Ripping Ozzie Reads

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Angry Women (and vampires)

Posted by Rowena Cory Daniells on December 16, 2008

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. I rarely write 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.

But then we come to my hero. The interesting thing about paranormal romance as a genre of ‘angry, capable women’ is the romantic foils they are offered. Anita Blake has – well, a harem, but the two most significant men in her life are Jean Claude, the suave and seductive vampire who offers her everything (but implicitly threatens to take away her autonomy) and Richard, the cranky werewolf who hates his inner monster so much that he can never truly embrace or accept hers. Both men are very (very VERY) Alpha, and Anita spends much of her time battling their love so that she can stay true to who she is as a person. Later in the books, her multiple relationships with other men allow her to keep these two Greatest Threats at bay.

But paranormal romance/urban fantasy writers deal with the Man Issue in different ways – there is the bad man/monster (homme fatale?) who acts as a seducer, foil, helper or antagonist – Parrish’s Daac, Buffy’s Angel and Spike, Anita’s Jean-Claude and Richard. The heroine’s strength is emphasised by pairing her with a man who is even darker and more powerful than she is – or appears to be, though ultimately for the sake of her character, she has to be able to beat him on several levels when it comes to the crunch. Sadly, as with the serial antagonist who loses cool points every time the hero beats him, the longer a paranormal series continues, and the more often we see the heroine win out in strength over her other half, the less impressive he seems. Which of course is why Buffy and Angel had that use by date… and why the tension went out of the Anita/Jean-Claude relationship about eight books ago.

Then there’s the man who starts out an obvious subordinate rather than equal to the tough, powerful heroine – Anita Blake has a bunch of these on retainer, such as were-leopard Nathaniel, who is feminised in several ways, including insanely long hair, and a deeply passive personality. Buffy had Riley, the soldier boy who tried to be her equal but ultimately couldn’t compete – and couldn’t deal with the fact that she was a stronger and more important warrior than he was. It’s rare to see a relationship like this in paranormal romance that isn’t presented as flawed or a failure or some kind – hard to capture the reader’s imagination if the bloke doesn’t seem worthy of the heroine.

One of my favourite (and rarely seen) dynamics for the romance in paranormal romance is the warrior and the geek – where the romantic lead has skill/expertise in such a wildly different field that he can support the heroine without appearing weak or overly subordinate. The best example of this I can think of is a lesser known paranormal romance TV series, Dark Angel, in which the heroine Max was a genetically engineered super soldier, and her partner in URST was Logan, a cyber journalist confined to a wheelchair.

The trick to my mind is to bring the romance (or let’s face it, the sex) without taking away from your heroine protagonist’s power. That’s harder than it looks. Just about every romance archetype we have in literature hits some kind of feminist trigger. And of course, you can only subvert traditions so far before the subversion itself leads to problems. If your heroine’s romantic lead is too dominant, you risk reclassifying her as damsel or a victim, and if he is too submissive, the story can lose tension, or your heroine can appear predatory or worse, as a figure of male fantasy. (for some reason I’m reminded of the famous image of Emma Peel from the “Touch of Brimstone” episode of the Avengers – this character always looked sexy, confident and powerful in whatever she was wearing, and yet she looks distinctly uncomfortable done up as a bondage queen, and it always annoys me when

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