Friday, September 11, 2015

Making Sense of the Dimes and Nickles in Urban Fantasy

Urban Fantasy is, very often, a wonderful form of fantasy escapism. They depict worlds that are similar to ours but full of the fantastic and wonderful, a place where we can escape the mundane worries of our lives to go to a land where vampires brood in the shadows (or glitter in the sun), werewolves manage to make excess body hair hot and magic can make anything possible.

So, it’s not entirely surprising that money and money troubles are rarely a common topic in these books. After all, we can spend our very real, mundane lives worrying over next month’s bills or mentally battling over whether we can afford just a few more books… just one or two… they’re on sale, right? Especially when those money worries can be so all consuming, so painful and so difficult.

But Urban Fantasy is very close to our own world, it’s one of the primary definitions of Urban Fantasy, after all. As such the repeated glossing over of issues and the realities of wealth is a hole in this genre, it’s a failure to develop the lives of the characters and the world building around them and, looming over this, it’s completely avoiding or casually brushing over the very necessary issues of class and poverty that should still be in these settings.

Most commonly this is seen with protagonists - or sexy male love interests - who simply have money. How and why they have money is not really covered. They just have cash as and when they need it without any real explanation as to where the money comes from.

Sometimes there will be a convenient rich relative, friend or inheritance introduced to render it all moot (Mary-Janice Davidson rather appalling introduced a millionaire Black girl in the Undead series to bank roll Betsy, who managed to afford extremely expensive designer shoes on the salary of an office temp).

If they’re employed, we rarely see them actually perform their jobs (when was the last time anyone saw Anita Blake raise a zombie?) sometimes to a laughable degree (does Sookie even still work at Merlottes any more?). Or their job will require minimal effort - they’ll own a business that someone else will run, or it will have big pay-offs for only occasional work such as Elemental Assassin series with Gin’s lucrative assassin job or Dresden Files with Harry always seeming having money in his pocket despite rarely actually working as a wizard for hire. Or Jeremy in the Otherworld Series managing to amass a fortune that requires only the occasional painting to maintain, or Dorina Basarab in her series always had money to drop on some very expensive and rare weaponry despite her only occasional work for a Council that hated her.

They have ready money, they work for it - but working for the paycheck is never more than a small sidenote to their lives, rather than the 9-5 most of us have to put in to get by and they can often pull out large sums of cash at very little notice and with very little consequence - like Joanne Walker can put their day jobs on hold (or actively abandoning it for a while) to pursue whatever adventure has hit this week.

Of course, often wealth is just there and age or random woo-woo is often used as a justification - Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles is an extreme and typical example where everyone is dripping in wealth often with little real explanation as to why beyond the desire to have every scene smeared with purple-prose opulence porn. Age is why Anita Blake Series’ Jean-Claude (and most other vampires) have gathered their wealth, why Twilight’s Cullens live a lifestyle that rather exceeds the wages of one doctor and why every vampire in the Blood Destiny series is rich enough to throw their wealth around and play with credit-limit-less cards and why the Night Huntress Series’ Bones (and fellow vampires) have a near infinite budget to play with.

From the moment Damon appeared, The Vampire Diaries geared the story towards a love triangle between Elena, Damon and Stefan. Many of their interactions in terms of difference between vampires and humans tended to fixate on their abilities and need to drink blood. What I would like to know is where is the discussion of money? We know that Damon and Stefan’s home is the Salvatore family home but how do they sustain themselves, or at the very least pay for their enormous alcohol bill?  Both drive expensive cars and seem to have an unlimited budget for designer jeans. The Salvatore Brothers may pause to think about how to take out a Big Bad but any logistics which involve money are never part of the conversation. We are to accept that they are old men in young mens bodies and somehow this entitles them to wealth. Not only are they supernaturally entitled, Elena never ever questions it and accepts it as part and parcel of their vampiric state.

While this may seem like an easy excuse, it is overly simplistic, especially if we’re talking about characters who never seem to spend any time analysing modern trends, the finance market or any other financially rewarding avenues. Fortunes are lost as well as made - how much money can they lose over the course of revolutions, market crashes, disasters, wars et al? Your rich vampire land owner never had his lands seized or armies march across it or a drought render it worthless over all those centuries? And even perfectly mortal people can find they have no marketable skills due to technology marching on; how much more of a problem would this be for a being that has lived for centuries? Sorry, being lord of the castle just doesn’t carry the wage it once did and there’s not a lot of job opportunities for a soldier who never saw any battle that didn’t use flintlock muskets - or swords.

