Bad Ass Babes, Or, the Only Man That’s Man Enough (Isn’t Human)

No, really I have no idea of where I’m going to go with this one. I don’t have a literary degree, and I’ve never taken women’s studies so I have no idea of how to critique the increased number of fantasy romances with bad ass babes from a feminist dialectic. All I know is that I have a few opinions I’d like to share about bad ass babes with guns fantasy urban romances.

For the most part, they fail hard on the Bechdel Test (that’s where two female characters have a conversation with each other about something other than men). The bad ass babes very seldom have relationships with other females. When they do talk to other females, it’s usually about men, or they’re questioning a victim or a criminal. Of course, you might excuse some of this because the bad ass babes are usually some variety of bounty hunter or exorcist, occupations that would tend to be more male oriented since (within the story canon in the case of “exorcist”) these occupations more often than not involve shooting at things and shooting at things is generally considered a mostly male occupation–but still. The bad ass babe is usually alone in a sea of male secondary characters, and she may also have surface-stereotypical “male” qualities, or use turns of phrase that a reader might tag as male. (Dante Valentine does this, using prostitute/hooker/pimp metaphors. Another Saintcrow character, Jill Kismet, also does this despite her past as a prostitute.)

You might think that the increased number of female characters with combat oriented careers is inherently more “feminist” that other type of female characters. But I think the “bad ass babe” character type is no more “feminist” than any other character. The romance part of the “urban fantasy romance/horror seems to be extremely “traditional.” You still have the two Rivals for the Heroines affection. And the set up is still that one of them is the Good Choice and the other is the Bad Choice. (Rarely, in the case of Lilith Saintcrow’s Dante Valentine books for instance, you have Neither Is a Good Choice, Really–and I say that even though I really like the relationship between Dante and Japhrimel.)

The biggest beef I have with this sub-genre is that it’s very traditional. We have the “tough” female character who usually expresses her toughness by being loud, aggressive and brash. These aggressive gun-toting babes for the most part also seem to have secret girly hearts deep inside, or have been Traumatized in the past, which is why they are really secretly in need of protection. They are not bad ass because they are bad ass; they are bad ass because they are insecure. The writer probably doesn’t intend to make the character seem insecure (or occasionally, really stupid reckless). In fact, it’s apparent that the exact opposite is intended–the narrative and the subtext don’t line up.

Add this to the romantic element, and what we end up with is a sort of “hero tames Amazon warrior and Amazon warrior becomes a Real Girl” storyline. The “real girl” subtext also comes up in the sense that bad ass female characters seem to end up in relationships were they are the “weaker,” “submissive,” partner. (Note: “Weak” and “submissive” is not the same thing. Submissive means you prefer taking orders to giving them. Weak means you are helpless to do anything but take orders.) The reason that the “tough” character is “tough” is usually because of some variety of trauma or abuse in their past. The reason why they are the “weaker, submissive” partner in the relationship is more often than not because the Significant Other is generally some kind of supernatural creature.

And that’s where it gets…interesting.

More often than not, the supernatural creature in question is equal to, or superior in power and strength to the female (human) character. Usually, the male character is the “dominant” personality, though there’s usually some conflicted arguing back and forth, but generally the female character will lose the play for dominance. Of the books I’ve read so far, only one has an ordinary human as a love interest (a lawyer, so even the job is normal; The Rival in that case is a demon currently possessing the female character). Most of the other love interests for the bad ass babe share the same kind of job as the bad ass babe and often become partners of same. But even if it’s an “equal partnership” what happens in the bedroom seems to be a different story.

Jenna Black’s Morgan Kingsley series, the main character Morgan turns out to be sexually submissive despite having such a strong will that the extremely powerful demon who possesses her can’t take full control. (Which is actually a concept I approve of; pairing “weak” with “submissive” is deeply annoying to me.) Because she also has some fairly severe and understandable trust issues, this isn’t entirely apparent, and I think Black deals with this theme of “girl discovers she is kinky” fairly well, though I would have liked some warning a little sooner than the fourth book, because Morgan comes off as more honestly prudish than “in the closet with the blindfolds and handcuffs.”

On the other end of the spectrum, Dante Valentine also has a morbidly obsessive fear of being vulnerable which creates real problems with her relationship to the uber-powerful Japhrimel who not being human, really has no idea of how to deal with Dante’s desire to bash her brains out against anything that looks vaguely like a cage when he’s trying to “protect” her. This difficulty in the relationship is never really resolved, because neither character is actually any good talking about problems. (Japhrimel is one of the more honestly alien supernatural characters. All the others seem to be mostly humans in fur suits.)

Somewhere in the middle is Richelle Mead’s Dark Swan novels. Both love interests are non-human. (One is a half-kitsune with a normal job of being a veterinarian; the other is an extremely kinky elf-king.) Both male characters have dominance issues, though the half-kitsune seems to lose the dominance game more often than not. (And in the second book seems to have been cast as the non-optimal partner, though not for that reason.)

In the cases mentioned, we for the most part have non-human love interests who are often equally or more powerful than the female. The male character is usually the one with more power in the relationship, and despite being “bad ass,” the female character is a “real girl” after all. As much as I actually like these books for the most part, I really wish that the female character could be a real girl, who happens to be a bad ass, with or without the supernatural boyfriend.

1 Comment

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One response to “Bad Ass Babes, Or, the Only Man That’s Man Enough (Isn’t Human)

  1. One thing I liked about the Dark Swan books was that Volusian actually suggested that Eugenie should find herself a submissive consort instead of getting mixed up with the kitsune or the Oak King.

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