Absent Mothers in Urban Fantasy

This is a guest post by Paul and Renee. Paul and Renee blog and review at Fangs for the Fantasy. We’re great lovers of the genre and consume it in all its forms – but as marginalised people we also analyse critically through a social justice lens.

Urban Fantasy — the bringing of the fantastic (vampires, werewolves, magic, fae and so much more) to a modern, real world setting — has become ever more popular as a mainstream genre. From Twilight to True Blood to The Vampire Diaries, it is now firmly entrenched on our televisions. The books regularly reach the best seller lists – this isn’t a fringe genre. It’s here, it’s huge and it’s here to stay.

This means the portrayals represented matter. Any popular media has the power to shape culture and society; any stories that are consumed by a large number of people are going to draw upon our societal prejudices and, in turn, feed and encourage those prejudices and portrayals.

Urban Fantasy is a genre that seldom gets critical examination. At first blush, the opposite would appear to be true when one considers the social conversation around Twilight or True Blood, but these are only two examples within an extremely large genre. It is interesting to note that much of Urban Fantasy contains female protagonists and is largely produced and consumed by women. Considering the ongoing gender divide, it is hardly surprising that this immensely popular genre is being ignored by critics.

Just because Urban Fantasy is largely produced by women and consumed by women does not mean that it is free of sexism and misogyny. When it comes to motherhood, a role that most women will one day assume, it is hardly surprising that within the genre most examples are highly problematic — when they appear at all.

The lack of representation of motherhood is so extreme that the viewer is forced to ask is, “where are the mothers?”. It seems like such an odd question, because you’d expect most characters, like most people, to have a mother lurking around somewhere; especially since most of the heroines in these stories are young women or even teenagers. Search as we might, the mothers are conspicuous by their absence.

The most common cause of the missing mother seems to be death — indeed, it is almost mandatory for an Urban Fantasy heroine to have a tragically dead mother. In The Vampire Diaries Elena’s mother is dead. True Blood has the orphaned Sookie; Charmed killed the sisters’ mother off before the series even started; Cassie, Diana, Melissa, Jake and Adam all have dead mothers in The Secret Circle. Buffy’s mother died part way through the series. In The Dresden Files, Harry’s mother died before the series began. In Grimm, Nick is yet another protagonist with a dead mother. The whole beginning motivation of Supernatural revolves around their dead mother. In Blood and Chocolate, both mother and father are brutally murdered. In The Craft Sarah Bailey’s mother is dead. In Underworld, Selene’s mother is murdered by Viktor.

This list is extremely — even excessively — long but it’s shocking that we looked through all the shows and movies that we’ve watched and actually found it hard to find a series where the mother was alive and present.

Even in stories where the mother is lucky enough to have dodged the bullet and is actually alive, she is still often absent. In Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight, Renee, Bella’s mother, is absent, living in a completely different state. In The Vampire Diaries, Bonnie’s mother, Abby, is absent through much of her childhood and, when they are finally reunited, Abby not only presents Bonnie with a child that she raised as a replacement, but quickly disappears after becoming a vampire. Abby is well aware of the pain that her absence has caused Bonnie and yet she steadfastly finds a reason not to engage with her daughter. Once Upon a Time sets records for absent mothers — Augustus never had one, Snow White and Ruby’s mothers are dead, and Emma grew up in the foster system without her mother.

I suppose we should be grateful these mothers ducked the Urban Fantasy plague that has put so many parents in their graves, but they still have little to no actual influence and presence in their children’s — the protagonists’ — lives.

With such a massive pattern, we have to ask why. Why is it almost a requirement in Urban Fantasy for the young, female protagonist to be lacking a mother (and often a father too for that matter)?
One reason seems to be to make the characters sad, relatable and, frankly, angst ridden. It’s quick, cheap and easy characterisation to establish a sad, tortured or otherwise issue-laden character with “depth” to kill off a parent and have them be sad about it. These dead mothers are sacrificed for quick and easy back story for the protagonist. Take a heroine, load her up with a shiny ability, a bit of snark, a love interest — now kill her mother so she has “depth.” The back story is established: we have a “3-dimensional character” who has suffered (which seems to be shorthand for an established character in far too much fiction).

