Recently, I picked up a YA novel set in a fictional version of the real city Fairy, Texas (how cool is that as a place to live?) and was amused to see that the heroine's name was Laney (which is basically what the L. in L. Jagi Lamplighter stands for. Actually, it stands for Lane, but I was called Laney when I used it, back in the long ago dream time.)
Amused by this, I wrote the author a note. To my amazement and delight, she wrote back that she was a fan of my Prospero books and that she had recently quoted my Dating the Monsters essay (from Ardeur, a book of essays about Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter/Lover from Benbella) in an academic paper she wrote. She was kind enough to take a portion of her paper and de-academicize it (is this a word? I sincerely hope no) for us.
Are Kick-Ass Heroines Always Also Monsters?
by Margo Bond Collins
One of the things that I’ve always loved about the use of the term “kick-ass” is that it indicates approval of heroines’ tendency to move from more traditionally feminine roles into behaviors more usually associated with the male heroes of action movies and literature; these women carry weapons and aren’t afraid to use them.
But the shift of heroines’ roles in urban fantasy from passive recipient of romantic love to active participants in violence and killing also carries a certain amount of anxiety in our culture. L. Jagi Lamplighter (my fabulous host today!) notes that “today’s audiences have welcomed this golden age of butt-kicking heroines with great relish,” but also claims that these heroines face a “fundamental conflict between modern culture and drama”:
Culture demanded a heroine who is fierce, powerful, and spunky, who lives in a world without taboos where she can do exactly as she pleases. But the needs of drama, the laws that govern what makes a story romantic, require something else entirely: a superior male who lives in a world where taboos separate the heroine from the object of her desire.
Thus, according to Lamplighter, urban fantasy requires a supernatural male love interest—one who is inherently superior to the heroine simply due to his supernatural nature. This is significant, Lamplighter claims,
Because violence is masculine. The more violent the hero, and the more he is ravaged by desires he cannot control—the desire for blood, the uncontrollable compulsion to turn into a wolf under the full moon—the more excuse for the hero to allow his passions to run away with him, and the greater the heroine’s victory when she ultimately tames him!
But this reading doesn’t fully account for the fact that most of the heroines of urban fantasy are every bit as violent as the male love-interests. Indeed, the heroines are often exponentially more violent than the males, a fact that is often of great concern to the heroines. As she develops her skills in necromancy, for example, Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake (arguably the first urban fantasy heroine) frets about her humanity; she says that “Raising the dead makes a lot of people class me with the monsters. There are even days when I agree with them” (Circus of the Damned). She worries that she is becoming a monster, claiming that “It was getting harder to tell the humans from the monsters. I was even beginning to wonder about myself. There are more roads to monsterdom than most people realize” (The Lunatic Cafe). But almost as much as worrying about remaining human, Anita worries about maintaining her place in a masculine world. At one point, as she looks at a female civilian called out to help take down a rogue zombie, she says,
The girl just stared. I could almost smell her fear. She was entitled to it. Why did it bother me so much? Because she and I were the only women here, and we had to be better than the men. Braver, quicker, whatever. It was a rule for playing with the big boys. (The Laughing Corpse).
As the literary progenitor of virtually all urban fantasy heroines, Anita is an important model for what happens when urban fantasy heroines act out the kind of violence that is traditionally considered masculine—and what happens to Anita is that despite acting violently because “if she doesn’t, someone innocent will get hurt” (as Alasdair Stuart notes) is that she herself turns into a monster. By the later novels, Anita is no longer particularly worried about going to church or whether or not she has become a monster or even if she is making the right decision about which monsters to kill. She comes to terms with her own increasingly violent actions as she tracks and kills rogue vampires, evil voodoo priestesses, shapeshifters, and other monsters, even as she increasingly identifies with them. In Cerulean Sins (the eleventh book of the series) for example, she says “One of my favorite things about hanging out with the monsters is the healing. Straight humans seemed to get killed on me a lot. Monsters survived. Let’s hear it for the monsters.” Anita’s experience parallels that of any number of other urban fantasy heroines: Faith Hunter’s Jane Yellowrock, Carrie Vaughn’s Kitty Norville, Ilona Andrews’ Kate Daniels, Rachel Vincent’s Faythe Saunders—all of them must embrace some degree of monstrosity in order to become the kind of kick-ass heroines we love.
In “Invisible Monsters: Vision, Horror, and Contemporary Culture,” Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock argues that “to redefine monstrosity is to simultaneously to rethink humanity” (275). However, urban fantasy novels’ definition of monstrosity as connected to feminine power does not “rethink humanity”; rather, if these books have a message for women, it is that in order to embody feminine power, a woman must become a monster—but in doing so, she learns that to be monstrous is the natural order. Asa Simon Mittman writes that
Monsters do a great deal of cultural work, but they do not do it nicely. They not only challenge and question; they trouble, they worry, they haunt. They break and tear and rend cultures, all the while constructing them and propping them up. (1)
In the case of urban fantasy, though, there is more propping than tearing, and despite any apparent nods to feminism, urban fantasy contains its potentially dangerous female characters within carefully constructed heteronormative narrative bounds by ensuring that femininity and monstrosity are ultimately equated. This tendency to create characters with the (ultimately frustrated) potential to escape traditionally patriarchal cultural norms shows itself nowhere so much as in urban fantasy’s kick-ass heroines—which ultimately raises the question: is it possible for those of us who write urban fantasy to create the kinds of kick-ass heroines we love without simultaneously creating monsters?
Margo Bond Collins is the author of a number of novels, including Waking Up Dead, Fairy, Texas, and Legally Undead (forthcoming in 2014), and all of her novels feature kick-ass heroines with varying degrees of inherent monstrosity. She lives in Texas with her husband, their daughter, and several spoiled pets.
Buy Waking Up Dead: http://www.amazon.com/Waking-Dead-Margo-Bond-Collins-ebook/dp/B00HKQQRJA/
Add Legally Undead to your Goodreads shelves: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/18366353-legally-undead
Hamilton, Laurell K. Circus of the Damned. 1995. New York: Jove, 2002. Kindle.
—. Bloody Bones. 1996. New York: Jove, 2002. Kindle.
—. Guilty Pleasures. 1993. New York: Jove, 2009. Kindle.
—. The Killing Dance. 1997. New York: Ace, 2011. Kindle.
—. The Laughing Corpse. 1994. New York: Jove, 2002. Kindle.
—. The Lunatic Cafe. 1996. New York: Jove, 2008. Kindle.
—. Narcissus in Chains. New York: Berkley, 2001. Kindle.
Lamplighter, L. Jagi. “Dating the Monsters: Why It Takes a Vampire or a Wereguy to Win the Heart of the Modern It Girl.” Ardeur: 14 Writers on the Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter Series. Ed. Laurell K. Hamilton. Dallas: BenBella Books, 2010. 43-56. Print.
Mittman, Asa Simon. Introduction. The Ashgate Companion to Monsters and the Monstrous. Ed. Asa Simon Mittman and Peter J. Dendle. Farnham, Surrey, England: Ashgate, 2012. 1-16. Print.
Stuart, Alasdair. “The Other Side of the Street: Anita Blake and the Horror Renaissance.” Ardeur: 14 Writers on the Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter Series. Ed. Laurell K. Hamilton. Dallas: BenBella Books, 2010. 81-90. Print.
Wolfe, Gary K. Evaporating Genres : Essays on Fantastic Literature. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2011. Print.