Urban Fantasy 101 – Weird Ass Werewolf Tropes

Content warnings: This installment of Urban Fantasy 101 contains references to or descriptions of racism, homophobia, heterocentrism, sexual assault, childhood abuse, domestic abuse, other forms of discrimination. There are also tons of footnotes.


urban-fantasy-101-weird ass werewolf tropesWerewolves are everywhere in the urban fantasy genre.

Most major series – film and otherwise – count lycanthropes as a staple creature and always throw in some funky in-world backstory to make the furry beasts fit into their worlds.

There are werewolves in Harry Potter, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Lost Girl. The Underworld franchise – which is like Romeo and Juliet taking to a logical werewolf-y extreme – had its fifth installment (Underworld: Blood Wars) come out in January 2017.Teen Wolf, MTV’s adaptation of the Michael J. Fox film, is only now wrapping up its final season while the television adaptation of Kelley Armstrong’s Bitten just ended its final season in April 2016.

The paranormal romance genre (the flipside of the more “action oriented” urban fantasy genre where romance is supposedly supposed to be incidental to the plot) is so full of lycanthropy that you can’t shake a stick without hitting a werewolf.

Honestly, it’s more surprising to find an urban fantasy series without werewolves.

Which makes sense because werewolves are cool.

More so, werewolves can be tied into the long-lasting relationship between wolves and humans. In the introduction to The Werewolf Book: The Encyclopedia of Shape-Shifting Beings, the author points out that humans and wolves evolved together over tens of thousands of years and that the relationship may be responsible for the prevalence of the werewolf (or “wolf man”) in shape-shifter mythologies.

Shapeshifters as a whole are an integral part of multiple mythologies stretching back hundreds if not thousands of years. While we’ve covered the issues inherent in pushing the monomyth as a thing (remember how it falls flat with the vampire-as-monomythical?) a majority of past cultures actually and actively believed in the potential for shape-shifting and spiritual figures that blended animal and human forms.

The Werewolf Book evens suggests that the Franco-Cantabrian cave artists from over 25,000 years ago may have even depicted shapeshifters in the form of “two-legged beings with the heads of animals and birds”. On top of that we can look back at Egyptian mythology which has the jackal-headed Anubis amongst a pantheon of other gods who share features with animals[1], the Mesoamerican nagual or nahual[2], or Zeus turning into a bull in order to mate with the mortal Io who had been turned into a cow.

Despite – or perhaps, because of — the fact that shapeshifters exist in a majority of mythologies around the world in diverse forms with plenty of material to pull from, there are some uniquely awful aspects to the werewolf (and shape-shifters as a whole) as presented in the urban fantasy genre – and by some, I mean a ton.

So this installment of Urban Fantasy 101 is all about the different weird and worrying tropes that urban fantasy authors, showrunners, and creators imbue their lycanthropes with in order to tell what they think is a good story.

I’m talking lycanthropy as a stand-in for sexually transmitted diseases, in-universe racism that frames (typically) white werewolves as victims of racism even as characters of color are nonexistent in their respective series or subject to unquestioned racism, and the signs of the heteropatriarchy inherent in the genre’s general idea of a werewolf pack.

I’ll be bouncing all over from film to television to the book series you all know and love. Expect things to be weird and wolfy with my particular brand of snark tying everything together.


So let’s start by talking about how becoming a shapeshifter works in most of the genre and why that’s a problem in and of itself.

the-bite-is-a-giftIn the pilot episode for MTV’s Teen Wolf, notorious loner and lurker Derek Hale takes it upon himself to lecture the main character Scott McCall about how amazing everything is now and how he should be happy to be a werewolf.

He ends by telling Scott that, “You’ve been given something that most people would kill for. The bite is a gift!”

This is after Scott has been attacked by a mysterious werewolf in the middle of the night.

Scott is supposed to be grateful that he’s now out of control and has to worry about harming the people that he loves because he gets a little too turned on or angry or whatever emotion hits him.

In Teen Wolf, there are two main ways that a person can become a werewolf: either they are born into it (such as Derek and the rest of the Hale Family) or they’re turned. Turning, in the Teen Wolf universe, can be either from being bitten by another werewolf or being exposed to a shifted werewolf’s bodily fluids.

This is… basically how most urban fantasy series handles it, but Teen Wolf goes with both options rather than picking one method of carrying on lycanthropy.

Derek Hale claims that being bitten is a gift[3], but that’s not how much of the genre actually sees it.

Werewolves are almost always considered to be “cursed” even in universes where they are apex predator in worlds where they have no natural predators in the form of vampires. They’re not immortals like vampires and they’re always portrayed to be less sturdy on top of that. In addition, the fact that werewolves tend to lose control due to anything from the full moon to smelling the wrong scent is an actual issue that they deal with.

