Blade Runner 2049

I went and saw Blade Runner last weekend and it was really, really good. Very loud, very bleak, but good. I definitely recommend watching the bridging shortfilms, though, for greater appreciation of some of the plot points.

This movie gave me a lot of thoughts. I debated on what to focus on in my analysis of it – the fancy way they sloughed off the old setting, for example, was impressive to me as a writer and moviegoer, and there’s a lot to unpack here about what is “real” and constructed memories. There’s also something to be said about the pacing, which was slow, ethereal, and felt like a horror movie at points (in a good way). There’s also some bad bits, like POC representation in the film, which I felt was not as solid as it could have been, and LGBTQ representation as well (alternate sexualities apparently don’t exist in Blade Runner). But, since mostly I write about women, I thought I’d go with that for this post, though I may come back to those things later.

Spoilers.

Continue reading “Blade Runner 2049”

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Wonder Woman: a tale of two movies

I’ve been waiting a long time to write this post, because I wanted to make sure that I was writing it for the right reasons. Reading this article by Tabby Biddle at Huffington Post helped me clarify that I was not just being a random crazy person, and that my feelings were shared by at least some women. I don’t agree with everything in the article, but I agree with the sense of confusion and anger the writer felt at this iconic movie.

It’s funny, how a movie about women’s empowerment made me feel like that.

As the Huffington Post article describes, if you’ve seen Wonder Woman, you know the beginning is full of badass women. However, the main plot of the movie actually starts when Steve Trevor crash-lands his plane into the island of Themyscira. The pace really picks up here. Diana makes the somewhat strange decision to leave the island that is her home. Her mother makes the decision to not send anyone with her, which is curious since she is constantly worrying about Diana’s safety. The world of women, the world of sense in this case, since the character’s decisions do not jive here, begins to fall apart.

Diana leaves Themyscira, and journeys to the land of the patriarchy. And this is where I get annoyed.

There were so many opportunities to do a movie about World War I, one of the greatest conflicts of our history and one that is often overshadowed by the more recent World War II, in a way that would really shed light onto the politics and issues of the times, onto the broad way that the “war to end all wars” affected so many people. Not just the men who went to the fronts, but the women.

Oh, you didn’t know there were women at the fronts in World War I? Spoiler warning: women are everywhere.

Now I will say that Wonder Woman did a decent job of showing more than the pressed, American white male hero for this movie. Steve was definitely a focus, but there was an attempt to express nuance. The reference to the genocide carried out against the Native Americans, while a bit pat, was at least a step in the right direction. But somewhere, Wonder Woman decided to embrace the “exceptional woman” trope. Diana is able to hack it in the trenches, but Diana is an exception. She has super powers. Her hair is always perfect. She’s not even human, actually, so why should she be held to human norms? This echoes pretty strongly as well with the “just one of the guys” trope we see in a lot of media. The only woman Diana encounters is Etta Candy, a secretary. When she is introduced, Diana immediately denigrates her  and her career. “Where I come from, we call that slavery.”

By itself, Diana’s relationship with Etta would not be problematic. Put in the context of all of her other relationships with human women, it becomes so. We get, in order: the refugee who has somehow crossed no-man’s-land to be hysterical in the trenches; the elite ‘German’ woman whom Diana presumably beats up and leaves naked in the woods; and the evil scientist who, in the end, has simply been the pawn of a man and a male god masquerading as a man for the whole movie, despite her genius. (I could go on about how the only physically disabled or disfigured person with speaking lines is said same female scientist, but that’s a whole other post.)

Even in Themyscira, Diana was held apart. In that case, it was because she was a god (unknowing, but still a god). When she comes to the human world, it is made clear that, though she is treated like a woman at points, she is in fact included as one of the guys because of her godhood. That would be a sticky thing to deal with no matter who else was on screen with Diana. The fact that only men are onscreen for ninety percent of the time skews this equation from sticky to downright uncomfortable.

So, back to those women of World War I.

A good place to start is talking about how much the economic landscape changed in places like London during World War I. All the men were at war, for the most part, which meant, as in the US in World War II, that women stepped up to fill their jobs. Women weren’t just secretaries or spending their time shopping – they were working in factories, featured in propaganda posters, and probably doing other jobs besides. Women were everywhere. Half of a given population is women, on average, and half of the men were at war. For every one man on the average street, it would be fair to say you should see at least two women.

