Friday, March 2, 2012

The Importance of Critiquing Urban Fantasy

Urban fantasy is something that we both clearly enjoy.  It’s a break from the everyday with it’s fantastic flights of fantasy, and slightly warped version of our world.  What has always attracted me to fantasy is that it contains so much hope. Each time an author sits to tell a story, they have a chance to erase the problems of our current society and start anew. Unfortunately, in many cases, urban fantasy does not live up to its potential, because though authors are starting with what is essentially a blank slate, they have grown in a culture that promotes isms at every turn, which inevitably means that their fantasy worlds are as flawed as the world we live in today.

Because urban fantasy falls into the category of speculative fiction, and largely written by women, there is a tendency not to take it seriously.  This is a mistake on the part of consumers of this genre and reviewers quite frankly. The popularity of fantasy flares and wanes over the years. We are currently in an upswing, with movies like the Twilight saga pulling in large box office dollars -- if not critical acclaim -- and shows like True Blood, The Vampire Diaries, The Secret Circle and Teen Wolf etc., airing in prime time. Fangs and angst mean big box office dollars, large conference attendance, and constant social discussions.  Whether or not you like urban fantasy, there can be no doubt that it has had a huge impact in the last six years. 

It is because of this impact that we cannot ignore the messages that it brings.  Like many, I am tempted to ignore the work of Stephanie Meyer, who needs to send her thesaurus on paid holiday, because of the obvious abuse in her writing, but to do so would be a mistake.  Years from now it will not be the dry tome that is written by an academic that will be studied as representative of our time, but the work of popular authors like Stephanie Meyer. If you doubt that, think about the fact that Lady Chatterley's Lover was highly dismissed when it was first published, and today it is considered a classic that is studied in literature classes across North America.

What do you think shapes culture more? A verbose, dense literary fiction artistic epic read by English literature professors in universities, who in turn congratulate each other on how wonderfully dense and nigh incomprehensible it is? Or Twilight? Or True Blood? A series that has been read by thousands, if not millions, turned into a TV series or a film, and watched by yet more people? Personally, I think it’s the latter that will have the greatest effect on our culture.

Urban fantasy is the mythology of our time and this means that the treatment of historically marginalised people, who are being erased or placed into subordinate roles signifies an ongoing oppression rather that a fantastical world.  What will it say to future generations of readers that GLBT people are either erased, turned into side kicks, or die routinely?  What kind racial equality is being promoted in fantasy worlds, where protagonists of color are almost solely written by writers of color, or are otherwise erased -- or placed into secondary roles -- to sacrifice or serve White protagonists?

You cannot truly change culture without addressing the media. Ultimately, we can pass 100 laws saying that misogyny, homophobia, racism, transphobia, ableism et al are not okay. We can we fight, we can vanquish a thousand bigots, and make a thousand impassioned speeches, but if everyone goes back home to books and TV full of hate speech, stereotypes,  tropes, and marginalised servants/villains or – and most commonly – to fictional worlds where we don’t even exist – then how much can you change? “Hearts and Minds” are the key here – and it’s in the pages of books and the light of the TV screen where we will reach them.

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