Friday, February 22, 2013

The Portrayal of Addiction in Urban Fantasy

Because urban fantasy is thought of as unimportant fluff, it often gets a pass on many of the isms that it perpetuates. It never ceases to amaze me that in a genre which is filled with fantastical elements that so many find it difficult to create a world in which serious issues and marginalisations can be discussed or included in anything approaching a realistic or inclusive manner. Appropriation is absolutely rampant in the genre and it is quite common to take serious issues and minimise them by equating them to fantastical creatures. The viewer or reader is meant to identify with the issues of the supernatural creature, even as the portrayal leaves so much to be desired that it ends up stigmatising the very issue that the genre is supposedly discussing.

One of the recurring topics which urban fantasy has sought to integrate is addiction. One of the most obvious examples in the genre is clearly Being Human (UK).  Vampirism in Being Human (UK) is clearly a metaphor for addiction because the vampires in this series can exist for extended periods of time without consuming blood; however, the moment they are turned, they develop an overwhelming desire to consume blood. Essentially, the battle for each vampire seeking to assimilate is to forgo the consumption of blood thereby; making the consumption of blood a moral failing. By making vampirism a metaphor for addiction, Being Human (UK) is essentially saying that addiction in and of itself is monstrous and so are the addicted. This is highly problematic because even though those who love and support the addicted individual suffer, no one suffers more than the addicted person themselves.

It is clear that Being Human (UK) is attempting to create an equivalency between an addicted human and a vampire. While to some degree the biological nature is explored because it is not coincidental that children of alcoholics are far more likely to become alcoholics themselves. However, a propensity for addiction does not make addiction an inherent part of any person’s nature, not even if they go on to become an addict. This contrasts sharply with the blood hunger of a vampire which, by definition, is an inherent, unchanging biological element of who and what they are.

Being Human (UK) is not the only Urban Fantasy to use themes of addiction when it comes to the supernatural. We’ve seen the same themes in Buffy, Secret Circle and even the latest season of The Vampire Diaries, have their addictive dark magic episodes and themes, Being Human (US) even had body hopping addiction with Sally. It’s common in books as well, with Chloe Neil’s Chicagoland vampires exploring magic addiction. Addiction, whether it be to blood, magic, forbidden arts or innumerable other supernatural elements continues to be raised in the genre - but in nearly all cases, addiction is linked to the damage it does to others. The addict is shameful and needs to be stopped not for their own sake, but because of the people they hurt. No-one is stopping Willow or Mallory or worried about Cassie’s dark magic because them living with addiction so much as they are afraid of the people their powers will hurt. No-one is concerned about the difficulties vampires must endure with their blood addiction, interventions are motivated by fear for their victims.

In all cases, the addict is dangerous, a predator, a threat. Not a victim, not someone who is ill, not even someone who needs help particularly, so much as someone who needs to be controlled - not for their own good, but for the good of others.

We see this continue even with more direct addictive parallels. In True Blood vampire blood, V, is addictive and traded as a narcotic - and we do see it treated this way and very well with Andy Bellefleur fighting his addiction with Jason’s help. This is one of the few good examples on television as Andy is treated as an addict, one who needs help for his own sake not for the safety of others but to regain control and power in his own life. However, V also makes people stronger and more dangerous, so Andy Bellefleur’s struggles exists alongside packs of werewolves on V being extra savage and more violent and a threat to those around them. The message of the burden of addiction and recovery from Andy runs along side the monstrous, supernaturally powerful and enhanced addict with the werewolves.

Another element that these depictions of addiction of miss are the causes of addiction. While many people become addicted in many ways and along many paths, the addiction we see in the genre is usually either inherent (i.e. a vampire is “born” with an addiction) or someone stumbles across the substance/magic/whatever, likes it and becomes addicted (as is often the case with Black magic). While this does happen, it’s hardly the only or even the most common story. Many addicts are self-medicating or have been driven to self-medication. Poor mental health services, lack of support nets, violence, trauma, poverty, stress, hopelessness and a huge variety of other pressures can drive people to seek support, comfort or even oblivion however they can. It’s no surprise that marginalised people make up a disproportionate number of addicts, not due to some moral failing (though the hate groups often spin it that way) but simply due to the extra pressures and less support marginalised people often have.

The lack of this narrative of self-medication and the pressures addiction adds another element of shaming to the portrayal of addiction. Becoming addicted is seen as careless, reckless or even self-indulgent without sufficient counter examples of real world pressures.

Surprisingly, while their motivation and path to addiction is, perhaps, less sympathetic than the path of many real world addicts, their treatment is also much less harsh. If you become addicted to blood, black magic etc in Urban Fantasy you will be confronted with a bevy of friends who want to stop you hurting people - you will be made to stop (so yes, as we said above, you will be dangerous, even monstrous) but you will not face punishment - let alone the often disproportionately harsh punishment that we see in the real world. I can only imagine what fans reactions would be to Willow being thrown in prison for life, without treatment or help, for her dark magic indulgence. Even with the addict not being presented as a victim and being presented as a monstrous threat to those around them, they are still treated far more gently than the real world treats actual addicts - their road to recovery is usually much easier and much quicker as well.

To contrast all these supernatural addictions, actual addiction is not something that is addressed with any great frequency in Urban Fantasy. In most cases, when an addict is actually present, they fill the same gap as homeless people and sex workers - someone disposable to be dismissed or, this being Urban Fantasy, eaten. The only authors we’ve seen cover addiction in a deeper manner are Diana Rowland and Cassie Alexander. In both cases addiction is treated as a serious issue that primarily victimises the addict; it is something that can hurt other people around them, but they are the ones who primarily suffer from their addiction. There are reasons - or suggestions of reasons - behind the addiction. And resisting the addiction is presented as difficult, or an even Herculean effort. In both cases it is only through supernatural intervention that those fighting addiction manage to claw free from it and every step it is presented as such a massive effort.

These are just 2 examples (albeit extremely good examples) out of a genre where magical or supernatural addiction is extremely common place. This means we’re facing a genre that largely approaches addiction as something that happens to monsters - or is a part of their monstrosity, their inherent nature. It presents a genre that regards addiction not as a disease, but as an inherent nature, something that’s predatory or dangerous to those around the monstrous addict. It’s a dangerous framing and, far too often, a shaming one.