Lizard Brain is a shared blog about Science Fiction and Fantasy from Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck.

MLN on UF: Why Jayne Heller Won’t Get Raped

by Daniel Abraham

The countdown is started.  It’s a month until Vicious Grace hits shelves, and I’m getting nervous about it.  I always do this.  You know, covertly start checking the Amazon ranking (even though I know it doesn’t actually provide solid, useful data), checking for early reviews, and generally throwing the bones in hopes that it’s going to do well.

The source of my disquiet

It’s an illness.  It really is.

But something happened at my reading at MileHiCon that I wanted to talk about.

So let’s start here.

I think — as I’ve said elsewhere — that urban fantasy is a genre sitting on top of a great big huge cultural discomfort about women and power.  The typical UF heroine (as I’ve come to understand her) is a kick-ass woman with a variety of possible lovers.  She’s been forced into power which she often doesn’t understand, and can face down any danger while at the same time captivating the romantic attention of the dangerous, edgy men around her.  She’s been forced into power — either through accident of birth or by being transformed without her permission — and is therefore innocent of one of the central feminine cultural sins: ambition.  She is in relationships primarily with men rather than in community with women.  “Bad boys” want her, and they won’t be bad to her. Etc, etc, etc.

The thing that sets almost (and there are exceptions I’ll talk about in a minute here) all the urban fantasy heroines apart from real women as found in the real world is this:  they don’t fear rape.

I understand and sympathize with them.  As a man, I don’t fear rape either.  I understand intellectually that I could be a victim of it, but it just doesn’t seem plausible.  It doesn’t impinge on my consciousness the way that it does for women. And so — while urban fantasy embodies so many of the insecurities about women and power — here, it falls into real fantasy.  They’re immune to traditional masculine power (that’s to say violence) because they have internalized it.  They’ve become it.  Urban Fantasy heroines are — for the most part — weaponized.

As the beneficiary of masculine power, I’m also skeptical of it (which is part of what made the Black Sun’s Daughter books a nifty project for me).  But I’ll go into that another time.

(Daniel pauses, looks at the third rail, sighs.)

So.  With that in mind, let’s talk about Orson Scott Card.

Not my book

Card is many, many things, several of them admirable, many of them odious, but whether you admire him or hate him or pity him, or all three at once, give the man this: he’s not dumb.  One of the pieces of writing advice I’ve gotten (second-hand — I’ve never met the man) from him was this:  If the story’s about something, you can’t say it.  The example cites was that if a story is about guilt, you can’t use the word guilt when you’re writing the story.  it takes the power out of it.  By putting too fine a point on it, you give the game away.

If you look at the reactions to those urban fantasists brave and thoughtful enough to address rape intentionally in their books (and I’m thinking of Patricia Briggs here), even when the readers like the books and care about the character, there’s a strong negative reaction.  Enough that (my thoroughly unscientific survey shows) people step away from the series.

I don’t know Patricia Briggs.  I’ve never met her.  I haven’t talked to her about this.  But she’s a damn good writer, her books were some of the work that convinced me there was something interesting going on in this genre, and I understand why she would go there:  because it’s where all the arrows are pointing.

So at MileHiCon, I did a reading.  I had half an hour, and I did a sampler plate of all my present projects.  A section from the forthcoming Leviathan Wakes, part of a chapter from The Dragon’s Path, and the full introduction from the fourth Black Sun’s Daughter book, Killing Rites.  (It’s going to be about a year before that one comes out.  Vicious Grace is the next one.  It’s coming out shortly.  Did I mention I was a little nervous about that?  Anyway . . .)

In the introduction to Killing Rites, I wanted to play a little change on the Evil Thing on Lover’s Lane trope.  I had my couple out in the middle of nowhere.  I had my supernatural evil in the woods.  But instead of having my Boogum interrupt the wholesome mating ritual of the American adolescent, I had it break up a rape in progress.  Now, I knew what I was doing, so I wasn’t ever worried for the poor girl in the story.  The listeners didn’t have that.

