Content warnings: this installment of Urban Fantasy 101 contains very brief mentions historical acts of oppression (largely in vague terms), sexual assault and pedophilia in Laurel K Hamilton’s Anita Blake series, as well as more indepth references to anti-Black and anti-Native racism in the same series.
There’s nothing wrong with a good allegory.
Unfortunately, there’s this thing that happens where writers use an allegory that mimics or calls back to real world oppression that constantly rubs me the wrong way
Keep in mind that I actually don’t mind the use of allegories in fiction. In fact, I think they can be useful. Some of my favorite works of speculative fiction focus on supernatural figures dealing with oppression due to what they are, after all.
However, many writers who use allegories then kind of overuse them at the expense of portraying nuanced representations of actual or “real world” oppression.
Whatever your reasoning, chances are that if you’re a paranormal romance, urban (or general) fantasy, or science fiction author, you’ve used an allegory that mimics or calls back to an instance of real world oppression.
However, there’s definitely a lot to be said about the very many authors who think that that supernatural form of race-based oppression is the only thing they have to do. They don’t think deeper.
Maybe in-universe, your supernatural characters/species are all confined to one section of a city or state. Or witches were taken away from their families (either to enhance their magic or to keep them from using it). Maybe, telepaths aren’t allowed to interact with “normal” people without a telepathy muting device. Maybe, vampires are subject to violent hate crimes despite being legal citizens of the country.
Plots like these aren’t terrible on their own, except for how they usually go hand in hand with erasing or co-opting actual oppression faced by marginalized folk.
Stories that center the oppression of werewolves, vampires, and mutants almost always pretend that that kind of racism is the only kind that exists and affects the characters. These characters by the way, tend to be white more often than not.
Where’s the intersectional thinking?
Where’s the understanding that all supernatural creatures and beings aren’t created equal?
I spoke about this a bit in my X-men post and the same general thoughts apply: our lives aren’t all the same. The things I experience as a queer Black person – that a queer Black werewolf would experience – are not things that a white character or person would experience.
An example of flattened allegories comes in the form of Laurel K Hamilton’s Anita Blake series[i].
In the Anita Blake series, it’s is established that vampires in this parallel world have been made citizens of the United States thanks to Addison v. Clarke, a Supreme Court decision made at some point before the series started. It is illegal to kill them without a warrant (you know… the way the law should work) and so licensed vampire hunters or executioners like Anita Blake work alongside police departments to take down vampires who have broken the law.
At the same time, shapeshifters are considered citizens until shifted and their status is a bit more up in the air – hell, in some southern states there are bounty hunters that exist to kill shapeshifters and there are also government run safehouses that are more like asylums.
As a result of some of the things that werewolves and shifters have done (coupled with the fact that both of these species can make other people like them without their consent) there are people who have an established and continual fear of vampires that then transfers into in-universe racism towards them.
Let me point something out though: very rarely are humans the bad guys in this series.
Most of the villains are vampires and shapeshifters who are killing other people.
Because you know… That is literally what they do.
I mean that’s something that LKH beats into our skulls throughout the series, that even the people we (Anita) love, can be monsters.
Her one lover Richard participates in eating the former alpha to his pack Marcus after he’s killed during their fight.
Jean Claude and Asher? Rape survivors who have used their metaphysical vampire powers to rape others (both because of their mistress’ orders and because of survival crap).
Most of the vampires and shapeshifters we see in this series are bad guys on some level. They are not nice people and they do not do nice things. Some of the awful things they do are things that humans do – kidnapping, murder, assault – but these are all compounded by their supernatural powers.
For instance, there are shapeshifters (multiple ones okay) who willfully infect humans and who use their considerable strength to assault the series’ prey shifters (currently, only swan shifters but whatever…).
There are even vampire pedophiles who turn children into vampires (which gets you something like Claudia 2.0 in terms of how bad an idea that is). Like this is in the freaking series as something that has lasting consequences on a recurring vampire character.
There are, and this literally happens in every single book in some form or another, vampires using the lure of their gaze to make unsuspecting strangers give up both blood and sex – metaphysical date rape drugs are de rigueur for the Anita Blake series as the protagonist finds herself held hostage by one such metaphysical power in the ardeur.
And law enforcement and media in this universe don’t have much to say about these creatures that can kill them and make them like it.
Disliking and distrusting a strange shapeshifter or vampire because of what they are isn’t actually comparable to racism the way that LKH has Anita frame it (usually when referencing her biracial identity and dead mother to a person of color who is being “racist” towards supernatural beings in earshot).
For example: stereotypes about aggression and violence from Black people have no basis in fact. What it is, is dehumanization and a refusal to allow us the space in which to exist and emote. It gets us killed for no reason.
Stereotypes about violence and aggression from vampires or shapeshifters in the Anitaverse?