Apart from anything else, these conflicts have the potential for some really interesting storylines - how your vampires managed to pocket their wealth over the centuries, how they moved with the times and the pitfalls that beset them could all be fascinating plots

Perhaps more annoying is how many characters will reference money trouble - but only as a plot hook. So Rachel in The Hollows will worry about how much money she has, but it’s only really a tool to make her accept another job with Trent. Once that conflict is over actual day-to-day worries about her bank balance will fade away. Similarly, while Sookie does have some good moments, much of her financial worries are just a hook to pull her into working with Eric again. Or Charley Davidson being pushed to leave her apartment despite her fear and anxiety. This is not an analysis of poverty, class issues or ongoing struggles with wealth. They don’t have to worry about budgeting or getting through each day or be concerned about the car/fridge/washer breaking down - it’s just a briefly mentioned plot hook to get them into a storyline they would otherwise avoid.

This erasure becomes even more fraught when romance is involved. In any story involving supernaturals and a romance wherein one member of the couple is human there will automatically be a dissonance in power. When it is combined with gender and class it can be fairly problematic. For example, let’s look at Twilight and the romance between Edward and Bella (yeah I know you’re sick of these two but suck it up). In the first book, Edward reveals himself to Bella and in the process makes it clear that he is faster than she is, stronger than she is, smells better than she does and is supernaturally appealing to boot. That’s quite the package isn’t it? It’s all too easy to fixate on the aforementioned attributes in a discussion on power and ignore what stares in the face - class.

Edward is rich and cultured. Bella is quite happy to drive her beaten up truck; happy to get from point A to point B. Edward however sees the truck as a risk and immediately purchases Bella a new car. How many people can on the spur of the moment go out and buy a new high end car in cash? Edward’s purchase of a new car for Bella is framed as concern for her safety when in reality, it’s about having control over Bella.  It doesn’t even stop there. When Edward gets jealous of Bella and Jacob’s off road motorcycling hobby he buys a high end bike so that he can join them. Edward just assumes that he can buy his way into a hobby Bella began with her friend.  From his room furnished with expensive objects, to his clearly mansion home, every step of the way, Edward’s wealth is made obvious to Bella. She never asks about it but accepts as a part of his reality. Where does Edward’s money come from? How would the story have changed had he been poor like Jacob?

In Accidentally Dead, book 2 of Dakota Cassidy’s Accidentals series, Nina is struggling to get her life on a firm footing. She became so desperate at one point for money that she began selling make up (something she’s clearly not cut out for). Finally, Nina is able to get herself back to school and becomes a dental hygienist only to be turned into a vampire by Greg. Nina worked hard to get back on her feet financially and then in comes Greg to take away her independence.  But not to worry, in exchange for losing her financial independence, Nina gets to live forever in Greg’s mansion and share in his wealth. It’s an instant cure to all of the struggles Nina has had and yet it never gets any in-depth exploration. Nina is supposedly an outspoken, independent, modern woman and yet suddenly finding herself financially dependent upon her husband is no issue for her.

Then we have Ethan and Merrit in Chloe Neill's, Chicagoland Vampires series. From the very first interaction, it was clear that Ethan possessed far more power than Merrit.  He is an ancient vampire, former warrior and naturally is very wealthy.  Ethan parks his luxury cars underground while Merrit is forced to find parking on the street during the cold Chicago winter. Ethan is always impeccably dressed while Merrit just shlubs around town. Even their culinary choices are marked by class.  Every step Ethan takes oozes power and his wealth is definitely a part of that power.  Sure, he worries a bit about the financial bottom line of his Cadogan House but it never affects his access to money. Money is just as much a part of Ethan’s identity as his green eyes and vampire nature.

Merrit is someone who comes from a very wealthy family and therefore has never really known what it’s like to struggle.  Being turned into a vampire forces Merrit into a job for the first but the catch is that she must answer to Ethan.  Merrit’s only experience of life is class  privilege and this only increases when she enters into a relationship with Ethan, further allowing her to be sheltered from the hardships of middle class life, let alone poverty.  Ethan’s wealth makes Merrit dependent because every single dollar she earns comes from him.  To become rogue or independent would mean losing access to all of Ethan’s wealth and the ease that comes with it.