Ty was sitting in the back of the room.  He said that when I first used the word rape, he could see the people in the room tense, and that when the Boogum appeared and it became clear that I wasn’t going to pull an Irreversible on them, there was relived laughter.  Even when, later in the section, people began to think that the Boogum might kill the girl, the tension never rose again to the level it had been at before.

The fact of the matter is that I can’t write about rape.  Not directly.  Not explicitly.  For one thing, I’m a man writing a woman under a suspiciously gender-neutral pseudonym; the questions of subtext and privilege get too squicky too fast.  But for another, it breaks the contract I’ve implicitly made with the readers.  I can talk about betrayal and death, trauma and the aftermath of trauma, sex and fear and violence, but just not all at once.  I write Urban Fantasy, and I feel this is the boundary of my chosen genre.  If I were to write hard-boiled crime or mimetic literature, the rules would be different.  But I believe Urban Fantasy is about gender and power and violence, and that I can imply and suggest and disguise, but — as Card said — I can’t come right out with it.

It breaks the rules, and the rules are there for a reason.

Tagged as: , , , , ,

24 Responses »

  1. I wonder what the author thinks of Carrie Vaughn’s Kitty norville series…

    It’s a pretty typical UF heroine, except that the first book is all about how she gains her own agency via syndicating a radio show against the wishes of her abusive boyfriend.

    Actually, now that I think of it, there’s a pretty shocking incident in the second book which–while not actually rape–is such a gross abuse of the main characters privacy and agency that it could be called such.

  2. Seriously?

    She’s been forced into power which she often doesn’t understand, and can face down any danger while at the same time captivating the romantic attention of the dangerous, edgy men around her.

    And how is this different from male protags in Urban Fantasy or the typical hero story arc in general?

    …is therefore innocent of one of the central feminine cultural sins: ambition.

    I guess Kate Daniels isn’t ambitious?

    She is in relationships primarily with men rather than in community with women.

    Off the top of my head: Kate Daniels, Rachel Morgan. Do you on the flipside then see a problem with male centric stories not having females in them or white centric stories without minorities or…

    …they don’t fear rape.

    Sorry, dude, but I’m a real life woman who doesn’t fear rape on a daily basis either. So I’m a little lost as to your point here.

    And so — while urban fantasy embodies so many of the insecurities about women and power — here, it falls into real fantasy.

    What are these insecurities about women and power? How does a story about say Harry Dresden contrast with a story about Kate Daniels? For that matter, what did Xena, warrior princess or Buffy have to say about women and power? After all, they were the immediate cultural forerunners to the female protags you speak of in Urban Fantasy.

    They’re immune to traditional masculine power (that’s to say violence) because they have internalized it. They’ve become it. Urban Fantasy heroines are — for the most part — weaponized.

    So what. Male protag in Urban Fantasy can also be weaponized. Your argument here makes me question how you view women in real life rather than how they are used in fictional settings.

    Mercy Thompson

    I didn’t object to the rape. I objected to inconsistencies of characterization leading up to the rape. Given prior history, this character wouldn’t have acted or thought this way IMO. It was only there to telegraph to the reader that Mercy was about to be raped.

    I still read the series but I’m getting tired of the overly patriarchal society and the fact that Mercy comes close to being the narrator in her stories instead of the protag. AND, yes, in this series there are too many men and not enough females. Again, due to the overly patriarchal worldbuilding IMO.

    The fact of the matter is that I can’t write about rape.

    Sorry this is a cop-out. It may not be easy or make you or your audience comfortable but it can be done. Try using won’t instead. And, ya know what, that’s perfectly reasonable (to not write about rape) as long as you don’t try to make a public statement justifying it using a poorly structured argument that relies on perceived generalizations without solid research to back your claims.

    • Hey, anon.

      I respect that we disagree. You aren’t the first to have taken issue with my thesis, and I’m still sitting with it. Part of it, turns out, is my sampling error. My to-read list is longer than it was when I started (and perhaps I should add Ilonia Andrews to the list).

      From the sheer number of overt sexual assaults that in UF that have been pointed out to me, it’s clear that there’s a flaw in the argument.