Well, they’re not so stereotypical considering that almost every book sees Anita shooting the shit out of a werewolf or shapeshifter that has decided to hurt humans or Anita’s “people”. Because, despite everything that the narrative tries to push about these beings being so oppressed, they’re still capable of incredible violence. Violence that they do commit in-series.
Something that we see in most of the books in the series.
In the Anitaverse, the use of allegories to stand in for real world oppression falls flat because LKH’s main characters are bad guys.
On top of that, the characters of color that do show up in the work don’t get visibility beyond stereotypes.
Most however, aren’t fleshed out at all and either serve as “exotic” eye candy for Anita (Bernardo Spotted-Horse who also has the dubious privilege of being framed as a hyeprsexualized “manwhore” by the narrative), boring muscle (Shang-Da and Jamil who literally have no history or lives beyond serving the werewolf leader Richard as his guards) or get to serve as stand-ins for Anita to lecture the audience about all the racism she experiences as a light skinned biracial Mexican who no one thinks is a POC until they’re told and who doesn’t confront the privileges that earns her in any way.
When I was first reading her books as a high schooler (I started with the then newly released “Incubus Dreams” and then worked my way back in time for “Cereulean Sins”), I liked what I’d seen of LKH’s worldbuilding. As a newbie to the Urban Fantasy genre (and you know… as a teenager), I felt as though the series had a lot going for it.
It had a strong female hero who wasn’t afraid to get her hands dirty, lots of interesting supernatural species, and some really pretty (if not particularly interesting) love interests.
As I would come to realize later, the series lacked just about everything else. Within the context of this article, one thing that the series really fails at is connecting the oppression and identities of these supernatural beings to real world oppression and explore the ways that their world differs beyond “some supernatural beings exist now”.
Outside of “kill on sight” ordinances, we have no idea how vampires were treated prior to Addison v. Clarke. We know nothing about major events in US history and how they were changed by the existence of the supernatural.
Hamilton’s worldbuilding prowess seems nearly nonexistent as the only things we know about are what directly affect her main characters.
The majority of the racism we witness? Is against Anita (or seen through Anita’s gaze as she waxes poetic about how discriminating against shapeshifters that can and might eat you is totally the same as her ex-fiance dumping her for not being white enough for his WASP-y family).
Offhand, one of the few instances I can remember that shows someone dealing with racism in the Anita Blake series (that isn’t Anita because seriously, half the time she’s talking over other characters of color and explaining racism to them) is in Blue Moon.
In Blue Moon, Anita’s sort of former lover Richard is falsely accused of sexual assault while in in the South and Anita has to show up and save his ass before he shifts in the jail cell and destroys his life (as Richard has never spoken about his shifting and for all intents and purposes, lives as a regular human). His two bodyguards (the aforementioned Shang-Da and Jamil who don’t get backstories or last names in 20+ books) are two of like maybe five characters of color mentioned or seen.
In the south, this isn’t a good thing. After Anita meets with Jamil at the airport, she asks him if he’s ever spoken to the woman accusing Richard of raping her and we get the following (unbelievable) exchange[ii]:
His eyes widened. “She’s already cried rape once on a fine, upstanding white boy. No, I haven’t talked to her.”
“You could try and blend in a little.”
“I’m one of only two black men for about 50 miles,” he said, “There’s no way for me to blend in, Anita, so I don’t try.”
There was an undercurrent of real anger there. I wondered if Jamil had been having trouble with the locals. It seemed likely. He wasn’t just African American. He was tall, handsome, and athletic looking. That alone would have gotten him on the redneck hit parade. The long cornrow hair and the killer fashion sense raised the question that he might violate the last white male bastion of homophobia. I knew that Jamil liked girls, but I was almost willing to bet some of the locals hadn’t believed that.
There’s a lot to unpack here and honestly, the racism and homophobia that Anita directs Jamil’s way even as she defends him (because she “knows” he likes girls despite never having a conversation with him and apparently bi/pan-sexuality ain’t a thing) might warrant their own ranty post in the future, but for now, let’s look at how LKH mishandles even the mere discussion of racism in her works.
Even as she mentally defends him from stereotyping, she stereotypes him. It’s benevolent racism at its finest.
She even initially dismisses his experiences and the reasoning behind why he (as a Black man in the deep south) might be unwilling to go talk to a white woman who has already falsely accused a white guy of raping her. “You could try and blend in a little,” is so dismissive, so rude, that the fact that Jamil didn’t turn around and punt her into the stratosphere is beyond me.
Jamil is black. He’s dark skinned with cornrows (not “cornrow hair” as seen in my copy of Blue Moon) and he is one of two black people we see in this book. I don’t know if the history of Blackness in the Anitaverse is any different from how it is in our world, but Anita is essentially setting him up to be lynched.
But not really considering that the sheriff of the town actually locks up and goes on a break just in time for several locals to show up and use racial slurs towards Shang-Da before starting one hell of a fight. These locals specifically target the visible person of color and move towards him first, ignoring white and blond Jason and “white passing” Anita.