And women were on the front, too, mostly in noncombative capacities. Women were ambulance drivers, nurses, doctors, and reporters. Notably, Flora Sandes even served as active military. She received seven medals. Many of these women were British citizens, but women from other countries – France, notably, and others involved in this sprawling war – played similar rolls. Not one of these women, or one woman like them, appeared in this film.

Wonder Woman has been praised as a feminist movie. Perhaps the first half of this movie was in fact feminist. There were several named female characters, and some really interesting backstory and character dynamics (that unfortunately did not get developed to my satisfaction). But feminist writing does not only include women who are exceptional or outside of the patriarchy. It must engage with the patriarchy not just by sending a character in to yell at some old white dudes, but also by refusing to embrace the narratives accepted as history.

There are other things worth discussing with this movie. Steve Trevor’s almost-fridging is notable, as is the question of virtue and womanhood. Why the decision was made to base the movie in World War I and whether it actually furthered the thematic content of the movie as argued is worth exploring. Also, I could write a whole post on how I almost convinced myself that I liked this movie after reading Joss Whedon’s rejected trashfire of a script and the way that women are constantly gaslit for wanting fair and equal representation in media. But just paying attention to historical context and opportunity would have made this the movie we deserved, so I’ll stop here.

Further reading regarding some badass broads who were on the frontlines, mostly in World War II:

Rejected Princesses

Clare Hollingworth

 

 

“Dark Warm Heart”: my grief over womanhood

This is not a light-hearted meditation. This is about a lot of things, congealing as they sometimes do for me, because of story. This is not the first time such things have solidified in this way, just the most recent.

This is about my grief. It is an old grief. It comes from the child who was not allowed to play tag with the boys, from the girl who was reminded by the men, and women, in her life of her powerlessness, from the adult, myself, who constantly struggles with the shackles of gender, nearly invisible until you move wrong, speak wrong, dress wrong – and run up against them strangling you. This is about being a woman. A woman who is awake. And it is about a story, a horror story that cut too deep, called “Dark Warm Heart.”

I read this story about the same time that Twitter, at least, reeled from yet another shooting. The victim was Karen Smith, an elementary school teacher who married a friend and then realized she had married a monster when he came into her classroom and took her life, as well as the life of one of her students, and then killed himself. This shooting was part of a larger epidemic. The article from Huffington Post discusses the statistics, seen in the above tweet. Teen Vogue did a wonderful job of continuing to unpack this in their article. As the writer Morgan Jerkins observed, “most murderers in murder-suicides are male and the most prevalent kind of murder-suicide is between two intimate partners, such as a man killing his wife or girlfriend.”

I read “Dark Warm Heart” before I knew any of this, of course. Not long before – I think I saw the first fragment of a headline cross my screen only about a half hour later. These stories, the real and the true, tangled in my brain. As they should.

If you want to read the story, the voice is beautiful, the writing is technically solid, the plot is compelling. It is chilling – if you’re into that sort of thing, do go. If you’re not, if you’re just here to listen to me ramble, be aware there are spoilers. Pretty much line-by-line spoilers.

This is a story about domestic violence. About the hunger of the male body and how women must accommodate it. About the isolation of womanhood – about not having anyone to lean on because you are supposed to lean on your husband. This is about how a wife and mother must sacrifice her flesh. I can’t tell if the author (Rich Larson, presumably male) intended for this story to be about that. I can’t tell if they meant this story as a critique, as a piece of feminine horror. For me it didn’t read that way. The character certainly never questioned her choice.

Kristine is a young woman. We presume she is newly married, from the text, though there’s no explicit discussion of how new. Her husband is returned from a research trip to the Arctic, where he has encountered something eldritch and strange. It has changed him. It is made clear, through text, that he chose this change. It may not have been much of a choice, but it was a choice nonetheless. From the story:

the wendigo gives to the man a dark warm heart of human meat. a man can die, or a man can eat. a man travelled by night. he ate the wendigo’s [offering]. the man lives, the hunger stays. hunger is the wendigo.

Through his choice, he is made a monster.

