Leather Clad Heroines and the Monster Within

Posted by Tracy Hastie on September 25, 2015 in Blog, Tracy Hastie tagged with

Paranormal Romance and Urban Fantasy exist as contemporary texts within the Female Gothic tradition.  Through their representation of empowered female protagonists these texts continue to challenge patriarchal stereotypes.  There are numerous ways in which the representation of the monster, who is no longer Other, has revitalised the Gothic for a new generation.  Romantic relationships with monsters lead the protagonists to delve into the dark haunted spaces within themselves as they struggle to understand the nature of humanity.  Several interesting paradoxes become apparent: for instance, the struggles today’s young women experience between cultural expectations of femininity, love and monogamous relationships as opposed to empowered, independent self-affirming sexual feminist expectations.  As women struggle to own both their identity and their sexuality these novels echo third-wave feminist issues surrounding agency and identity.

When we consider the leathAnita Blakeer clad, gun wielding female protagonists of Urban Fantasy who narrate the action, we experience women who embrace their own monstrosity: Elena in Bitten, #1 in Kelley Armstrong’s Women of the Otherworld series, is a werewolf, as is Kitty in Carrie Vaughn’s Kitty and the Midnight Hour, whilst Anita Blake begins the Vampire Hunter series in Guilty Pleasures as a necromancer.  These females begin the novels as abject, as Other, as radical alterity, and possess a strong degree of agency and self-determination.  They prowl around the fringes of ‘proper’ Romance novels in an intensity that is not set aside for any relationship.  By book 11 of the Vampire Hunter series, Incubus Dreams, Anita has become the alpha female to a pack of Werewolves without being a werewolf herself.  She is the Nimir-Raj (or queen) of a pack of were-leopards through her mating to Micah – their King.  She carries the lycanthropy virus to wolf, tiger and lion, although she cannot change forms due to a combination of her necromancer magic and her metaphysical ties to Jean-Claude – her vampire lover.  As a result of her relationship with Jean-Claude she has also inherited the ardeur that turns her into a succubus who needs to feed on sex daily.  Her level of monstrosity out-monsters the monsters.


The function of the monstrous according to Barbara Creed is to ‘bring about an encounter between the symbolic order and that which threatens its stability,’ (Creed, 1993: 71).  In Urban Fantasy novels we can see this challenge in the increasingly eroded borders between man and beast, human and non-human and normal and perverse sexual desires.  The boundaries between what it means to be ‘human’ and ‘monster’ have become blurred in these series; what separates the human from the non-human is no longer so clear.  The protagonists can be seen to embody that Western concept of the split between rational, cultural ‘humanity’ and the physical ‘animal’ Other.  Our Cartesian heritage places animality on a lesser plane, seeing it as a deficiency, lacking in language, reason, intellect and moral conscience.


The animality of being able to kill without remorse is an issue Hamilton’s protagonist Anita Blake questions herself over.  Friedrich Nietzsche encapsulates this difficulty in a saying whose influence Hamilton claims to be central to her characterisation of Anita:

‘Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you’ (Hamilton, 2010 : 79).

The more Anita becomes involved in the communities of lycanthrope and vampire the less she is able to distinguish clearly the morals and certainties she began with: ‘what we thought were monsters aren’t really that much different from us’ (Hamilton, 2004: 206).  At the same time she has to acknowledge the beasts within her and their desires, ‘the beast isn’t conflicted about anything’ (251). Just as our society now accepts voices from the margins so sympathy has been made possible for the monstrous outsider.  In Urban Fantasy she is now the female protagonist and the voice narrating her own story.  This adds to the destabilisation of boundaries between self and Other, meaning there is now no simple opposition between human and monster, only degrees of separation (Mutch, 2012: 177-193). As the external horror of the monstrous Other fades, the critic Carolyn Harford sees it replaced by an existential fascination in which female readers can vicariously experience greater levels of agency and power as they face the monster within (2013: 304).  


Urban Fantasy Gothic heroines become increasingly monstrous as the texts progress.  Anita has a particular difficult time with this as her body hosts so many strands of the monstrous.  She is forced to accept her animality or die.  The horror in such boundary violations leads to her humanity being diminished whilst still evoking a sympathetic heroine.  Fred Botting suggests that this conundrum of the juxtaposition of excess with sweet romance is possible due to the darkness that Gothic Romance requires (Botting, 2008: 22).  Such duplicitous excess brings horror to the foreground and naturalises excessive consumption. The intense sensory demands placed on the heroines as they explore boundaries brings both carnal pleasure and pain forcing questions to be asked about the nature of desire and identity. Scenes involving both pain and desire ‘wallow in the pleasures of sex and romance’ but also delight the reader in the ‘horror and aberration that can lie at the core of eroticism’ (Ndalini, 2012: 106).  Through her adventures, the Urban Fantasy heroine can experience romance along with sensory experiences that are saturated with horror.  As such, there is a more challenging and complicated exploration of desire; one that merges horror, pleasure and danger; one that offers opportunities for readers to experiment with new forms of identification and erotic meaning.

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Third-wave feminism places an emphasis on creating a space for marginalised voices; Urban Fantasy provides such a space for crossing boundaries of safe sexualities to those with an edge of danger.   The true Gothic fear here is ‘a fear of femaleness itself’ – a fear that the very fact of womanhood is threatening to one’s wholeness, obliterating the boundaries of self (DeLamotte, 1990: 189).  As she begins to recognise her deepest desires, accepting the monster within whilst allowing the erotic to become integral with the self, today’s Gothic heroine, and by proxy her readers are less willing to accept powerlessness and self-denial in an empowering realisation of self-affirmation.  The texts’ eschewal of binary laws of masculine/feminine logic are as much driven by the heroine’s intelligent agency-informed empowerment as their potentially objectifying femininity.


In a further blog post I will consider the creation of a ‘woman defined space’ in the erotic writing often embraced by Paranormal Romance and Urban Fantasy and the relationship this creates between Third-wave feminism and the Female Gothic.




Armstrong Kelley, Bitten, Women of the Otherworld #1, Orbit ebook, 2008.


Botting Fred, Gothic Romanced: Consumption, Gender and Technology in Contemporary Fictions, Routledge ebook, 2008.


Creed Barbara, The Monstrous Feminine: film, feminism, psychoanalysis, Routledge, 1993.


DeLamotte Eugenia C., Perils of the Night: A Feminist Study of Nineteenth-Century Gothic, Oxford University Press, 1990.


Hamilton Laurell K., Ardeur, Benbela Books Inc, 2010.


Hamilton Laurell K., Guilty Pleasures, Anita Blake Vampire Hunter series #1, Headline, Kindle ebook, 1993, Incubus Dreams #12, Headline ebook, 2004.


Harford Carolyn, Domesticating the Monstrous in a Globalizing World, in Levina Marina, Bui Diem-My T. eds., Monster Culture in the 21st Century, 303-317, Bloomsbury, London & NY, 2013.


Mutch  Deborah, Matt Haig’s The Radleys: Vampires for the Neoliberal Age, in Mutch Deborah ed., The Modern Vampire and Human Identity, 177-93, Palgrave MacMillan ebook, 2012.


Ndalini Angela, The Horror Sensorium: Media and the Senses, McFarland & Company Inc., 2012.


Vaughn Carrie, Kitty and the Midnight Hour, Kitty Norville #1, Gollanz Kindle ebook, 2010.



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