So imagine what would happen if Jamil had turned around and gone to question the woman accusing Richard of assaulting her.
The number of Black men in that small Southern town would shrink down to one.
In the actual next book Obsidian Butterfly we’re introduced to Bernardo Spotted-Horse who is basically a crap ton of stereotypes about Native masculinity rolled into one shallow character that is described as a “manwhore” (and who has his agency and emotions ignored on a regular basis).
The racism Native characters and Black characters absolutely do face in the Anita Blake series isn’t even treated with a tenth of the care that is shown towards vampires and werewolves who are allegedly receiving and dealing with racism themselves. Because realism and nuance? Not a thing when you can “woe is me” your way through systematic oppression and constantly act as though humans have more privilege than shapeshifters and vampires who regularly enslave, eat, and kill humans in this universe.
One of the things white authors absolutely fail to grasp when hauling allegories around in their work is that POC are absolutely more than our trauma alone.
That being said though, if you’re incapable of recognizing our highs and lows and instead choose to pin all of the sympathy and nuance of oppression on characters that are largely white and male, well… Maybe you should learn to write without relying on allegories.
JK Rowling is another author who really needs to remember that real people actually need representation. Her Harry Potter series is full to the freaking brim with allegories for everything from Nazis to slavery to white supremacy and race purity.
What it’s not full of are diverse characters on any level. There are less than ten characters of color who are described as such in the actual book series. The only LGBT character is Albus Dumbledore whose sexuality isn’t expressed on the screen – Rowling would only make the reveal public after the character was killed off.
So busy is Rowling with using her analogies to paint a picture of racism and violence in the wizarding world that culminated in a war fought in the world we lived in, that she doesn’t bother to dream a little bigger. She doesn’t bother to think about the history of the wizarding world in intersectional ways. The focus in the series is on how pureblooded wizards like the Malfoys hate muggleborn or half-muggle wizards for mucking up their pure blood and yet we hear nothing about how these racist wizards would surely have been racist on other axes as well.
We’re talking about people who married their cousins to keep the blood pure and you’re telling me that racism via skin tone or even xenophobia wouldn’t be a thing? It’s a complete non-issue.
The only thing that matters, that absolutely has to keep coming up as central to the narrative, is that some wizards are oppressed for their parentage. It has nothing to do with ~actual racism~ but then she neatly sidesteps what happens to wizards of color, to Roma wizards, and Jewish wizards in a world that is largely okay with things like segregation and racism under the guise of blood purity
The big issue with allegory overuse the way that many authors handle it is that it’s a shallow freaking pond.
So much focus goes into making supernatural beings (often white characters) the ultimate oppressed folk despite very good reasons why people might not be interested in allowing vampires into their houses or living next door to a newly turned werewolf, that they straight up don’t flesh anything else out about the world.
You can’t just tell me how oppressed shapeshifters/vampires are and how they face racist mistreatment without thinking intersectionally. You need to do more with your world, like looking at the ways that different communities embrace or push away supernatural beings in their communities and how they’ve historically done so.
In LKH’s Anita Blake series, the few bits of history we get are either super recent (within five years of the series’ first book Guilty Pleasures or way back in the seventeenth century in France – which, by the way, allows LKH to neatly gloss over her vampires’ complicity in things like civil rights abuses or chattel slavery of Africans and their descendants despite the fact that all evidence proves that her characters have shown themselves to be willing to participate in acts of horrific dehumanization of marginalized folks.
Maybe we get a tidbit about what life was like before it became illegal to kill vampires for sport or just because you wanted to kill one. Maybe, a rare vampire of color (who is rarely dark skinned) mentions something about their past that renders them exotic before they’re inevitably killed off or turned into one of Anita’s puppets.
I’m not asking these (largely white) writers suddenly do the research on characters and people of color that they’ve been skipping out on for twenty or more years, but if you’re going to put more effort into your allegory and all the white people oppressed because they’ve got powers or drink blood than characters of color… Rethink that.
There’s nothing wrong with allegory use in fiction.
There’s everything wrong in how many urban fantasy books that use these overhanded allegories for oppression where white people are the ultimate oppressed also tend to handwave away race and racism as it would affect characters of color in their universe. There’s nothing wrong about using allegories to represent instances of oppression that are specific to your universe. But when your allegories for oppression wind up edging out or erasing the actual identities and experiences of people in the real world?
Then we’ve got one hell of a problem.
[i] And yes, I know I rag on LKH a lot but as she’s a writer that inspired a lot of industry trends in her earlier books and continues to write books rife with internalized misogyny, bi/homo-phobia, and racism well… I’m going to rag on her until she grows a clue.
[ii] That I have edited for clarity because the ebook version I have puts the text into blocks for some reason that I hope aren’t replicated in the print copy.