The mother is thrown away, killed — often violently — for the sake of the heroine’s story. These absences (often deaths and often graphic, violent deaths) are thrown in almost casually. These mothers are disposable, convenient story points, not characters in their own right. In fact, “disposable characters” may be giving them too much credit, since they don’t even have chance to become characters before they’re cast aside to haunt their children.

We live in a world in which violence against women, while often decried publicly, is still very much acceptable socially. These deaths, even when in faultless instances like traffic accidents, amount to violence against women because of the frequency in which they occur. We can see this especially emphasised in Rise of the Lycans, when Viktor murdered Sonja when he discovered she was pregnant with a lycan’s child. Violence rates against pregnant women are even higher than against other women and this also reflects not just the disposability of mothers but also the control of men over their fertility. Men decide whether she is “allowed” to carry that child, which is often seen as a threat to the man — in this case to Victor’s power base but often in real life to a man’s freedom or lifestyle. To be clear, there are instances in which both mother and father dies; however, the near universality of the death of the mother definitely makes it a female-driven trope. When death comes through an act of violence it serves to reify the violence that women are forced to live with.

As it stands, it seems almost as though women are being punished for being mothers. Motherhood has often served as the impetus for women to engage in civil disobedience but, in Urban Fantasy, motherhood — more often than not — results in death. Women are given very little opportunity for agency. These deaths deny motherhood as a site of power for women and instead turn women into eternal victims who are then responsible for the misery of their children.

This also serves to emphasise how little we regard mothers as characters or people in their own right. A mother is seen as an extension of her child rather than a person — and since a mother is all about her child, why shouldn’t she be sacrificed to further her child’s back story? She isn’t important as a person, and if she contributes best by being dead or absent, so be it, she doesn’t matter.

Related to this lack of independent existence is the eternal trope of the Bad Mother. It is a societal constant that mother is always to blame for whatever problems a child faces or suffers. While “blame the parents” is commonplace, this by far and away falls more on the mother than the father. The mother is a constant scapegoat for any and every issue in their child’s life.

Do we really care about the issues of Lettie Mae, Tara’s mother from True Blood? Or is her alcoholism there to reflect on how hard a life Tara has to lead? Do we analyse Bonnie’s mother, Abby, on The Vampire Diaries to consider what drove her to pursue a life outside of Mystic Falls? Or does she only appear as and when she helps her daughter’s friends? It is not accidental that Lettie Mae and Abby are women of colour. Historically, women of colour have been seen as unfit mothers, unless we are nurturing and raising White children. Lettie Mae is not only absent but she is an alcoholic and she engaged in emotionally abusive behaviour throughout Tara’s childhood. For respite, Tara was forced to flee to the Stackhouse residence. What does it tell us when a Black girl can only find safety in the care of a White family, and abuse and neglect in her own mother’s home? Ruby Jean Reynolds is Lafayette’s mother on True Blood and we are first introduced to her in a mental institution. She is neurologically atypical and we learn that Lafayette has been doing sex work and selling drugs in order to pay for her care. She is extremely homophobic and uses anti-gay slurs to refer to both Lafayette and his now deceased boyfriend on the show, Jesus. The depiction of African-American mothers who are both physically and emotionally unavailable, and neglectful and abusive, is just another negative manifestation of how the media has chosen to construct the motherhood of African-American women.

It’s also worth noting how many of these “failure” mothers are marginalised. Lettie Mae is both black and poor. Abby is black. Darla from The Crow is a poor drug user. Even Sally’s mother on Being Human (US) is only around for 2 episodes of character growth for Sally — and in that time we learn she had an affair while with Sally’s father and wasn’t there for Sally as she wanted and needed. All the mothers we’ve mentioned are disposable characterisation tools — but the wealthy or middle class white mothers in The Secret Circle, Charmed, The Vampire Diaries, The Dresden Files, Once Upon a Time, Underworld and True Blood are killed off or absent through forces outside their control. They are absent because they are victims — and certainly beyond reproach. While poor women or mothers of colour are not innocently absent, they are to blame for their failure.

Finally, we have to take it to the full extreme – the villainous mother. Again, this is, in many ways, an easy characterisation. You have instant angst and pain and emotional conflict just because of the relationship between the antagonist and the hero/heroine.