Ethan makes Merrit the sentinel supposedly giving her independence but it’s name only.  Ethan can at any time revoke membership to Cadogan house, thus leaving her homeless and  withhold Merrit’s salary without warning.  Ethan can send Merrit on dangerous missions and she must comply because as much they are lovers, he is her employer.  Money complicates their relationship in so many ways and yet it’s never really seriously interrogated.  It’s just easy to accept that Merrit is to be subordinate to Ethan regardless of the financial risk this puts her at.

These are but a few amongst countless examples where the young female love interest is not as wealthy as her supernatural lover. It’s rare that we see actual gauche gawking at the wealth, let alone a serious interrogation of how their supernatural lover became rich in the first place. This allows the viewer to see it as naturally occurring, thus ignoring that this is yet another site of inequality that has become far too prevalent in this genre.

Why must the supernatural and romance so often tie into wealth? Perhaps because it ties into the patriarchal idea that every woman wants to feel like a princess, i.e marry someone tall, handsome and super wealthy so that they can be kept for the rest of their days in some kind of gilded cage. I don’t care if you need 5 liters of blood each day, money matters. If you are going to interact with society, money smoothes things over and makes things easy. To ignore this magnificent benefit and treat it casually, as though it’s the easiest thing in the world to amass wealth, ignores the reality of how we live and conversely how the characters survive.

This imbalance also serves to turn women into easy prey. They are always physically weaker and most certainly don’t have the supernatural abilities and when we add the class separation, it turns these relationship into one sided interactions in which women give up their power in reward for wealth and the opportunity to be kept. It’s nothing more than a ridiculous re-writing of popular fairytales in which woman is always an object and never a subject. This is particularly appalling in a genre that not only is made up of largely female protagonists, but written by women.

Each time a man is able to throw around his wealth or casually purchase items his love interest needs, it’s a display of power and ownership. It all seems like an easy fix because they are in love and what would one of these series be without a HEA? In reality, women in these unbalanced relationships have a tightrope to walk because it is far too easy for the man to revoke access to his funds, and furthermore; as the creator of of said money, he will often have the final say as to how it’s spent. This is the reality that no amount of woo woo or fancy love talk can erase and yet it is so rarely covered. Absolute power corrupts absolutely and simply because there is love in a relationship doesn’t mean that there will not be an abuse particularly with something as handy as money.

We are supposed to suspend beliefs when we read this genre.  For the most part, trouble is only supposed to come in the form of another supernatural stepping out of line. The problem with this approach is that these books aren’t published in a vacuum. Like everything else we consume in the media, they convey messages which are harmful and in this case, messages which womanism/feminism have been trying to combat for some time. What is really powerful is not having a couple who can fuck underwater or turn furry once a month but a couple who have achieved actual parity (hence our love of the Kate Daniels series). Now that’s a fantasy I can get into, especially since it’s so rarely realised in fantasy - and reality.

Thankfully, there are some excellent depictions of how class and the supernatural can go really well together. The earlier books in Cassie Alexander’s Edie Spence series are excellent as Edie struggles as a nurse (and I think it is to the story’s detriment when she moves away from that). Diana Rowland’s amazing White Trash Zombie Series (which we will always fandpoodle) is an absolutely incredible depiction of wealth and class - even with super-rich supernaturals. In fact it is excellent because those super-rich supernaturals don’t swoop in to save Angel because she’s deeply uncomfortable with the implications and consequences of that (rather than just swooning in romantic glee). Less overtly, the Salt Lake After Dark Series, nicely touches on the financial consequences of having a supernatural metabolism (a common trope that has protagonists eating huge, expensive meals) and the need for her supernatural enforcer-ness to draw an actual paycheck because she certainly can’t do it for free. And while there’s no overt discussion of money per se, awareness of class and wealth divide are a pervasive element in the Rivers of London series.

Class and wealth are not something we should conveniently discard, especially when we are invoking romance and partnership. Rather than being seen as a barrier to storytelling it should be embraced for the vast potential it has for plot points and, in turn, for greater analysis of relationships and the power balances within them. We need to move away from the Princess Fantasy and the magical infinite bank account because Urban Fantasy is too close to your reality for these depictions not to have consequences.