A Couple of “Oh No” Moments in Urban Fantasy
I like urban fantasy. I like to read urban fantasy novels. Like other forms of fantasy literature (and, uh, all other literary genres, including “mainstream”), urban fantasy novels sometimes have what can only charitably be called “problematic” gender dynamics.
Even when they have strong female characters. Even when they star strong female characters. Even when (as I believe was the case when last I checked, though I have not checked recently) women are the primary audience for urban fantasy novels.
For the uninitiated: urban fantasy is a blanket genre term for fantasy stories that take place in what is otherwise the ‘real’ world: usually a modern, technologically advanced setting. These stories do not necessarily take place in cities, but after a short-lived showdown with the term “contemporary fantasy” (which, while avoiding the trap of implying an urban environment, can also be taken to mean ‘fantasies written at the same time as one another’), “urban fantasy” seems to be the term that has stuck. Charles de Lint writes primarily urban fantasy*; so does Charlaine Harris. J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is arguably urban fantasy, depending upon which angle you use to look at it (though I usually think of it as “dual world” fantasy, since the Harry Potter ‘verse generally drops the mundane muggle world by, like, chapter four of each book).
Anyway, the two urban fantasies I would like to look at tonight are Patricia Briggs’s Mercy Thompson novels and Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files novels.
Jim Butcher and Patricia Briggs are two of the biggest names in urban fantasy right now, and Mercy Thompson and Dresden Files are their most popular titles. I like both series. I do. But they each have something that I am going to call an “oh no” moment. A moment that I found so upsetting that it made/makes it really, really hard for me to keep reading. A moment that bothers me so much that I think about it every time I think of the series, and that, therefore, colors my experience of the series as a whole, even if it doesn’t come up until several books in. In both cases, this “oh no” moment occurs when the series’ problematic gender dynamics become crystallized in a scene which exemplifies that these are terrible universes for women and it’s not just because of the monsters.
So, rather than being a good reviewer and starting at the beginning, I am skipping most of the early stuff to focus this post on one scene from the third book of the Mercy Thompson novels, Iron Kissed, and one scene from the eighth book (yes I said eighth) of the Dresden Files, Proven Guilty. Because it’s my blog and I can do what I want.
SPOILER WARNING FOR THOSE BOOKS.
TRIGGER WARNING for rape, assault, mind control, trauma, sexuality policing and general dickishness.
The Dresden Files is a very fun, very pulpy series about Harry Dresden, a professional wizard-for-hire. Harry solves a bunch of supernatural mysteries with the help of a cast of loveable and quirky characters. There’s a lot to like in the Dresden Files.
Except for the main character, who is also the narrator.
I just cannot get fully behind Harry Dresden. I mean, I like him well enough when he’s talking about his basement apartment, or his pets, or his half-brother, or his car. I just don’t like him very much when he’s talking about women. Or sometimes to women.
You see, Harry’s one of those self-professed ‘sexist’ guys who uses his revelation of his own sexism as an invitation for whomever’s listening–in this case, the reader–to step up and go, “Oh, no, you’re just chivalrous.” Or, “You’re just old-fashioned.” He goes on a lot about how he’s sexist or old-fashioned in that he thinks that men should protect women, and whenever he does, you can kind of hear him waiting for you to give him cookies for being the good, self-aware sexist whose sexism is positive, anyway, thus making him not really a sexist, but instead just a nice, stand-up guy who doesn’t understand how decent he is.
I have hard copies, not e-copies, of these books, so finding all the relevant passages would be something of a slog that I’m not up for right now, but take my word for it that the subject of Dresden’s ‘benevolent’ sexism comes up a lot.
Which is maybe a deliberate move. Benefit of the doubt: maybe Harry Dresden is supposed to be a delusional, sexist jackass, and this is just really good characterization. But even if that’s the case, these books are written in first person, from Harry’s perspective. Which means that, whether we conflate narrator with writer or not, Harry’s feelings about women deeply impact the books’ presentation of women.
Which brings me to a scene in Proven Guilty.
