Freudian Friday: Religion in Urban Fantasy

Throughout season four of True Blood, my constant refrain was, “This has to be offensive to Wiccans.” From what I know of Wicca, necromancy and murder aren’t high on the list of healthy pastimes.

More prayin’, less slayin’!

Now that season five has rolled around, though, my refrain is, “Whoa, this is super-offensive to Christians!” The vampires worship Lilith and call the “vampire bible” the true sacred text? Yikes.

It’s gotten me thinking about the treatment of religion in works of urban fantasy. Most universes with demons, ghosts, or witches tend to look toward Judeo-Christian mythology and either corrupt it or use it to ‘preach’ to the audience. On the other side of the coin, we have worlds like the ‘Buffy-verse,’ where Wicca is synonymous with the practice of actual magic and there’s very little worship involved. Religion seems to inform these universes by adding a vocabulary and a mythology rather than shaping them with any remnant of accuracy. And that may not be acceptable to viewers with strong religious belief, of any creed or pantheon.

While we can’t treat religion with kid gloves, we should ask: how far is too far?

Note: this blog post will deal mostly with Christian and Neopagan traditions, only because those are the religions with which I am most familiar. Please, if you can think of additional shows with treatments of additional faiths, leave a comment!

Let’s look at a few portrayal of religion in televised urban fantasy (and/or sci-fi):

Supernatural
Operating within the Judeo-Christian mythology, the Winchesters fight demons, ghosts, pagan gods (who inevitably eat humans), witches (who deal with demons), and even angels. Season five deals with the battle between Michael and Lucifer (yep, that Michael and that Lucifer), who want Dean and Sam respectively as their “vessels.” The boys end up locking both Michael and Lucifer into “the cage,” some trap in hell from which even an archangel can’t escape.

That’s dancing on the line of what may be offensive to some viewers, Christian and Neopagan, but the real rub comes from the show’s treatment of God: he’s missing. Portrayed as an absentee father who never appears in the show and causes endless speculation among viewers, God has washed his hands of the whole race and no longer acts even in the capacity of a deistic “divine mover.” And Jesus? The elephant in the room, so to speak, is never even mentioned.

Angels are not soft and fluffy.

True Blood
As mentioned above, we had a season in which Wiccans appear as harmless Goddess-worshippers and quickly fall under the management of a true witch who wields the power of necromancy and harbors a serious vendetta against vampires. Now we’re learning that the Vampire Authority is split between those who worship Lilith by rote and “terrorists” who fight in Lilith’s name to institute the factory-farming of humans. They quote scripture, too.

Characters frequently pray and ask for God’s protection against the supernatural, but we rarely see truly “good Christian” behavior. Our only experience with a pastor is a man who has an affair with a main character’s mother and later performs an exorcism. That’s… not very inspiring.

It seems that True Blood is an equal opportunity offender.

One believer tortures another.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Buffy exists primarily in a dualistic, secular-humanistic universe. There is a First Evil, but the power of Good and the power of Evil are accessible to humans. The Powers That Be employ and equip champions like Buffy and Angel to fight Evil, but other humans are perfectly capable of fighting against evil without supernatural powers. I’m down with that—I really enjoy system built from the ground up, and this one is such that most dualist believers can place their personal mythology around the show’s framework, while non-believers can watch without offense.

But then there’s the whole sticky wicket of Willow’s “Wicca” and subsequent addiction to magic, which I’ve written about before. The conflation of Wicca and “Powers of Darkness” probably isn’t appreciated by practitioners of a religion that aims to harm none and live in harmony with nature.

Willow prepares to sacrifice a lamb as part of a spell to resurrect Buffy.

Charmed
Confession: I’m not a Charmed fan. I never watched it as a teen, and when I tried to watch it as an adult, it just didn’t click for me. (I believe the words “sooooo cheesy” came out of my mouth repeatedly.) The show uses Wicca/witchcraft and Wiccan/witch synonymously, even though the characters operate within a Christian framework. Angst follows when a protagonist who identifies herself as Christian discovers that she’s a witch—even though she’s a witch that fights demons.

