There seems to be a glut of Urban Fantasy today. People who read the odd fantasy book once seemed to believe that fantasy novels involved dragons and Morris men; today, such people most likely think that fantasy must have a vampire, werewolf, and a sexy woman involved in a love triangle. Gone are the days of vampires and werewolves as the evil dictators who must be destroyed. The average person stands a better chance of being the villain than those one time horror matinee characters. While many of these books seem to invert standard gender roles and supposedly endorse a degree of sexual freedom for women, a closer look reveals a disturbing and confusing message about the nature of “good” women and sex.
Several of the urban fantasy novels are series, and most of the series make use of a vampire/heroine/werewolf love triangle. The woman at the center is usually a tough, young woman, if not a girl, who never, or rarely, does anything wrong, has a low opinion of her own looks, yet is desired by every male in the book, has the biggest boobs (but doesn’t need a bra), and has few, if any, female friends. Usually, older women in the series are either helpless or, more commonly, evil. Very few series portray a true friendship among women who are equals. The female central character is always the best, most able, bravest, and sexiest woman in the series.
While not the inventor of Urban Fantasy that some of her fans claim, Laurell K. Hamilton has had a huge impact on this heroine trend in the UF genre over the past decade, in particular with her Anita Blake series. The early Anita Blake books drew heavily on the work that preceded them, such as the novels of Anne Rice, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, Mercedes Lackey, and Tanya Huff as well as the movie Buffy the Vampire Slayer. No longer creatures hiding in the dark, Hamilton’s vampires are legal in the eyes of the government and function as known entities in society. Various authors after Hamilton have copied this plot point. Furthermore, Hamilton crossed a more adult and harder Buffy with hardboiled detective fiction. The later Blake books no longer follow this format, however; the focus is now primary on sex, so much sex a reader can be forgiven for wondering where Anita finds the time and energy to do anything else. In fact, it seems to be little more than a cheap B&SM version of Sex and the City without the female friendship.
In the beginning of the series, the title character can raise the dead (in zombie form) and is a vampire executioner. It is possible that this second job developed under the influence of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie which predates the Blake novels by a year. In the first book, Anita forms a reluctant truce with the vampire Jean-Claude when she is blackmailed into helping the vampires find a killer. During the course of the case, Jean-Claude marks Anita as his human servant; he does this without her permission or knowledge, supposedly to save her life. This makes him, despite the fact that he is not the strongest vampire in the story, to look cunning for at the end of the novel he is now the vampire master of St. Louis.
With the introduction of Richard the werewolf in the third novel, Anita is given a straight forward romantic lead, a man who is willing to let her be herself. Despite the fact that there is a hint of attraction between Anita and Jean-Claude, she doesn’t act on it until Jean-Claude forces her to by threatening Richard. Told of Anita’s engagement to Richard, Jean-Claude demands a chance to “win” her; threatening a fight with Richard should he not be given the chance, implying that Richard will lose the fight. Win, his word, implies a sense of ownership. From the very start, Jean-Claude’s relationship with Anita had a basis in control. He decides to make her his human servant, her opinion does not matter; she is blackmailed into dating him as she was blackmailed into helping the vampires in the first book. He even, throughout the series, calls her ma petite, despite Anita claiming several times that she hates being called “little lady”. As pointed out by one critic, this makes Anita, despite her claim of strength the stereotypical vampire victim.