It also feeds further into the prevalent theme of mother blame we see repeated so often and it is, again, used as an excuse to blame any of the problems the protagonist has. In Lost Girl, Bo’s problems of being a succubus without any guidance is down to her villainous, succubus mother’s abandonment. In Being Human (US), Mother’s smothering control over Suren is to blame for her childishness and self indulgence. In Once Upon a Time all of Regina’s evil plans ultimately stem from her mother’s ruthless ambition and destroying her dreams. They are the ultimate problem mother, to blame for everything in the child’s life – both their own personal issues and their ongoing conflict — it’s all completely Mother’s Fault.

It is disturbing that this prevailing idea of the dead, absent or outright villainous mother is so common within the genre. It devalues motherhood, sets mother up as disposable and ultimately to blame for the wrongs in their children’s lives, and this heavy burden of blame falls all the more heavily on marginalised mothers. In the aftermath of these absent mothers we have a mob of young female protagonists who have no mothers, frequently no parents at all. They’re alone, usually much younger, less experienced, more naive than the male love interest. They are exposed to the often predatory advances of these men — which is another topic entirely, but the seeds of it are planted by the absent mother leading towards her vulnerable, lonely daughter.


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48 Responses to Absent Mothers in Urban Fantasy

  1. M. Eden says:

    Vampire Diaries’ Elena- parents died in same accident
    True Blood’s Sookie – orphaned
    Charmed’s sisters – mother and father dead
    Buffy – completely absentee father, mother dies later
    Grimm’s Nick – mother and father dead
    Supernatural – mother dead, father frequently dead
    Blood and Chocolate – mother and father dead
    The Vampire Diaries’ Bonnie – father gone (dead?), mother absentee then a vampire
    Once Upon a Time’s Snow White – mother and father dead
    Once Upon a Time’s Emma – mother and father absentee due to a spell
    Lost Girl’s Bo – mother and father absentee

    There are others you mention that I am not as familiar with, but it is a bit glaring that you largely leave out the fact that almost all of the absentee/dead mothers you mention are also accompanied by an absentee/dead father. If a large part of your post is the idea that Urban Fantasy does away with specifically mothers at an astonishing rate, then I think you’ve left out some quite relevant information. It seems that women are not “being punished for being mothers”, but that men and women are punished for being parents (or, possibly being punished for being older).

  2. Dan says:

    It seems like pre-story killing of mothers in Urban Fantasy is the parallel to “fridging” girlfriends in super hero comics. A shorthand way to skip the difficulty of creating identifiable justifications for heroism.

  3. It also seems that making mothers absent is shorthand for “feel sorry for this person!” It’s a cheap melodramatic device and it annoys the shit out of me, tbh. This article is spot-on.

  4. liz says:

    On the other hand there is the very present mom in Sunshine (Robin McKinley), the loving mom in Divergent (or is that more science fiction?), and others. But your point is well taken.

  5. NNNNN says:

    As pointed out already, the fathers are also usually dead, evil,or gone. I think ot has less to do with mothers or even angst, and more to do with plotting – they want the protagonist to be on their own against the world and its hard to do that with good parents hanging around making them do theor jome work and come home at night, and protecting and helping them.
    Sorry for typos, first try posting from phone.

  6. @M. Eden

    While I agree with you that dead parents a certainly a trope, the mothers die at a higher rate.

    In the Vampire Diaries though we never actually see Bonnie’s father, it is heavily implied that she lives him, thus meaning that he is not absentee.

    In Once Upon a Time: Both of her parents are still alive, but she grows in foster care.

    Buffy: There are a few episodes in which her father is present and we are told he live quite a distance away which is why spent a summer visiting him.

  7. I blame Laurell K Hamilton.
    Anita Blake has mommy issues in the first books because her mother died when she was a child. She doesn’t trust people because of this, she’s a bit of a porcupine because of it. It’s good characterization, not cheap shorthand.

    I blame fairy tales.
    Dead mothers are de rigeur in fairy tales, because it dumps the heroine on her own. Urban fantasy is fairy tales for grown ups.

    I’m guilty. My PI has a bad/dead mother, but she is middle aged (42) so it’s logical she might.

