Welcome back for the third installment of my Urban Fantasy blog series (check out Part 1 and Part 2). Today, I’m going to be talking about some of the issues in Urban Fantasy. While all genres have their problems, the fact that Urban Fantasy takes place in the “real” world means real world issues creep in. Let’s discuss.
Urban Fantasy has a serious copaganda problem. First, we should define our terms. Copaganda is, to quote The Angry Noodle,
propaganda that normalizes, valorizes, or otherwise paints policing in a positive light. More than that, it paints policing as natural, something so imperative to a functioning society that it becomes almost synonymous with safety, the single thread that keeps society from instantly unraveling.
Many of the heroes in these books are cops themselves, such as Peter Grant in Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series. These cops become immersed in the magical world by dint of doing their jobs, allowing them to police both the magical and non-magical worlds at the same time. This is prime copaganda, showing the police in a benevolent light as protectors of the masses.
If the main character isn’t a cop themselves, they’re usually working closely with the police. The best example of this is Detective Karin Murphy in The Dresden Files. Dresden works closely with Murphy as they handle the weird and gruesome magical murders in Chicago. Without Dresden, these cases would largely go unsolved due to the Chicago Police Department’s disinterest in these bizarre cases; Murphy is in charge of the much maligned “Special Investigations” unit in the Department, where cop careers go to die.
When they’re not working closely with law enforcement, our heroes are often in the role of a Magic Cop. A Magic Cop is someone who isn’t directly law enforcement but polices the magical world anyway. Harry Dresden fits here, but so do Kate Daniels and Anita Blake. They are, in essence, vigilantes who must police the magical world because the regular police either do not or cannot.
Detective work, while not always required, is often a staple of Urban Fantasy. The overreliance on cops or cop-adjacent characters to do this work, however, is not. Cops are not integral to the running of the real world, nor should they be in Urban Fantasy.
Urban Fantasy has a diversity problem. Taking place in the urban centers of the world, you would expect to find a large representation of characters of different races, classes, and genders; the casts of these Urban Fantasy novels, however, don’t reflect that diversity. In cities where the populations are majority non-white, such as Anita Blake’s St. Louis or Harry Dresden’s Chicago, few-if-any Black or Brown people exist. As fandom writer Stitch points out,
…you’re more likely to see vampires, zombies, and demons than you are people of color who aren’t villains, cannon fodder, or framed as the eroticized exotic. Which is not cool. At all.
Even those magical creatures are usually coded as white. Thanks to Anne Rice, most vampires in modern media are white and of European descent, despite vampire myths existing in many cultures around the world. White shifters are seen as animalistic without prejudice, compared to stereotypical depictions of non-white races as animalistic and sub-human. Even demons can be racially-coded without actually facing the societal issues that BIPOC individuals often face.
These magical creatures are often used as stand-ins for Black and Indigenous people as well, facing issues such as discrimination and sexualization that BIPOC indivduals often face in real life. This gives authors a way to explore these issues without having to actually confront them and the people they effect. It continues to gentrify the cities depicted, making them more appealing to a white audience while ignoring the realities involved.
The worlds of Urban Fantasy are often incredibly straight, and even have a bent towards procreation as a means of survival. Even if you discount the fact that a POV character like Harry Dresden just happens to be straight (and just happens to have a child he doesn’t know about until the book Changes), you have the presence of the Catholic Templar Michael and his many children. Michael has the life Harry wishes but knows he can’t have.
Then we get into werewolves. Mating rituals are often at the core of werewolf society (e.g., Omegaverse stories). Fated mates, where two people (usually a man and a woman) are destined to be together, is often a common trope in werewolf stories, though the trope it is not limited to shifters. Heteronormative procreation is paramount for the survival of the species, no matter who is doing the actual procreation; while male/male mating can occur within werewolf stories, these stories are often also using the male pregnancy trope, resulting in procreation regardless.
As there is often a romantic element in Urban Fantasy, it is sad that the genre seems hell-bent on keeping queer characters out. To quote Stitch again:
Mating tropes in UF/PR series that center on cis male/female procreation to further a mythical species may seem like a small thing in the grand scheme of life, but trust me, authors: queer readers are reading your work and we do feel alienated by the language you use.
Should you read Urban Fantasy in light of these issues? I think so. The genre is changing, slowly but surely. What is true of series started in the 2000s is not necessarily true of newer books such as N.K. Jemisin’s The City We Became. I write this not to disuade you from reading Urban Fantasy but as a way of warning you about what you might encounter in the genre, particularly among some of the classics. Read carefully, and think about the worlds you’re consuming as you do so.