And this negative framing of lycanthropy is before we get to the fact that the majority of urban fantasy universes tends to go with the idea of lycanthropy (or therianthropy as a whole[4]) as a virus that can be transmitted via sexual contact, blood transfusions, and contact with a shifter’s bodily fluids.

While lycanthropy and therianthropy are often used as a stand-in for sexually transmitted diseases in general, it’s most commonly used as a “clever” way for authors to write about AIDS without writing about AIDS.

One of the biggest series to do this?

JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series. I’ve written about my issues with her allegories before and I probably will again, but I want to look closely at the way that she casually confirms that she uses lycanthropy as an allegory to AIDS in the case of Remus Lupin.

In the second chapter of Of Heroism, Hardship, and Dangerous Hobbies, one of her “Pottermore Presents” short story collections, Rowling decides to tackle Remus Lupin’s biography. From the start, we know exactly what kind of werewolf mythology we were going to get.

In the introduction to the chapter, Rowling writes that:

Being an Animagus is a privilege – one that requires immense skill and hard work. Being a werewolf, on the other hand, is something that happens to witches and wizards against their will. The life of a werewolf can be torturous and often lonely, as we learned from Remus Lupin.

Remus Lupin, the shabbily dressed Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher who took Harry under his metaphorical wing in The Prisoner of Azkaban, is arguably one of the most famous werewolves in recent fictional history.

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Image from Pottermore.

He also has what is basically the most depressing backstory ever.

Lupin is not a character that would agree with Derek Hale about the bite being a “gift” of any sort. That’s because at age five he was bitten by a violent werewolf (one that enjoyed preying on children, so we can see that Rowling certainly loves her predatory stereotypes…). Lupin’s biography is basically “he was lonely and unloved and he couldn’t be around people because werewolves were feared and shunned”.

Rowling reveals her thoughts after all of this, writing that, “Lupin’s condition of lycanthropy (being a werewolf) was a metaphor for those illnesses that carry a stigma, like HIV and AIDS.” Rowling goes on to talk about how she wanted to examine attitudes, prejudices, and hysteria as it relates to superstitions and taboos around blood/blood-borne conditions.

Here’s where her metaphor falls flat: werewolves are dangerous. In almost every single piece of media they’re used in, even when they’re the main characters, werewolves are portrayed as powerful predators who are above humans in the food chain.

The difference between having a werewolf living next door and a person living with HIV or AIDS is that every full moon, there’s a chance that the werewolf next door might eat you. People living with HIV or AIDS don’t turn into an apex predator that will eat you if the urge hits them.

And let’s face it, she didn’t need to make Lupin a poor man’s walking, talking metaphor for AIDS in the Wizarding World in order to talk about prejudice related to blood. Not only is a significant part of her series about characters struggling against perceptions of blood purity and humanity, but it’s not even like Rowling actually explores what it was like for Lupin to grow up as a werewolf.

He’s been a werewolf for well over thirty years in-universe. Almost all of his life.

Additionally, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the book that Lupin was introduced as a character and werewolf came out almost eighteen years ago.

And yet, until 2016, we knew nothing about what it was like for him to grow up as a werewolf in a world where even open-minded, liberal wizards held stock in milder versions of the blood purity beliefs that shaped wealthy, pureblooded wizarding society. How much exploring and examining could Rowling do with a character that she basically never focused on for more than a scattered set of chapters?

Next, in Laurell K Hamilton’s Anita Blake series, werewolves are almost exclusively made, not born. In this series, most shapeshifters with uteruses can’t carry a pregnancy to term as they are forced to shift when the full moon occurs[5] . And, in the event that a human can get pregnant with a shapeshifter baby?

Well… that’s called “Mowgli Syndrome” and it never ends well for the parent or the child[6].

In the Anita Blake series, shifters are discriminated in ways that mimic several real-world forms of oppression such as racial discrimination and the kind of discrimination a person with HIV or AIDS might experience. For the purpose of this section, we’re talking about the latter form of discrimination, but don’t worry, I have a huge and perpetual bone to pick with Laurell K Hamilton’s thing where (usually white) shapeshifters are victims of racism so that’ll come next.

First, in the Anita Blake series, the bodily fluids of fully or partially shifted therianthropes carry the potential to turn a human that comes into contact with them (via ingesting them orally, through an open wound, or during sex acts). Richard Zeeman, one of Anita’s on-and-off lover, is infected with lycanthropy after testing a vaccination against lycanthropy. There are references to characters being infected via blood transfusions.