      You’re quite right, I am saying that the weaponization is like the weaponization of men. That’s why I’m skeptical of it. I’m the beneficiary of masculine privilege — including the implicit violence of the gender roles — and it’s not as much fun as it seems like it would be. I don’t know whether you’re read Norah Vincent’s Self-Made Man?

      I have to say that, just as you aren’t convinced by my arguments, I respectfully have some qualms with yours. If fear of sexual assault doesn’t impinge on you at all, I’m surprised. That doesn’t match other reports from both women I know and the more scholarly work I’ve read. Your experience is, of course, undeniable, and I’m glad to take it in consideration.

      You have expressed some disquiet about my feelings toward real women in the real world. Respectfully, that’s not something I’m go going to address here. It’s a personal boundary of mine that I’m not going to pull the private lives of my friends and family onto the blog. I hope you understand.

      As to it being a cop out, I’ll agree certainly that it could be more fully expressed as “I can’t write about rape without violating what I see as the contract I’ve made with the reader in these books.”


      I’m putting a little line rule there, because I wanted to raise a little bit of a meta-issue. Several people have disagreed with me about this thesis (though on some other actual forums. I hope I’ve been polite and receptive to them. This anonymous post was the first to feel rude.

      Just to clarify my position as moderator, I have no intention of cutting out dissenting opinion. But I would like to maintain a comfortable and polite tone here in my my living room.

      • I apologize for being rude but frankly I found the original post insulting.

        You are a writer whose tool kit is language. You persuade with words, phrases and imagery. Since you write in the genre and therefore have some claim to expertise on the subject matter, my expectations of your ability to put forth something more complete is much, much higher, especially since this post is also a PROMOTIONAL tool for your novel.

        I am a reader of Urban Fantasy. This post as it stands (without even looking at a sampling of your writing) completely turns me off. You may have a very valid argument and a topic worth exploring.(Yes, I can definitely see value in the discussion and would be happy to have a heated, respectful conversation about it but not as your thesis has been laid out.)

        For the record, I do agree that violence against women is a scary and relevant topic. But rape is about power and everyone of us could be the victim of it. Congrats to you by being one of those with male privilege who doesn’t fear it. Nevertheless you could be a victim of it. Although admittedly the stats are against that occurence.

        What’s more interesting to me is how the victim is typically victimized again by society after the actual crime has taken place. This seems especially true of domestic violence.(something that happens to 1 in 4 women in this country much higher stats than rape by a stranger and by your post I guess this is something we see even less of in Urban Fantasy.)

        Perhaps the question isn’t why don’t urban fantasy heroine’s fear rape but why aren’t there more urban fantasy rapists in the villain village? How do rapists in real life pick their victims? Why do they choose one person and reject a different person? How does this vary in other crime scenarios? Are we also including date rape, sexual abuse by family members or only relevant/complete stranger rape?

        For real life women, what are the common factors found among women who fear rape on a daily basis? What are their backgrounds, their cultures, their physicality? Does it make any difference? How about the men within their communities? What about women who don’t fear rape in the same fashion? Now how do these real life examples compare to urban fantasy female protags? How do real life sexual predators hunt? Are there commonalities within the serial rapists community? Again are we only concerned with serial rapists or do we also look to the date rapists? Is there any difference between the two? Is there a difference between someone like the BTK killer and person who uses GHB as a weapon? And which type of villain is most likely to show up in an Urban Fantasy story to begin with?

        My point: Use your toolbox. You’ve published a number of books so I know you know how to write and write well. Go ahead put your thesis out there. Prompt a thought provoking conversation. It has the potential to be a great one.

        But make the argument your own. Don’t invoke someone like Orson Card Scott as a short-cut or a justification. I know how I received your words was colored when you invoked him in this post. This is perhaps unfair on my side. However, you knew how some perceived him and his views and went to great lengths to qualify your use of him. For me that short-cut racketed up this post as a purposeful button pushing exercise rather than a promotional tool or one to be used as a thought provoking conversation.

