Thursday, February 12, 2015

Kick-Ass Heroines and Monstrosity

One of the things that I’ve always loved about the use of the term “kick-ass” to describe urban fantasy and paranormal romance heroines is that it indicates approval of heroines’ tendency to move from more traditionally feminine roles into behaviors more usually associated with the male heroes of action movies and literature; these women have power and carry weapons, and they aren’t afraid to use them.

But the shift of heroines’ roles in urban fantasy and paranormal romance from passive recipient of romantic love to active participants in violence and killing also carries a certain amount of anxiety in our culture. L. Jagi Lamplighter notes that “today’s audiences have welcomed this golden age of butt-kicking heroines with great relish,” but also claims that these heroines face a “fundamental conflict between modern culture and drama”:

Culture demanded a heroine who is fierce, powerful, and spunky, who lives in a world without taboos where she can do exactly as she pleases. But the needs of drama, the laws that govern what makes a story romantic, require something else entirely: a superior male who lives in a world where taboos separate the heroine from the object of her desire.

Thus, according to Lamplighter, urban fantasy requires a supernatural male love interest—one who is inherently superior to the heroine simply due to his supernatural nature. This is significant, Lamplighter claims,

Because violence is masculine. The more violent the hero, and the more he is ravaged by desires he cannot control—the desire for blood, the uncontrollable compulsion to turn into a wolf under the full moon—the more excuse for the hero to allow his passions to run away with him, and the greater the heroine’s victory when she ultimately tames him!

But this reading doesn’t account for the fact that most of the heroines of urban fantasy (and often of paranormal romance, too, though I'm focusing primarily on UF here) are every bit as violent as the male love-interests. Indeed, the heroines are often exponentially more violent than the males, a fact that is often of great concern to the heroines. As she develops her skills in necromancy, for example, Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake (arguably the first urban fantasy heroine) frets about her humanity; she says that “Raising the dead makes a lot of people class me with the monsters. There are even days when I agree with them” (Circus of the Damned). She worries that she is becoming a monster, claiming that “It was getting harder to tell the humans from the monsters. I was even beginning to wonder about myself. There are more roads to monsterdom than most people realize” (The Lunatic Cafe). But almost as much as worrying about remaining human, Anita worries about maintaining her place in a masculine world. At one point, as she looks at a female civilian called out to help take down a rogue zombie, she says,

The girl just stared. I could almost smell her fear. She was entitled to it. Why did it bother me so much? Because she and I were the only women here, and we had to be better than the men. Braver, quicker, whatever. It was a rule for playing with the big boys. (The Laughing Corpse).

As the literary progenitor of virtually all urban fantasy heroines, Anita is an important model for what happens when urban fantasy heroines act out the kind of violence that is traditionally considered masculine—and what happens to Anita is that despite acting violently because “if she doesn’t, someone innocent will get hurt” (as Alasdair Stuart notes) is that she herself turns into a monster. By the later novels, Anita is no longer particularly worried about going to church or whether or not she has become a monster or even if she is making the right decision about which monsters to kill. She comes to terms with her own increasingly violent actions as she tracks and kills rogue vampires, evil voodoo priestesses, shapeshifters, and other monsters, even as she increasingly identifies with them. In Cerulean Sins (the eleventh book of the series) for example, she says “One of my favorite things about hanging out with the monsters is the healing. Straight humans seemed to get killed on me a lot. Monsters survived. Let’s hear it for the monsters.” Anita’s experience parallels that of any number of other urban fantasy heroines: Faith Hunter’s Jane Yellowrock, Carrie Vaughn’s Kitty Norville, Ilona Andrews’ Kate Daniels, Rachel Vincent’s Faythe Saunders—all of them must embrace some degree of monstrosity in order to become the kind of kick-ass heroines we love.

In “Invisible Monsters: Vision, Horror, and Contemporary Culture,” Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock argues that “to redefine monstrosity is to simultaneously to rethink humanity” (275). However, urban fantasy novels’ definition of monstrosity as connected to feminine power does not “rethink humanity”; rather, if these books have a message for women, it is that in order to embody feminine power, a woman must become a monster—but in doing so, she learns that to be monstrous is the natural order. Asa Simon Mittman writes that

Monsters do a great deal of cultural work, but they do not do it nicely. They not only challenge and question; they trouble, they worry, they haunt. They break and tear and rend cultures, all the while constructing them and propping them up. (1)

In the case of urban fantasy, though, there is more propping than tearing, and despite any apparent nods to feminism, urban fantasy contains its potentially dangerous female characters within carefully constructed heteronormative narrative bounds by ensuring that femininity and monstrosity are ultimately equated. This tendency to create characters with the (ultimately frustrated) potential to escape traditionally patriarchal cultural norms shows itself nowhere so much as in urban fantasy’s kick-ass heroines—which ultimately raises the question: is it possible for those of us who write urban fantasy to create the kinds of kick-ass heroines we love without simultaneously creating monsters?

