Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Women in the Anita Blake Series

The Anita Blake series has now reached a massive 21 books now and I always find these long series as fascinating to examine, just as I did J.R Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood Series. With a long series you can see patterns and trends, you can see ongoing erasure and repeated stereotypes and tropes to really reinforce a point.

So, I turn to Anita Blake - I already looked at the idea of Anita as a champion of sexual agency, but now I’m turning my eyes on another fraught issue - the treatment of women in the series. Especially women who aren’t Anita.

And the first thing I see is there aren’t actually an awful lot of them. Considering how long this series is as well as the sheer, massive number of characters (Anita has actually slept with more characters than most book series include) and you see an awful lot of men and... not even a quarter as many women. Especially not in Anita’s immediate circle - how many female friends and peers does Anita actually have by the end of book 21? I think I can count them on the fingers of one hand - and I don’t think I need all of them. Anita lives in an incredibly male world.

Which is really common with strong female protagonists (and something we will address in another post for the genre in general), they tend to be the only one. The only woman - perhaps the only capable woman. A woman whose only equals and peers are, ultimately men - implying women are not capable of keeping up with her.

The way Anita refers to herself, her work and her capability, coupled with this rejection of nearly all other women also shows an uncomfortable pattern. Remember, Anita is “one of the guys” and she speaks the “guy code” and knows “guy language” so she can communicate with the men around her far better than another woman could. We get language like this throughout the series. She even impresses the police in Hit List not with skill or capability or knowledge - but with her (supernaturally enhanced) upper-body strength. Throughout it seems we’re not presenting the ideal that a woman is just as good as a man in these circumstances but that she, Anita, is a special woman who can be just as much a guy as the guys.

Especially if you contrast this to how so many other women in the series are treated - a treatment that gets more extreme the more stereotypically “traditionally feminine” the women present. The more stereotypically feminine these women are, the more they are likely to be either sexually manipulative bad guys or fragile victims.

Now contrast that with the women who she (almost) regards as coming close to approaching Anita’s level - Ronnie, Silvie (especially given the dubious treatment of sexuality in this series - which is another post) and, especially Claudia. In varying ways, these women also reject traditional stereotypes of femininity and “femaleness” and have those qualities emphasised.

It’s also sad that the vast majority of women in the series fit into a few categories. Of course there are exceptions (Claudia, Dr. Lillian), but they are few and usually minor or one off characters and do not fit in regularly in Anita’s life (though most of them fit as well)

The most common of which are Victims. And not just victims, these are victims with a capital V. They are so very often “fragile” or “delicate” or fill Anita with a need to protect. They’re all, frankly, presented as weak, especially compared to Anita. Gina, Violet, Vivian, Cherry (in fact, every last female wereleopard who isn’t Elizabeth), Jade, Jason’s girlfriend who appeared for 2 seconds who I don’t even remember any more - all of these women are described as fragile, delicate little dolls - which is almost funny because Anita repeatedly rejects such language when used to refer to her - but it’s ok for these other women? There are so many more: Hannah (Willie’s disappeared girlfriend), the Swanmanes, even the very briefly appearing Elinore was thin and delicate and quickly shunted off lest she take attention from Anita. Even when not victims, these women have their “weakness” and fragility emphasised.

Even the humans - Edward’s fiance, Donna is so weak that the mere sight of violence leaves her a dripping mess that Anita, of course, has to slap into shape so she can help her children.  Catherine, before she drops off the face of the Earth, is a victim used against Anita. Wanda in Laughing Corpse is not only a victim, but Anita even takes time out in a kidnap situation to remark on her inability to defend herself. She can’t even think of Marianne (who, again, drops into the box where Laurell K Hamilton seems to file any woman who may begin deserving respect from Anita) without bringing up a her heart murmur, what easy prey she is and that she needs a werewolf bodyguard to stop her being shredded

If they’re not a Victim (or even if they are) they’re often an Enemy; now Enemies are different from Villains (which I’ll come to), Enemies are ostensibly on Anita’s side but are usually infinitely inferior and totally wrong next to Anita - especially as the book progresses. If they’re lucky, they can be Put In Their Place and accept Anita as their Lord and Savior, err, boss and be welcomed into the fold (beneath her): Silvie, Elizabeth and Monica have all been slapped down by the world for daring to oppose the glory of Anita and have now assumed their Proper Place (in obscurity, serving Anita). Gretchen has just served a stint in a cross strapped coffin to see if she can learn and it looks like Meng Die is getting similar treatment.

Of course, if she was just a friend or potential friend of Anita in the beginning of the books, then they quickly get shunted into Enemy status so they can be cast aside or at least cast as inferior next to Anita’s awesomeness: Jessica Arnet, Veronica Sims, Tammy Reynolds. All were potential peers, now they’re evil Enemies of the goodness that is Anita - and they’re not even unambigious, all of these women are deeply unpleasant and any objective person would dislike them.

The Villain category, naturally, speaks for itself and doesn’t need a list, but it’s where most of the women who aren’t Victims or Enemies end up. Which means they usually end up dead as well.

But what’s special about both the Enemies and the Villains is another trope they reveal - only Anita’s sexuality is valid. How many sexual women are there in this series, other than Anita, whose sexuality isn’t somehow evil or otherwise a threat?

Ronnie now hates Anita out of envy for all the many many men she has - not only hates her but takes it to a ridiculous level of gross open insults aimed at Nathanial and revealing her potential pregnancy to the whole house. Speaking of jealous hatred, Jessica Arnett has also gone completely over the top out desire for Anita’s men - threatening Jean-Claude with death and stalking Nathaniel. Meng Die loathes Anita because all the men are chasing Anita and ignoring her, and her sexuality is considered “broken” and “perverse.” Even Jason’s girlfriend, Perdita, broke up with Jason because he was sleeping with Anita (and this was presented as so very unreasonable of her)

They’re cameo roles, but even Elvira Drew in Lunatic Cafe and Vicki Pierce in Burnt Offerings, both of whom use their looks to be conniving and manipulative.The Siren, Thea, in Danse Macabre uses her sexual powers to try and manipulate and control Anita

And do we need to even look at the sadistic women who used their sexuality entirely as a weapon to rape, torture and otherwise be the big bad evil? Raina (Sadist, torturer, rapist) Elizabeth (torturer, rapist, Gabriel’s second, tries to seduce Micah), Yvette (rotty vampire, sadist), Pallas (rotty vampire, sadist), Pallas (rotty vampire, sadist), Belle Morte, Morvoren, Musette, Liv (tries to seduce Jean-Claude), Gretchen (also tries to seduce Jean-Claude), Yasmeen (sexually assaulted Larry with the help of her human servant, Marguerite)  y’know, it’s getting redundant to list them at this stage.

Anita actually has so few women she regards as peers, that I think I would suspect any female friend she had. After all, out of the very small number, most of them ended up hating her and 2 - Cassandra in the Killing Dance and Soledad in The Harlequinn turned out to be just masquerading enemies.

It’s pretty sad that the strong female character is so often presented as such by emphasising how different she is from the other, lesser, more evil, more unpleasant or just plain wrong women. And if you present a character, like Anita, as so strong and capable, but then surround her with this backing - are you sending the message that she is a strong female character? Or a character who is strong, despite being female?