Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Angry Women, leather, and paranormal romance

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.


Satima Flavell said...

You know, Tansy, while I agree with you on most points, it bothers me that subversions of the admittedly clichéd and old-fashioned historical roles are creating the false impression to young women that females a/have to be powerful, even angry and violent, to be worthwhile human beings and b/that women have always been powerful and able to become whatever they wanted to be. And, as you say, these have also become clichés - if I read one more story about a medieval woman who is a warrior I think I'll throw the damned book across the room. Not that there weren't women warriors, but they were very, very rare and almost always pretended to be men.

The fact is that until the mid C20 women were regarded, first and foremost, as appendages to men and definitely inferior to them. Forex, I had to leave my job in the Commonwealth Public Service when I married and I could not get another one - most employers were unwilling to employ married women in case they got pregnant and left. You could be fired for pregnancy, and if you were allowed to stay on you were hidden away - one place where I finally did get a job had a receptionist (receptionists, like air hostesses, were always young and pretty: it was almost part of the job specs) who was expecting,and as soon as her pregnancy started to become obvious she was switched to a job in the mailroom in case her condition offended the customers. Women who graduated as teachers were bonded not to marry for two years, or they had to pay back their training fees. Nurses lived in hostels where they were watched, day and night, treated like crosses between nuns and soldiers. A woman could not get credit in her own right - she had to have a husband or father to stand guarantor for her. And in so many, many other ways, women's inferiority was blazoned forth that we grew up believing it to be fact.

Today we have a breed of quiet heroines who get up at five, feed the kids, take them to childcare, do a day's work, pick up the kids, feed them, help with their homework, do the housework - usually without any help from a partner, even if there is one - and fall into bed exhausted, only to do it all again the next day. They might be angry, but they are probably too tired to be aware of it. The angry, kickarse MC is the alter ego of such women, and some of the real ones feel inferior or badly-done-by because they are unable to live out such a role.

A lot of this kind of writing is every bit as unrealistic and escapist as the old fashioned "Cinderella" type of romance. The two stock types represent the two sides of a coin, and real women are the true metal in between the stamped-on pictures. There's nothing wrong with escapism - we all flourish on an occasional dose of it - but let's not hold either kind of stock female character up as the ideal. We didn't burn our bras for that:-)

TansyRR said...

Hey Satima - I certainly don't think that women or female characters have to be powerful, angry or violent to be interesting or worthwhile. The post (and the column I was commenting on) was about celebrating the fact that women *can* have these roles in fiction - there was a time when only villainesses got to be powerful or to express strength through violence/toughness in fiction. Yes, warrior women have themselves become a bit of a cliche, but very few of them have actually felt like real people.

Paranormal romance also provides the working/career woman as a central protagonist, which is something you rarely see in traditional fantasy, and is one of those 'new gender roles' I was talking about with my own book, where many of the characters have day jobs that have to be balanced with their magical heroics. Personally I think that the further the fantasy genre can get away from medieval or faux-medieval culture, the more interesting and varied the gender roles are going to become, just as women have more opportunities in real life now than they did twenty or fifty or a hundred years ago.

I haven't read the demon-hunting soccer mom branch of paranormal romance, but I know they're out there. I loved that Kylie Chan's books combined the warrior hero with motherhood, and I'd like to see more of that in fantasy.

I certainly don't think there is one 'ideal' kind of female character, and I certainly would never try to promote that concept. Ideally, every book would have as wide and diverse a range of female characters and roles as it does male. Wouldn't that be brilliant?

Satima Flavell said...

I guess there are stock types of both genders, and while it's fine to draw on this pool of stock characters, it's the little touches a good writer brings to each one that make him or her into an individual. Good medieval fantasy can do this, I think, as well as any story with a modern setting. Forex, I absolutely love Joe Abercrombie's trilogy - all his characters, male and female, appear at first to be stock types but Abercrombie gradually subverts the archetypes in clever ways that make them all the more powerful, both as characters and as people. However, his two main females are still classic "noblewoman" and "warrior woman", even though they are far from being straight off the shelf marked "get your medieval characters here".

Guy Gavriel Kay, I think, is pretty good at writing realistic medieval women who, while still representative of their time, nonetheless have intelligence, strength of mind and independence of spirit, just as interesting real people do.

I actually love medieval fantasy and am constantly on the lookout for good examples of it. Sadly, I have to read an awful lot of drivel to find the gems; however, this is probably true of all the sub-genres. There's some utterly terrible urban fantasy and paranormal romance out there. in fact, some paranormal romance is just as sexist as the old detective novels used to be. The woman falls in a quivering heap at the feet of a ruddy vampire, for heaven's sake. I know pnrs don't all have this failing, but it's just as bad when you do see it as the old nurse-in-love-with-dedicated-surgeon type of story - and less excusable when the woman is herself the dedicated surgeon:-)In other words, making a female MC a professional can just be a red herring that lulls us into thinking we're reading about how the ideal modern women behaves, when in fact it's just the old stuff hidden under new-looking clichés.

I am so looking forward to your trilogy and I hope it does really well for you. Marianne's new heroine also sounds super and I can't wait for the first book to come out. Congratulations to all of you for your recent successes and for getting the new site up and running.

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