  8. Esti says:

    I’m far from an expert on urban fantasy, but my experience with it suggests that (as with the Game of Thrones post) this is a trend that applies to parents generally. I haven’t read/watched all of the examples you used, but of those I have: Buffy’s father is absent the entirety of the series (and although her mother dies lateish in the show’s run, she’s around and involved until that point), most fathers in Once Upon a Time also die (or in Emma’s case, she’s in foster care because her mother and father are missing), in The Craft the lead whose mother is dead (she has a stepmother) is balanced by the other lead whose father is absent (and who has an abusive stepfather), and several of the characters you listed have two dead parents (Sookie, Harry from The Dresden Files, and Nick from Grimm, for example).

    I appreciate that you’re applying a social justice lens to science fiction/speculative fiction/fantasy — it’s something that hasn’t been done nearly enough — but with both this and the Game of Thrones post it feels like the emphasis on mothers even though the same critiques apply to the portrayal of fathers is setting up a double standard. When you acknowledge that fathers receive the same treatment mothers do in urban fantasy but nonetheless confine your critique to the trend of absent or neglectful mothers, it suggests that it’s somehow less problematic or noteworthy that fathers aren’t present in these characters’ lives. That’s the same kind of thinking that was pointed out on the GOT post by people who took issue with blaming Cersei, but not Robert, for how Joffrey turned out — that fathers are less important to, and thus bear less responsibility for, how their children are raised.

    [As to why this is a trend in urban fiction, I definitely agree that some authors like to use a dead or absent parent (or parents) as a shorthand for character motivation or depth, but I think often it’s an attempt to set up a character who fits the alone-against-the-world archetype (JK Rowling, for example, explicitly said this was her goal with Harry Potter, and killed off not just his parents but also almost every parent-like figure that came into his life, most of whom were men). When the characters are teenagers, it’s also a convenient explanation for how they’re able to be out saving the world at all hours without any family members interfering.]

    All that being said, I agree 100% that the portrayal of bad parents too often overlaps with the portrayal of parents of color (and sometimes poor parents, though there’s also a long history of valorizing the poor but noble parent, from fairy tales right up through the Weasleys).

    And because I just read and loved it: if you’re interested in urban fantasy that doesn’t fit the absent/dead mother trend, and which is about characters of color, Akata Witch is excellent.

  9. FYouMudFlaps says:

    Honestly, I had never thought of this. It is very sad how mothers are cast aside as mere plot devices; tropes and cliches at that.

  10. Alexandra says:

    Heh. I was in the bookstore browsing werewolf lit the other day and was so, so frustrated by how many of the books, IN THE FIRST CHAPTER, go out of their way to devalue the relationships the heroines have with their mothers, and to a lesser extent their fathers. I actually bought a book that seemed a little better written, only to find in it a mother who’d emotionally abandoned her daughter “for her art” (and one point, the artiste werewolf boyfriend bonds with chere mama over said art — heroine never does, though).

    Still, hero(ine) as orphan is pretty common throughout ALL fantasy, not just urban fantasy. Off the top of my head —

    Harry Potter (duh).
    Frodo Baggins
    Rand al-Thor (from Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time)
    Kvothe (from Patrick Rothfuss’ Name of the Wind)
    Inuyasha from the manga/show of the same name.

    All the kids in Ender’s Game are made orphans by the “permanent boarding school” nature of the military academy they attend, and Peter and Val are depicted as being essentially orphaned by their precocity.

    Golden Compass/Northern Lights books, of course, have Lyra abandoned by both her awful, awful parents, and Will loses first his father, and then more slowly his mother to the specters/schizophrenia.

    And of course there’s far, far more that I don’t remember off the top of my head. Point is, hero as orphan has a number of important benefits to the teller of a fantasy epic, urban or otherwise:

    – the character has automatic ‘depth’, as already mentioned.
    – the character has freedom because he/she isn’t tied to any close family for whom he/she feels allegiance, and (in the case of YA characters) doesn’t have anyone telling him/her what to do.
    – being orphaned by violence is often a major plot or subplot as the hero character seeks answers and/or vengeance.

    Personally, I think hero-as-orphan is a bit overdone, and leads to formulaic plots. I’m yearning for some fantasy fiction about grown-ass adults with complicated relationships with their parents and siblings.