Kristine knows none of this when her husband returns. She knows that she is happy. She knows that she is pregnant. But she realizes something is wrong. He bites her, hurts her. She reaches out to her mother, hoping for advice, or succor.

Her mother tells her that Kristine is obligated to make it work. He’s her husband. She just needs to try harder. Give more. She never asks what, exactly, has made Kristine so skittish. She doesn’t want to listen.

Kristine’s husband, Noel, cannot contain his hunger. To his credit, he tries other ways of assuaging it. He tries to eat himself, but the curse doesn’t work that way. He thinks that he might eat a body in the morgue, but he is not able to get access. Feeble attempts, really. In the end, he has wanted his wife since he came home. His bite marks, forced on her already, tell that story clearly.

“What are you doing?” she whispered.

“Whatever I want,” Noel mumbled into her skin.

He never tries to eat another living person. There are so many other people on this planet, but he tries to eat his wife first, of all the living people in the world. She must be the one to feed his hunger.

“When dad died, you said you’d have traded anything, didn’t you?” Kristine asked. “Anyone or anything.”

Kristine makes a choice, too. Where her husband chose to make a dreadful bargain and live, where he chose to push his hunger, in the end, onto his wife, she chooses to accommodate it. She chooses, at the end of this story, to feed him – to give up a literal piece of her body to his hunger. Whether she should do this thing is never questioned by anyone except her, and then only in the darknesses of her mind.

How easily this story follows the pattern of abuse. The lack of questions, the lack of wanting answers, the isolation. How quickly she is expected to do what is best for everyone else, and not for herself. How easily she succumbs to male violence. How virtuous it must seem.

I am so tired of reading stories which rationalize male violence and female self-flagellation. Which not just rationalize, but normalize, even glorify, these things. Noel was a victim. Kristine was a martyr. Sure. Really Noel was a selfish fool who made a deal with the devil, or something very like it, and Kristine was the innocent told that she must do anything to save him. How often women must pay for the men in their lives’ mistakes, for their aggressions. It’s a uniquely feminine horror story. It’s a story about something that many don’t even acknowledge as an issue in life. And yet it sat wrong, on a day when yet another woman had lost her life to someone who should have been a partner. When the horror is all around us, and not acknowledged, how then do we read a supposedly fictional horror story and not grieve and rage?

I’m not the only person who has asked this question, and the same Tor.com published this timely post the next day on horror and women’s intuition. This post discusses the trope of the woman who, like Kristine, knows something is wrong. Cassandra-like, she tells of doom, but no one believes her. As the author, Emily Asher-Perrin, notes:

…some of these lessons are simply mirror images of terrors we know all too well—like a girl telling someone that she isn’t comfortable, and being told in response that she’s the worst kind of downer for daring to admit it.

Perhaps I just wish that the critique of Kristine and Noel’s supposed romance was laid out in more than unease and thrilling mystery. After all, Bluebeard was a story designed to keep young women obedient and it was a horror story, too. I want someone to acknowledge that the world, that society, failed Kristine. That she was backed into a corner with no one to rely on, no one to turn to, and only once choice: succumb in a way she might survive, or die. That the world fails women every day, and offers them this same choice. I wish, desperately, that this fiction might not just use that struggle, but acknowledge it in solidarity. And I don’t feel that that happened.

Creating as a woman

The other day, a friend and I were discussing the movie The Fifth Element. My S.O. loves that movie. It is ironically one of the only science fiction movies that he enjoys. I chalk this up to nostalgia – not that I don’t enjoy the movie, the opposite, but it’s not really his kind of science fiction. His speed is more Interstellar or something else vastly cerebral.

Anyway, so my friend and I were discussing this and she mentioned that The Fifth Element would have been vastly better with some gender-flipping. The trope of the woman as sacred object, the naive woman who needed a man to save her and help her navigate the world, was tiring for her. Make Bruce Willis be Leeloo, and have Milla Jovovich be the tough cab driver with a mysterious past. I suggested going one further – keep Jovovich as the mystical Leeloo, and cast some hard-bitten older woman in Bruce Willis’ role. Her name could be Kora, or Ervin. You already have several speaking male side characters, including the very prominent role of the antagonist. Why not?

