Lilith Saintcrow has written a brilliant column over here about paranormal fantasy - AKA angry chicks in leather.
She addresses some really interesting issues of feminism and perceptions of gender in literature, and talks about how liberating it is to have a genre where female anger and violence is acceptable, not to mention empowering. I particularly liked her comparisons to the male detective heroes of noir.
My first response to the column was wow - she's talking about Parrish Plessis! Marianne's first SF series has so many elements of paranormal romance and urban fantasy, despite being science fiction, and it's really nice to see someone discussing this genre of female noir heroes without getting hung up on the trappings (vampires, werewolves, etc.)
But it also hit home because I wrote my own paranormal/noir heroine for the first time this year. It's a genre I've been drawn to since I discovered Laurell K Hamilton in my teens, and I was lured in by anthology guidelines (the antho in question is currently being shopped around publishers). Enter Nancy Napoleon - guardian of the harbour in Hobart. Determined not to use vampires or werewolves, and trying to create a paranormal romance version of my water-surrounded city, I turned to other forms of mythology, using kraken, sirens and kelpies as my sources for dark magic.
What I didn't expect was how much this story would throw up my inner literary prejudices about gender roles. My heroines have generally speaking always been fairly femme - definitely on the girly side of feminine. Even down to things like - long hair, or wearing skirts, etc. This is only one aspect of femininity, and yet I kept repeating myself. I never thought of myself as someone who writes women who fit into traditional gender roles, but I hadn't realised how one sided my literary women had been until I started getting to know Nancy.
There were no female archetypes in my head when I was constructing her. Nancy was the private detective character, the noir hero, a damaged and battered former warrior dealing with the fact that she isn't as fast or as good as she used to be. She is Spenser, Marlowe, Spade. She never felt less than female to me, and yet I was constantly having to stop and think, to make sure she was coded as hero and not heroine. She was a professional first, and gender second. A woman, but very ungirly.
A lot of fantasy fiction is influenced by historical and mythological source material, and that means some very old-fashioned attitudes toward gender often get thrown up and recycled. Many writers attempt to subvert these archetypes, but before long the subverted versions themselves become cliched - we've seen a lot of plucky princesses who manage somehow to not get eaten by the dragon, girls who reject traditional roles to don armour, Red Riding Hoods who turn out to be a danger to the wolf, etc. Where do we go from there?
The really cool thing about paranormal romance and urban fantasy is that those traditional archetypes just aren't there - we have far more freedom to present women and gender roles with a contemporary voice. And as Lilith Saintcrow says in her column, this is a genre where women can be very powerful. I like to think that, as paranormal romance becomes more popular (hard to see right now how it could be more popular), the new archetypes from these stories will influence those of more traditional fantasy.
My new trilogy-in-progress, The Creature Court, is at least partly an attempt to mix the two different kinds of fantasy fiction together, with story elements from paranormal romance blending into otherworld fantasy. I am trying for a fantasy world which has an early twentieth century feel - elements of Edwardiana, of the Roaring Twenties, and of Blitz London, mixed in with a whole lot of trappings from Ancient Rome. I'm hoping that this experiment means I don't get caught up too much in the more old fashioned gender roles of fantasy fiction, and get to play with a bit more variety. So far it feels like it's working, but I'll let you know in a year and a half!
Lilith Saintcrow followed up her column with a response to the more narrow-minded comments she received after her column, elaborating particularly on the main difference between the recent wave of cool female characters in paranormal romance/urban fantasy, and the "long tradition of violent women in literature." It's also worth a read.