So what do you think? Do all kick-ass urban fantasy heroines become the very kind of monster they fight against? What about kick-ass paranormal romance heroines? Are they different from urban fantasy heroines in this respect? How and why, or why not?

My own urban fantasy heroine Elle, from Legally Undead, is working hard to avoid embracing the monsters as she works to eradicate them.

A reluctant vampire hunter, stalking New York City as only a scorned bride can.

Elle Dupree has her life all figured out: first a wedding, then her Ph.D., then swank faculty parties where she’ll serve wine and cheese and introduce people to her husband the lawyer.

But those plans disintegrate when she walks in on a vampire draining the blood from her fiancé Greg. Horrified, she screams and runs--not away from the vampire, but toward it, brandishing a wooden letter opener.

As she slams the improvised stake into the vampire’s heart, a team of black-clad men bursts into the apartment. Turning around to face them, Elle discovers that Greg’s body is gone—and her perfect life falls apart.

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The worst thing about vampires is that they're dead. That whole wanting to suck your blood business runs a close second, but for sheer creepiness, it's the dead bit that gets me every time. They're up and walking around and talking and sucking blood, but they're dead. And then there's the whole terminology problem--how can you kill something that's already dead? It's just wrong.

I was twenty-four the first time I . . . destroyed? dispatched? . . . a vampire. That's when I found out that all the books and movies are wrong. When you stick a wooden stake into their hearts, vampires don't disintegrate into dust. They don't explode. They don't spew blood everywhere. They just look surprised, groan, and collapse into a pile of corpse. But at least they lie still then, like corpses are supposed to.

Since that first kill (I might as well use the word--there really isn’t a better one), I've discovered that only if you're lucky do vampires look surprised before they groan and fall down. If you're unlucky and miss the heart, they look angry. And then they fight.

There are the other usual ways to kill vampires, of course, but these other ways can get a bit complicated. Vampires are notoriously difficult to trick into sunlight. They have an uncanny ability to sense when there's any sunlight within miles of them, and they're awfully good at hiding from it. Holy water doesn't kill them; it just distracts them for a while, and then they get that angry look again. And it takes a pretty big blade to cut off someone's head--even an already dead someone--and carrying a great big knife around New York City, even the Bronx, is a sure way to get arrested. Nope, pointy sticks are the best way to go, all the way around.

My own pointy stick is actually more of a little knife with wood inlay on the blade--the metal makes it slide in easier. I had the knife specially made by an old Italian guy in just about the only ratty part of Westchester, north of the city. I tried to order one off the internet, but it turns out that while it’s easy to find wood-inlay handles, the blades themselves tend to be metal. Fat lot those people know.

But I wasn’t thinking any of this when I pulled the knife out of the body on the ground. I was thinking something more along the lines of “Oh, bloody hell. Not again.”


About the Author

Margo Bond Collins is the author of urban fantasy, contemporary romance, and paranormal mysteries. She has published a number of novels, including Sanguinary, Taming the Country Star, Legally Undead, Waking Up Dead, and Fairy, Texas. She lives in Texas with her husband, their daughter, and several spoiled pets. Although writing fiction is her first love, she also teaches college-level English courses online. She enjoys reading romance and paranormal fiction of any genre and spends most of her free time daydreaming about heroes, monsters, cowboys, and villains, and the strong women who love them—and sometimes fight them. All of her novels feature kick-ass heroines with varying degrees of inherent monstrosity.

Connect with Margo

Twitter:  @MargoBondCollin

Goodreads Author Page:



Works Cited

Hamilton, Laurell K. Circus of the Damned. 1995. New York: Jove, 2002. Kindle.

---. Bloody Bones. 1996. New York: Jove, 2002. Kindle.

---. Guilty Pleasures. 1993. New York: Jove, 2009. Kindle.

---. The Killing Dance. 1997. New York: Ace, 2011. Kindle.

---. The Laughing Corpse. 1994. New York: Jove, 2002. Kindle.

---. The Lunatic Cafe. 1996. New York: Jove, 2008. Kindle.

---. Narcissus in Chains. New York: Berkley, 2001. Kindle.

Lamplighter, L. Jagi. “Dating the Monsters: Why It Takes a Vampire or a Wereguy to Win the Heart of the Modern It Girl.” Ardeur: 14 Writers on the Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter Series. Ed. Laurell K. Hamilton. Dallas: BenBella Books, 2010. 43-56. Print.

Mittman, Asa Simon. Introduction. The Ashgate Companion to Monsters and the Monstrous. Ed. Asa Simon Mittman and Peter J. Dendle. Farnham, Surrey, England: Ashgate, 2012. 1-16. Print.

Stuart, Alasdair. “The Other Side of the Street: Anita Blake and the Horror Renaissance.” Ardeur: 14 Writers on the Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter Series. Ed. Laurell K. Hamilton. Dallas: BenBella Books, 2010. 81-90. Print.

Wolfe, Gary K. Evaporating Genres : Essays on Fantastic Literature. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2011. Print.

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