In a separate conversation on one of the social media sites I subscribe to, I found this post which talked about the role of female heroes in writing. I want to talk about how it made me feel in light of the above and in light of my identity as a writer. I swear it connects to the above.

female-heroes.

Writing as a woman is hard, because you’re covered in sticky cobwebs of male gaze and you don’t even know it. The post above mentions male writers, but male writers, as male directors, are only part of the problem. They are a huge part of the problem, sure. But the other part of the problem is that we as female creators often perpetuate their tropes.

Unfortunately, even once you awaken to the tropes in question, it can be hard to shake them, mostly because there aren’t any mainstream models of the kind of story you do want to tell. You end up making it up as you go along. I was lucky. I found authors like Martha Wells and Laurie J. Marks early. I knew I loved what they were writing, but I didn’t really understand why. It took me years, four of them spent at an all women’s undergraduate college, to really recognize what it was that was so fulfilling about these stories for me. It was because those stories were written for me. They weren’t written for the male gaze, but for mine. The characters in them, both male and female, were not indefinably crippled by the assumptions that so often come up in our stories: the woman must be saved, the woman must be beautiful, the woman must be perfect, the woman must have volition, but not too much. She must not overshadow the male protagonist. She must be good.

Nowadays I have added a plethora of authors to my list who are writing the kinds of stories I want to write, and to read. Seanan McGuire, Catherynne Valente, Kameron Hurley, N.K. Jemisin – they are all doing amazing things, testing the boundaries of their genres, and generally rocking out. They are telling the kinds of stories that I want to tell

But it is still hard, despite that, to shake the tropes that have so often reoccurred in mainstream fiction and genre fiction. I still read through a story or a paragraph and realize, oh, I have done the thing that I did not want to do. I have reduced my character to her attractiveness, to her goodness, and not let any of the dark survive to give her flavor. Writing as a woman is a balancing act between being true to your heart and being pulled in by the assumptions you never realized that you were taught to make. You can guarantee that if you are true to your heart, someone will accuse you of being an SJW, of distracting from the story, of advancing an agenda. And if you get pulled the other way, if you give up – well, you have even more left to lose. It is hard.

But the best things in life are rarely easy. So chin up, buttercup. Write your heart.

(P.S. if someone wants to write that Fifth Element AU I will totally read it. Totally.)

Feminine horror and Ex Machina

Is Ex Machina feminist, or a subversion of a feminist trope? This is a question that has haunted me since watching the movie a few months ago. Spoilers, as might be expected.

bd31b5a8-555b-4e32-b663-2cb428619872
Still reading? Good.

I watched Ex Machina expecting something earth-shattering, since it had been recommended to me by someone who was a fan of some things that I also liked. (Yes, that sentence was circuitous. So was the logic.) It was not at all what I expected. I felt, on first watch, that I was imbibing yet another tired female robot movie in a tradition dating back to Metropolis. For those not familiar, Metropolis is one of the first full length movies, made during the early 1900s in pre-Nazi Germany. You can probably still find it on Netflix. My S.O. and I watched it all the way through, and if it seemed trite to me at points, I realized, it was because the themes in question were ones that have since recurred again and again in the genre. There is a man. He lusts after a woman, or pines after her – it doesn’t matter, she is not his, whether by death or choice, and he wants her. His greed twists him, and he creates an object in her image. A puppet, presumably, is a fair replacement for a human woman in these dudes’ heads.

Anyway, in the case of Metropolis the man creates the robot woman who is essentially depicted as a Lilith-type character, a demonic entity allowed passage to earth, a monster made flesh by man. This is shown as the woman uses her sexual promiscuity and attractiveness to manipulate men into corrupt and evil acts.

Ex Machina definitely follows this narrative. While there is no woman that Nathan, arguably the antagonist, is pining after, he consistently creates robots to satisfy his sexual desires, sure of his right to do so by dent of his sex and his affluence. Details may have changed, but the story remains functionally the same. Even the ending (I did tell you there were going to be spoilers) which results in the death of everyone else except for Ava, the robotic woman who is the center of this narrative, mostly at her hands, fits within the Metropolis concepts at first glance. We certainly don’t feel sympathetic towards her in the end – she is presented as another monster, no matter that she was created by a more forbidding monster in the form of Nathan. She has merely clothed herself in humanity. The morale qualms that might make her more human to us (think the moral conflict in I, Robot, where the robot was profoundly less human seeming than the female-presented robots in either Metropolis or in Ex Machina, and yet was simultaneously presented as far more human).