One character, Laila, a cop introduced in Hit List[7] is infected after a partially shifted werewolf injures her by stabbing her in the stomach with their claws. Only her blood is spilled and yet, by the end of the book, she’s looking at life as a werewolf[8].

In this universe, known shapeshifters aren’t allowed to work in food service, hospitals, or with children due to the fear that they will infect others over the course of their employment or become violent at the slightest provocation. Cherry, a wereleopard nurse who becomes a shifter in order to heal the leg she lost in a car accident, is quickly and quietly removed from her job prior to her first appearance in the series.

Their doctors and the doctors that treat their loved ones, are subject to speculation and snide comments about whether the relationship and risk are worth it.

When a werewolf is injured, police and paramedics approach them with gloves. Same goes for arrests, I believe[9]. There’s so much stigma associated with therianthropy that mimics or even references the way that people with HIV/AIDS are treated to this very day.

In Circus of the Damned, the third novel in the series, main character Anita has the following internal monologue about lycanthropy after meeting the werewolf Stephen:

Lycanthropy was a disease, like AIDS. It was prejudice to mistrust someone for an accident. Most people survived attacks to become shapeshifters. It wasn’t a choice. So why didn’t I like Stephen as well, now that I knew? Prejudiced, moi?

Let that sink in.

Anita, who has experienced prejudice based on her necromancy (including in the first chapter of that book where a member of an anti-supernatural hate group calls her an abomination to her face) and her race (as she’s a “white-passing” biracial Latina whose late mother was from Mexico), shows this immediate and strong prejudice against Stephen for something that he literally can’t control specifically because he wasn’t nice to her about something else.

And this is as she’s thinking to herself about how it’s absolutely similar to HIV/AIDS.

Seriously!

Additionally, what makes this unacceptable is that using lycanthropy to mimic bodily fluid-transmitted medical conditions that people actually deal with and are stigmatized for having sends such a terrible message.
It connects the lack of control and violence that lycanthropes are known for – and in most of these urban fantasy universes, shapeshifters rarely have control over their shifts or animal selves – with having HIV/AIDS.

pottermore-werewolves

Image from Pottermore

It’s just not a connection that you should make as an author, even if you can.

This is also the problem with using the bigotry lycanthropes face for “going furry” to racism.

The vast majority of urban fantasy series are ridiculously white. Regardless of where these series are set, they tend to focus on the stories of white characters who get to be heroic, beloved, and the center of positive attention. Characters of color exist mainly as over-eroticized stereotypes[10], sassy sidekicks who always know just what to say to make the main characters happy, or bad guys who get gunned down en masse.

Characters of color in urban fantasy series rarely get to be main characters deemed worthy of being fleshed out love interests, fully realized heroic figures – or even well thought out villains.

And yet, in many of the urban fantasy series shapeshifters (lycanthropes and otherwise) are shown as dealing with racism. It’s not xenophobia, it’s not invalid prejudice. It’s white characters undergoing the very same racism that I experience as a person of color specifically because they can turn into animals and do eat people on a relatively regular basis.

People of color aren’t dangerous and we certainly aren’t superhuman. Despite long-standing stereotypes about how Black people “feel less pain” or about how people of color tend to handle stress better, we’re ordinary people.

That’s why when I’m reading an urban fantasy novel and inevitably, something comes up and claims that the valid fear of shapeshifters is akin to racism because it’s unwarranted and deals with an aspect of a person’s self that they can’t control, I feel like screaming.

No Jan, people distrusting and fearing shapeshifters (who regularly use their superhuman abilities to hurt others in these various universes) is not racism as we know and experience it.

While these supernatural beings do experience unfair persecution in the form of three-strikes laws for vampires that end with kleptomaniac vampires executed or shapeshifters locked in asylums, to compare it to racism especially in stories set in the US where people of color – especially Black, Native, and Latinx people – are subject to the most unfair and upsetting forms of persecution based on those identities, is just messed up.

Look at this bit of dialogue from Laurell K Hamilton’s Hit List where she explicitly connects the hatred that people – in this case, an older vampire hunter – have for vampires to racism. This is a conversation that she has with a Black woman named Laila who is later turned into a werewolf after a violent attack:

“I’ve seen him kill. He gets off on it. He’s like a racist who has permission to hate and kill.”

“You say race because I’m black.”

No, I say racist because it’s the closest thing I can imagine to his attitude toward vampires. I’m not joking when I say after seeing him stake vampires that he scares me. He hates them so much, Karlton. He hates them without reason, or thought, or any room in his mind for a reason not to hate them. It consumes him, and people consumed by hate are crazy. It blinds them to the truth, and makes them hate anyone who doesn’t agree with them.”[11]

Anita is a character that has conditional access to whiteness, access that is rarely removed or shut down within the context of the series. The only characters that tend to pin her as a person of color or even as someone with non-white heritage are other people of color and even then, it tends to be done in a way that Others them and lifts her up as an ideal.

