Friday, March 8, 2013

International Woman's Day

Today is International Woman’s Day and we can’t help but think about our chosen genre: Urban Fantasy (and related genres).

Urban Fantasy is one of the few genres of literature that is woman dominated. It seems the majority of the authors are female and, perhaps even more surprising, a majority of the protagonists are also women. It is extremely rare to find this kind of female representation and lack of overwhelming male dominance in any media genre - which alone puts the genre ahead on inclusions compared to so many art forms.

Of course, that same large female presence also causes the genre to be so utterly dismissed and regarded with contempt by so many. Above and beyond the contempt that speculative fiction often receives, Urban Fantasy is seen as fluffy, light, non-serious and even slightly shameful to read. It’s considered childish and silly, a representation it shares with Romance, another genre that has a large preponderance of female characters and women authors.

To us, this is part of why we criticise the genre as we do - because we do take it seriously. Because we do respect it and in respecting it we refuse to dismiss it, consider it silly or negligible. We give it the attention -and scrutiny - its popularity and influence demands.

Unfortunately, a mere presence of female characters and authors does not mean the genre and all - or even most - of the books within this genre are pro woman, which is another reason why we critique. One of the most common flaws when it comes to criticising media representations is stopping at inclusion - we have a female character, there is a woman in this book, so inclusion has been achieved without ever considering the quality of that representation or the messages it sends. Merely having female characters is not sufficient and, similarly, we cannot pretend that merely having female authors is the magic bullet that slays all sexism - or other problematic issues.

The first basic question we have to ask is what women are being represented? Because we talk about a large number of female characters, but inevitably the vast majority of these women are cis, straight, able bodied white women. How many of these revolutionary books and shows, challenging stereotypes and tropes only do so for a very narrow subset of womanhood? We cannot say a genre is wonderfully pro woman if we have to add a disclaimer to say only a select few women are included.

But even after considering that erasure, there are so many ways that merely having a female protagonist is not sufficient to create a pro-woman genre. The problematic tropes abound which we have discussed at length:
The Exceptional Woman
A Weapon is not a Strong Female Character
There can only be One Strong Female Character
Absent Mothers in Urban Fantasy
Spunky Agency: Fake Empowerment and Not so Strong Female Protagonists
Female Vampires: Children, Villains or Servants
Abuse as True Love in Paranormal Romance
Paranormal Romance Tropes We’d Like to See Buried
Women in the Anita Blake Series
Anita Blake, Faux Champion of Sexual Agency
Women in the Black Dagger Brotherhood Series
Women in Teen Wolf
Supernatural and the Very Overstocked Fridge
Motherhood on Game of Thrones
Motherhood on The Walking Dead

And, of course, the Covers

We should celebrate that this is a genre where there are so many women while so many other genres constantly have men overwhelmingly front and centre - but we cannot be satisfied by that. Inclusion can only ever be the first step - quality inclusion, representation and strong, affirming portrayals are essential.