Content warnings for cis- and hetero- centric worldbuilding.
Back in June 2016, I wrote a whole Urban Fantasy 101 piece on the heteronormativity present in much of the genre (and I am including contemporary paranormal romance in this wide umbrella). While I know way more queer urban fantasy writers – and stories – than I did back then, one thing that still stands out to me is the way that so many of the big ticket urban fantasy writers still don’t bother to include any meaningful forms of queer representation in their massive series.
Earlier this month, I took out the first book in Lora Leigh’s The Breeds series, Tempting the Beast, from my local library. On top of truly terrible sex scenes and a take on “mating frenzies” that leaves me cringing because of how awful it is, the novel also appears to be one of the most heteronormative series I’ve ever seen in the genre. In this series, the Breeds – lab-grown shifters – go into mating frenzies once they meet their mate in order to solidify their relationship and assure procreation – no queer members of the species seem possible because it’s set up to be cis male and female couples only.
No lie, in Tempting the Beast, there’s actual science used to explain how the cis male character’s semen interacts with his mate’s body chemistry to temporarily quell the heat. This is put forward as a solution to the mating frenzy – something that happens naturally between mates in the early stages of their relationship. Standard for many erotic romances in the genre, but still frustrating.
In that aforementioned Urban Fantasy 101 piece, I brought up how the language used for these mating frenzies – and the very procreation-centered drive for a mate – always precludes the mere existence of queer members of that species.
There are thirty-two stories in The Breeds series and as far as I can tell, not a single one has a main queer pairing. Thirty-two stories focusing on cisgender and heterosexual male/female relationships between characters whose automatic mating drive is triggered when they meet for the first time and can only be stopped by conception.
This is something that straight up writes out the very potential mated pairs that aren’t cis-het male/female and it makes zero sense because if shapeshifters are possible in your work, queer folks should be too.
The way that many UF/PR writers who use mating-related tropes as a shortcut to their shifters’ happy endings and gender/sex-locked matings for shifters all tied into procreation means that for queer readers, we’re generally being told (and kind of explicitly at that) that we’re a non-issue to these writers.
In much of mainstream urban fantasy, we’re being told that, queer shifters “can’t exist”.
You see this in Eileen Wilks’ World of the Lupi series where the titular Lupi – a group of shifters where only the cis-male men members are capable of shifting into wolves – are renowned for how much they love women and the actual books say explicitly that they’re “incapable of being homosexual”.
We’re being told that queer shifters are an aberration – that they’re denying their “natural urges for procreation”.
Remember folks, the only gay werewolf in Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson series is constantly subject to pack-sanctioned homophobia because of how unnatural the other werewolves think he is and how afraid they are of the guy coming on to them/being aroused by them. (Queer werewolves who aren’t dudes don’t seem to exist in this uber patriarchal world that Briggs has created and that’s another problem.)
When urban fantasy and paranormal romance authors science their way into procreation-related explanations for why there are mating frenzies and whatnot, they’re telling queer readers that shifters like them are unlikely to get a happy ending if they even do exist because no “real” shifter in-universe would break away from genetics or a biological imperative to procreate to ever be queer. (Peep Kelley Armstrong’s werewolves and how preoccupied they are with trying to spread their seed – and how often the lone female werewolf in this universe is subject to sexual harassment by these alpha assholes.)
Most of these stories don’t say outright that they’re not for queer readers. Most of these books don’t have characters outright say that being queer is wrong or unnatural or something that shouldn’t happen. They show it though. They sure show it.
I get that several of the long-running urban fantasy and paranormal romance series out there have been going on for over a decade and that “things were different then”, but when the harmful queer erasure and heteronormative language in your book from 1993 or 2003 are still present in your series in 2018… You’ve got a problem that needs to be analyzed and corrected.
There was a time when I used to collect all of Sherrilyn Kenyon’s Dark-Hunter books in print. I was a huge fan to the point where my mom actually bought me a copy of Acheron when it came out because of how strong my love for that series was. That brick of a book was honestly my earliest awakening to how problematic Kenyon’s thoughts on queerness in her series are.
It isn’t just that Kenyon has worldbuilt herself a neat reason to exclude queer were-hunters – who are, so far, exclusively heterosexual – but that the entire Dark-Hunters series is rife with casual anti-queer comments (generally framed as “jokes”) about the potential for queer dudes that let readers know that even though many of the Dark-Hunters are from ancient Greece or Rome, cultures that somewhat allowed intimate relationships between men, that they’re totally not even vaguely likely to be into dudes now.
It’s that I’m pretty sure that Kenyon’s massive series has had only three queer dude characters – two, Apollo and Dionysus, are rapists who abuse the titular character in Styxx while the third, the Daimon Davyn was killed off around the same time we got a brief nod to his sexualty – and while many of the Amazons are queer but treated like a joke and are unlikely to get books where they’re the heroines looking for another heroine. It’s that references to queer characters are few and far between and that when queerness comes up in her books, it’s a joke or a thing for a straight dude to reject immediately like it’s a case of cooties they need to shut down.
All of these writers who make it clear that there’s no place for queerness in their shifter species are making a choice to keep queer shifters out of their worldbuilding and alienate queer readers. In the case of the longer running series, they’re also making a choice not to retcon or revise what are, at this point, antiquated and exceptionally reductive views on sexuality, gender (roles), and reproduction.
These are authors who would probably lose their shit if you suggested that they were anything other than devoted to inclusion – you know because they have diverse species and they’ve got some biracial characters who can tan darker than a paper bag – but then… all of their shapeshifters are straight and cis and the lore/worldbuilding they created actively rules out attempts at queering them in the canon or by fans.
But you know what? At the end of the day, it’s necessarily not that I want these best-sellers with twenty-book series to suddenly remember that queer people exist and have book buying money. I don’t want them to half-ass their way through portraying queer identities because they want some of that sweet disposable income we have.
I want them to do better as writers because they remember that queer people deserve happy endings too.
However, it’s 2018 and I don’t need to go scrounging around for crumbs of background relationships or navigate around shitty subtext because many the urban fantasy and paranormal romance writers of my past (and unfortunate present) don’t seem to remember people like me exist unless they’re having their characters assure each other (and a presumably straight audience) that they’re not like me.
I mean, I have a whole ass list of different books with queer werewolves and I know that other queer shifters (by queer authors, at that) are present in the genre!
I really don’t need to spend money on (authors who haven’t put any thought into what it’s like to be queer and how queer shifters can be incredible representation of our complex identities and what we have to do to keep ourselves safe and our souls intact.
2 thoughts on “Fleeting Frustrations #1: Heteronormativity in Urban Fantasy Revisited”
It seemed this was also a huge problem in the Romance genre in general, with a kind of low grade homophobia by a lot of the authors of such books. Thankfully there are a lot of good authors out there now that are willing to think of this topic with some depth, and include queer characters.
Incidentally have you done any writing on how werewolves are always white people. I bring this up because I was watching that one show (which name I forget, but it stars an Asian sorcerer, in a same sex relationship, too) with the black male werewolf, and I realized, I have never encountered a black man as a werewolf in any form of fiction. I haven’t watched a lot of the show, but how is he treated on there?
And thanks for the list!
Yeah, I used to be just as intensely into paranormal romances until I got sick of the way they used shapeshifters to present this gender essentialist, heteronormative, sexist world with all the lame ass “alpha” shit.
I haven’t read a shapeshifter book in years because those books ruined the taste, but I’ll check out your list. Thanks for making and sharing it :).
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