Her constant confrontation of other people of color who are visibly Brown-skinned and who tend to be Black in defense of werewolves and vampires is a problem. It shows a huge and glaring lack of intersectional reasoning as Anita’s significant experiences with racism – the oft rehashed stories about how people never assumed her Blonde stepmother Judith was her mother or how her WASP-y fiancé in college dumped her for not being white enough – occurred prior to the start of the series and are almost always used to silence other people who are rightfully upset with the fact that the apex supernatural predators around them can and do eat them.

When writers like Laurell K Hamilton explicitly connect the fear of a being that can and might well eat them with the unwarranted and invalid fear that Whiteness has of people of color, it once again connects violence and lack of control with a marginalized and frequently oppressed group of actual people.

Narratives that coopt the oppression of actual people so that white characters (and ostensibly, white audiences) can get a taste of what it feels like to be oppressed, are beyond messed up. Narratives like the X-Men, Harry Potter, or Underworld franchises that are rife with allegories for oppression typically center on straight white characters’ feelings about the oppression they supposedly face for having magic, mutations, or being a supernatural being.

Little or no thought goes into intersectional interpretations of characters in their canon – i.e., “What experiences would a queer mutant of color face growing up?” and “Could Harry Potter been of South Asian descent and how would that have impacted Rowling’s story?”.

That’s why the urban fantasy trend of saying that these white characters experience oppression in the same way that I do is such a problem. This lack of intersectionality both in the universes and in the authors’ heads as they write them is a huge problem.

It’s not even remotely original for an author to write an alternate earth where supernatural beings are oppressed for what they are. Trust me.

There are about eleven billion Urban Fantasy series whose synopses can be boiled down to “werewolves are treated like Black people and this white lady is out to protect them”. Y’all aren’t doing anything new with your stories about oppression that center white characters.

You’re really not.

Let’s look even more closely at the Anita Blake series. I’ve been reading that book series since I was in high school. Technically, I’m still reading it[12]. One thing that is constant in the series is that author Laurell K Hamilton, in addition to imbuing her world and books with a metric ton of appropriative narratives, rape apologism, and homophobia, has given it a healthy dose of racism.

And I’m not just talking about the fantastic racism that rears its ugly head whenever the biracial[13] Anita needs to tell another character of color (usually a Black character) about how much supernatural beings suffer from racism that just like what people of color face.

I’m talking about racist descriptions of the series’ lone recurring Native American character Bernardo Spotted-Horse (“Was it racist to say that his features were more white than Indian, or was it just true?”), the way that recurring Black characters Jamil, Luther, Sylvie, and Vivian basically have no characterization or purpose outside of how useful they are to white characters, or the fact that the wererat king Rafael is constantly described via the author referring to him as “darkly Hispanic”[14] or “darkly handsome, strongly Mexican”[15] or marvelling at his surprising lack of an accent.

I’m talking about the racism that sees Anita explaining oppression to people of color who see it a damn sight more than she does.

I’m talking about the racist entitlement that Laurell K Hamilton has imbued Anita with – to the point where she feels comfortable explaining racism to Black characters and calling them racist for not being open to shapeshifters and other supernatural beings in close proximity to them.

I’m talking about the racism that rears its ugly head when you take in how Hamilton set a series (two if you count her Merry Gentry series) in St. Louis where Black people make up about half of the city’s population but only show up as secondary characters in Anita’s story[16].

Think about this:

The point of Urban Fantasy series is that they’re set in or adjacent to cities. Even in a story set in Nowhereville, USA, the characters eventually get some big city adventures to call their own. And the cities people tend to use in Urban Fantasy series (Manhattan, Miami, Los Angeles, and New Orleans) tend to be diverse as hell when it comes to people of color.

So if you have an Urban Fantasy series where your all or majority white werewolves are racially oppressed because they go furry but at the same time lack any significant and positive portrayals of people of color in your series, you’re the problem.

Not your setting.

The big issue about how werewolves and racism often intersect in the Urban Fantasy genre – to where “Fantastic Racism” is commonly associated with the most popular series – is that people of color of any species simply aren’t offered the same care and consideration that white werewolves are.

Intersectional fails abound in universes where you see authors bend their backs to frame white werewolves as the real victims of racism while the few characters of color (if any exist in the series) are reduced to stereotypes about their race and forced to empathize with the plight of the werewolf.

Where’s the intersectionality people?

Where’s even an ounce of thought that maybe, just maybe, what these white werewolves go through isn’t remotely similar to what people of color do?