The show jams Christian mythology and dualism together with so-called Wicca (which is duotheist, not dualistic) and witchcraft, and the resulting blend tastes a little sour to me. The internet is rife with diatribes from both religions, complaining about how the show is Satanic or just plain inaccurate. (Aside: if you like Charmed, please tell me why. I’m always willing to be convinced.)

I’m not sure how they end up reconciling witchcraft to a Christian outlook.

The X-Files
This show spans way too many episodes and monsters-of-the-week for me to discuss them all, but a recurring theme is Scully’s semi-devout Catholicism at war with the things she sees in the show. The show takes that juxtaposition seriously, and it deals with the ongoing battle of how people explain the presence of great good and great evil in the world.

Although the show portrays witchcraft as a “black art” at times, it also presents a villain from Orthodox Jewish mythology: perhaps, like True Blood it offends across the board. That said, I believe that the show portrays supernatural or religious power as good or bad, depending on what the user makes of it. In this universe, Christians are just as likely to do evil as witches.

Mulder and Scully continually debate the merits of belief in a higher power.

Doctor Who
The X-Files‘s stance brings us to our final example, the classic British sci-fi show that perpetually looks askance at religion. Religion is forbidden on shuttle platforms, along with weapons and teleportation. The universe’s Big Bad, the Daleks, are the ones who kill because of belief and blasphemy. The Doctor himself treats religion with disdain, attributing to it more death and woe than many other human practices. While a discussion of religion in Doctor Who could run textbook length, I think it’s sufficient to say that religion occupies a fraught position in that war-torn universe.

The Doctor mocks the “impure” Daleks, whose own technology does not recognize them.

That’s just a sampling of portrayals of religion in urban fantasy and/or sci-fi, and it doesn’t even include books. What do you think, readers? How well does religion stand up in a world of magic and mayhem? What other shows treat faith with finesse or with brutality?

Freudian Friday: Alaric Saltzman

Yes, readers, your wish is my command, and at Laird Sapir‘s request, this week’s psych patient is Alaric Saltzman, history teacher, vampire hunter, guardian, murderer, and all-around interesting guy from The Vampire Diaries.

Interesting sidenote: I got Laird’s request in a comment to an earlier Vampire Diaries Freudian Friday entry on the very same day that I turned to my fiance while I was watching the show and said, “Wouldn’t it be weird, as a thirty-something single guy, to live with an 18-year-old girl you’re not related to? A really hot 18-year-old?”

Um, yes. Yes it would be weird. But I digress. Here’s the normal disclaimer: this post is about the CW show The Vampire Diaries, not L. J. Smith’s series of novels by the same name.

He will always be Warner Huntington III from Legally Blonde to me.

Alaric shows up on the show as a history teacher, mysterious vampire hunter, bitter widower, and love-interest for main-character Elena’s aunt in season one. We learn that Alaric’s wife, Isobel, died a couple years before, murdered by Damon Salvatore—or WAS SHE?

No. She was not. She was, in fact, turned into a vampire at her own request. We also learn that she had an affair with Elena’s “uncle” John, and that Isobel and John were Elena’s birth-parents. (Confused yet?) So that makes “Rick” Elena’s… step-birth-dad?

When Elena’s aunt dies, Alaric sticks around to act as guardian to her and her younger brother (cousin?), Jeremy. Rick makes friends with Damon Salvatore, joins the Founder’s Council, and overcomes his issues enough to become a decent guardian for Elena and Jeremy.

It’s more complicated than that, though. He’s briefly possessed by an evil vampire, his (first) girlfriend becomes a vampire before she dies, his “friend” Damon kills him a couple of times, and his new girlfriend reveals that his protection-against-the-supernatural ring is actually giving him a second personality that prowls the town and kills other members of the Founder’s Council.

Yikes. Poor guy.

So here we have a man who hated the vampires because they fascinated his wife and, to his reckoning, killed her. Then he gradually learns that vampires are people, too. In a super-sad scene from season one, he confronts Isobel without his supernatural protections, trying to prove he trusts her, in spite of what she is, and she compels him to move on and forget her. She later kills herself.

He opens up, shows his vulnerabilities, and promptly gets passively stomped on. He finds a group of trusted friends and adoptive family, and then an evil vampire uses him to infiltrate their defenses. His wife gave him a ring to protect him, but that ring is turning him into a vicious killer.

