J A Garrett

Curiously nerdy posts.

Gender roles in urban fantasy, part 1: The Dresden Files

A few days ago, a gaming friend of mine invited me to a private facebook group of him and about 7 other reader friends of his to discuss the last Dresden Files book, Skin Game. Even though my friend and his wife were the only two that I actually knew personally, I ended up having a great round table discussion about the book, and of course, the implications on the later installments.

But among the two women there, a recurring point came up: Why is it that both times a female character takes an important role in this book, she botches it and a male character comes in to successfully save the day instead? They repeated it like a mantra of frustration. The conversation went back and forth, over numerous topics, but always came back to that central sticking point. Why were the lady characters painted as incompetent, and the male characters always ready (and also capable of) to save the day?

This is far from the first time that The Dresden Files in particular has been called out on being misogynistic, but that got me to thinking. What books have I read in the genre that actually do paint a fair picture between men and women? For the sake of this exercise, I’m only going to touch books that I actually have read in the genre. But if anyone ends up reading this that thinks “Well, THIS book actually does have a strong female character, and you didn’t mention it, you moron!” then feel free to leave a comment and tell me. I’ll go read the book you mention. I like reading.

So here we go. Needless to say, there probably will be some spoilers. Sorry about that.

The Dresden Files, by Jim Butcher

Might as well start where the idea started. Directly from memory, I’ll list out every major female character (that’s not a direct antagonist) from the series.

Karrin Murphy. Starts out as a cop in Chicago’s paranormal division. She begins as the Lestrade to Harry’s Sherlock, constantly skeptical and adversarial at first, but as the series goes on becomes his most trusted ally. She has his back no matter what. Sometimes romantic toward him, sometimes platonic, always complicated. She’s a great character.

Susan Rodriguez. Starts out as a reporter just milking Harry for a free meal date and a good story. Ends as a vampire and mother to Harry’s child. Almost every appearance she makes, she’s either a damsel in distress or needs Harry’s help…. or is a good fling, in the case of Death Masks. Not the best thing when her most memorable scene is probably when she drank a love potion next to a naked Harry.

If you liked this scene, you probably went on to read all the books. If not… well…

Georgia and Andi. Two college girls that can shapeshift into werewolves. They’re played mostly straight and narrow, except for one short story where they inexplicably have to get

The fairy courts. Titania and Mab are pretty interesting characters… unbelievably powerful, and playing games of chess with people’s minds when everyone else is playing checkers. The summer and winter ladies, however, are a different story. The summer lady is pretty much a college age girl that doesn’t do much, whereas the Winter Lady is always billed as being super promiscuous, and always wearing revealing clothing. She attempted to sleep with Harry many, many times.

Lara Raith. When Harry first meets her, she is literally working as a porn star. Later, we learn that she is a succubus. She rises to the top of the White Court of Vampires through guile and intelligence, but still. Her looks are always what we’re reminded of when she pops up in the books.

Charity Carpenter. A wife of a former Knight of the Sword, she is a longsuffering housewife who loves her family fiercely, but also has a background in fighting.

Molly Carpenter. Harry’s apprentice wizard, and later, much more (not in a sexual way!). She is steadfastly loyal to him, and understand what he’s dealing with in two very distinct ways.

Warden Luccio. Commander of the White Council of Wizards Wardens. Has a brief relationship with Harry… until it’s revealed that she was under the influence of mental magic at the time to make her think she had feelings for him, where she really didn’t. Yeah. Ponder the ethics of that for a bit. To be fair, though, Harry didn’t know this at the time, so at least it wasn’t implied that he did knowingly did anything without her consent.

Miss Gard. A Valkyrie that works for Gentleman Johnny Marcone on retainer. One of my personal favorites.


So, yeah. Listing them out starkly like that makes me see what some lady readers are saying. The overwhelming majority of women in The Dresden Files are either sex objects, in subservient positions, or are otherwise made to look like weak damsels in distress.

However, most of these have a legitimate bit of reasoning behind them. Lara Raith is a succubus. She bases herself around sex because, well, that’s how she survives. Miss Gard is working for Marcone because he pays well, and keeps the peace as well as a mere mortal could. Maeve, as 2D a character as there can be in terms of seducing people, is at least clearly made out to be a terrible person. And every girl/woman on this list has had a hand in helping Harry save the day, however small or large. Heck, in Murphy’s case, she did it without him in the short story Backup. Murphy is, in my opinion, one of the better female characters in Urban fantasy, if not the best, and a strong argument against the series being misogynistic.

Do they not get a central chance to steal the show in Butcher’s novels because he doesn’t like women? This seems highly unlikely. Feels more like this is because it’s called The Dresden Files. The star will always be Harry. That’s just how it is.

This does merit further investigation, though… this post is starting to get a bit long, though, so I think I’ll save the next series I analyze for tomorrow or the next day.

And one word of advice… don’t do any google search for urban fantasy women, unless you want to be depressed. There’s a jungle of generic covers out there.



2 comments on “Gender roles in urban fantasy, part 1: The Dresden Files

  1. Andrew Miller
    November 11, 2015

    Um… regarding Luccio… it IS made extremely clear that Harry literally had no idea that she had been mentally coerced into loving him. She was influenced into pursuing a relationship with Harry by a third party who is most emphatically established as a very very bad person for many reasons besides this particular one. After which Harry is extremely heartbroken, and while Luccio realizes she doesn’t love him she does still feel extremely sympathetic towards him – Harry is as much a victim of the situation as she is. She’s never shown as a “mere” anything, though – the one time Harry tells her she’ll kill someone else over his dead body, she sadly sighs, “I hope it never has to come to that” in a way that makes it clear that the result will inevitably be two dead people and neither of them being Commander Anastasia Luccio.

    As for Lara Raith, her beauty is generally described in a very frightening and scary fashion – she’s a predator, humanity is her food supply, and Harry is genuinely leery of fighting her if he can possibly avoid it. Her combat skills are repeatedly established, and her specific brand of attractiveness and sexuality are contrasted against that of her father (a misogynistic twit who is ultimately emasculated and left suffering a fate worse than death as his own daughter’s puppet), as well as that of her cousin (a shallow, vapid, and brazen person; Dresden compares her to Jessica Rabbit – cartoonishly over the top. Even her own hirelings find her personality and idiocy to be more of a turnoff than her supernatural sexuality can compensate for). Lara is similar to Johnny Marcone in being a powerful and ruthless leader. The closest she comes to being a sex object is when she steps up the intensity of her flirtations with Harry – and that’s because she finds him so infuriating that she wants to either kill him or enslave him, depending on just how badly he’s pissed her off at that moment.

    And Susan, she… well, she got in over her head a few times, but so does Harry on occasion. At no point is she ever seriously shown as being a helpless damsel. When she does go down, she goes down swinging, like Boromir did in LOTR.

    • jagarrett
      November 23, 2015

      I appreciate your points (and to be fair, I said exactly the same thing about Luccio). This post was written more in thought to the process of “I am a man who likes this series, but what do women see characters of their gender doing when they read The Dresden Files?”

      Some of what they might see may not be all that flattering in Cliff’s Notes form… but I still recommend the series to anyone I meet that enjoys fantasy!


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