There’s no understanding that a fear and distrust of werewolves – in the many Urban Fantasy universes where they eat people – is a valid one that, when coupled with the way that most writers tackle therianthropy both as an HIV/AIDS equivalent and something that suddenly gives these characters the same oppressive experiences as people of color do, just shows a lack of care for diverse readers.

Can you actually name more than a handful of popular Urban Fantasy series that center positively portrayed characters of color and don’t use lycanthropy or therianthropy as a whole to stand in for a bunch of other stuff?

Because even I am having trouble coming up with more than five series and y’all know how much I read in this genre.

Now that we’ve tackled racism as problematic trope associated with werewolves, let’s look at heteronormativity in werewolf packs.

I touched on the subject of heteronormativity a little bit in July 2016’s Urban Fantasy 101 – It’s A Heteronormative World Out There, but again: a major problem in the Urban Fantasy genre is how dang heteronormative it all is and how many writers insert homophobia and the outright erasure queer potential into their works.

So what does that have to do with werewolves?

Well, it all has to do with the idea of the pack.

If you have a werewolf in your story, you kind of have to have a pack to go along with them. Werewolves, like natural wolves, just don’t do well without a pack. It’s science –

Except it’s not.

Heteronormativity shows up in these packs in multiple forms.

First, comes in the form of a drive for procreation where werewolves in basically every series from Underworld or Kelley Armstrong’s Women of the Otherworld all have this obsession with having born werewolf babies.

Considering that the only valid relationships in these series tend to be between heterosexual and cisgender male/female werewolves, the focus on pack continuation literally centers this quest to have babies that excludes any existing queer werewolves from the narrative – because of course, in universes where procreation is a biological imperative for werewolves, no werewolf could dare to be queer.

Then, there’s the way that in most Urban Fantasy series that have werewolf packs, the leaders of the pack are an alpha male and female couple. The couple tends to be monogamous. If they’re not – as in the case of Carrie Vaughn’s Kitty Norville series where the first alpha we see (Carl)—only the alpha male sleeps around and that usually entails taking advantage of his physical and metaphysical power over submissive werewolves in the pack.

In the Kitty Norville series’ first book Kitty and the Midnight Hour, Kitty’s alpha Carl does more than take advantage of these young and submissive werewolves: he grooms them and conditions them to crave his touch:

Alpha’s prerogative: He fucks whomever he wants in the pack, whenever he wants. One of the perks of the position. It was also one of the reasons I melted around him. He just had to walk into a room and I’d be hot and bothered, ready to do anything for him, if he would just touch me. With the scent of him and the wolves all around us, I felt wild.

In a later book, Kitty and the Silver Bullet, Kitty comes face to face with a young werewolf that her old alpha Carl is abusing.

“But I don’t want to.” She started crying, quiet tears slipping down her face. I found a clean tissue in my bag and handed it to her. “He takes care of me, I owe everything to him, he’s a part of me, I can’t leave that.”

Then why are you crying? I wanted to ask. I let her talk.

“He’s not an angel,” she went on. “I know that. But he can’t help it, he—” She stumbled to a stop. Her rhetoric amazed me. Did she even realize what she was saying?

She was young and pretty. Carl treated the women in his pack like they were part of his own personal harem. I knew firsthand what he did to the young and pretty ones. He wasn’t above smacking them around.

“The thing about being a werewolf,” I said. “The bruises heal quickly. No one ever sees them. Makes it easier to just roll over and take it, doesn’t it?”

The use of submissive/dominant in these werewolf packs is another aspect of the heteronormativity that plagues the genre. The idea of dominant/submissive in werewolf packs stem from a bastardization of the pack dynamics associated with real wolves that stems back to 1947 with animal behaviorist Rudolph Schenkel’s “Expressions Studies on Wolves”.

The problem is that Schenkel’s idea of the “alpha wolf” and “competition-based pack hierarchies” kind of simplifies pack dynamics and therefore allows writers working with werewolves to categorize them as these hyper-aggressive beings obsessed with dominance behavior and related relationships that lack nuance and promote a patriarchal view of werewolves.

Nine times out of ten, the submissive werewolves in these packs are all nubile young women who just need a firm nip to the hindquarters to get where they’re going. Dominant werewolves that aren’t the main POV character tend to be broad-shouldered men or butch women[17]. It’s no surprise then that the majority of the genre’s few submissive male werewolves tend to be (coded as or written as) queer men[18].

To call back to Kitty Norville, the only queer werewolf that I’ve seen in that series eight books, is dead. Not only does Carrie Vaughn give T.J. the stereotypical and distressing backstory where his parents disowned him for being gay, but within the ONE book where he’s alive, he has no positive romantic relationships – or romantic relationships of any kind.

In Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson series, heteronormativity hits even harder with the homophobia inherent in her creating a world where gay werewolves are mistreated and ostracized by their communities.

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Warren in the second graphic novel for Moon Called

The one gay werewolf that’s a recurring character is Warren.

Warren is mistrusted by his pack even though he is “dominant” enough to serve as the third to the third-most powerful alpha in the United States and he’s subject to suspicion and disrespect from less powerful pack members who would gladly kill him because he’s gay.

He’s one of the most powerful members of the pack that Mercy comes into contact with and yet he’s not even given a reasonable amount of respect from the people in his pack.

This is all because of how Briggs set up the worldbuilding in her universe. This is a world where Briggs has her main character mention that “most of the werewolves in power in the US had been born in a time when homosexuality was anathema, even punishable by death in some places” in the first book of the series as if it was normal and natural.

Think about it.

Briggs purposefully created a world with bigoted werewolf pack dynamics that are never actually questioned or unpacked in the narratives. There’s this air of “this is how it’s always been” without any introspection about the way that the universe is set up. We’re told, via Briggs’ mouthpiece Mercy, that the way that packs work is the way that they always have worked and that’s unlikely to change.

When I was researching for this part of the article back at the start of January, I posted several screenshots of examples of homophobia and other forms of normalized bigotry in Briggs books – either from her characters in her worldbuilding.  Another reader and blogger, one who had enjoyed Briggs’ books in the past, decided to send her an email.

The first response they got, the kind of response that most marginalized people get from authors they like when they attempt to “call-in” those authors, says a lot.

mike-briggs-email-1

Email responses like this are why call-outs (rather than “call-ins”) happen.

According to Briggs’ husband Mike (who, prior to his untimely passing near the end of January, answered emails directed towards her), there’s nothing problematic in a world where an intimate moment between the Alpha Adam Hauptman and one of his wolves Ben following a reveal of the latter characters’ childhood abuse is cheapened by what’s basically a dehumanizing “no homo” moment from the main character.

In later correspondence, which I will not be sharing in full because it’s anger-inducing, Mike Briggs wrote that “there are numerous minorities represented in her books, so the claim of erasure is completely fallacious.” He ended the email by accusing them of never reading the books (except they mentioned that in the email exchange), accusing them of making “ill-informed and slanderous accusations” before calling them “entitled and uncultured” and ending the “discussion”.

With that much privilege, it’s no wonder that Mike Briggs (and his wife, obviously) couldn’t see the fact that the homophobia inherent in the Mercy Thompson series’ portrayal of werewolves is the least of the problematic aspects of the books.

But it’s still a huge one that the Briggs’ should’ve kept in mind as the series played out. Because, we get scenes like the following in from Iron Kissed:

Ben was abused as a child. It wasn’t surprising given his warm and cheery personality, really. I’d just never given much thought about why he was the way he was.

“Thank you for sharing your understanding,” Adam said formally.

Ben dropped to his knees as if they had suddenly turned to water. It was a supremely graceful move. “I am sorry that I did not do it…better. More respectfully.”

Adam cuffed him gently. “I wouldn’t have listened. Get up and go get some rest.” But when Ben stood, Adam pulled him into a hug that proved that werewolves aren’t people. Two men, heterosexual and human, would never have touched after a revelation like that.

Seriously, it’s basically a huge “no homo” moment that basically says that real men (who can only be heterosexual, of course) don’t hug. Especially not after a trauma reveal that’s set up to make Adam think about how he’s being an ass to Mercy following her very recent sexual assault.

Somehow, there’s nothing homophobic about well… reinforcing nasty beliefs about male relationships on top of a world where homophobia in werewolf packs literally gets queer male werewolves killed. Never forget that. In this world, this supposedly “not at all homophobic world”, the only reason why the ONE gay werewolf we see is out and about is because he’s got an Alpha that wouldn’t allow him to be killed.

In almost every other werewolf pack, queer male werewolves are a threat to heteroseuxality and toxic masculinity, because well… as you can see in the following excerpt from Moon-Called, Briggs is yet another writer that casually drops the “all gay men are attracted to other men” bomb but this time, because there are werewolves involved, tosses in some gay-bashing and the refusal of even this “nice” pack to respect her one gay werewolf, Warren.

There was no question of Warren’s staying in the closet, either, at least not among other werewolves. As demonstrated by Adam and Samuel just a few hours ago, werewolves are very good at sensing arousal. Not just smells, but elevated temperature and increased heart rate. Arousal in werewolves tends to bring out the fighting instinct in all the nearby males.

