This past week, I took a break from academic reading to enjoy the fourth installment of the Mercy Thompson series, Bone Crossed, by Patricia Briggs. The series, if you haven’t already encountered it, is a fantasy series centered around a young woman who works as a car mechanic and happens to be a walker raised by werewolves. At the beginning of the series, Mercy is trying to avoid her supernatural past as much as possible, a goal that becomes increasingly untenable as she is drawn deeper and deeper into local politics and relationships with a cast of characters both human and non-human (and, often, somewhere in between).
I’ve been looking forward to this book since the last one came out, and I definitely wasn’t disappointed. The fourth installment is on par with the other three novels in the series (Moon Called, Blood Bound and Iron Kissed) and manages to balance Mercy’s newly-established significant-other relationship with a plot involving the local vampire seethe, a malevolent ghost, and tense inter-species politics. Furthermore, Briggs deserves major kudos for writing Mercy into an emotionally and physically intimate relationship with a super-dominant werewolf without finding it necessary to alter Mercy’s basic personality or downplay her established ability and willingness to stand up for herself and the people she cares about.
But (you knew there was going to be a “but . . .”), as the series moves forward I’ve become increasingly aware of a weird dynamic: the absence of other central women characters. Or, more specifically, the lack of central female characters with whom Mercy has primary relationships that aren’t either (1) protective, or (2) antagonistic. Jesse, the adolescent daughter of the local alpha werewolf, is a wonderful character — but of course she’s still a child to be cared for by the adults in her life. There are dominant female werewolves, but they’re jealous of the attention Mercy receives from the male werewolves and disdainful of her non-werewolf status. And Mercy’s human and other non-werewolf connections are pretty much exclusively male — at least the ones that make it into the narratives for more than a passing glance. This is a dynamic I’ve noticed in a few genre series lately, and reading this book is giving me the opportunity to throw a question out to all of you: what’s going on here?
It’s not her choice of a partner that’s a problem, or the fact that many of her close secondary friendships are with guys. The men in the story make up a great cast of characters. I realize that Mercy is straight, so her sexual relationships are going to be with men, and her strongest primary ties will be with her significant other. As the story stands, he’s not the sole focus of her life, but he’s a solid component of the core. In my opinion, Briggs is striking a successful balance on that score. What is striking to me isn’t the presence of men in Mercy’s (albeit fictional) life, it’s the absence of women.
Why? Is there something inherent to the genre that makes it particularly difficult to write a fully-realized female protagonist who isn’t a sort of token woman amid a cast of male characters? I don’t think so: consider Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks or Melissa Marr’s Wicked Lovely, both of which feature great women protagonists who are in primary relationships with male characters, but who nevertheless sustain relationships with other women too. Perhaps in this case, Briggs’ hands are somewhat tied by the fact that her werewolf society is deeply patriarchal — highly aware of gender and hierarchy. In fact, it’s the patriarchy of the pack dynamics that’s made Mercy wary of getting involved with werewolves (personally or politically) at the beginning of the series. Working within a patriarchal framework creates a situation where Mercy has to out-guy the guys a lot of the time, in order to make sure she isn’t dismissed. But surely Mercy isn’t the only woman in Briggs’ alternate universe bloody-minded enough to fall in love with a werewolf and fight to establish a relationship on equal terms . . . and what about the werewolf women? In short — where are Mercy’s female friends?
If you’ve read any of the Mercy Thompson novels, or any other fantasy/science-fiction novels that suffer from this problem (or are an example of how it could be done differently), I welcome your thoughts, and suggestions for further reading, in the comments!
Cross-posted at Feministing Community.