Besides the use of the woman as victim of a sexy vampire, there is a deeper issue at work here. As the series progresses, Anita becomes closer to Jean-Claude, in particular, after he reveals that he was sexually abused when he first became a vampire. Eventually, Anita has sex with Jean-Claude after she has seen Richard change into a wolf and win a battle for control of the werewolves (a fight that she kept pushing for). While Anita consents to sex with Jean-Claude in a free manner (the worse you can say is that he took advantage of her) that she did not have for the “dating”, there is a slight sense of wrongness, especially in light of the later books in the series. Increasing in the series, Jean-Claude is presented as the more acceptable suitor. The encounter with Jean-Claude is Anita’s first full sexual encounter in the series. It occurs after Anita has told Richard that she does not want to have sex until they are married, something she tells him after they are getting hot and heavy. Richard respects this choice and respects Anita’s desire to see him change first. The juxtaposition is more than a simple good/bad angel; it is about force and choice. Richard who respected Anita’s choices is second to Jean-Claude who always forced Anita to do what he wants, even to his choice of name for her. When Anita later accuses Richard of being too much of gentleman and that he should have forced the sex issue, she implies that no doesn’t mean no, it means yes, just be more forceful. Tied in with the fact that Anita has problems sleeping with Richard because of the werewolf rite of eating a defeated rival, but has no problem sleeping with a man who feeds off and controls both women and men, Anita’s decision doesn’t seem to make much sense in terms of choice or even free will, and seems to rely more on domination, which would be interesting if she was honest it about at any point in the series. She never is, and it is constantly repeated that Anita is the sole independent woman in the series who, supposedly, doesn’t let a man dominate her.
The love and sex issue becomes further complicated by the introduction of the ardeur in Narcissus in Chains [NiC], the book that follows Anita’s decision to take control of her personal life (made at the end of Obsidian Butterfly). The ardeur makes the romantic triangle a romantic polygram as well as presenting the idea of lack of sexual independence. Anita gains the ardeur from Jean-Claude. The ardeur makes Anita unable to control her sexual desires; she must feed it though sex or blood. Strangely, Jean-Claude who also has the ardeur has it under strict control, and never seems to be in the same throes of it as Anita nor does he seem able to teach her how to control it. At best, the arduer functions as a bad plot point to allow Anita, who was relatively prudish, to have sex with man after man, most of whom are interchangeable, all of whom must be monogamous to her while respecting her need/decision to have sex with whomever. If the genders were reversed, a man making his female harem remain faithful to him, many readers would see it as insulting and/or sexist.
At worse, the ardeur justifies rape. Paradoxically, it makes Anita both the victim and the rapist. If the arduer takes away her ability to say no, Anita is a rape victim every time she has sex. It is difficult to imagine the Anita from the pre-ardeur books having sex with multiple men without the influence of the ardeur or a more human form of the date rape drug. If the ardeur takes away a man’s ability to say no (and makes gay men straight), however, then Anita as the source, is functioning as a rapist as well. This is further confusion by the sex scene in NiC where Anita, in the throes of the ardeur, has sex with Micah in the shower. In the hardcover edition, Anita says no, as in no I don’t want this, before Micah penetrates her. Her reaction after the sex scene with Micah is very similar to that of a rape victim. Yet, at the end of the book, the reader is presented with the idea of a Micah/Anita couple.
No doesn’t mean no; it means maybe in Anita’s Blake world; it means make me.
Hamilton’s fans, and to a degree Hamilton herself, would like to claim the ardeur as a device that endorses the freedom of female sexuality. There is a huge problem with this argument, however. Her desire isn’t her choice. If the arduer is suppose to symbolize sexual freedom and Anita gains it from jean-Claude, then the plot suggests that a woman may only be sexually free if a man either allows her to be or makes her by drugging her. This message is further re-enforced by female characters that were naturally sexually loose or non-conformist, like the Naga, being portrayed and condemned by various characters as bad or immoral women. Such behavior in a woman, Hamilton seems to be saying, is okay if the behavior is a result of a drug or something administered by a man, but not if a woman chooses the lifestyle by her own will.