If that doesn’t teach him not to trust a good thing, what will?

Relationship-wise, his wife chose to become a vampire and abandon him. His first girlfriend became a vampire (not by choice) and then died. His second girlfriend is trying to protect him—and his alter-ego stabs her.

His best relationships are with Elena and Jeremy, two kids he’s not even related to, and Damon Salvatore, a frenemy if ever I really saw one. Alaric protects Elena and Jeremy, and he trains Elena to protect himself, satisfying that apparent need in him to do something good, to take control in a world where supernatural rules and humans have few defenses.

Teaching Elena to defend herself.

His friendship with Damon is mutually self-destructive: everything I touch dies, and you kill everything you touch, therefore we must have something in common. It also crystallizes his relationship with the supernatural: he likes it, he’s willing to work with it, but he hates it a little, too, and it will kill him at a moment’s notice.

So how do we reconcile Alaric’s need to protect the weak and fight against the supernatural with his fatalistic attitude that he cannot do anything right, and that everything supernatural is tainted? He fights against the supernatural, but he relies on it to protect himself, setting him up for a confusing simultaneous hatred and reverence.

Elena’s friendship saves him several times: she has faith in him, even when he doesn’t. And his desire to protect may overcome his tendency to despair.

But what will he do now that he cannot even protect himself? Will he overcome his backwards-reverence of the supernatural now that he cannot depend on a magical ring to save him? Will he finally own his natural, human talents and accept himself as a strong human who has fallen victim to the supernatural, but can overcome it?

What do you think, readers? What’s Alaric’s trouble? Have you even thought this much about him? And would it be weird to be a thirty-something guy living with a hot 18-year-old girl?

Freudian Friday: Kate Daniels

It’s probably fair to have issues with your dad when your dad is the Big Bad.

image from ilona-andrews.com

This week’s pick for Daddy Issues in Urban Fantasy is Kate Daniels, the protagonist of Ilona Andrews’s urban fantasy series of the same name.

Kate’s a kick-ass bounty hunter who, when we meet her, works informally for the Order of Knights of Merciful Aid. It’s a gig that sounds more benevolent than it is, since the Order is just as likely to kill you as it is to help you. Kate’s job is to clean up magical messes by killing things, and she does it well.

As we learn about Kate, we realize that she’s in hiding. Her blood links her back to her father, Roland, a Very Bad Man who is the world’s oldest necromancer and may or may not want to take over the world.

Kate was raised by her foster-father, Greg, whose death she is investigating at the beginning of the series. Greg rescued her as a child from Roland, who would kill to keep her from destroying his plans and, well, to keep her from existing. Greg raised her to hide and to fight, knowing that eventually it would fall to her to take Roland down.

Okay, I’m a little fuzzy on the details at this stage, but it’s been something like two years since I’ve read the early books. Cut me some slack.

Because of her background—and the knowledge that any of her blood left unattended could bring assassins down on her in an instant—Kate does not let people into her life. When we meet her, she has no friends and terrible taste in men. Part of her journey is learning to trust others and to accept her own power. She eventually falls into a meaningful relationship with the were-lion head of the Pack in Atlanta, she makes friends, and she “adopts” a motherless young girl.

While she does have a bit of a Harry Potter-esque martyr streak, that comes from being the only one to have the power to stop the biggest evil. And the fact that she’s willing to sacrifice herself for those she comes to love indicates that her isolation and hard childhood have not corrupted her: she can still love, and she’s not always willing to say that the end justifies the means. Some things are worth throwing it all away for.

Kate is an example of how Freud isn’t always right, at least in urban fantasy. Yes, she wants to take her dad down, but it’s difficult to say she has penis envy when she already has her father’s powers. She’s just as powerful as he is, only younger, prettier, and with a cause she’s willing to die for.

What do you think, readers? Does taking the metaphor out of an Electa complex completely reshape the meaning of daddy issues? Or is it all still metaphor, just an indication that girls need to overcome a father’s influence in order to develop fully?

For the record, I don’t think that last one is true.