      • I do have a few non-confrontational questions in order to take a step back and because it occurred to me to be curious about something. And I do understand that you may choose not to answer them but I’d really like to know:

        How does/do the female protag(s) in your Urban Fantasy book(s)compare to those you describe in this post? Do they fear rape? Have they been forced into power? Do they have ambition? Do they have a circle of females surrounding them, are they surrounded by men or a combination? Are any of their potential lovers potential domestic abusers? Is that because this female(s) is/are better able to choose among her male choices or is it because there were no domestic abusers created among her choices to begin with?

        Are the villains and their minions primarily male or female? How many rapists are within their ranks?

        Now why did you fashion your world this way?

        Did you create your world as a purposeful commentary on cultural discomfort about women and power or is it something that has unconsciously developed as the narrative evolved? Or do you feel that your narrative has nothing to do with commentary on women and power but is about something else? If so, what is that something else?

        Do reviewers agree with your assessment or see the underlying theme you are trying to convey?

        • I’m new to what is obviously an old discussion, but wanted to chime in with my $0.02. I’ll speak from all my identities, the pertinent ones of which are (in order of how much they impact this conversation): voracious reader, part-time writer, clinical social worker, intermediately-skilled martial artist and self-defense instructor.

          First, whether or not I like it, DA is onto something with his thesis. Most women – whether or not we consciously have awareness of it – fear sexual violence. Part of it is culturual (we are culturally and socially conditioned to fear sexual violence, and in this urban fantasy is the least of the offenders. Turn on the TV just about any night after 7pm, and I’ll guarentee you’ll find a story on some channel whose plot in some way revolves around sexual violence against a woman). Part of it is biological – women are simply not a strong as men. (Now, donning my self-instructor hat, I’ll say that this does NOT mean that a woman can’t take a man in a fight. Women have other biological gifts that actually make this easier, when we train ourselves out of our social conditioning: things like greater physical endurance, stronger lower body muscles proportionately (our legs are stronger than mens’ legs…so if we are trained to kick well, or even better, use our knees in a fight, we’re hard to beat), and a much higher pain threshhold (which allows us to – again, with training that counters our social conditioning – take more hits than a man does and keep on ticking.)) The rest of it is actually the point I was just talking to – training. Most men train for physical violence in a way that women don’t – through adolescent rough housing (this is the social conditioning argument, but with a little pavolv thrown in). But I would seriously question a woman who is raised in our culture who says she doesn’t fear sexual violence on any level. Fear is a good thing – it is every person’s (regardless of gender) single greatest weapon in any violent situation. Fear tells us when something is dangerous. Fear helps us out hormonally too (we don’t get adrenaline rushes without fear). Fear is a GOOD thing, and someone who doesn’t fear something crowed about in our culture in books, media, stories, etc., has some pathological denial going on.

          That’s not to say that I necessarily like the argument. I really really don’t. But that doesn’t make it untrue.

        • Don’t you just hate it when people start their post with an insincere apology, as though it is a free pass to continue their rant?

  3. I was really interested by what you wrote in this post, and wrote a long meander about this post in my blog, if you’re interested.

  4. One more thing – I think that this theme shows up in stories so much because stories is where we as a collective – societies in general, and each sub group in particular – work our shit out. It’s not a bad thing that things – that anything – shows up in stories, and whether or not people read them is a good gauge of how much the story is speaking to them.

  5. so….. way later, i come to a convo that may be over.

    i’d like to restart it, in a sense. i just found your books [this week!] and read them greedily, and one thing i noted – like many, if not all, female UF heroines, Jayné is handed power she neither sought nor particularly wanted, dumped into a position to save the world, or at least some small portion thereof, and then surrounded herself with men. the women she meets – Kim, Karen, etc – help for this or that, but don’t stick.

    the anon up there mentions Rachel Morgan. i think that’s a red herring – aside from Ivy and her mother, Rachel has mostly male support, however changing it may be outside the main trio of Rachel, Ivy and Jinx. and her entire problem with Ivy is close to fear of rape…
    so is Kate Daniels. she has exactly ONE female friend – and when we meet her, she has one friend, period, who’s MALE – and her only “goal” is survival, because she’s her father’s daughter. don’t get me wrong, i love the Kate series, but it isn’t actually a huge break away from the norm.

