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MLN on UF: Why Jayne Heller Won’t Get Raped
UK Ninja Mix

Originally published at Lizard Brain. You can comment here or there.

The countdown is started.  It’s a month until Vicious Grace hits shelves, and I’m getting nervous about it.  I always do this.  You know, covertly start checking the Amazon ranking (even though I know it doesn’t actually provide solid, useful data), checking for early reviews, and generally throwing the bones in hopes that it’s going to do well.

The source of my disquiet

It’s an illness.  It really is.

But something happened at my reading at MileHiCon that I wanted to talk about.

So let’s start here.

I think — as I’ve said elsewhere — that urban fantasy is a genre sitting on top of a great big huge cultural discomfort about women and power.  The typical UF heroine (as I’ve come to understand her) is a kick-ass woman with a variety of possible lovers.  She’s been forced into power which she often doesn’t understand, and can face down any danger while at the same time captivating the romantic attention of the dangerous, edgy men around her.  She’s been forced into power — either through accident of birth or by being transformed without her permission — and is therefore innocent of one of the central feminine cultural sins: ambition.  She is in relationships primarily with men rather than in community with women.  “Bad boys” want her, and they won’t be bad to her. Etc, etc, etc.

The thing that sets almost (and there are exceptions I’ll talk about in a minute here) all the urban fantasy heroines apart from real women as found in the real world is this:  they don’t fear rape.

I understand and sympathize with them.  As a man, I don’t fear rape either.  I understand intellectually that I could be a victim of it, but it just doesn’t seem plausible.  It doesn’t impinge on my consciousness the way that it does for women. And so — while urban fantasy embodies so many of the insecurities about women and power — here, it falls into real fantasy.  They’re immune to traditional masculine power (that’s to say violence) because they have internalized it.  They’ve become it.  Urban Fantasy heroines are — for the most part — weaponized.

As the beneficiary of masculine power, I’m also skeptical of it (which is part of what made the Black Sun’s Daughter books a nifty project for me).  But I’ll go into that another time.

(Daniel pauses, looks at the third rail, sighs.)

So.  With that in mind, let’s talk about Orson Scott Card.

Not my book

Card is many, many things, several of them admirable, many of them odious, but whether you admire him or hate him or pity him, or all three at once, give the man this: he’s not dumb.  One of the pieces of writing advice I’ve gotten (second-hand — I’ve never met the man) from him was this:  If the story’s about something, you can’t say it.  The example cites was that if a story is about guilt, you can’t use the word guilt when you’re writing the story.  it takes the power out of it.  By putting too fine a point on it, you give the game away.

If you look at the reactions to those urban fantasists brave and thoughtful enough to address rape intentionally in their books (and I’m thinking of Patricia Briggs here), even when the readers like the books and care about the character, there’s a strong negative reaction.  Enough that (my thoroughly unscientific survey shows) people step away from the series.

I don’t know Patricia Briggs.  I’ve never met her.  I haven’t talked to her about this.  But she’s a damn good writer, her books were some of the work that convinced me there was something interesting going on in this genre, and I understand why she would go there:  because it’s where all the arrows are pointing.

So at MileHiCon, I did a reading.  I had half an hour, and I did a sampler plate of all my present projects.  A section from the forthcoming Leviathan Wakes, part of a chapter from The Dragon’s Path, and the full introduction from the fourth Black Sun’s Daughter book, Killing Rites.  (It’s going to be about a year before that one comes out.  Vicious Grace is the next one.  It’s coming out shortly.  Did I mention I was a little nervous about that?  Anyway . . .)

In the introduction to Killing Rites, I wanted to play a little change on the Evil Thing on Lover’s Lane trope.  I had my couple out in the middle of nowhere.  I had my supernatural evil in the woods.  But instead of having my Boogum interrupt the wholesome mating ritual of the American adolescent, I had it break up a rape in progress.  Now, I knew what I was doing, so I wasn’t ever worried for the poor girl in the story.  The listeners didn’t have that.

Ty was sitting in the back of the room.  He said that when I first used the word rape, he could see the people in the room tense, and that when the Boogum appeared and it became clear that I wasn’t going to pull an Irreversible on them, there was relived laughter.  Even when, later in the section, people began to think that the Boogum might kill the girl, the tension never rose again to the level it had been at before.

The fact of the matter is that I can’t write about rape.  Not directly.  Not explicitly.  For one thing, I’m a man writing a woman under a suspiciously gender-neutral pseudonym; the questions of subtext and privilege get too squicky too fast.  But for another, it breaks the contract I’ve implicitly made with the readers.  I can talk about betrayal and death, trauma and the aftermath of trauma, sex and fear and violence, but just not all at once.  I write Urban Fantasy, and I feel this is the boundary of my chosen genre.  If I were to write hard-boiled crime or mimetic literature, the rules would be different.  But I believe Urban Fantasy is about gender and power and violence, and that I can imply and suggest and disguise, but — as Card said — I can’t come right out with it.

It breaks the rules, and the rules are there for a reason.

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This is a brilliant blog post.

What pseudonym are you writing urban fantasy under? I want to look your books up, now. =)

I'm MLN Hanover, among other people. I'm also half of James S. A. Corey. The bibliography is here.

Rape has a surprisingly high public emotional importance compared to murder.