Needless to say, a male wolf who is attracted to other male wolves gets in a lot of fights. It spoke volumes about Warren’s fighting ability that he survived as long as he had. But a pack won’t accept a wolf who causes too much trouble, so he’d spent his century of life cut off from his kind.

And no one in this series does anything to actually combat or change that because Briggs’ world is encoded with unquestioned homophobia that the author doesn’t even recognize as such. (Please check out this tumblr post that calls out the serous problems that Briggs and co manage to miss despite well… everything.)

A lot of reviews for the series are like “the author handles things like racism, homophobia, and sexism very well” and let’s be very real here: no she freaking doesn’t! I’m four books into the series and unless the characters and worldbuilding take a dramatic and drastic change after that, all she does is reinforce the bigotry inherent in her world or co-opt the experiences of real people – in the case of the Fae reservations – to make her points.

At no point, do we have the characters in the Mercy Thompson series push back against the world that they live in. Mercy takes the misogyny in the werewolf packs in stride and doesn’t do much – if anything – to end or mitigate the pervasive misogyny that is present across the country. Same goes for the homophobia that gets good men killed and the fact that the majority of werewolf alphas across the country would be down with young, female werewolves being abused for their pleasure.

It’s just… not an issue to her because that’s the way their world has always been and it’s not like she can change it.

Except… her foster father is in charge of all the werewolves in the country and she has his ear. She challenges him frequently and he listens to her. But nah, she can’t change anything aside from what she does change in the series.

And I just can’t see the point behind homophobic and misogynistic worldbuilding in werewolf packs.

What does this sort of writing tell Urban Fantasy readers? Especially queer ones?

So many different Urban Fantasy series’ approach their worlds in the same way. They tack on tons of allegories for oppression without actually unpacking the way that actual systematic oppression works in their worlds or how they would work for people of color, queer people (and making the only two queer characters in your series a werewolf subject to constant homophobia from pack members and his super femme boyfriend who is a walking parade of stereotypes ain’t it, Briggs), and a whole host of other marginalized people.

 

I’m not saying that every single book has to have a message, but that they all have one regardless of whether the author purposefully encodes their stories with one.

If you’re an author writing an urban fantasy series and you manage to write werewolves that actively hate queer people and women as an unquestioned aspect of their society, you’re sending a message to your readers that bigotry is acceptable. When authors equate lycanthropy with HIV/AIDS or racism, they’re coopting experiences at the same time that they typically deny representation to people who would have those experiences in real life.

The thing about these weird ass werewolf tropes is that they’re not just strange. They’re stressful and they alienate readers who want Urban Fantasy without dealing with the fact that for many authors, the fantasy here is that actually marginalized people don’t exist in their worlds.

The reality for many marginalized fans of Urban Fantasy series is opening a book or starting a series only to be slapped in the face with how little the author cares about accurate and positive representation.

That’s not acceptable.


[1] This is called “theriocephaly” which is Greek for “animal headedness”.

[2] The nagual/nahual is a human that can turn into an animal form that covers a wide range of common animals but also more powerful ones such as big cats that are native to the area.

[3] I could go on about Derek’s in-universe privilege as a born werewolf and the wealthy adult heir to a dead clan of werewolves and how he’s using it against Scott (who is a poor Latino high schooler the whole time this show is going on), but I will just… leave that for later.

[4] Therianthropy is basically a fancy word for shape-shifter.

[5] The blood purity-obsessed Chinese-American tiger shifter clans have somehow found a way to keep pregnant shifters from shifting despite all the reasons why that shouldn’t work.

[6] In the Anita Blake book Danse Macabre, after Anita has a pregnancy scare, we see how society treats pregnant people who are suspected of carrying fetuses that may have Mowgli Syndrome because of societal taboos of having sex with shapeshifters in and out of their beast forms.

[7] The twentieth novel in the Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter series.

[8] There are issues here because the Anita Blake series is one unending intersectional fail and Laila happens to be a Black woman who Anita explained racism to.

[9] Although few villains in the series make it to a jail or trial…

[10] See Bernardo Spotted-Horse in Obsidian Butterfly by Laurell K Hamilton

[11] I know this snippet is about vampires, but I promise you that she’s connected systemic racism to the oppression werewolves in this universe face while using similar language.

[12] I’ve DNF’d the past three books because they were just BAD and Crimson Death is a plodding mess of a book so I’ll probably drop that one too before we even make it to Ireland.

[13] But “white passing” because no one can tell she’s a person of color until she tells them apparently.

[14] Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter #15 The Harlequin

[15] Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter #1 Guilty Pleasure

[16] Note that after twenty-three years, Anita has yet to have a close friend or lover that is Black. In a city where almost half the population is.

