Urban Fantasy 101 – It’s A Heteronormative World Out There

Heteronormative World.png

Notes: Content warnings for brief (but nondescriptive) mentions of sexual assault, mentions of homophobia in the text and a linked article), and just general heterocentrism/heterosexism.


One of the recurring tropes common to the urban fantasy genre is the idea that certain species have one “opposite sex” soulmate that is absolutely perfect for them and when they meet (or, more commonly, bang) for the first time, all of the pieces slot into place and their biology shifts so that they can have babies.

This focus on soulmates (often just “mates”) in urban fantasy has so much wasted potential behind it.

Instead of opening the concept of “mating” up to queer characters or characters in polyamorous relationships, these universes typically center mating and relationships on heterosexual and monogamous couples (with the occasional “these two werebears are my mates and also brothers as not to squick bigots who want to read polyamory but not that kind of polyamory” thrown in just to be frustrating).

I’m going to use specific examples here with Sherrilyn Kenyon’s Dark Hunter series (of course) and Sarah J. Maas’ A Court of Mist and Fury (which is just regular fantasy, but still more recent than most of the stuff I usually reference). I’ll also be talking about some other book series and author examples (both positive and negative).

First, let’s talk about what heteronormativity and heterocentrism are.

Heteronormativity is when something pushes heterosexuality as the only normal and acceptable sexuality. It’s when you read a book and the only queer characters are tortured and forever alone and it’s normal.

Heterocentrism is when everything, even queer characters’ experiences, is viewed through and focused on perceptions of “typical” straightness. It’s looking at a queer couple and asking “who wears the pants in the relationship” or assigning each member of a relationship values commonly associated with heterosexuality.

Plain and simple, heternormativity and heterocentrism center straight characters and the straight experience, positioning them as “normal” even when queer characters are involved.

It’s more than a little big galling to realize that there are books that focus on werewolves, vampires, and demons as normal but can’t seem to know what to do with the mere idea that queer characters could exist and have positive relationships.

Let’s start with Sherrilyn Kenyon’s Dark Hunter series.

I know I rag on her a lot for well… a ton of stuff.

Part of this is because, for an author with as much writing experience and world-building skill as she has, Kenyon tends to take the “safe” road when it comes to diversity.

What this means is that most of her main characters are “coded” white, cis, and straight (outside of bisexual rapists like Apollo and Dionysus and lesbians like Zoe who only show up in one book before never being seen again) with explicit notes that several of these characters’ species can’t be anything but heterosexual because of their instinctive urge to reproduce.

Yes, this means that we get to talk about were-hunters, Kenyon’s answer to shapeshifters.

On their own, they’re not a terrible species.

Were-hunters came into being when a magician-king tried to keep his two sons from dying (due to being Apollites, members of a cursed race of Apollo’s children that die on their twenty-seventh birthdays unless they consume the souls of other people and become damned Daimons). His attempt split the werehunters into two different sub-species: one with a human heart and one with an animal heart. Both sub-species have magic and all of that jazz. (Read The Dark Hunter Companion for more information because it’s going to take too long to explain properly on my part.)

The issue I have (well, one of them) though is how were-hunters procreate and date:

Throughout multiple books (Night Play and Dark Side of the Moon in particular), readers are exposed to the idea that werehunters sleep around in order to find their mates because that is the only time that they can procreate.

(Note that they also engage in a “mating frenzy”, something that is ridiculously popular amongst writers who make their mating lore incredibly heteronormative…)

Prior to finding their mate and getting their mate pregnant, male were-hunters apparently don’t have viable sperm. And then? If something happens and the mates don’t consummate their mating – or they do but then hate each other: the couple can only have babies together.

As a duo.

The men in the mating can’t cheat (they literally can’t get an erection with anyone that isn’t their mate even if they reject their mate) while the women in the relationship can’t get pregnant if they do cheat.

Sherrilyn Kenyon, so far, makes no allowances for queer couples or polyamorous relationships amongst her werehunters. Not in her language. Not in her background characters. I’ve been reading her books since I was in middle school, well over a decade by now, and at no point are any of her werehunters described as anything but straight and so there are no matings between characters who aren’t straight either.