By the end of Proven Guilty, Harry has rescued one of those damsels he likes to protect. Which, in the context of the book, was actually a decent and necessary thing for him to do, so I’m not complaining about the rescuing part, itself. Props to Harry for that. My problem is not with the rescuing. It’s with the aftermath.
The damsel in question in this book is Molly, the 16-year-old daughter of one of Harry’s close friends. Molly has been dabbling in forces beyond her control, which leads to her causing serious harm and getting herself in trouble with the Powers That Be in the magical community. In order to save Molly’s life, Harry takes her on as an apprentice. This basically means that she has to agree to be absolutely obedient to him for her own protection, and the protection of those around her. If she’s not obedient to him, her life is forfeit.
And she is hot for teacher.
To be fair, teacher seems like he might be pretty hot for her, too, though he’s trying not to think about it because she’s jailbait and his friend’s daughter. When she shows up pierced, filled out and “all growed up” (page 59) in Chapter 8, he finds the “barbell-shaped bulges” of the nipple piercings beneath her clothes “intriguing” (60).
In a much later chapter, after the rescue, and in a moment of vulnerability and candlelight, Molly throws herself at Harry, who is intrigued but doesn’t take her up on it. There is, however, a lot of fairly detailed description of her looks, her piercings, her tattoos, and other things about her naked body that tempt Harry. Like how “fragile” and “terrified” and “trusting” and “vulnerable” she is (466). It’s not necessarily bad to find vulnerability erotic, but this kind of stuff does seem to be playing into a male power fantasy of sexual dominance.***
So far, so traditional straight male worshipful groupie wish-fulfillment stuff. And I’m pretty used to straight male wish-fulfillment scenes, because I read books. So, if Harry had just said, “Sorry, no” or, “Sorry, but you’re underage,” or just, “no,” this scene might have been like water off a duck’s back for me. (Well, not quite.) But then comes the way Harry handles rejecting her. Now, Molly has just slipped off her robe, so she is naked, keep in mind:
“Are you sure?” I asked her.
She nodded, her eyes huge, pupils dilated until only a bare ring of blue remained around them.
“Teach me,” she whispered.
I touched her face with the fingers of my right hand. “Kneel down,” I told her. “Close your eyes.”
Trembling, she did, her breathing becoming faster, more excited.
But that stopped once I picked up the pitcher of ice water from the mantel and dumped it over her head.
She let out a squeal and fell over backward. It took her maybe ten seconds to recover from the shock of the cold, and by then she was gasping and shivering, her eyes wide with surprise and confusion–and with some kind of deep, heavy pain. (466-467)
It’s all for her own good, of course.
I am uncomfortable. Are you uncomfortable? For starters, I’m not sure that telling her to kneel and then stimulating her entire body with ice water is going to be the most effective way of discouraging your garden variety eager young submissive. (Temperature play is a thing for a reason.) But putting that aside, I’m not not super fond of this moment because it feels cruel. Molly has been through a lot of trauma by this point in the novel, and she has just come out of a situation where she was in fear for her life. And this “ice water” thing? Is clearly a laugh line. Where I would prefer for there to be no laugh line.
I also kind of think that when the message you want to send is, “No, I will not take physical advantage of you while you are completely in my power and completely dependent on me for my protection” (because Molly is both of those things), you should probably send that message in a non-physical way. Like, with words.
But wait, there’s more!
Harry then takes his young charge back to live with her parents. (As a surprise! He doesn’t tell her where they are going.) Molly is horrified, because she doesn’t want to live with her parents, but Harry orders her to (absolute obedience, remember?), and to “do everything in [her] power to be the most respectful, loving, respectful, considerate, and respectful daughter in the whole wide world. Especially where [her] mom is concerned.”
I can’t help but feel like this crosses some kind of line. Is there any way for someone to follow that order to the letter without a massive abnegation of their personality? Like, even if they were already loving and considerate and respectful, trying to be the most of all of those things in the world would probably require a complete overhaul of attitude and behavior. And Molly’s in the midst of her teenage rebellion phase. While “respect your parents” sounds good on paper, some rebellion can actually be a healthy and important part of growing up. What kinds of outlets is ticking-time-bomb-magic-user-in-training Molly going to have for all that pent-up teenage frustration?
