I don’t actually mind Meredith Gentry – because Meredith Gentry has been squeezing plot in between the endless sex scenes and occasionally humping to a new level of magic since book 1.

But let us examine this straw man a little closer – Anita is a sexually pro-active woman. Is she? Because I question this a lot.

Now, I very much like a book that includes a woman who is in charge of her own sexuality, has sex as and when she wants to, with whom she wishes, without pressure and without shame. I love that and praise that. But Anita Blake is not that woman, primarily because Anita Blake did not choose her sex life, did not seek it out – and most dramatically, did not consent to it.

That sounds extreme, but look at Anita’s sexual encounters. Start with the more casual of them, the one offs. The vast majority of these happened because the ardeur struck and Anita physically had to have sex – absolutely had to. If she didn’t she’d literally go mad, starve or drain energy from Nathaniel and Damien and kill them. She has to have sex now to save her life or the lives of people she cares about. If she had her own choice, completely un-coerced and without these supernatural pressures, would Anita have ever had sex with London or Byron or Requiem or Graham or Wicked or Truth? I don’t think anyone can claim that Anita would have chosen these sexual encounters, but the magic forced her. Do I even have to mention the weretiger orgy that happened under the influence of the Mother of All Darkness? Anita blacked out for that one and still has no memory of what she did/what was done to her.

And they’re not the only metaphysical emergencies that force Anita into sexual contact. Channeling Raina’s Munin (magical werewolf ghost) to heal forced to initiate sexual contact with Nathaniel (twice), Jamal, Jason and Gregory all, again, at times when she would not have consented to or sought sex with any of them. Healing her triumvirate has driven her to deep ardeur feedings with the heads of different shapeshifter packs, Donovan Reece of the swanmanes, Rafael of the wererats and even tried for Joseph of the werelions (who refused due to being monogamous. She actually refuses protection for him that would lead to his death for not having sex with her). Again, would Anita without pressure or coercion have chosen these sexual encounters? Given the character, I don’t think you can sensibly say Anita would have freely chosen this and that this sex was of her own un-coerced volition.

Then there’s her animals to call - Cynric, Mephistopheles (and the other Tigers) and Haven joined her harem because she needed to control her beasts and because she needed to bind the Tigers to fight the Mother of All Darkness or the Harlequinn. Several of the Tigers are bound to her entirely accidentally after the big weretiger orgy. None of them join Anita’s bed because she wants them to or because she has sought them out.

Even the relationships that are the nearest and dearest to Anita, the lovers who are closest to her, begin on very dubious foundations. Nathaniel, Micah and Jason are all products of the ardeur. She has sex with Micah when the ardeur first raises its ugly head, she doesn’t know what she’s doing, she doesn’t want it, it completely against her desire and morality and she even says no. She says no. Sex still happens. It’s not even ambiguous - it’s rape.

Nathaniel? She regards as a child. She even thinks of herself as a child abuser for touching him sexually (issues she is now having again with the 17 year old Cynric). Along comes the ardeur and both Nathaniel and Jason (and Asher for that matter) are added to her bed because she needs to feed in a grand 5-in-a-bed moment. Every step of the way Anita is doubtful, reluctant and outright refusing as Jean-Claude continually pokes her and encourages her back into the bed.

Do I have to say it again? Anita did not want to have sex with these men. She did not seek sex with these men. And in her first sexual encounter with all of them she is reluctant to the point of refusing to have sex with these men. This is not sexual agency.

So let’s look at the only two men Anita actually slept with before the ardeur raised its ugly, shark-jumping head. First of all, the biggy, Jean-Claude. Love interest since book 1 – surely this relationship is one based on choice and agency?

No. Anita, due to her dislike of vampires, rejects Jean-Claude from the very beginning and Jean-Claude chases and pursues her every step of the way. He has forced marks on her, he has invaded her dreams, he has pushed her to be his human servant and, in a pièce de résistance, threatens the man she loves with brutal murder if Anita doesn’t agree to date him (which includes kissing). This? This is not agency, it’s borderline stalking. When they first end up in bed? That happens after Anita has been pinned under Richard mid shift and after he has snacked on Marcus. She’s delicate, fragile, crying and the adjectives used involve “despair” and “broken”. This is one of Anita’s lowest point in the whole series, perhaps her deepest emotional pit – and this is when Jean-Claude and Anita finally make the beast with 2 backs? When she is that vulnerable and that fragile? That’s neither sexy nor romantic - it’s borderline exploitive.

And to the other pre-
Ardeur lover, Richard. She has sex with Richard for the first time in Blue Moon after the Munin Raina decides to force her to invoke some odd werewolf rite in which every man in the pack chases her down and rapes her. She runs for her life while the men fight each other to rape her until she reaches the cabin where Richard finds her, awash with magical lust. I’d cue the bow-chika-wow-wow, but, again, when Richard starts sex with her she responds because Raina is riding her and Raina has used her powers to cause this. Yet again, Anita did not choose to have sex, sex was imposed upon her and this is the very first time she has sex with Richard.

The last man we probably need to consider separately is Asher, and even Anita isn’t sure if she fell in love with or is attracted to Asher because of Jean-Claude’s memories or her own. Even this can’t be clean, clear consent with her, there has to be something shading the lines.

To be brutally frank, I keep saying “sex is imposed/forced on Anita” and there’s a word for that. I hate to use the word “rape” cavalierly, but Anita is constantly forced into sex - whether by her own magic or someone else’s magic or to heal someone or to keep someone safe.

And that’s aside from the amount of rape and sexual assault that is also extremely common in the series - in Skin Trade Vittorio demands Anita perform sexually for him to save lives and sexual assault and rape is so common as a quick “development” of the bad guys: The Traveller, Yvette, Master of Beasts, Raina, Gabriel, Niley, Janos (with Bettina and Pallas), Gaynor, Belle Morte, Chimera - it’s probably quicker to mention the bad guys who AREN’T rapists. Sexual predation is the norm in these books.

With Anita Blake and nearly all of her lovers, the sex came first and then the consent followed it. Anita was forced, usually mystically but still against her will and personal wishes, to have sex with these men. When she takes a new lover or when she expands her sexual horizons it is always in protest, there is always some form of pressure pushing her and it is never something she chooses. She does not decide “I want this, I want him, so I’m going to do this for my own pleasure, enjoyment and fulfilment” instead it is always “I have to do this for the ardeur, or to keep X happy, or to save Y’s life”.  Later, after a book or two, she may decide that, actually, she really likes or loves that person and she does want to have sex with them. Or she decides that a sexually activity she has been coerced into is actually really fun and pushes her button and she wants to do it more. But this is always AFTER the first time – the sex happens first, the consent came afterwards.

How can we praise Anita Blake for being aggressively sexual or unashamedly sexual or sex positive when what we have is a character who is constantly dragged kicking and screaming to the bedroom? How is it sexually positive to have a woman who is nagged into sex, pressured into sex, who has to have sex to keep her loved ones alive and, ultimately, forced to have sex? The pressure may be magical, but it’s still pressure. I do not see a positive portrayal of sexual agency in a woman who is constantly forced into sex.