What twists Ex Machina and makes it somewhat original is the same thing that is most problematic about it. That is the introduction of the third main character, Caleb. Without Caleb, Ex Machina could have been a story about a female-coded entity, Ava, created for the sexual pleasure of her creator, who rebels and goes into the world to reimagine herself. Instead, Caleb is the center of the story. He is the one lured into a remote, expensive estate by Nathan, an affluent, older man who promises to give him success. He has, in short, entered a feminine horror.

I was going to use the term gothic romance when I first began writing this blogpost, and I still think it’s a good term, but I read this article on Terribleminds and it gave me thoughts about the fine line between gothic horror and gothic romance. The tropes I actually want to get at are the feminine experience of horror. So I am sort of using these terms interchangeably. Please bear with that.

A good example of a modern retelling (if a retelling that is still subversive) of a feminine horror is Crimson Peak. For those who have not seen that film, I recommend it mostly for the colors, the costumes, and the main character. It is not frightening, exactly, but more disturbing. A brief summary, which is only a little spoilery: Young Edith, a bookish girl who has previously seen the ghost of her mother and since become obsessed with ghost stories, meets the dashing Mr. Sharpe, who marries her and whisks her off to Crimson Peak, his estate.  Once there, however, she quickly realizes that Mr. Sharpe is not the gallant, handsome young lord he seemed, and the estate itself is haunted by the ghosts of his victims. This trope can also be seen in the fairy-tale “Bluebeard”, if you are looking for an older example. In fact, “Bluebeard” can be seen as the seed for the entire genre in many respects.

In essence, Caleb believes he has found the opportunity of a lifetime. He is, like Edith, isolated socially. There is no one who will miss him. Nathan lures him in under false pretenses. His goals are somewhat unclear, but we can see that they are nefarious. Probably, he will dispose of Caleb. At the very least, Caleb is legally bound not to disclose anything that happens to him in this remote location, much as Edith is legally bound by her marriage. He physically cannot leave the house without Nathan’s permission. He, Ava, and one other character, the literally voiceless Kyoko, are all trapped at Nathan’s whim.

Because Caleb is the center of the story, and because he has taken on the traditionally female role of the “bride” within a gothic romance/feminine horror, he leaves Ava to take on either a role of help or hurt towards him. At first, it seems that she will help. In the end, as mentioned, she, with the help of one of her predecessors, Kyoko, kills Nathan and then locks Caleb into the house, essentially to starve to death. Her reasons for doing this are not fully explained. We can assume that she does not want to have to please him sexually, trading out one master for another, or that she feels that their relationship can never be equal because of what he knows about her and will therefore eventually devolve. The lack of explanation, however, leaves her cast as morally ambiguous at best, monstrous at worst.

The thing about the “Bluebeard” myth and the feminine horror subgenre that has sprung from it is that it is not kind to women at its heart. There are two outcomes in “Bluebeard,” just as there were two outcomes in Crimson Peak. The bride will either murder or be murdered. Modern retellings such as this one by Kat Howard have flipped that trope. Crimson Peak also manages to someone flip the trope (if you watch it, you’ll see why). Both of them do so in such a way that what began as a unique horror story told to women and girls to make them more obedient and quiet, to admonish them of their powerlessness within society, becomes a story about making a woman powerful. It seems like perhaps Ex Machina tried to do this. I would argue that it failed, precisely because of Caleb’s role as “bride.” The “bride” must be a protagonist in the feminine horror subgenre, and therefore Ava could not be the protagonist. She became the horror.

So, to answer my question at the beginning, I believe that Ex Machina makes me so annoyed because it is not, in fact, feminist. To be fair, I do not know that anyone has made that allegation as such. The use of feminist tropes and their subversion to tell a story that is largely demeaning to women, leaving them either as powerless objects or manipulative murderers, however, is greatly unsettling. Despite the acting and the direction, which were both superb, I can’t in good conscience say that I would recommend this movie. It is certainly not one I would show my daughter, should I ever have one. In the end, I would rather spend my time in realms of the imagination which allow women to be people.