    UF is what we read because we [at least, the women i know, and myself] so BADLY want more control of our lives, more personal power, and to KNOW that we won’t ever get raped [again, for most of us.] or if we *are* raped, we won’t be re-victimized if we go to the police.

    gods know, i’ve come to believe i don’t have PTSD from the abuse and rape i suffered, but rather from the way everyone – the neighbor’s, my teachers, the school principle, EVERYONE – told me that it was my fault, for being 12 and “looking like that.” these people all knew what was happening, and not ONE attempting to help me any way, and all told me, in way or another, that it was *my fault* and i deserved it. i was “sinful”. i was “an adultress”.

    some months ago, a different 12-year-old was gang raped by a group of at least a dozen guys, ranging in age from 14-28. the first article the NYT put out about it was nothing BUT victim blaming – the girl dressed “older” than her age, wore makeup, hung out with some of the guys, etc. “where was her mother?” the enraged parent of one of the rapists asked?

    no one – NO ONE – asked THAT mother where SHE had been, while her bouncing baby son was raping another woman’s daughter.

    because there’s this… thing. where we all seem to believe that sex is something that guys *require*, and it’s the job of girls and women to make sure that guys don’t rape them, because gods forbid GUYS learn to control themselves. and if i were a guy, i’d spend my entire life fighting that one perception, because how freaking insulting is THAT?! to be told by the entire world that i’m male, and so can’t control myself in the face of X sexual temptation?! [and all the guys, the men, who DO control themselves, who AREN’T rapists and wouldn’t rape even if they could… what about them? are they “less manly” because they wouldn’t rape? that’s often the implication. as much as being female in this society sucks, i think being a guy would actually be WORSE, in many ways.]

    so *OF COURSE* it’s the victim’s fault, and everything we see will tell us – she [usually, but NOT always a she, she is used for convience only. from what i can tell, rape is actually *worse* for guys, because it’s “feminizing”, and our messed up “gender norms”, and that’s an entire Master’s Thesis i already wrote once] she wore this, she went there, she did that – she was at fault. know what’s missing from all those reports?
    the rapist.
    the ONLY way to not be raped is to never be alone [or vulnerable, rather, since some rapists? don’t care if there’s an audience…] with a rapist. and since there is NO way to know someone’s a rapist, aside from the rare instances when it’s a person who has been convicted of rape, victims? are going to happen. there’s no way at all to look at a person and see a rapist. there may – MAY – be signs, but there aren’t always, and even those that show up don’t mean “rapist”, they just mean “person who doesn’t believe most rapes are actually rape.” i’d never, ever be alone with a person who made rape jokes, or who actually thought most rape reports were false reports because the victim “changed her mind” or “regretted it” or “wanted to get even” – but that doesn’t mean i’ve managed to make myself safe. according to some recent studies, as many as 1-in-12 men, and 1-in-18 women, WOULD rape if they got a chance. 1-in-4 women have been sexually assulted; 1-in-6 have been raped or had someone attempt to rape them. [the discrepency is because sexual assult includes things like strangers groping you and bosses attempting to convince you that sleeping with them is “good”, as opposed to attempted/completed rape. sexual assult includes rape, but not vice versa]
    there are three types of people, when it comes to rape. those who don’t actually believe in it, those who believe but are so terrified that they make up all these things that victims could do to NOT be raped, and those who know it’s NOT the victim’s fault. sadly, most people are in the second category [but thankfully, the first category is shrinking. at least, i HOPE it is.]
    UF gives us a 4th category, that may exist in reality, but is so rare that i’ve never met it – people who don’t have to fear it. it may happen – hell, BUFFY was almost raped! – but either they’re like Buffy, strong enough to stop it, or they’re like Mercy, strong enough – and with good support – that they can, slowly, deal. and we DESPERATELY need more Mercy’s. that novel, and the ones following, where she dealt with it [and her mother’s pink gun] helped me as much as a year of therapy and EMDR.

