Hopeless Reimantic Presents: Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter (Part Two)
CONTENT NOTE: Discussions herein of sexual assault, dubious consent, mental health treated badly, homophobia, biphobia and slut-shaming. Oh, and plenty of spoilers.
Welcome back to Hopeless Reimantic Presents! Last time we got our teeth into Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter, and I found myself actually saying some pretty positive things about the books. (Honestly, I’m as surprised as you. My fourteen-year-old self is throwing one hell of a sulk.) It’s not the full story, though, and there’s still quite a lot about this series to unpack.
First of all, there’s something I need to make clear: as I said in Part One, I went into this review determined not to talk about the series in relation to Laurell K. Hamilton herself more than was necessary.
I generally hold that unless an author has done something that I can’t reconcile myself to morally, I don’t feel like it’s my business to talk about their personal life when I am supposed to be reviewing their books. And from what I’ve read of Laurell K. Hamilton’s blog posts, she seems kind of entitled and I find her annoying, but…well, let’s just say that as far as I can tell she’s no Orson Scott Card. By and large my problems with the ideas she puts across can easily be expressed in criticism of her work rather than criticism of her.
I ran into some problems with this approach, to be sure; the evidence for Anita Blake being the author’s avatar is pretty compelling. But for the purposes of analysing the text, I’m putting that debate to bed. From here on out, guys, they’re just books, so if anyone is reading this expecting it to be a catalogue of Ms Hamilton’s character flaws, well, it’s not going to be. Hashtag sorry not sorry, or something.
Oh, one more thing: I’m limiting myself to a maximum of one book quotation per point here, because SEVENTEEN BOOKS LORD HAVE MERCY.
Okay! Let’s get started. Where were we? Was I wanting to tear my eyes out? I think I was wanting to tear my eyes out.
…I’m going to need to slip into a more concise format, I think, or that’s just going to be the entire article. Here, then, in no particular order, are My Main Problems with Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter:
1) Anita only has one dating experience that I would describe as fully consensual.
She dates Richard, a werewolf, and then she gets engaged to Richard, and then the vampire she’s been hanging out with decides that he needs “equal time” to win her over, or he’s got no choice but to duel Richard to the death:
“You have dated him for months, and I have said little. Before you marry him, I want equal time.”
“I’ve been trying to avoid you for months. I’m not just going to give in now.”
“Then I will start the music, and we will dance. Even if I die, and you die. Richard will die first, I can promise you that. Surely dating me is not a fate worse than death.”
– Laurell K. Hamilton, The Lunatic Cafe, p.221.
(I’m not so sure about that, dude.)
There’s also the shapeshifter leopard who basically just rapes her (it’s okay, she enjoys it) and then is her mate and it’s all fine, and the other shapeshifter leopard who is Terrifyingly Submissive at her until she gives in (more on that later). These are her four main men and, last I checked, the various loves of her life.
There are a couple of things at play here, and I can intellectually grasp them both. One is that an easy way to add darkness and tension to a story is to have your main character interact with a world which doesn’t recognise their morality, which is how we get all those kind of racist “I was ravished by a barbarian/sheikh/otherwise rich and dark-skinned man” stories (remind me to talk to you about The Panther And The Pearl some time). And that’s not necessarily a bad thing in a fantasy world where you are dealing with beings that might have witnessed the greater part of human history. I do take the point that you might well not care so much about pesky human morals when you’ve been living off blood or sex or male tears or whatever for about a thousand years.
And, credit where it’s due, Laurell K. Hamilton does make some effort to deal with the effect this is having on Anita; she agonises, at least initially, over the detachment she feels from her humanity as she gets drawn deeper into the preternatural world. Hamilton doesn’t really take that conflict anywhere, which is a shame because it makes the whole thing feel a bit too insta-conflict for my liking, but she tries.
The considerably more disturbing thing is the second point, which is that this is supposed to be hot. We’ve touched on this before in the column on alpha males, but one thing that I think I missed there is actually what I find grossest about this particular fantasy – that being threatened or coerced, either physically or by other means, into being with someone is supposed to be evidence of part of a woman’s power and mystique. It’s not that these guys are proto-rapists, no – it’s that women are so damned irresistible that they overwhelm men’s judgement and common sense. Basically, they are the full moon to every man’s boner werewolf (link NSFW).
There is an element of pick-up artistry that states that when you overcome LMR (last minute resistance, usually to sex) you’re actually doing the woman a favour, because you’re taking the responsibility out of her hands. She can’t be a slut, because she’s not in control; you’re preserving her purity while still giving her the sex she wants. That is gross and messed-up and a terrible bit of rape apologia, but it’s the same kind of logic that I’m seeing here; it’s a way to skirt around having Anita own her own sexuality. She can’t help it! She’s just got this energy!
And on that note…
2) There’s hella slut-shaming.
It took me a while to realise this. I started out with Danse Macabre, but the more of these books I read, the more I became convinced that having lots of sex was only okay for Anita Blake, and by extension her harem of men, because Anita Blake has sex because she somehow has to – which is a pretty icky sentence to begin with, by the way.
Anita starts out the series not believing in pre-marital sex. She ends up having quite a lot of it, but there’s never a sense that she revises that belief, which would be really interesting if it didn’t have such weird implications for the other women in the books. Anita has sex because of deep love, a deep sense of obligation (erk) and/or because she is a succubus. Metaphysical events or very strong emotion compel her to bone, and the fact that she ends up enjoying it immensely is somehow a coincidence, which is possibly the strangest permutation of the forced seduction trope I’ve ever seen.
