I recently read OWL AND THE JAPANESE CIRCUS by Kristi Charish. The first book in a new urban fantasy series starring a young former archaeology student now turned thief! It was a lot of fun and I’m excited to have the author here today to talk about the urban fantasy genre and female protagonists!
Tabitha’s Review of OWL AND THE JAPANESE CIRCUS
Now lets hear from the author!
Urban Fantasy and the Female Protagonist
I saw someone bring up a really interesting point online last week about female protagonists in the UF genre.
Why is it a male protagonist (such as Indiana Jones) can seduce multiple women and no one questions whether it’s an adventure or romance, but put a female in the lead and the dynamic changes. (paraphrased)
Why is there such a double standard for romance in adventure books dependent on the sex of the protagonist?
It seems as if the moment a romance subplot is mentioned in relation to an urban/contemporary fantasy series, the protagonist’s sex determines whether or not the paranormal romance label will be thrown around. If a male protagonist is high-lining the series than the assumption is you’re still looking at an adventure, where as a female protagonist brings up the romance label. An example of this is The Dresden Files, by Jim Butcher and The Hollows by Kim Harrison (two of my all time favorite urban fantasy series). The Dresden Files feature Harry Dresden and The Hollows feature Rachel Morgan. Though both feature strong romance subplots along side adventure and mystery, it’s only The Hollows that is occasionally given the paranormal romance label. The Dresden Files with a male protagonist gets a free pass from the PR label.
Why are we so willing to jump to the conclusion that a book featuring a woman protagonist in fantasy is a romance?
I think it’s partly related to the assumption that women read romance. Not to knock romance, it’s one of the most consumed genres on the planet (if not the most consumed), and it is traditionally marketed exclusively to women.
But I wonder if there isn’t another aspect to the puzzle, a slightly more insidious and less direct cultural influence, but one that’s never-the-less been there for a long time. The assumption that women will read about both a female or male protagonist, but men will only read about a male protagonist. Jump the logic train and add on the idea that women read romance and you’ve got your stereotype.
Men won’t watch movies about women. The History of Green-Lighting in Hollywood
There is a reluctance to showcase a female headliner in a movie, particularly in the adventure fantasy genre, that goes back to a practice prevalent in green-lighting films. In order to be green-lit, the execs holding the purse strings need to be convinced the movie will earn back its investment. For just about as long as the practice has been in place, one of the factors a movie is judged by is the appeal of the main protagonist. Bonus points if the protagonist is male, points deducted if they’re female. The logic this is based on is the idea that not only will men not watch a movie about a female protagonist, but women will still watch a movie featuring male protagonists. Do you potentially loose half your audience if you go with a women lead, or do you play it safe and use a male? (Harry Potter is an example of a book that would have been easier to green-light than one featuring a female)
This means it’s harder to get a movie green-lit starring a female lead. Everything is held up to a different standard – script, story, actors – because it’s still assumed that the movie featuring a woman is coming out at an audience disadvantage.
Now, the big caveat here is this logic is based on a biased pool of data. Since in order to be green-lit a movie needs a male protagonist, the theory has never really been tested. Chicken before the egg. Though it should be noted that in 2013 (Hunger Games Catching Fire, Frozen, Gravity), movies headlining female protagonists out earned their male counterparts by 20%, and there were fewer movies made staring female leads. It suggests that the importance of gender during green-lit could be hurting studio pockets, not lining them. Want a movie to obliterate box office numbers? Stick a strong women in the lead roll and watch the money train roll in.
If we think about it, women have always featured heavily in our mythology and stories- from the Greek and Roman Gods like Diana, Athena, and Aphrodite, to folk heroes like Joan of Arc, strong women feature historically in many of our oldest tales.
So how does this relate to the paranormal romance label?
Women read romance
This one is a bit trickier. Romance is often maligned in discussions on books, but it’s also one of the most consumed (if not the most consumed) commercial fiction genres on the planet. Romance is also largely consumed by (and I might add marketed towards) women. That’s not to exclude men. Lots of guys read romance, secretly or not. The point is, as far as consumer dynamics are concerned, romance novels are written for women.
My concern is the jump in logic that assumes that if romance is written for women, all women must read romance. It’s like saying all women like pink. It’s a label ascribed to women but it’s not true. A lot of women can’t stand the color – it’s simply a color, not a defining characteristic of the female gender. Lots of women love Fantasy/Sci-Fi and are more interested in an adventure plotline than romance.
So, even though green-lighting says a female protagonist is a liability, the publishers of the world know romance makes them a lot of money. Granted, some of them are halfway convinced all women consume romance but since that gravy train of logic is a colossal earner why fix what’s not broken? It’s no wonder there’s an initial industry bias that a book featuring a female protagonist- fantasy or not- must be a romance. That’s apparently what women buy, and since romance is the big ticket item in the world of books…well, what wouldn’t be safer? Wisdom from green-lighting in the movie industry dictates men won’t read about a female protagonist, so best marketing practices says go all out and convince people it is a romance.
Jump another logic step to the audience pool and it’s also no wonder they assume a book (or movie for that matter) featuring a women is going to be a romance. We’ve been trained to.
The point of this post isn’t to lay blame or pick a fight. We’ve seen more strong female protagonists headline movies in the past few years than ever before and they’re killing it at the box office. I have high hopes that we’re now seeing the remnants of the green-lighting male bias (if there’s one thing studio execs like, it’s money, and Katniss is money).
Now this is at its heart an opinion piece. My point here is to suggest that these two seemingly unrelated mediums (romance novels and movie green-lighting practices) are influencing on a subtle cultural level how the world perceives urban fantasy. When urban fantasy featuring a female protagonist gets slotted into paranormal romance without a second thought, I think it’s worth discussing.
And here’s to more contemporary fantasy (movies/books/games/all inclusive here) featuring smart female protagonists.
Kristi is the author of OWL AND THE JAPANESE CIRCUS (Jan 13th, 2015, Simon and Schuster Canada/Pocket Books), an urban fantasy about a modern-day “Indiana Jane” who reluctantly navigates the hidden supernatural world. She writes what she loves; adventure heavy stories featuring strong, savvy female protagonists, pop culture, and the occasional RPG fantasy game thrown in the mix. The second installment, OWL AND THE CITY OF ANGELS, is scheduled for release Jan 2016. Her second urban fantasy series, KINCAID STRANGE (Random House Canada), about a voodoo practioner living in Seattle, is scheduled for release mid 2016.
Kristi is also a scientist with a BSc and MSc from Simon Fraser University in Molecular Biology and Biochemistry and a PhD in Zoology from the University of British Columbia. Her specialties are genetics, cell biology, and molecular biology, all of which she draws upon in her writing. She is represented by Carolyn Forde at Westwood Creative Artists.