07-14-18 Cassandra O’Leary

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

I’ll have what she’s having – why we love kick-ass heroines in UF

Lara Croft: tough woman?
Or man with boobs?
In my genre – urban fantasy and paranormal – we’re constantly reminded that we must write ‘strong female characters’. This has come to mean women who are physically and sexually confident. She’s often a warrior, or a law enforcement type, who spends the day beating up the bad guys with snazzy martial arts moves – often sporting high heels, tight leather pants and an exposed midriff – and her nights having wild, abandoned sex with the monster-men of her choice.

But to avoid the ‘man-with-boobs’ trap, the author gives the heroine a shoe obsession, or a constant concern over whether her butt looks big in this. She’s a loner who rarely has any girlfriends, and usually has anger-management issues. And she often has to fight workplace prejudice because of her sex, despite the fact that she’s clearly competent.

Or, she gets underestimated by the bad guys because she’s pretty and female. (This one in particular irks me. Honestly, how dumb are these male characters? Talk about gender stereotyping.)

A real-life Victorian heroine
(not the steampunk kind!)
Elizabeth Garrett Anderson,
the first woman to qualify as a
medical practitioner in England
Before you rail at me for perpetuating clichés – head to your nearest UF bookshelf and tell me it’s not true. The angry, leather-clad, kick-ass chick (or her more recent equivalent, the iron-corseted yet strangely emancipated Victorian steampunk chick – sorry, but anyone who’s forced by societal pressure to wear a corset is not emancipated, despite her best efforts) is still a staple of the genre.

Because readers like it. Make the ‘man with boobs’ call all you want: it’s impossible to argue with popularity. And I think it’s because the ‘kick-ass-chick-in-a-man’s-world’ mirrors our own experience. She has admirable strengths, but she’s still sometimes treated as second-class. She’s expected to do everything a man can do, only better, yet be ‘feminine’ at the same time.

Her world is our world. Only most of us don’t have the option of kicking butts and taking names. We’re still labelled sluts and whores if we enjoy our sexuality. When people underestimate us, we’re not in a position to take advantage of it – we just don’t get the job, or we get passed over for promotion, or stupid laws get made about what we can and can’t do with our own bodies.

Kick-ass Chick might live in a man’s world, but she has power that we don’t. We read about her because we wish we could be her. She inspires us, the same way real-life heroines do, even if her world isn't 'real'.


Sarah Raplee said...

Great post, Erica! I believe you are spot-on in your analysis of the popularity of kick-ass women characters. I like your view on corsets as well. Seems so obvious to me now!

Judith Ashley said...

While I don't generally read Urban Fantasy/Paranormal books, I do relate to your assessment at the end. While women have more overt power and visibility now than 50 years ago, we've still a long way to go. Kick-ass Chick does have the power that many women don't. Looking forward to our 'real' world changing so that no matter who we are or where we live we do get the job, do get the promotion, and do have total say over our own bodies.