Oh, there are a lot of “jokes” about how x character “couldn’t be gay because [he] just loves women so much” but that’s about it. (And that’s a topic that deserves its own post because it hinges on toxic masculinity and homophobia being framed as a cute little joke.)

Here’s the thing: It’s beyond clear that Kenyon hasn’t thought about what it means to essentially lock a species’ biology and reproductive functions to a specific alt-gender mate.  It’s a clear sign that she honestly doesn’t believe that her heroic alpha male characters in the were-hunter series could ever be gay.

Because she’s not interested in seeing it. Heteronormativity is her norm.

Instead of seeing characters who are queer in her books as main characters, we get rapists and one-off characters who die or mysteriously vanish into the ether shortly after their first introduction.

Now this isn’t me saying that Kenyon is a horrible homophobe (although the fact that both Acheron and Styxx focused on her alpha male heroes being raped repeatedly by gay and bisexual men and gods and that she uses their trauma as a kind of “they could never be bi/gay” thing certainly says volumes on its own…).

But let’s not forget that she’s a heterosexual writer in a world that thrives on heteronormativity. It takes work to break past your biases and honestly, I don’t think she’s ever actually going to put that work in.

One of the things I rail against in this series is the notion of the lazy writer.

Look, I don’t care what your writing process is. I don’t care if you spend all day in your pajamas while your spouse caters to your every whim as you peck letters out on your keyboard. But the laziness that keeps you comfortable as a person shouldn’t influence your writing.

If you’re not going to put in the work to make your universe accessible for everyone, then you need to step back and think about why that’s so very difficult for you. Don’t just assume that fans won’t care or notice that you’ve neatly written out any way for some of your main species’ members to be queer or characters of color.

Because we will care and we do notice.

And it’s always going to be annoying to realize that your favorite authors can imagine worlds populated by a near infinite number of gorgeous blond badasses who can shift shape and rewrite the universe, but wouldn’t know what to do if they started feeling attraction to someone of their gender or a person of color…

On its own, the mating trope isn’t a bad idea. Societally, we seem to be fascinated by the idea of that one true person. Soulmate stories are a huge deal and they matter to a lot of people.

So why is it that Urban Fantasy/Paranormal writers tend to nip the potential for queer soulmates in the bud right at the onset?

Soulmate bonds are typically and exclusively tied to procreation and in these writers’ worlds where transmen and nonbinary people who can and want to get pregnant appear not to exist (and surrogacy is apparently not a thing), these characters are shunted out of (or seen as upsetting) the natural order.

See the Mercy Thompson series where werewolves are obsessed with mating and procreation and so the one gay werewolf we see from the start of the series is subject to constant and violent homophobia — to the point where he had to leave his previous pack and people in his current pack continue the homophobic abuses — because it’s just so wrong for werewolves to not want to be in heterosexual relationships and procreate in order to provide the pack with new babies.

I stopped reading the series about five books in because some other content triggered a panic attack, but up until then, the gay werewolf still didn’t actually get treated with respect in his clan and all of his relationships were held up as clearly lesser because they couldn’t end with children and his pack was wary of him because apparently gay werewolves are set up to be turned on by the rest of their packmates forever…

(See this post by tumblr user summer-of-supervillainy that unpacks the stereotypes and homophobia in this world and how Patricia Briggs essentially excuses homophobia in her universe and trades on stereotypes for gay masculinity. It’s pretty intense stuff.)

A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah J. MaasNow I picked up Sarah J. Maas’ A Court of Mist and Fury on release day. I thought it was pretty decent and I was prepared to ship all the things.

But here’s the thing that hit me around the halfway point: Maas’ world is incredibly heteronormative.

Here we have fae in their different forms and yet the majority of relationships (probably the only relationships) that we see on the page are between male and female characters that are heterosexual.