    I’d love to see more mothers in fantasy fiction, urban or otherwise, like Michael’s mother Madeline in Burn Notice – complicated women with complicated relationships with the protagonist, who are at times sources of strength and at times difficulties for their heroic progeny.

    I’d also LOOOOVE to see more mothers as protagonists and heroines in fantasy fiction.

  11. Aile says:

    I would trace this back to fairy tales, tbh. The dead or evil mother (in some versions of tales stepmothers were instead birth mothers) is a popular trope in those. It could be interesting to explore urban fantasy as new fairy tales.

  12. petpluto says:

    Buffy: There are a few episodes in which her father is present and we are told he live quite a distance away which is why spent a summer visiting him.

    We’re also shown time and time again that he’s an absentee father and explicitly told that he’s “living the cliche” in Spain with his secretary when Buffy tries to call him after her mother dies. Buffy’s father’s absence, from the first episode of the second season onward (and he’s really only in two episodes, one where she’s worried he’ll abandon her and one after she’s spent the summer with him) is set up in such a way as a demonstration that he is being a bad father. That it is not that Buffy (and later Dawn) live so far away he can’t visit, but that he can’t be bothered to visit.

    I appreciate that you’re applying a social justice lens to science fiction/speculative fiction/fantasy — it’s something that hasn’t been done nearly enough — but with both this and the Game of Thrones post it feels like the emphasis on mothers even though the same critiques apply to the portrayal of fathers is setting up a double standard. When you acknowledge that fathers receive the same treatment mothers do in urban fantasy but nonetheless confine your critique to the trend of absent or neglectful mothers, it suggests that it’s somehow less problematic or noteworthy that fathers aren’t present in these characters’ lives.

    QFT.

  13. Katya says:

    @ Alexandra and Alice–

    While it’s definitely worthwhile to discuss absent mothers/parents in urban fantasy, to do so without acknowledging that the dead mother/dead parents trope is incredibly common in fairy tales. It’s a way of putting your protagonist in peril–he/she lacks a nurturing mother (often replaced by a hostile or neglectful stepmother) or is without parental protection. It also gives your protagonist more freedom of movement and action by removing parental strictures. In a way, it’s the motor that starts the story–a protagonist with parents would be more likely to be safely at home, while an orphaned one is more likely to encounter adventures.

  14. T. Smythe says:

    Well, Adults Are Useless, of course. Parents in particular, as you acknowledge, have to be sidelines somehow in kid-centric fiction of all genres.

    I think you’re probably right that Mom tends to get killed off more frequently than Dad, who’s more often a deadbeat or an antagonist. Sometimes she even gets to die protecting her kid from Dad’s evil minions at the beginning of the story, or from Dad himself at the end of the first book in a trilogy. I agree with the premise of your post, then, insofar as mom = martyr, dad = villain reflects widespread assumptions about gender that kind of suck.

    Other options are for one or both parents to be clueless about what’s going on (this tends to turn them into obstacles; it’s hard to go save the world with a curfew), overprotective, indifferent, crazy, comatose, even kidnapped.

    I don’t think the tendency to kill mothers you describe is at all particular to urban fantasy, though. If I were going to go after this genre in particular for sexism, my target would be the romantic element.

    There’s the pervasive heteronormativity, of course, to start with. It is becoming very common for urban fantasy – at least, urban fantasy written by women – to include a sympathetic queer bit character or two (usually gay men), but the handling of these characters is often nearly as obnoxious as their total absence would have been.

    What gets my goat most often, though, is the central romance between the female protagonist and her male love interest (or interests; there’s almost always a foil for the Author-Certified-True-Love).

    There’s something deeply, profoundly fucked up about the way this genre writes and writes and writes the fantasy of being desired. It’s not that I object to the whole idea, or fail to understand the appeal; it feels good to be longed for. But I wish urban fantasy writers – especially YA urban fantasy writers – would resist the impulse to write romances between teenage girls and aloof men with laser-guided hearts (or possibly boners) of gold.