[17] Sylvie in the Anita Blake series is the most dominant female werewolf in the St. Louis pack and she’s a Black lesbian who isn’t portrayed as feminine in the majority of her appearances.

[18] This is a problem present with other therianthropes in urban fantasy because the world is awful and we can’t have nice things.

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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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5 Responses to Urban Fantasy 101 – Weird Ass Werewolf Tropes

  1. lkeke35 says:

    The Anita Blake series showed up in The early nineties and kind of reinvigorated the entire Urban Fantasy genre, in the sense that droves of straight Cis White women all decided to write ripoffs of her books, including all of the werewolf tropes just mentioned, lack of intersectionality, racial allegory and homophobia. I’ve largely stopped reading any Urban fantasy books written by white women. I got sick of all of the tropes being aped from Hamiltons books. Kim Harrison even managed to add a little bit of queerbaiting between Ivy and her roommate. That’s how bad that series was.

    You touched on this in an earlier post, about how PoC never get to be vampires anyway, and how when the authors do remember to add such characters, they almost always associate them with animal shifting, sometimes based on race, so the only East Indian man to ever show up in Hamiltons books is… wait for it… a tiger shifter. Gay characters (or characters heavily coded as gay) are more likely to be comedic foils for the main characters, or written as vampires, which unfortunately equates homosexuality with predatory behavior. Yeah, I’m talking about Hamilton again.

    I’ve pretty much stopped reading Urban Fantasy written by straight White men because all they’re doing right now are reproducing some of The Dresden series worst tropes. Lack of PoC in Chicago being one of those things. When PoC do show up, they’re not lacking in character, but unfortunately embody some of the worst stereotypes, like Injun Joe. Urban Fantasy writers, looking to cash in on this literary explosion, aren’t giving a single ounce of thought to any of the books they’re aping, and it’s killed my enthusiasm for the American version of this genre. I only read Urban Fantasy with major characters of color, or written by authors of color, like Daniel Jose Older, who is Latino, or Ben Aaronovitch, who is British

    I’m glad you mentioned pack hierarchies and how they translate to werewolves. I got tired of all that alpha mate shit, too. These worlds are not at all welcoming to LGBT readers.

    I think the absolute worst thing are the writers who derive their stories from second hand ripoffs of Hamiltons stuff because they think they’re being truly original and bucking all the stereotypes.

    Like

  2. AMG says:

    Some great points here.
    I started Briggs at Bone Crossed #4 and picked it up because people told me it ‘didn’t suck’. The book started with her looking at herself in the mirror… ok. Then I picked up the rape story line *grits teeth*
    then, Adam thought she was in thrall to vampire Stefan, was jealous, so he bit off part of his arm and shoved it down her throat while she was having a ptsd panic attack. Now, they are a bonded pair. WTF? No permission. It was another kind of rape. I was horrified.
    Don’t even get me started on LKH. All those guys and she never does anal, and they aren’t allowed to do each other either. It’s bizarre.
    If she had friends or lovers of colour, she’d lose her special card. Woe betide *someone else* had a better reason than she does to argue discrimination. Not that I can think of ANY black people in that series.
    I read one other story (Before Midnight by Jennifer Blackstream) where the royal family were secretly werewolves and patrolled the kingdom at night to protect it. How? Every night? If they transformed on the full moon as she argued, it’s impossible. And oddly, the people didn’t know they were werewolves.
    But the prince is blessed by a witch and heals, and is no longer a wolf. Which makes no sense because being a wolf wasn’t a *bad* thing. It was, in fact, what made him royal.

    sighs…

    Liked by 1 person

    • lkeke35 says:

      That’s it! I need a werewolf story, with a Black protagonist, who lives in the inner city. His whole neighborhood knows he’s a werewolf. Some are cool with, some are not. It needs to include intersectional ideas about internalized racism, and black male toxic masculinity. Basically a werewolf version of the movie Moonlight. In every way it needs to be the exact opposite of 90% of Urban Fantasy being written today. (A style that a helluva lot of white writers have been aping for some twenty years now and that I’m thoroughly and completely sick of.)

      Like

  3. PB says:

    The Jessica McClain series by Amanda Carlson is also an absolute cesspit of racism, homophobia, and sexism + toxic masculinity.

    Like

  4. Anhamirak says:

    Really great article!!! Thank you =D
    If you ever feel like it I’d be really interested in your thoughts on Luke from The Mortal Instruments/Shadowhunters, specifically how the character and reader/viewer perception of him change from the books (where he’s white) to the series (where he’s black).
    Also wow I am really happy the town library didn’t have any Anita Blake books back when I was a teenager O.O

    Like

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