Maybe I’m spoiled by authors like Seanan McGuire who you know… don’t pretend that the fae are one ridiculously heteronormative and heterosexual monolith, but I’m so sick of this shit where authors just conveniently forget that they don’t have an excuse to act as though queer people don’t or wouldn’t exist in their universe.

I think I could have fanficced my way through the world that Maas created.

I’m creative like that.

I could’ve ignored the way that most of the characters were neatly paired off into male/female relationships because hey, some of them could have been queer (yay for pan and bi people!!).

But then the main character Feyre winds up realizing that she is meant to be mates with Rhysand (and there are a whole host of things wrong with their relationship or heck any of Feyre’s other relationships, but we’ll save that for another time) and we find out something about their (Rhysand’s) species that really pisses me off in a super specific way.

All of the language that Maas uses to describe mating behavior centers heterosexuality.

Here’s a snippet from Chapter 55 (this specifically relates to a single species but mating occurs to many different types of fae throughout the book):

“When a couple accepts the mating bond, it’s… overwhelming. Again, harkening back to the beasts we once were. Probably something about ensuring the female was impregnated.” My heart paused sat that. “Some couples don’t leave the house for a week. Males get so volatile that it can be dangerous for them to be in public, anyway. I’ve seen makes of reason and education shatter a room because another male looked too long in their mate’s direction, too soon after they’d been mating.”

Let me tell you something about the world Maas has appeared to have created:

  • Mating exists on a binary in more than one fae subspecies.
  • Mating behavior is gendered with males being painted as more aggressive as a protective measure. At no point, by the way, do we get any information about the female partner aside from “initially feels a compulsion to feed her mate”.
  • Mating and something called “the frenzy” are explicitly tied into the urge to get women pregnant. Yeah, we see Maas mention something about equality, but if mating is about equality, why is it that no queer characters show up in mate relationships? Seriously, it’s all centered on cis men getting cis women pregnant.
  • I’ve read this book over multiple times and at no point is there even a hint that there are any queer characters who are/have mates. All we see are these heterosexual characters who look at each other for the first time and fall in love because they’re meant to be “mates”.

This lack of representation?

It’s the norm in fantasy.

This is what I mean when I say that these writers just cut off the potential hope for queer characters in their series. It’s this whole casual ignorance.

If you’re writing a fantasy or science fiction series, there is absolutely zero reason for you to have a series where there not only are no queer characters in any capacity – that aren’t rapists or predatory in some aspect – but your characters literally can’t be queer due to the societal strictures or biological imperatives you’ve written for their species.

There is no excuse for binarism or heterocentrism. There’s no excuse for constantly repeating and reinforcing the erasure of queer characters. There’s no excuse for creating entire species that only get into relationships with female – because they have to.

Ugh.

Now, I want to talk about a specific author that doesn’t hold with gender-locked mating in her work and who actually means a lot to me in general: Nalini Singh.

The thing I like about Nalini Singh’s writing (as it relates to this post) is that nothing in either one of her Urban Fantasy/Paranormal Romance series (Psy/Changeling and Guild Hunter) precludes the existence of queer characters.

In the first series, while Changelings (shape-shifters) can have mates and engage in bonding, so far I’ve seen nothing that says that their mating instincts are driven by anything other than attraction. Mating isn’t gender-locked like we’re playing Mass Effect. There are queer characters in the Guild Hunter (background characters and a minor angel named Kier who I think would probably be pansexual or bisexual, but I can’t remember if he used any specific labels) and none of them die or are injured due to their sexuality.

They’re not framed via harmful tropes and stereotypes.

Of course, Nalini Singh isn’t perfect (because no one is). Despite how great she is about writing characters of color, disabled cjaracters, and neurodiverse characters (and not divorcing them from their diverse identities), she still suffers from unnecessarily binarist gendering of the weirdest things and you know… has no main queer characters in her books yet.

But part of why I continue give her props for a lot of stuff because I’ve actually spoken with her about queer rep in the future of her series and I feel strongly and positively about her/her work and her drive to research and get things right.