And then things get much worse:
“It gets better. [No it doesn’t.] I take it that you’re sexually active?”
She stood there with her mouth hanging open.
“Come on, Molly, this is important. Do you boink?”
Her face turned pink and she hid her face in her hands. “I … I … well. I’m a virgin.”
I arched an eyebrow at her.
She glanced up at me, blushed more, and added, “Technically.”
“Technically,” I said.
“Um. I’ve … explored. Most of the bases.”
“I see,” I said. “Well, Magellan, no baserunning or boldly going where no man has gone before for you–not until you get yourself grounded. Sex makes things complicated, and for you that could be bad.”
“And no, ah, solo exploration either.”
She blinked at me and asked in a blank tone, “Why?”
“You’ll go blind,” I said, and walked up to her front porch.
“You’re joking,” she said, and then hurried to catch up. “That’s a joke, right? Harry?” (470)
Aaaand that’s about when I wanted to curl up and cry on the floor. Harry Dresden, a grown man, dictates what a 16-year-old girl can and can’t do with her own body, alone, and in private.
I’ve heard arguments that this is just a joke, that Harry is just teasing her, but it’s clear from Molly’s reaction that she’s not sure that it’s a joke. At all.
This scene comes directly from the rather detestable trope of fathers being the guardians of their daughters’ sexuality, and while Harry is not Molly’s dad, I get the impression that she’s been forbidden the privilege of masturbating–on penalty of death, remember–because Harry wants to do his friend a solid. Michael is Harry’s bro, and Michael, Harry presumes, wouldn’t want his daughter to wank, so Molly’s not allowed to wank. I find this deeply creepy.
And really, this seems like a flawed plan. Harry has just basically forbidden submissive, horny teenage Molly from access to any form of sexual relief, and I somehow doubt that functionally introducing chastity play into their relationship is going to take the edge off Molly’s crush.
Harry Dresden is both a moron and an asshat.
And what an asshat! After being given absolute control over a young girl, one of the very first things he does is dictate what she can and cannot do with her own vagina.
There’s just no coming back from that.
Patricia Briggs’s Mercy Thompson books are about Mercedes Thompson, a coyote shifter who works as a car mechanic and hangs out with werewolves, vampires and fae. But mostly werewolves. Mercedes herself is a pretty cool character (though she does not escape the Exceptional Woman trope), and the books are great fun to read. A lot of the books revolve around werewolf pack dynamics, and werewolf pack dynamics are pretty brutal to women. (A woman’s rank is determined by her mate, etc.) This means that a lot of the problematic gender politics of this universe are actually integral to the plot, and Mercy has to do a lot of navigating of deeply-ingrained werewolf sexism just to get by.
So anyway, since most of the men in these books are werewolves or other supernatural entities, it can feel like Mercy’s caught in the middle of a never-ending pissing contest. She even sometimes has to “handle” alpha werewolves when they get too worked up using submissive body language. Which: within the universe, this is necessary, because coyotes are much smaller than werewolves (who are bigger than wolves in their wolf size), and werewolf instincts can make logic short-circuit, but it’s still kind of depressing. The idea is that she’s just going through the motions, and this is one way that Mercy uses her wits to survive, but I don’t know: if you go through the motions (of anything) long enough, you can start to internalize them. And it doesn’t help that a strong woman making herself seem small to placate an out-of-control man when the mood is on him evokes narratives of survival tactics in domestic abuse situations. Which is maybe deliberate. Maybe the werewolves are functioning within some kind of domestic abuse allegory. If so, however, I’d rather strong-female-protagonist Mercy didn’t end up with one.
Mercy’s most consistently recurring romantic interest is alpha pack leader Adam Hauptman. Most of Mercy’s authority within the wolf community stems from the fact that Adam has chosen her as his mate, so in Mercy’s case, sexist werewolf pack dynamics can work in her favor, practically speaking.
And then there’s Adam himself.