There are fun weekends about solving murders, but not about identifying rapists.

With murder, the victim's not around to be blamed and shamed.

Or, for that matter, as someone to be empathized with.

I don't know whether people close to the victim are apt to be part of the scenario at murder mystery weekends.

Mind if I turn that last paragraph into a Readercon panel? With full credit to you, of course (and I hope you'll come to Readercon and maybe be on that panel).

Make that into a Readercon panel, and I'll totally come. ;)

Interesting and thought-provoking post, Daniel. I'm left wondering, though. I mean, 'traditional' fantasy heroines tend to fit many of the same tropes you mention for urban fantasy heroines: in particular, having power forced upon them, and being primarily defined by relationships with men. Yet 'traditional' fantasy does feature rape, and is absolutely laced with the threat or hint of rape. This is true whether you're speaking of grrm or Goodkind. Even Red Sonja and Jirel of Joiry, for that matter. Where do you think the difference comes from? Is it that 'traditional' fantasy heroines are less 'weaponised'? Is it because they operate in frameworks that are still dominated by masculine power?

Or Robin Hobb. Or, jaysus, Stephen R. Donaldson.

All of this is just my opinion, so take it with a salt lick, but I'd say it's that second world fantasies like that are a different literary project and centering on a different set of emotional needs. And so it has a different implied contract with the reader. To go back to the Orson Scott Card thing I talked about in the main post, you can say "guilt" all you want if the story's about redemption.

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And yet a number of them are Survivors of sexual violence. Sookie Stackhouse being a notable example; Jilly Coppercorn is anther.

Yup. And Kitty Norville is assaulted in her first book. It's very hard, given the playing field, *not* to go there.

I haven't read any of the Sookie Stackhouse books, so I can't speak to that, but Kitty Norville was central to my take on urban fantasy. I think it's important that Kitty was raped in the first book, and has since then gone on to become powerful in her own right later. I don't think Carrie could have gone on victimizing Kitty in later books -- at least not in that fashion.

The difference may be in the distinction between the survivor of v. the victim of sexual violence. I can see how having a character who has been there and knows adds an authenticity, even if she's become Buffy Summers since. And the subtext is so close to the surface, I absolutely see why it begs for acknowledgment.

For Sookie, it's a childhood trauma, but she's also raped by her boyfriend in the third book. But I think there's a different dynamic there, too, for three reasons.

A) Sookie isn't a typical UH heroine in that her ability (telepathy) is passive, and doesn't become so much the ass-kicker as, say, Anita Blake.

B) It's a vamp-intensive story which means it works out that dynamic on a different plane, and the intricacies of sexual violence have a slightly different subtext.

C) Charlaine Harris is a survivor as well, and in a lot of ways Sookie's story is shaped by her being a survivor. We have a tendency to end up with Bad Men even after an assault because the desire to not be victimized again means there is sometimes a tendency to go looking for a Rottweiler.

Then there's Jilly. But I think Charles de Lint is in a category of his own. Even though he's given credit for being one of the founders of urban fantasy I think the genre has grown so far from where he is that the parentage is obscure.

Threat-of-rape always seems like an easy way to get an audience's hackles up. The question for me as a female reader is *why* does it get my hackles up? I nearly turned off Girl with the Dragon Tattoo during the second rape scene. Only the observation that she'd positioned her bag *just so* kept me watching. I had literally stood up to turn it off (and I've heard the book is worse - I won't be reading it).

The thing with rape - as opposed to other types of violence - is that women don't really have a "fighting" chance. There is nothing we can do, physically, to a man that has the same cultural weight attached to it. Even actually kidnapping, torturing, and raping a man (see Rupert Thomson's The Book of Revelation) carries a different set of cultural/historical meanings. There are still women who would rather die than be raped. If, growing up, you hear that rape is the "worst thing" that could possibly happen to you, you start to believe it. As such, it's not something you're particularly interested in seeing in your power fiction. Ever.

And, of course, because rape is the "worst" thing, it's been done to death. To me, it starts to feel lazy. Especially in other-world fantasy fiction where you're creating cultures with entirely different taboos and sexual mores. Rape, in those instances, is just knee-jerk "bad thing needs to happen to a woman" writing.

I'm turned off by heroines who've been raped or are raped on screen/page. I know this is bad. Am I upset at the author for writing it, or have I lost respect for the heroine? If the latter, that's really, really, really creepy. But that's how internalized misogyny works. I've caught myself at it a lot. It freaks me the hell out.

What I find interesting about a lot of Urban Fantasy (and even going back to the Red Sonja days) is that what being a "strong heroine" means is that you can be attracted to the bad boy without "really" getting hurt. It's the safe place where you can dance with fire without being beaten up, abused, or humiliated... at least not any more than you can do right on back to him.

Urban Fantasy is about the illusion of equality.

Like you said, tho, that illusion of equality is based on women taking up physical power. Fighting fire with fire. That's great for defense in a world out to get you. But all of us becoming monsters is a scary version of equality.

And, of course, I say this as a writer with a book coming out about scary women who've taken physical power to abusive extremes, and the kind of brutal world that would result. It's not a great world. But the women there aren't afraid of men. And it's worth noting that they don't have a word for rape.

And it is, of course: pure fantasy.

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