Right when I was starting to plan out this particular essay/rant, I was midway through Nalini Singh’s Psy/Changeling series and I started to think about representation in her series.

Normally, with Urban Fantasy series, it’s difficult to imagine characters that look like me taking part of the narrative. Not so with that series that centers several characters of color (including women of color that get to be the beloved heroines).

What got me though, was the lack of notable queer characters despite the fact that there was nothing in her universe to make queer Psy, Changelings, or Humans incapable of the in-series bonds (as the Psy technically can “mate-bond” via psychic connections). So either in April or May, I emailed her with some questions about queer representation in her books and universes.

And she responded.

It was literally the nicest email that I have ever gotten from an author that I wasn’t friends/friendly with. (It’s also the nicest email I’ve ever gotten in response to asking an author about queer representation in their series.) In it she responded to my concerns (including talking more about Kier!!) and spoke a bit about the future of her series as well as her goals to show valid and vivid representation for everyone in her series.

That’s the sort of thing that makes you stick with an author. Instead of writing Nalini Singh off as an author – instead of having her write me off as a no-name QPOC – she took the time to speak with me and listen to my concerns. And I sincerely believe that she’s going to take my comments into consideration in the future of her series.

When you bring representation up to many other authors (in and out of the PR/UF genres), many of them just brush it off. They don’t think they could be upholding implicit biases like racism or heterosexism and so they can’t possibly be part of the problem. Emails or tweets to these authors are rarely received well and they can end terribly.

A simple solution to getting those “hey, what’s up with the lacking diversity in your work” emails is to look for and listen to diverse fans that aren’t represented in your work. Yeah, diverse people don’t exist in order to do the legwork and research for an author considering including diverse characters, but we can help nudge you in the right direction if your desire to diversify is sincere.

For many of the authors that I speak critically of in this series and on my blog in general, diversity is an afterthought. It’s something they do to net sales or land on diversity lists. They explain the lack of it away and make excuses when it’s poorly done.

How about… not doing that?

Mating tropes in UF/PR series that center on cis male/female procreation to further a mythical species may seem like a small thing in the grand scheme of life, but trust me, authors: queer readers are reading your work and we do feel alienated by the language you use.

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About Zina

Zina writes about comics, nerd history, and ridiculous romance novels when not working frantically on her first collection of short stories and complaining about stuff. One day, she'll settle down and write that novel.
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3 Responses to Urban Fantasy 101 – It’s A Heteronormative World Out There

  1. lkeke35 says:

    One of the reasons I avoided Kenyon’s books was because of the descriptions of the straight, alpha male characters and their sexy female partners. Not interested.

    Jim Butcher and a few others follow this trope too. For such an imaginative group of people, they can be incredibly lazy, and mundane, when it comes to social and sexual conventions.

    Two authors who managed to buck this tired trope by turning it on its head are, Elizabeth Bear in The Iskryne series, and Katie Waitman’s The Merro Tree. These two have spoiled me forever when it comes to Fantasy fiction. I’m always looking for the next Elizabeth Bear.
    The Merro Tree is more scifi, but you still get a soulmate relationship between two male identifying alien species, which meets with disapproval from the other aliens, and so is kept secret.

    The Iskryne novels turn the whole idea of animal bonding on its head, including the whole mating frenzy idea, (this has its its own problems in the narrative but that’s a separate issue) since the only humans bonded to the wolves, are all cis-gendered men. It even spends time showing how non-bonded human males respond to such an arrangement. The most int resting character is a cis-gender female, that everyone knows is a woman but who lives her life like a man, and treated like a man by everyone, because her father had no male heirs.

    These authors aren’t perfect, but they’re at least thinking about what they’re putting out there.

    Another trope I dislike is that all of these writers diversity exists in a vacuum. None of these queer characters (or PoC) ever seem to have supportive families and communities. They always seem to be alone.

    I’m mostly off a lot of urban fantasy these days.

    Like

  2. Pingback: Urban Fantasy 101 – Weird Ass Werewolf Tropes | Stitch's Media Mix

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