What do Disney princesses and urban fantasy girls have in common?
(As a total aside, if you want to see these girls when they're off-duty, and hence more fun, check out Amy Mebberson's Tumblr for her Pocket Princesses. They're awesome, and they have the spunk, spirit, and personality that the official Princesses sadly often lack.)
It wasn't until I read the book Cinderella Ate My Daughter that I noticed the creepiest thing about the Disney princesses: they never look at each other. Get six of them in a group, and they will all strike independent poses, they will all gaze at independent points off in the distance. They never make eye contact. They never acknowledge each other in any way. Why?
Because if you're going to be the fairest in the land, you can't ever admit that anyone of comparable fairness even exists. To be the prettiest princess, you must also be the only princess. So all you other princesses can just step off; this is my spotlight.
As most of you probably know, I read a lot of urban fantasy, geared both at adults and the YA market. I enjoy it. It makes me happy. It features, as a genre, a lot of strong female characters doing strong female things. Yes, it has its flaws, because all genres have flaws, but on the whole, it's probably my favorite genre right now.
Only. I noticed a thing. This is a thing that I am not immune to. Nor is it a universal thing (so making long lists of exceptions to this thing is not necessarily helpful, although discussion of specific examples is, as always, awesome). But it's a thing I think we should be thinking about, both as creators and consumers. And it's this:
Urban fantasy heroines have a lot in common with Disney princesses.
The standards for "fairest of them all" are different when your kingdom is a city and your ballgown is a pair of leather pants. You need to be the best ass-kicker, the best snarker, the best crime-solver or magic-user, or whatever. But they're still high standards to live up to, and it's easier to do when there's no one else in your sandbox. If no one else is kicking ass in leather pants, you don't have to try as hard to be the best. Consequentially, we keep seeing urban fantasy heroines with no peers. No other women who kick ass. They might have sidekicks, or even other strong female characters in supporting roles, but it feels like a lot of them...well. Like a lot of them just don't have any friends.
In my daily life, I have a lot of friends who are, well, fairer than me in some ways. Vixy is an amazing lead vocalist. Pretty sure if we were auditioning against each other, she'd get the part. Also, cartoon birdies braid her hair. Cat and Bear and I write very different books, but we're all award-winners and best-sellers and Cat raises chickens and Bear climbs mountains, neither of which I do. Kate is witty and snarky and often faster on her feet than I am, as well as being a thousand times more organized. Meg is a natural redhead who makes her own clothes and bounces back after flying over the handlebars of her bike...and these are only a few of the amazing, incredible, bad-ass women who share my life.
It can be easy, as an author, to smooth and sand the story until all the unnecessary characters are gone, and I can see where that might mean you have to lose a few of the members of the Breakfast Club. At the same time, if that process leaves six male characters and one female, and only one of those male characters is Prince Charming, why are the other five all dudes? Can't we balance things a little? For me, female characters are more believable when they have friends. When there are other women around to talk to, trade tips on wearing leather pants without chafing with, and generally enjoy.
And if someone says that a story containing more than three characters "only needed" one woman, I sort of have issues with that. (In my perfect world, no one would say that about two or three character stories, either. But I'm willing to grant that some stories need two males and one female, if you'll grant that the opposite is also true.) Even Magic Mike, a movie about male strippers, managed to have two female characters with distinct and interesting, if brief, speaking roles.
I don't like that the Disney princesses have been frozen in place, never making eye contact with the only people who could really be their peers and understand the trials of the tiara. I'd hate it for that to happen to our urban fantasy girls, too.