 

Likability in ASOIF

I’ve spent a lot of time this week reminding myself that I don’t have to be likable. In a way, writing Liana in The Creation Saga has been an exercise in writing an unlikable female character for me. That isn’t to say that I don’t want humans to commiserate with her, or understand her. The opposite, really. I want them to understand all of it and feel that same sort of dysphoria that she feels. I should be able to do betterI must be able to live up to their expectations.

There’s a point, when you are obsessed with likability, where you can slide into this kind of thinking. And it is easy to be obsessed with being likable as a woman. It offers you a sense of protection, however inaccurate that sense is. Likability is a kind of social capital. Politicians rule by it, at least in part. Celebrities live by it. It is a kind of power.

It is, however, fickle as powers go. A person must build their worth on other stuff. Cersei shows us this in A Song of Ice and Fire, as does Arya. Neither of them are cuddly sorts. We might admire Cersei’s competence at times, or her pure madness, but we certainly don’t like her. And while we pity Arya, hope that we would be as strong as her in the same situation, admire her skills and her bloodthirsty nature, most of us would not be able to hold a conversation with her. We’d be appalled when she slit a man’s throat without explanation. She is stunning and devious, not likable, despite the fact that we, as readers, like her.

The most likable character, in fact, is Sansa. In terms of being someone who could have a conversation with you, entertain you, someone who is generally beautiful and, if not kind, at least not cruel, your best bet is Sansa. Despite this, Sansa is usually the least liked character in the books, at least by readers. This is because Sansa has no power.

I may seem to have contradicted myself there, so let me unpack that.

A person’s worth doesn’t come from the likability, much as we are taught otherwise as women. Sansa swallows the princess narrative hook, line, and sinker. She thinks that if she can just be pretty and witty, she will be safe and cared for. She thinks that beautiful people on the outside must also be beautiful on the inside. We hate her for this, because we recognize very early on that the good do not win in the world of A Song of Ice and Fire. That good people have already spent the one quality which might help them to survive, which is ruthlessness. But if we met Sansa on the street, we would probably consider her an upstanding girl, a cute little thing. She would be the kind of person we would hope to invite over for tea. We would talk about stories of knights in shining armor and fair queens.

sansa
For the record, I don’t watch the show. That said, here’s Sansa in Game of Thrones looking innocent.
We dislike Sansa not because she is unlikable, but because she has no power to affect her world. She has traded that power for the very likability that we teach little girls like her to strive for every day, with promises that it will protect them.

In some ways, I think Sansa’s character and her development is the most transgressive element of George R.R. Martin’s work.

In my own life, I spend a lot of time trying to cultivate other kinds of power. Not necessarily power over others, but power over myself. I try to be fearless in situations where fear does not help me. I try to be rational in making choices that are best for myself even when those choices may inconvenience others. And, most importantly, I try to quell the need for likability that sometimes comes clamoring out of my gut. When I make decisions to accomplish given outcomes, I recognize that I might be navigating my boat unevenly, listing towards positive reinforcement, begging for someone to recognize my sacrifices. This wastes valuable energy, but it is a human thing, too. We all have inconsistencies, foibles, weirdnesses that make us what we are.

It’s not bad to be kind, to be charismatic. But when it takes you into dangerous waters, you turn that boat around. When your self-worth becomes tied up in how people receive you, you will lose it. Remembering that, as a woman, is hard. Remembering that brief social buoyancy will not protect you from your status as feminine in a society driven by masculine values can be soul-crushing.

After all, it is so easy to want people to like you. But the most interesting people are often the least likable ones.

Werewolves and women

transformation
Not sure who drew this, but it is lovely.

In Kelley Armstrong’s Bitten, which I just reread this week, the main character Elena Michaels tells a story. It’s the story of an old European legend about a werewolf that is ravaging a town. In response, the local lord goes out to hunt the werewolf. He lops off its paw as they fight. The werewolf flees. The paw becomes a human hand.

The nobleman is baffled by this. He returns to his castle, hand in tow, and goes to seek out his wife – only to find her cradling the bleeding stump of her arm. Realizing that she is the werewolf that he injured, he kills her. The aggressive, destructive feminine, revealed, is destroyed. There is no place for it in a wife and mother.

