Thursday, February 13, 2014

This Story Is Much Less Feminist Than I Remember (Bitten)

So, about eight years ago (I think), I was waiting in line at Borders to buy the sixth Harry Potter book at the midnight release party, because I am now and always have been a giant nerd, when this really awesome chick standing in line next to us recommended a series to me. "Oh, you like The Dresden Files?" she said, I think. And I nodded like a good little puppet. She then grinned really wide (I remember that), reached over into the stacks next to us and pulled out a book. "Then you're going to love this. It's about werewolves. And it's got a girl for the main character."

I fell in love instantly.

Seriously, though, eight years ago I was still definitely a nerd, and by that point I owned every season of Buffy on DVD, but I wasn't nearly as well educated about women in genre fiction as I am now. I liked Dresden Files and Doctor Who and Supernatural and Lord of the Rings, but I couldn't pick the name Tamora Pierce out of a hat, and the concept of feminist urban fantasy or feminist anything really had never even crossed my mind. Needless to say, when that chick reached over and grabbed Kelley Armstrong's Bitten, it totally and completely blew my mind.

The book, which has just now been turned into a SyFy show - hence why we're talking about it now - is part of Armstrong's Women of the Otherworld series, an admittedly feminist collection of urban fantasy novels centered around women and the supernatural. Of all of those stories, the Bitten series is and remains my favorite, probably because the female lead is so freaking cool. Now, however, as I'm watching the show my lovely little book has turned into, I can't help but notice something kind of funky going on here. Namely, that this story isn't nearly so progressive as I remember.

Oh sure, it's a nominally feminist story about this really cool chick who happens to be the only female werewolf ever, and who can totally hold her own with the boys, and who has a deep dark tragic past, and a tumultuous relationship with her husband/ex/the guy who turned her. But when you dig a little deeper into this story, as I'm seeing when I watch the show, it's kind of, well, not actually very feminist at all.

I feel weird about this.

Elena Michaels (played on the TV show by Laura Vandervoort) isn't just the only female werewolf in her pack, she's the only female werewolf period. At all. Ever. And she's not super thrilled about that. Because the werewolf gene is only carried on the Y chromosome, only men can be born werewolves, and since there are really strict laws about biting, and most people don't survive the bite anyway, no other woman has ever been recorded to survive into becoming a werewolf.

Elena is not a werewolf by choice. She was bitten by her then-fiance, Clay (Greyston Holt), because he believed that it was the only way they could be together. She then nearly died, went through complete and total agony, and awoke as an apex predator. Nowadays, she's avoiding the hell out of Clay and living in Toronto, pretending to be human and dating a very nice normal dude named Philip (Paul Greene), who has no idea that his girlfriend can bench press a car and eat an entire deer in one sitting.

Because normalcy is boring, Elena's pretty little life is disrupted when some crap goes down back at pack headquarters. It seems that a mutt (lone wolf, usually bitten not born) has been mauling people on the pack's territory, and they need to find him and put him down before he exposes their wolfy secret. Elena, being the best tracker in the pack, is cajoled, bullied, and finally emotionally blackmailed into coming home to help.

Once home, she of course falls back into old habits of sniping and reunites with everyone, and it's honestly not really a spoiler to say this, but SPOILERS anyway, I guess, she gets back together with Clay. But only after she's yelled at him for a while.

Now, on the surface, I'm totally down with this story. Elena is a cool, strong, badass of a character who, as stated before, can bench press a car and eats all the time and has to pretend to get mugged so that no one finds out that she could literally eat the mugger. She's special and nifty and she has guys falling for her left and right. Don't we all want to be like Elena? Sure, we see a hell of a lot of her naked butt in this series, but whatever. We all have butts. Elena is rad as hell, and I'm sure that her life choices are totally sane and fine and not at all an awful example for everyone ever.

Well, no. Not really. Because the guys who fall for Elena are either nice, bland guys like Philip, who you just know she won't ever choose in the end because they're way too normal, or totally psychopaths like Clay. Clay who was bitten as a child, grew up feral on the bayou, and bit Elena because of course it made sense to try to murder the person he loved. And then who decided that not-stalking her for a year was enough brownie points to make stalking her now that she's back totally okay.