Freudian Fridays: Selene

Confession, readers: I love Underworld.

I’m talking about the first movie, not the others. They’re not the best. But the first one is seriously cool, and it has a nice romance in it to boot. Goth-punk urban fantasy + romance = the recipe to make Kristin like something.

Image from Wikipedia

Let’s look at the main character, Selene. She didn’t make my original Daddy Issues in Urban Fantasy list of ladies with issues, but only because I temporarily forgot her (oops).

Selene is a vampire Death Dealer hunting Lycans… In other words, she’s an assassin who finds and kills werewolves, who have been at war with the vampires for something like a thousand years.

She was turned into a vampire by the Big Bad Vampire Viktor after he told her that the Lycans killed her family, and she became a Death Dealer because she sought revenge.

It’s all lies, of course. Viktor, her pseudo-father figure, killed her family and turned her because she reminded him of the daughter he killed for becoming pregnant with a werewolf’s child. Cute, huh? The werewolves, while not exactly innocent, neither started the war nor killed her family, effectively making her whole life’s work pointless. That’s enough to mess a girl up pretty seriously.

So when Selene falls in love with a werewolf (soon werewolf-vampire hybrid), it looks like history will repeat itself. Viktor, the person she trusted above all others, wants to kill her and her lover. But instead of bowing down to male authority, Selene stands up for her newfound love and eventually kills Viktor.

The movie dances along the line between girl-power and anti-feminist. Selene and another female character spend a lot of time getting slapped around (literally) by male authority figures. Michael, Selene’s lover, is the one with the awesome hybrid powers. Women are punished for having sexual relationships outside the box, and the only female Elder dies without having much part in the movie.

In spite of that, though, Selene is the one who rescues Michael. When he’s about to die, she turns him into a vampire, which is pretty refreshing in a genre where men turn women into vampires or women save their male vamp-boyfriends by offering blood. Selene is also the one to kill Viktor, saving Michael and herself—and everyone, really.

She recovers from the trauma of losing a real family, losing a foster father, and learning that her quest was based on a lie. Her entire worldview is shaken, but she has the courage and the vision to fight for what is right.

In other words, she might puzzle Freud. She does kill her foster father, though, so I suppose that puts her pretty squarely in Electra territory.

So what do you think, readers? Is Selene a new feminist role model? Is she destined to attract violence and cause the deaths of the men who love her? Or is the the hope of strong women in urban fantasy?

Freudian Fridays: Buffy Summers

It’s Friday again! Time to look at the many issues messing with the heads of popular fantasy characters. If you remember from last week, we’re looking at the daddy issues of female characters in urban fantasy.

So let’s put the Slayer on the couch, shall we?

Buffy’s parents divorced when she was about fifteen. Her nightmares reveal that she’s afraid her father left because of her. She makes scattered comments throughout the show about her father not caring enough to make an effort to see or—after her mother dies—care for her. Because of this, Buffy takes on a parental role to her sister, Dawn.

She’s deeply attached to her Watcher, Rupert Giles, and looks on him as a father figure. After her mother dies, Giles becomes a pseudo-parental figure, one Buffy expects to deal with Dawn’s thieving ways. Giles eventually leaves in order to make Buffy stand on her own.

She dates much (much!) older men. Angel, the love of Buffy’s life, is 200ish years older than her. Spike is 100ish years older than her. Both are powerful, violent men, and that violence tends to bleed into the physical aspects of her relationships. Part of why Riley, her human boyfriend, flees is because he feels inadequate next to her strength.

All in all, what do these things tell us? Buffy’s a badass gal, we know that, and physically stronger than any normal guy. I don’t think we can say, though, that she’s hunting for a strong man who can protect her. No—I think she’s looking for an equal, not a superior. And that’s tough for the Slayer to find, if not impossible.

Daddy issues? Sure. She has issues with her father and issues with her father-figure. But those issues don’t define her: they’re just one shade of her character. She’s not looking for a new father. She’s looking for a partner… and, being the Slayer, she may never find one.

What do you think? Are Buffy’s relationships inevitably doomed because of her past history with men? Is Angel the only man for her? Is she destined to stand alone? What do these issues tell you about Buffy’s character?