Adam the romantic lead. Adam the loving father. Adam, who appreciates Mercy and defies wolf convention by hooking up with a coyote. Adam, who seems genuinely well-meaning. Adam, the guy the books want you to love.
Adam, who builds his big fancy house next to Mercy’s much less fancy house in a deliberate and territorial move and then complains about his view of the car she keeps in her yard for parts. It comes across like charming bickering: he complains, so she takes another tire off the Rabbit. But it’s still manipulative and controlling on Adam’s part. Adam is also the guy who decides that Mercy is his mate long before Mercy agrees to be his mate, which, while conferring some protection on her within his community, is still a possessive, controlling and not OK thing to do.
Mercy resists being Adam’s mate at first, because this would cement her position within werewolf pack dynamics, and while she loves Adam, she doesn’t really want him to be her Alpha, in part because it would give him the telepathic link that alphas have with the members of their pack. This telepathic link would make Adam better able to compel Mercy to be obedient to him.
But Adam’s not very good at taking no for an answer. Even–in Book 3–in the direct aftermath of Mercy’s rape by the book’s villain.
So, in Iron Kissed, Mercy is assaulted by Tim, a guy who mind controls her with fairy magic. Tim’s magical rape drug makes Mercy so susceptible to suggestion that she believes everything her rapist says, including “you want me” (231) and “you’ll like it […] no, be grateful to me” (233) and “you won’t be able to stand it alone, because you know that no one will ever love you after I’m done” (236). Tim also uses this compulsion to try to get Mercy to commit suicide.
Mercy, perhaps due in part to her coyote shifter nature, has some resistance to the drug. It still works on her and makes her believe terrible things, but she is able to fight it to some extent, and she eventually kills her attacker, right before Adam and his crew show up.
Now, one of the reasons Mercy is able to resist the fairy rape drug is that she has had practice resisting Adam’s compulsion. This is seriously part of the book: “I had eaten maybe two bites before I realized something was wrong. Maybe if I hadn’t been fighting this kind of compulsion with Adam, I wouldn’t have noticed anything at all” (226). This means that, in a Venn diagram of “actions of the book’s villain” and “actions of the book’s male lead”, “attempts mind control of the heroine” would be right there in the intersection. So: ew.
To Adam’s credit, he does pass one very low bar when he and his people are looking for Mercy, who is hiding from Adam in drug-induced shame. Here’s how:
“You could call her,” suggested Darryl.
There was a thud and a choking sound. Unable to resist, I looked.
Adam held Darryl against the wall, his forearm across his throat.
“You saw,” he whispered. “You saw what he did to her. And now you suggest I do the same? Bring her to me with magic that she cannot resist?” (240)
Good for you, Adam. It’s good that you recognize that mind controlling victims of mind-control rape is bad. Here’s a biscuit. But then there’s five pages later, when Adam starts putting the whammy on Mercy so that she’ll drink more of the fairy rape drug.
Because, when it isn’t being a fairy rape drug, it’s a fairy healing drug, and Tim crushed Mercy’s wrist and broke her arm, and she needs more than human healing for the fix. So Adam has to compel her to take more of the stuff that’s just been used to compel her, see? It’s for her own good.
Adam, at least, is aware of how bad a thing this is for him to be doing, but he still does it, while worrying that (a) she will hate him later and (b) this compulsion from someone she trusted will “break” her after what she’s just been through. Before compelling her to drink, though, he compels her not to worry; after compelling her to drink, he compels her to sleep. There’s just compulsion all over the place. He apologizes for it later (256) but: yeah. There really didn’t have to be quite so very much compulsion.
Later, Mercy is cringing in fear and submission due to the magically-augmented guilt she feels in the aftermath of her rape. Adam is all hurt by Mercy being afraid of him until one of his subordinates helps Adam understand Mercy’s trauma from her point of view. And then a lot of fairly important things get said about rape and trauma, and Adam manages not to victim-blame his traumatized girlfriend who is in the room with them and listening to their conversation. (She’s not part of the conversation, in part because she’s shifted to coyote form.) So it’s nice that Adam can acknowledge that rape is rape, I guess.
