I had a very hard time thinking about what to write for this post. I really enjoy some urban fantasy like books by Stina Leicht, or Neil Gaiman. However, if there is an urban fantasy book with a scantily clad, tattooed woman brandishing weapons and/or magic on the cover I kind of shudder and walk away really fast. If I do end up reading a book like that, I can almost guarantee you I won’t like it. I can list the reasons why – the plots are all basically the same. The female protagonist is always the same (rough past, jaded by men, tough as nails with tons of quips, gorgeous but doesn’t know it, etc).
That’s not a post, though. That’s a nicely colored rant.
Instead of ranting, I decided to take a lot of time and really think about why these books and characters turn me off so much and I think I’ve figured out why, though it will probably be a rather unpopular viewpoint.
I’ve been through a lot. I’m not even thirty yet, but I’ve already fought cancer (I’m in my second battle with it now), had a child with serious health risks (she’s fine, thankfully), been through eight surgeries, been paralyzed for nearly six months and on the list goes, and that’s just in the past two years. Oddly enough, it’s in the past two years that these kind of urban fantasy characters have started to bother me so much.
The truth is, these urban fantasy books thrilled me before I was diagnosed with cancer and I started this roller coaster ride of health issues that has mentally aged me far more than I ever thought possible. I read them quite frequently when I was working on my undergraduate degree. I enjoyed them for the strong women and their escapist tendencies and yes, I even enjoyed the romance (which is shocking, considering how much I complain about romance now).
However, if there’s one thing fighting cancer, and fighting for the life of your unborn child will teach you is that strength comes in many forms. I feel like these stereotypical urban fantasy women cheapen the real life and realistic struggles of so many people and literary characters. These characters (most often women) are all the same, and I get sick of the endless quips and the hunky men who dangle before them like a reward for some hardcore knife/magic welding. That’s not realistic, and that’s the problem I have with urban fantasy in general. So much of this is not realistic.
I feel like many of these female leads are too in-your-face and look-at-me-and-my-badassness to be really believed and the thing is, strong women surround all of us. Strong women are constantly fighting silent (and some not-so-silent) battles. Life is full of battles for all of us, but I feel like the truly strong women are rather silent forces that fight internal battles as much as external. These characters, these in-your-face women who ooze sex appeal and deadly force aren’t real, nor are they believable.
Strong characters flood literature, and books with them are well worth reading. Characters like Liam in The Fey and the Fallen series by Stina Leicht, are very realistic and hauntingly so, due to how human they are. That’s what makes them such wonderful characters – they are absolutely human. Liam lives through one horrible live in a very chaotic time of Irish history, and he makes mistakes, and succeeds. It’s heart wrenching, really, but he keeps going. That’s what strength is – the ability to keep going when all seems lost.
When I really look at the root of why urban fantasy bothers me so much, it’s because of these “strong” woman. You don’t need a weapon strapped to your leg to be strong. You don’t need cut abs, or some horrible past to be strong. Some people fight silent battles. Urban fantasy is escapist fun, but it lacks substance and realism. It tells people that strong women are gorgeous (but don’t know it), and witty beyond measure while having some incredible ability and that’s just not real. Strong women come in every shape and size and their battles cover the gamut of human trauma and books should (and many do) reflect this.
In the end, I’d rather read about a realistic character any day, than one of these scantily clad, cookie cutters that flood urban fantasy shelves. I wish people wouldn’t call these characters strong. I wish they’d say that they are fun – that’s more accurate. Strong characters are human, realistic and often haunting. These urban fantasy characters don’t reflect true human strength – in fact, I tend to think they insult it.
And that’s why (some) urban fantasy bothers me.
Sarah is one of the strongest people I've interacted with, and you can follow her on the Bookworm Blues blog and on her Twitter @BookwormBlues.
Considering that her post focused on how strength is portrayed in Urban Fantasy, I invite you to read a series of guest posts she had on her blog about Special Needs. I think it'll give an interesting contrast to what is being talked about here.