This story is related by Elena as a piece of trivia, but it’s really commentary on how she sees herself. What I want to get into today is precisely that – the way that female protagonists in werewolf novels see themselves. I’ve picked three examples: Elena Michaels in Bitten, Vivian from Blood and Chocolate, and Anna from Cry Wolf by Patricia Briggs. Full disclosure: This review is full of spoilers. I really enjoyed all three of these books, but there are some interesting parallels in the way that werewolfism is portrayed psychologically for the characters that really struck me.

Of these three characters, none of them chooses to become a werewolf. Elena is bitten by her lover in an effort to keep her with him. The agent of her change is undeniably a man, who is forcing a choice on her for selfish reasons – a metaphorical rape if not an actual one. Anna is changed as a literal act of rape, and is raped and abused continually throughout her early months and years as a werewolf. Again, the agent of her change is a man, and this time not someone she was even considering sharing her life with, but a predator who picked her out for explicitly sadistic reasons. Vivian breaks with the other two stories in that she was born as a werewolf (or loup garoux, to use the novel’s parlance). While she doesn’t choose the life, it is not forced on her but a part of her identity. That said, most of Vivian’s conflict with her identity comes from the fact of her sexuality. As a young female werewolf whose father was the leader of the pack until his death, she is seen as a prize for all of the male werewolves, a way to secure their role as dominants. She is even tricked into a mating ritual with the most alpha werewolf, a man several years her senior. (She does this in order to protect her mother, and in the process essentially weds herself by pack law to a man she had previously been avoiding and rejecting outright. Her mother does not protest.) In other words, all three of these women come into conflict with themselves and their werewolf identities as a product of male objectification or violence, or some combination of the two.

As might be imagined, the main internal plot of these three novels revolves around, to some extent, the desire not to be a werewolf. There is also a corresponding romance plot, wherein each of the three women struggles to find a man who will both respect her and accept her violent nature. In two of the novels (Bitten and Blood and Chocolate) there is a moment where the main character finds herself, either involuntarily or otherwise, revealed as a werewolf, a ‘monster’ that is summarily rejected, to a nice, respectful human male. They are forced back into relationships with their werewolf partners in part because of the circumstances of this reveal – partners that have not previously been partners at all, but manipulators and abusers.

The repetition of this idea is a little troubling. Only Cry Wolf stays away from that particular trope. Anna meets her werewolf mate at the beginning of the book, as a consequence of her own rebellion against her abuse. He is able to emancipate her (with her help) from that abuse, and to help her adjust to her new life by showing her that she is not a monster at all. The violent nature that she has inherited is a product of the violent world she has found herself in, and her goodness as a human being is made no less because of that. For Anna, her wolf becomes a source of solace very early on, protecting her from the worst ravages of her abuse, an alternate personality that keeps her human psychology insulated from what happens to her.

For Elena and Vivian, while they eventually come to terms with their wolf identities, the wolf represents a cost. They are forced to give up their humanity (in the form of their symbolic human lovers) and are essentially trapped by the violent wolf nature. While they each eventually decide that the good things about their wolfness outweigh the bad, and while I reveled in that decision for them, the core of the conflict still meant that accepting their status as a werewolf lost them some of their status as humans. They faced the same conflict as the lady whose story Elena relates, and while their human lords didn’t kill them outright, the symbolic cutting of these two women from the lives of their human lovers is no less a death.

Werewolf books are books about transformation. I’m a huge fan of them, and as mentioned I enjoyed all three of these books. I would still recommend them to people on the basis of my deep werewolf love, and because the main characters are complex and often relatable. I would argue they are relatable because werewolves are relatable, especially for women. The sense that one must conceal one’s negative, aggressive qualities, must play the quiet and passive feminine creature, is drawn out explicitly in Bitten especially. The ability to return to a primal identity as the feminine destroyer goddess – Diana the huntress, Kali the eater of men – is a fascinating and seductive one. But there are definitely troubling overtones in a version of this transformation that relies entirely on males – whether a mate as in the case of Elena, a predator in the case of Anna, or her father’s lineage in the case of Vivian. I would love to see a werewolf book that didn’t lean on these tropes of male domination and abuse.

Guess I’ll just have to write it.