Do you want to hear about my grudge with urban fantasy? No? Too bad. YOU WILL HEAR ABOUT IT ANYWAY. AGAIN. AND AGAIN.
There may be individual examples which qualify as such, but I don’t believe UF as a genre is inherently subversive and pro-feminist. Its primary tropes rely on the old idea that only one type of female strength may be validated and recognized: physical power, violence, and a willingness to kill. Relationships with men define the urban fantasy heroine, primarily romantic and sexual, but also in other ways–when push comes to shove it is a man she will turn to (Anita Blake with Edward, Sookie Stackhouse with all the men) for assistance and back-up. She seeks patriarchal approval by striving toward being “one of the boys,” and almost mandatorily breaks down–emotionally or physically–such that she must lean on a man’s shoulder figuratively or otherwise to get back up (Anita Blake and the first time she has sex with Jean-Claude). She associates minimally with other women, and often dismisses women less physically inclined as simpering airheads, women less sexual as prudes, and women more sexual as evil sadistic sluts who compete with her for male attention. In the career of a UF heroine, she will almost inevitably direct gendered slurs at other women: bitch, skank, whore and slut are perennial favorites. She excels because she stands tall as an exception among her gender, elevated above all other women.
Far from being a feminist icon, the typical UF heroine is an iteration of Irene Adler, who in Doyle’s narrative is said to possess “the face of the most beautiful of women and the mind of the most resolute of men.”
Now we take that idea–that the only kind of strength is found in being physically fit, being violent, being one of the boys–and we go all the way.
Meet Commander Shepard.
What does Commander Shepard get to do? She punches in the face people who annoy her. She commits mass murder and/or genocide. She saves galaxies. She’s the first human ever inducted into the super-special agency that polices the entire universe. She gains the respect of warrior frog aliens by headbutting them. She yells at people and pokes them in the chin with the business end of a gun. She gives inspirational speeches to her crew before they head into certain death. All these she does without apology; all these she does without requiring a tender moment to “balance” her out (unless the player chooses to, and even then she doesn’t have the kind of meltdowns many UF protagonists do; certainly Shepard doesn’t require a man’s shoulder to cry on). She can be bloodthirsty and ruthless without requiring a collection of stuffed penguins, an insecurity in her looks, or an inability to cook to “round her out.” The narrative does not apologize for her being the way she is and for the things she does. She is afraid of little, and the question of sexual threat never arises.
More than a power fantasy this is a fantasy of empowerment, the one that even today’s young girls don’t get growing up, because YA heroines–Katniss, Katsa–are just as constrained by their gender (that’s when they aren’t being dead or suicidal) as Mercy Thompson and Eugenie Markham,* not least because they are obliged by genre expectations to fall in love with boys, and to be emotionally vulnerable.
*Both of whom have been subjected to sexual assault. Likewise with Anita Blake and Sookie Stackhouse, to name two. Eugenie falls pregnant from her rape; at the moment of confrontation her ability to take revenge is taken away from her–one of her love interests (all male of course) delivers the killing blow. Anita’s rapist becomes one of her favorite lovers.
Shepard is also, oddly enough, surrounded by women: soldiers, mercenary operatives, engineers, doctors. She can make friends with them, get drunk with them, and a few of them she can actually court (eventually sex up, yes). While Shepard is certainly exceptional–she is a conduit for wish-fulfillment after all–she’s not so incredibly exceptional that all other women pale in comparison. Miranda Lawson, unfortunate lingering ass-shots aside, is an elite operative of a ruthless paramilitary organization. Samara is revered among her people as an agent of holy justice. Liara has a doctorate, is a powerful biotic, and runs a galactic information-brokering network. On and on. The Normandy is crewed with a great many exceptional women.
Now I have zero illusions that Drew Karpyshyn, lead writer of the first two games, is some kind of excellent feminist ally. He after all wrote this stinker where all the female characters are breezily written out, killed off, or infantilized. Samara wears a cleavage-bearing outfit and stiletto heels despite being a celibate warrior-monk; Miranda Lawson’s costume is so tight even one of the blue alien chicks feels pressed to ask “Does Cerberus really let you whore around in that outfit?” The writers’ and designers’ priorities are transparent, and they all have to do with pandering to the male gaze. But they could hardly write two different scripts, one for Commander Shepard and one for her male doppelganger. Certainly if she were not taken seriously by her superiors and subordinates while the doppelganger is, there would have been a PR disaster easily equaling the current and ongoing one over the series finale. The medium of the videogame moreover operates to deliver instant gratification; Shepard needs to shoot explosively, set people on fire hotly, or vanguard-charge at everything definitively while showing no fear or remorse. Her squadmates look to her to lead, inspire, and help them make life-changing decisions because it’s all part of the gratification/power fantasy package of the blockbuster format. There isn’t much room for introspection or weakness, and infinitely more room for choices, such that even the pursuit of romance is absolutely optional and never takes over the plot. As Jacob Taylor remarks, Shepard’s “real love” is the Normandy.
Regardless of the player’s choices the commander is much more respectable than the likes of Anita Blake, Rachel Morgan, Sookie Stackhouse or the rest of the UF clone factory: she acts, and is treated exactly like, any male action hero–while, importantly, still maintaining relationships (if not especially nuanced ones) with other women. It’s again a matter of pure coincidence due to script parity and the medium, but simply by writing a narrative where a woman is treated no differently than a man you can get a result that’s astonishingly pro-feminist. It doesn’t say anything profound about being a woman, it doesn’t deal with misogyny, it doesn’t allow much exploration into women as mothers or politicians or women in the domestic sphere. But it takes on the popular action narrative on its own terms; it plays a limited game with limited rules–a narrow definition of strength, an arena where only larger-than-life heroics count–but it plays this game so much better than the majority of urban fantasy ever will. It’s a story of how an action heroine’s gender does not hinder her narrative, make her a hyper-sexualized icon of impossible poses and proportions (see: urban fantasy cover art), or stop her from relating to other women.
Shepard may have many things to fear, but losing the romantic attention of the men around her, being raped, and reviling other women as her romantic competition simply aren’t just on her menu. And all the UF heroines would need to do to match her is for their writers to shake off the shackles of escapism, and achieve actual escape.