***This unit study contains references to and readings dealing with rape, which may be triggering.
Urban fantasy with a paranormal romance heritage often features the ‘kick-ass heroine.’ As post-feminist (“feminism is dead and everyone is an equal”) and third-wave feminist (“equal rights and equal treatment for all, regardless of class, race, gender, sex, etc.”) thought become more mainstream, the action heroine in a fantasy world brings up interesting representations of sex and even rape.
A primary issue in these urban fantasy novels is portrayal of sex. Considering favorites within this branch of the genre, it’s hard to name any novels that do not contain guilt-free sex – a claimed sexuality, in other words, that has long been a right of masculinity and the blight of femininity. Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to name novels wherein the heroine has survived either physical or metaphorical rape. What is the message urban fantasy authors wish to convey with the heroine’s sexuality, and what is the role of rape in these stories?
The Activating Event
In the book Action Chicks: New Images of Tough Women in Popular Culture, Dawn Heinecken discusses a woman who has combined femininity and masculinity to become a popular and powerful mainstream icon:
The November 2000 issue of Playboy features a muscular woman dressed in black leather, standing with hands on hips, glaring out at the reader. She is not the typical cover girl. Her aggressive stance, her confident and direct gaze out at the reader, and her muscular body do not conform to the idea of femininity usually promoted by Playboy. The woman is Joanie Laurer, otherwise known as World Wrestling Federation superstar Chyna. (181)
As an activating event, having students watch decade-old clips from a female wrestler among a lot of male wrestlers can help to introduce the idea of the kick-ass woman who began to gain ground in popular culture at the end of the 90s. One interesting clip from December 27, 1999, in which Chyna calls out a male wrestler and then kicks his ass:
This clip shows some of the attitudes and comments that showcase ideas in the Heinecken article. Specifically, the questioning of Chyna’s gender and her sexual objectification. Another clip, beginning at 5:30 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5gFOxcoyxho#t=5m30s), shows another male wrestler making lewd comments while she’s restrained on her knees in the ring:
This dichotomy – questioning her sexuality and simulating an attempted sexual assault – segues well into the introduction of the strong heroine of urban fantasy and the sexuality and rape present in the novels.
Articulating Underlying Assumptions
After reading Heinecken’s article “No Cage Can Hold Her Rage? Gender, Transgression,and the World Wrestling Federation’s Chyna,” students break into small groups to discuss the ideas in the article and how they pertain to the urban fantasy novels on the market today. Example discussion prompts include:
- How do heroines of urban fantasy fare in regards to their sexuality? Do their choices ever have a social impact on their lives?
- Rape, whether actual or symbolic, is a common element of the genesis of an urban fantasy heroine and is also sometimes used as a plot point in a novel. Is rape really necessary? Do you think it gives the reader permission to enjoy the heroine’s denial of feminine social norms or integration of masculine social norms? Do you think another traumatic event – something that does not bring in sexuality – might be as or more effective?
- How is rape portrayed in these books toward male characters? For example, rape has in war been considered an offense not just against the female victims but as a means of insult to the men and genetic “cleansing” of offspring. Do you see similarities in urban fantasy today?
- Consider an urban fantasy that does not include or revolve around a past sexual assault of the heroine or one of her friends or family members. How is her sexuality portrayed? Is that portrayal due to a paranormal nature (e.g. she’s a shape-shifter, vampire, succubus, etc.) or is it separate? Do you think this is an important distinction?
After groups break out and gather responses, group leaders will present conclusions for further in-class discussion.
Students will free-write about the role of sexuality and/or rape in their own writing. How is sex portrayed? Is it used as a weapon? It is used as a tool among a preternatural species? How is it used on humans, women particularly? Do gender norms appear in the writing, and do they parallel contemporary American society’s norms? These questions will hopefully get them to look more deeply at the context of sex in their own writing and compare it to the portrayal of “action chicks” in popular culture.
Two short stories will be discussed. The first, “Untitled 12” by Caitlin Kiernan, appears in The Mammoth Book of Vampire Romance in spite of a complete lack of anything romantic. The story details the results of a woman’s search for a vampire who finds her first and changes her. The change process includes a kiss described as “a sudden etheric rape” and then intercourse. The vampire is described as having an “organ hanging down between her legs. It almost looked like a small penis, almost, a stunted penis sheathed in bone or horn, barbed and ridged and misshapen” (Kiernan 507). The queering of the vampire, as well as reference to rape, will add a new facet to class discussion.
The second story, “Seafoam” by Mark Henry (http://www.apexbookcompany.com/apex-online/2010/04/short-story-seafoam-by-mark-henry/), tells the story of a criminal fetishist who stalks and then breaks into the home of a ‘Neather – an alien race that rose from the sea – in order to assault her but ends up regretting his decision. Though Henry’s style in this story and his zombie series falls more into the noir-fantasy branch of urban fantasy, the story still provides an interesting look at sexuality and assault.
Apply New Perspectives
Students will complete a writing assignment of their choice from the following options:
- In your current urban fantasy work, replace a rape (symbolic or actual) with a different kind of traumatic event. Write an essay that discusses the effects on the plot and characters (500-1000 words).
- In your current urban fantasy work, change the sex/gender of the protagonist (cis-gendered or transgendered). Write an essay that discusses the effects on the plot and characters (500-1000 words).
- Write a short story (~2500 words) in which sex is not a moral concern but is an ethical concern – your character(s) should be confronted by a sexual dilemma and respond to it.
- Write a short story (~2500 words) that queers a common urban fantasy trope.
- Write a short story (~2500 words) or character and plot outline for a novel in which the heroine is ultra-feminine in an ultra-masculine world or vice versa. Tie gender issues into sex.
Because this topic could potentially be triggering for students, I would make it clear in the syllabus that students should be prepared for a hard subject.
Heinecken, Dawn. “No Cage Can Hold Her Rage? Gender, Transgression, and the World Wrestling Federation’s Chyna.” Action Chick: New Images of Tough Women in Popular Culture. Ed. Sherrie A. Inness. USA: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
Henry, Mark. “Seafoam.” Apex Book Company. 6 Apr. 2010. <http://www.apexbookcompany.com/apex-online/2010/04/short-story-seafoam-by-mark-henry/>.
Kiernan, Caitlin R. “Untitled 12.” The Mammoth Book of Vampire Romance. Ed. Trisha Telep. London: Constable & Robinson Ltd, 2008.