And even that would be okay, were it not for the fact that every single other woman in the books who has sex for such a frivolous reason as the fact she just enjoys it is painted as either a) shallow and heinous, b) mentally unstable, or c) both.
Which brings me neatly to:
3) There is gratuitous use of mental illness as a plot device.
Basically every villain is crazy. And there’s Nathaniel, her second shapeshifter love interest, who is super-submissive and utterly traumatised by his past and hey, did we mention he’s kinky too and can take more pain than anybody else? Because he’s damaged?
Urgh. If I had to hazard, I’d say this follows a lot of the same logic that we see in point 1), but let’s just be honest here; this isn’t just offensive, it’s lazy writing, in the same way that blaming serious criminal offences or terrorism on mental illness is lazy journalism. It’s a way to avoid grappling seriously with what could actually be some pretty compelling issues and it’s depressing me. So let’s move on to our final point:
4) Gender essentialism and homophobia.
This is a pretty interesting one, actually, because the characters around Anita Blake actually call her on some of it, and it doesn’t work. I skipped a quotation for mental illness and point 2, so we can have two in here because it’s my column and I make the rules.
I feel like I need to include this one because it’s in Shutdown, which was actually only released a few weeks ago – and, again, in fairness to Ms Hamilton, releasing it the way she did was a nice idea (it was a freebie because of the US government shutdown, in solidarity with government workers who were off without pay).
The story itself is interesting purely because the premise is so flawed: Richard, Anita Blake’s erstwhile lover, now-Top, is engaged to another woman, and apparently has chosen only now to mention to her that he’s poly and wants to see other people for wild kinky sex. His fiancee has a problem with this – not, you understand, because somehow they have got as far as being engaged without this ever having come up, but because she’s a crazy jealous harpy who can’t wrap her narrow mind around non-monogamy or sex that isn’t vanilla.
I liked precisely nobody in this short, but Anita least of all:
I hadn’t had to endure this much small talk in years. We’d learned a lot about one another, but unless we were looking to date, I didn’t see the point.
Men understood that sometimes you didn’t want to smile, but you weren’t mad either, while women expect other women to be pleasant, and if you’re not they think you don’t like them. There are so many reasons that most of my friends are men.
– Laurell K. Hamilton, Shutdown, pp.6-8
Oh, Ms Blake, you charmer. I could quote this little piece all day, actually, because it shows you a lot about the mess of contradictions that is gender portrayal in these books, but – you guys, I can’t. I just can’t. I think my brain is leaking out of my ears.
Let’s finish up, then, with one final quote, and my witty and insightful riposte.
Look, okay, this isn’t even close to the most homophobia I’ve ever seen in fiction, or the worst. I’ll give you that I really do think this was… misguided, but well-intentioned. For what that’s worth. But the fact remains that I don’t think I’ve seen a non-heterosexual character in the Anita Blake series who wasn’t sex-obsessed, mentally ill (see above) and/or just plain old mean.
Anita Blake herself later gets a girlfriend and starts identifying as “heteroflexible”, which is a completely valid label that I don’t wish to detract from, but in this case reads to me sort of like she’s just started adding “no homo” to the end of all of her sentences about fancying women.
And then there’s…well, this. For context: some of Anita’s male partners are bisexual. She has just had a threesome with one of them and another man, which she feels gives her incontrovertible proof that he is, in fact, also into guys. The other men around her do not seem bothered by this revelation. Which prompts the following:
“In college I had a friend, a girlfriend, a girl who was a friend. She and I went shopping together. Slept over at each other’s dorm rooms. I undressed in front of her because she was a girl. Then toward the end of college she told me she was gay. We were still friends, but she went into that guy category for me. You don’t undress in front of people who see you as a sex object. You don’t sleep with them, or…oh, hell.” I looked up at Micah. “Won’t it weird you out to sleep nude beside him now?”
– Laurell K. Hamilton, Danse Macabre, p.188.
Funny story: my original response to this paragraph was a lot more colourful. I’m going to try and discuss it briefly, coherently and without expletives.
I’m not sure which bothers me more, here: the idea that being attracted to members of one gender means you’re attracted to all members of one gender, or Anita’s assumption that everybody around her is going to have the same weird hang-ups as she is. I will say, though, that reading this made me briefly see red. You can come hang out with my friends, Anita Blake’s token lesbian college friend! They’ll hug you! Even the straight women!
What I’m struggling to articulate is why, exactly, this paragraph was the exact point that I fully lost patience with the series, because in context it’s not actually so bad. Anita is laughed at for her small-mindedness, and they all go to sleep naked and it’s fine.
Except that this never really goes away. There’s a kind of false normal here that you’re not supposed to stray from, and then even when Anita does, all that happens it that it gets this veneer of “exotic sexy sex stuff” that makes the books transgressive and naughty. It doesn’t read like a straight-up sex fantasy. I definitely don’t buy that it’s an honest exploration of sexuality in fiction. I’m not even sure that it’s Laurell K. Hamilton bragging about her sex life with extra fantasy elements.
The best way I can describe it is that it reads like a zoo exhibit, if people who have a lot of sex could actually literally be zoo exhibits. It doesn’t challenge normative attitudes, is what I’m saying. It takes the stuff Ms Hamilton describes as “too underground for the mainstream” and sticks it behind a thick layer of societal assumptions-reinforced glass, so that you can look at it without getting your brain too into all the sex stuff. And then you can go home at the end feeling like you’ve learned something. And perhaps a little icky.
And that brings us to the end of Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter. If you enjoyed this column and want me to do more like it, consider dropping me a comment, because the experience was…
…it’s been an experience, guys. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to read something else. Something gentle, with no sex in it whatsoever. Maybe some Catherynne M. Valente.
See you next time!