While the ardeur might have started out as interesting device to explore Anita and society’s (be it of the books or the readers of the books) views about sex, and even to challenge them, it doesn’t serve that function. If Anita is only sexually “loose” because of this, then it isn’t really her. In Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel books, for instance, some central characters have unusual sexual tastes; however, this is a given from the moment the character is introduced. The reader knows where Phedre’s tastes lie. They know Phedre or Imriael’s behavior; it is in character behavior. Furthermore, Carey also explores the effect of abuse in the character of Imriael, whose past makes him wary of his desires. He must come to terms with both his nature and the evil that was done to him. In Hamilton’s work, Anita completely changes character, and the change is not her choice. It is forced on her.
What is also unclear is how much of Anita’s behavior would stay the same should the arduer suddenly leave her. Would she revert to the somewhat prudish state of the very early books or would she still be sexually “free”? The question is moot because Anita doesn’t have a choice. Can you be free without the choice not to be something?
Hamilton doesn’t just use rape in the case of Anita, Micah and Jean-Claude. It seems that a majority of the characters in the series are the victims of rape, attempted rape, or sexual abuse. Further, Hamilton’s use of rape is quick and cheap; it seems that she either doesn’t fully consider the ramifications of such an attack or ignores them, and her loose definition of consent includes men as well as women.
When Anita discovers that Raina, the alpha female of the werewolf pack, had a sexual relationship with Richard, Anita is jealous. What is important, here, isn’t Anita’s jealously it is how Richard describes the “relationship” with Raina. In Blake’s werewolf culture, the alphas control the betas. Richard tells Anita (and thereby the reader) that his “relationship” with Raina occurred because Raina got her pick of the new male werewolves; furthermore, he become an alpha so he could say no. At the very least it is a form of sexual abuse, if not rape. Anita does not ever look at this way over the course of the series.
One further point undermines the claim that the Anita Blake books are about strong women. There aren’t any except for Anita. True, there are some powerful women, but whenever a powerful woman is introduced she is an evil woman. The women are always more evil than the bad men that Anita sometimes redeems though the power of sex. Anita isn’t just the only good woman; she is the most powerful women. Other women make her feel protective because they are weaker. Anita and her magic power can defeat vampires, weres, and witches (who are all women). The one exception to this seems to be the alpha female from the werewolf pack in Blue Moon. Even there, however, Anita is confrontial, and while Anita says she studied with the woman, the reader never sees Anita in the position as student; in fact, the only teacher of Anita the reader ever meets is a man.
Because she is the only woman in a male world, Anita grumbles about the sexist attitudes of the men she is forced to work with. There are two problems with this, however. The first is that, for the most part, the male behavior doesn’t appear to be that sexist, but more of a reponse to Anita’s unprofessional behavior or her throwing her weight around, and that such sexist behavior was absent in the first book. The second is that Anita re-enforces though her own thoughts such sexist behavior. Whenever Anita is confronted with a woman police officer, Kirlin, she wonders if the woman can do the job, something she never wonders about male police officers. When confronted with two exterminators, Anita wonders if the woman can keep her act together. She never wonders about the man, and neither one was acting nervous. Anita describes other women solely in terms of their looks, always dismisses the other women by implying they are not as pretty or their bust size is smaller. Even minor female characters are dismissed by being quickly killed, described as unattractive, or being nameless. If a female character is described in sexual terms, the woman is a slut. In one book, Anita won’t think about saving two women, suggesting that the women are getting what they deserved. Worse, with the addition of the ardeur, behavior that in “evil” women is condemned is allowed and applauded in Anita.
Even Anita’s relationships among so called women friends are filled with competition and Anita’s sense of her superiority. This was true even from the first book when Anita goes to her friend Catherine’s hen night. Even before the reader meets the other women, Anita points out that she doesn’t drink, though the others will. Catherine quickly becomes a victim and the other woman is simply the betrayer. Anita’s friend, Ronnie, eventually is reveled to be jealous of Anita but even in the earlier books, Anita sets the tone of the relationship; she is the only who sets the tone of the work out. There is Sylvie in the werewolf pack, but she is a rape victim who relies on Anita to get revenge for her. There is Cherry who is subservient to Anita. No other woman is truly Anita’s equal.