Oh, and there's the thing where when they started dating she was a student and he was her teacher. Ewwww, sexual harassment bylaws.

But the real thing that irks me here is that Elena is never ever given a choice about her life. Not when Clay bites her, not when Jeremy (Greg Bryk) calls her home again, and certainly not when she is targeted by evil werewolves intent on stealing her magical lady-werewolf powers (that's not a spoiler because it happens in literally every book). Plus they added in this tragic backstory where Elena was in the foster system and was sexually abused. So the whole Clay biting her without consent thing? Double plus ungood.

Not that it was good to begin with, for the record.

What really chafes my butt is that all of this is, for the most part, not an issue. Like, in the book you're supposed to root for Clay and Elena to get back together. Who cares that he's a feral sociopath who doesn't understand the word "No" and who literally ruined her life? He's hot! So what if he's actually a textbook abusive boyfriend, who wants to control Elena's life, her friends, her everyday movements, who is psychotically possessive, irrational, violent, and willing to ignore her wishes and act on her person without consent. He's dreamy.

It's actually deeply uncomfortable now for me to look at their relationship, because here's the thing: Clay doesn't ever change. He doesn't become a better guy. He doesn't really apologize for biting Elena. And he doesn't regret that decision. So obviously Elena decides to get back with him.

Not gonna lie, when I watch the show now, as much as I still enjoy it and as much as I adore werewolves and bad CGI and blatantly Canadian actors, it makes me feel all squicky inside. This is an abuse narrative. And it's super gross.

It's also, weirdly, not all that uncommon. I was discussing this with a friend at the rehearsal dinner last week (like you do), and we noticed that in YA fiction love triangles, the girl always ends up with the second guy. Like there's the guy she's with or into in the beginning of the series, but she ends up with the second guy, the one she meets later. 

This is also notable because the first guy is usually hyper-traditionally masculine (like Gale in The Hunger Games), and the second guy is usually more atypically masculine (like Peeta in The Hunger Games). As far as YA fiction goes, the only one we could think of to disprove this trend was Uglies, and even there, she only ends up with the first guy again because the second guy died.

The thing is, this is just a trend in YA fiction. When you look at the larger world, like romantic comedies or genre fiction for adults, the woman invariably ends up with the first guy. As in, she was in a relationship with some super duper manly man dude, but something has gone wrong, and now she's left him. She's rebuilding her life, making good choices, when she falls in love with a new guy. A genuinely nice guy. Usually a little more metrosexual, less gruff, more of a stable, sensitive, emotionally reasonable sort. The story starts here, with her happy with guy number two. And then guy number one shows back up, and his gruff masculinity sweeps her off her feet as she realizes that she doesn't want someone stable and normal and functional who pays his bills on time. No, she wants the creepy weirdo who she already left for very legitimate reasons. Because true love!

The terrifying thing is that I can think of dozens of movies like this. Literally dozens. Movies and stories where the women go back to their men because they realize that they actually love being treated like crap, and that stability is "boring." Stories where the men don't actually change, or only change nominally, and the women realize that they were wrong to leave their louts in the first place.

This fills me with rage.

Because here's the thing: these women are not wrong for leaving. Elena is not wrong for leaving. The book tries to present her as in the wrong. It tries to justify what Clay did by pointing out his background, going into some pseudoscience about wolves, and then covering it over with a layer of "He did it because he loves her!" But that's not going to work. What Clay did was deeply deeply wrong, a violation of her trust in him. I don't see why she should end up with him at all.

I realize that this post isn't really going to win me any friends in the Bitten fandom. Believe me, I get it. I read these books as a teenager and I was enthralled by the love story. I was rooting for Clay all the way through. Because he's dreamy, and because the book doesn't call him out for his creepy behavior. You're supposed to like Clay, even though what he does is wrong. The book wants you to like him.

Apparently the show does too. But, well, now that I'm a grownup, and now that I've spent time counseling teenagers and talking to adults who have been through abusive relationships, dealing with sexual assault, issues of consent, and just the kind of crap that this story puts so's not funny anymore. It's not romantic. It's wrong.

And it sure as hell isn't feminist.