    i read sci-fi when i want to think about changing the future. i read UF when i’m thinking about how i’d like to change the past. i fought back, everytime, but i couldn’t win – i was a kid. but what if i were a Jayné or an Anita or a Rachel or …

    what if i DID have the power to protect myself?

    ironically, all the years i spent making sure i’d be strong and able to fight back have been wasted – i’m now very disabled, i can’t stand for more than a few minutes, can’t sit much longer, can’t *walk*. can’t fight. and the weirdest thing is, that freaking wheelchair? is the best defense i’ve ever had. feels like it, anyway.

    but it was never just the physically defending myself from another rapist. it was all of it, the REASON i was likely to have to fight off another rapist – being the only woman in a poly-sci class and having the entire room dismiss my thoughts on Chechnya, despite the hard work, research, and care i put into it, because i “was a girl, what do girls know about war?”. the assumption that i got straight-As because i was sleeping with teachers. the way i was passed over promotion time and again, because i don’t wear makeup, and was told i “didn’t dress professionally” – when i wore the same clothing my male co-workers wore. being told that *of course* i was going to need maternal leave [and being the object of either pity or disgust when i pointed out that i’m not able to have children.] and the unthinking assumption that *of course* i wanted children. i was a woman, wasn’t i?

    is this everywhere, all the time? of course not. but it happens enough, in enough ways, that it FEELS ubiquitious. random people in the grocery store asking me where my kids are. a husband who apparantly didn’t BELIEVE that i couldn’t have kids, who divorced me, but only after a [male] doctor told him it was true. having to filter ideas thru a guy when i’m playing D&D with a certain group. not telling people i’m female when playing WoW, because otherwise… *shudder*

    an incident happens, and i go pick up an Urban Fantasy book, because as cool as the premises and worlds and monsters and good guys are, the REAL fantasy is that this WOMAN has all this power and gets to use it and no one – NO ONE – thinks she’s a harpy, or unwomanly, or a bitch, when she uses it. she’s not “being unfeminine” when she shows she’s smart. she’s not “trying to be a man” [except in the books written by Laurell K, anyway]. she’s just the one with the power and knowledge whose capable of dealing with the problem.

    and i don’t know about the anon up there, but that’s why i read UF. why i try to write it. well, that and the wheelchair.

    your books have hooked me – Jayné is actually pretty awesome, in that she was shoved in over her head and she’s allowed to not only have doubts, but SHOW them. to guys. to guys she isn’t sleeping with [CJ!!! we need more of HIS story next, now that we know more about Ex and Aubrey is apparantly gone…]

    but the cliff-hangers! at this point, i’m just PRAYING that you’ll follow the established pattern and there’ll be another this coming November. or even earlier!

    • Anyone who blames a 12 year old (or a woman of any age) for being raped is a vile human being. That’s all I can think after reading that post. If a guy ever does that in my presence I am going to beat them senseless then tell them that it’s their own fault for dressing in a way that makes me angry.

      Well, probably not. But I’ll want to.

      • thanks. i have – obviously – found decent people since that time.

        our culture blames women for being raped. that’s what all those “what not to do” lists for “avoiding” rape are about. if she wore that or did this or went there or drank or talked to/smiled at/flirted with/didn’t shut down the person who raped her…
        [the narrative around boys/men who are raped is different, but just as victim-blaming]

        mostly, found the books, then the website, then this essay/blog post, and felt compelled to write what i did, because despite the anon up there, the essay was so *very* close to the mark. even reading Mercy’s rape by Patricia Briggs was good, it helped me understand what i went thru a bit more, it’s helped lots of people [and helped my boyfriend understand better, as well]. but those i know who read UF, including me, read it in LARGE part because we really want to be like those women. able to kick ass, take names, and either not get raped, be strong enough to stop it, or be cool enough to deal.

        if that makes sense.


  1. Aliette de Bodard » Blog Archive » Daniel Abraham on Urban fantasy
  2. Fantasy Blogosphere: October 31, 2010 | Fantasy Book News
  3. Daily Digest for October 31st | Lunar Meadows
  4. A word of advice to urban fantasy heroines: cowgirl up | Geek Feminism Blog