And then this happens:
He dropped down beside the bed as if he were too tired to stand. With the same suddenness, though I thought I was more than adequately hidden, he reached out and grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and pulled me out from under the bed and onto his lap. (264)
Um … that seems like it might be a boundary-crossing thing to do to a rape survivor who is hiding from you.
And then there’s this:
He continued to hold me by the scruff of the neck with one hand, but the other caressed my face. “We’re going to wait for a talk until that stuff has worn off completely.” His caress stopped. “Don’t misunderstand me, Mercedes Thompson. I am mad at you.” (264)
If you’re going to wait to talk because you know she’s not in her right mind, why are you chastising her now? Also, way to victim blame.
He bit my nose once, hard. Wolves do that to discipline their young–or misbehaving members of the pack. Then he tipped his head so it rested on mine and sighed.
“Not your fault,” he told me. “But I’m still mad as … mad as heck that you scared me like that.[“] (264)
So it’s not her fault, but he’s mad at her, and he does blame her (or else why would he be mad?) except that he doesn’t. And now he’s treating her like a child and/or subordinate. Keep in mind that he is saying all this stuff while she still has the magic fairy compulsion drug in her system.
And then Adam–who is totally waiting for that talk until the fairy stuff has worn off–keeps going:
“It’s only fair to warn you that you sealed your fate tonight. When you knew you were in trouble, you came to me. That makes twice, Mercy, and twice is almost as good as a declaration. You are mine now.”
His hands, which had been moving in circles in my fur, stopped and took a good hold. “Ben says you might run. If you do, I will find you and bring you back. Every time you run, Mercy. I won’t force you, but … I won’t leave or let you leave either. If you can fight that cursed fairy drink, you can certainly overcome any advantage being an Alpha gives me if you really want to. No more excuses, Mercy. You are mine, and I am keeping you.” (265)
In other words, “I claim you, and I will not let you leave my presence. I won’t force you [physically], but Alpha mind control stuff is OK. The fact that you were able to fight the fairy drug that directly led to your rape which just happened means that you could fight me if you really wanted to, so I won’t hold back.”
And he is saying all of this to Mercy, who is still drugged and still in shock from her rape–which did I mention just happened? She’s also still in her coyote form, as a direct result of her trauma, so she cannot respond to Adam’s sweeping declarations of ownership.
Adam, I wanted to like you. The books want me to like you. Mercy likes you.
I do not like you, Adam, because you are terrible.
And this moment? Is a romantic turning point for Mercy, because her enhanced vulnerability makes her more able to accept and appreciate Adam’s possessiveness.
Maybe there are so many dickish alpha-male types in the Mercy Thompson series just so Adam will seem like a marginally better romantic option by comparison.
I’m not really interested in arguing that one of these two scenes is better or worse than the other. They’re two different scenes from two different series, and they serve very different purposes in their respective books. For this post, I just wanted to point to a couple of problematic moments in two series that I usually manage to enjoy in spite of their problems.
These scenes stand out to me (and I paired them here) simply because I had such a strong, visceral, negative reaction to them that they make it actively more difficult for me to enjoy visiting the worlds in which they take place.
I like both series, and I will probably finish them eventually. But man, these hurdles are hard to clear.
* And is occasionally credited with inventing it. As is Emma Bull, for her novel War for the Oaks. They didn’t, for my money, but they were certainly prominent during the urban fantasy boom of the ’80s.
** For a hot minute, The Dresden Files was also a SciFi original TV show, starring somebody whose name I forget as Harry Dresden and Broadway actor Terrence Mann as a character who doesn’t even have a body in the books but how could I care about that when Inspector Javert is Bob the Skull! British, bleached-blond Inspector Javert.
*** Which I might be cooler with if (a) this were erotica and (b) Molly were 18 or older.
Briggs, Patricia. Iron Kissed. New York: Ace Books, 2008.
Butcher, Jim. Proven Guilty: A Novel of the Dresden Files. New York: ROC, 2006.