Team Philip, but mostly just Team Not-Clay.


  1. I think maybe the different memory is because the Otherworld SERIES is, in many ways, more progressive (though it still has its flaws – the endless kidnapping for one) while Elena’s arc isn’t so much. When we get Paige? Then that’s a much better and more empowered character – and one who isn’t the super-special-only-female-anything. To a lesser extent Eve and Savannah as well. That’s where we have Paige who DOES fall for the nice normal guy, Savannah who doesn’t have much truck with romance anyway and Eve who is the wild one in ANY relationship.

    But Elena? Maybe in later books where her profile advances more, but in Bitten? No, not so much. Elena has no agency at all, and her super-special-only-female-werewolf is an excuse to dump her in an all male cast and make her the EXCEPTIONAL woman with a side order of her being a prime rape target for all the villainous mutts along with a rape filled past and a classic alpha-arsehole boyfriend she chooses over a guy who actually treated her with respect.

    The show is very loyal to the series (and, yes we do see a lot of Elena’s naked butt – but we see as much, probably more of Clay’s and even some buttage from Paul, so Elena’s doesn’t come across as gratuitous too much – or it’s equally gratuitous anyway) but the series had immense problems.

    1. That's a really good point. Paige is super rad, and you're definitely right that most of the other women shown are much better characters, at least so far as empowerment is concerned. I mean, there's the part of me that is very happy the show is being faithful to the book, because darn straight they should be, but there's another part of me that really wishes they'd break out and make it less...rapey.

      As for the butts, yeah, there are a lot of them. But I guess I was just put off by the long lingering shots of Elena's butt and back as she strips sooooo sloooooowly... Hmmph.

    2. Because he's dreamy, and because the book doesn't call him out for his creepy behavior. You're supposed to like Clay, even though what he does is wrong. The book wants you to like him.

      As the Elena books go on, I do get the impression you're meant to like him despite all of that, but the "all of that" really is a problem. On the other hand, it also comes across like Elena spending an awful lot of time justifying a relationship she knows isn't a good one. On the gripping hand, it could also be taken as Armstrong including asides to defend a relationship that doesn't live up to the others she writes. And it doesn't.

      (On the "super special" front, of the things I most loved about the final trilogy was how it blew that element away: no, she's not special; none of these apparently special people or events are special, they're just rare enough for the millennially-minded to think them so).

    3. My first paragraph looks hella incoherent now I see it.

    4. I feel like it's a bit of a double think, like trying to eat your cake and have it too. Because Clay's behavior is bad! and wrong! but Elena still loves him because she can see past it. So the story gets to be all "Grr, don't be a jerkface," and "I'll love you even if you act like a jerkface because our love is so strong!" at the same time.

      And if that didn't make sense, I'm blaming it on my headcold. :P

    5. No, it makes sense. Maybe it just seems better sometimes because even having the behaviour acknowledged as bad and wrong is a step above most such stories. But then undermined by Elena being with him anyway.

    6. Sadly I just got to Paige in the show and they turned her from a curvy, feminine adorable geekfest who is determined to do the right thing and is actually a super practical badass despite being a puffball, into a generic "witch girl" stereotype. I LOVED Paige. I'm giving them a couple seasons to introduce Lucas or Eve and then I'm calling it.

  2. One of the biggest problems for me recommending the series is starting with Bitten, because Elena's becoming a werewolf story is so deeply uncomfortable, and then they retroactively try to make it better. Iirc, there are bits in the later book 'explaining' their relationship more and how wrong everyone was to think she was brainwashed because the REAL STORY (not the one you can go back and read) had Elena making informed decisions and hey look cute twins! Whereas what I think happened was someone (or a lot of someones) pointed out it didn't really make sense to do the whole cool empowered heroine while having had that kind of completely non-consensual back story to their 'great romance.' So nope, never was a story that essentially reads "hey, you're pretty and young and impressionable, let me almost kill you and by doing so forever bind you to me and simultaneously completely ruin your life forever, nearly getting you killed numerous times. No heads up about this either, I know best how you'll react! Because LUV!"

    1. "Let me distract you from the rapeyness of this story with BABIES!"

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