    It’d pretty ridiculous when the sixteen year-old heroine instantly and inexplicably becomes the sole interest of some immortal twink who’s actually decades if not centuries her senior. But I think it might actually be worse when the love interest is the heroine’s age (or, more likely, a year or two older). It’s okay – even, in a way, realistic! – to portray teenagers with intense, maybe even obsessive attraction to one another that strikes one or both characters like a bolt out of the blue. It’s squicky in the extreme for a teenager to make a love interest the absolute center of his or her world, to the instant and total displacement of other interests (family, friends, ambitions, whatever), and for the author to portray the whole thing as sublimely romantic (and eternal, naturally) as well as utterly humorless. Cue conga line of tortured contrivances fabricated to keep our true lovers angstily apart. Ew, ew, ew.

    I’m ranting (and derailing, sorry!) because I just last week made the mistake of reading Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments series, which is possibly the most egregious example of the above I’ve ever read. It’s enough to send anyone running for the brain bleach.

  15. seisy says:

    Supernatural has a terrible, terrible, terrible track record when it comes to women- they all tend to die really terrible deaths. Either they’re monster chow (but shown in a titillating way), they’re sexy monsters killed by the heroes (with a lot of “bitch” and “whore” thrown around for good measure), or they die painful and tragic deaths to motivate the heroes. To say nothing of two torture porn scenes. there’s a lot of implied torture on the show, but somehow, it’s never the guys who are tied naked to a table and tortured in explicitly sexual ways. But for all that, they did have an awesome mother character in Ellen (with a strong mother/daughter relationship to boot).

    And thinking of books where the protagonist has a good relationship with her (living!) mother, there’s the Kitty Norville series by Carrie Vaughn. The character’s mother is alive and well, if physically absent in the sense that her daughter the main character is a grown woman living elsewhere. Though IIRC the main character does visit her family, speak on the phone to her mother, thinks about not wanting to worry her or disappoint her…it’s all very realistic, and not drawn on for drama, albeit of the normal sort. (I think at one point her mom ends up in the hospital with cancer or something, but it’s still just portrayed as part of normal life. Our parents grow older, illness happens, and it sucks, but it’s not grandly dramatic.)

  16. liz says:

    I remember reading in an introduction to The Secret Garden about how important it is in children’s fiction to get the children’s parents out of the way in order to allow the children to get into problems from which they must rescue themselves. Thus the setting of so many books in summer camps, and boarding schools, and also the slaying of parents.

    The intro said that it’s a fine line to walk to kill off the parents and yet not traumatize the reader, and so in James and the Giant Peach, James’s parents are trampled on the high street, in the middle of the day, by a rampaging rhinoceros. And in the Secret Garden, Mary is so downright AWFUL you can’t feel sorry for her when she loses her parents because she doesn’t give a damn herself.

    But the point is that for children’s literature to work, you generally need to have the kids be highly independent so that there is no ready way an adult can get them out of their scrapes.

    I think that the same holds true for YA fiction.

  17. Daniel Schealler says:

    Mothers in refrigerators.

  18. Carol says:

    Interestingly about Once Upon a Time, the child Henry has two mothers–Emma is his biological mother who meets him only when he is about 10, and the mayor/evil queen is his adoptive mother. Their conflict over how to guide and protect him gives the show many themes regarding motherhood, such as how can a birth mother be involved once a child is given up for adoption; does biological motherhood exert a special pull that overcomes logical considerations; are there mothers who don’t truly love their children but want only to control them; what kind of relationship can be forged between birth mother, adoptive mother, and child; etc.

  19. Gareth Wilson says:

    Did you watch “No Ordinary Family”? It had its problems, including somewhat cheesy pop-culture superhero references by the supporting characters. But one time it worked is when the female lead is worrying about her superpowered children, and asks about mothers of superheroes. The supporting character tells her that most superheroes don’t even have mothers. Superman, Batman, Spiderman, Wolverine, Captain America…

  20. preying mantis says:

    “The supporting character tells her that most superheroes don’t even have mothers. Superman, Batman, Spiderman, Wolverine, Captain America…”

    Of course, that brings up a point about surrogate parents to orphaned or abandoned characters. Batman’s got Alfred. Spider-Man’s got Aunt May. Nick from Grimm had his Aunt Marie until he was a grown adult. Buffy’s got Giles, who can be awkward and emotionally out of his depth, but he’s there and clearly cares, unlike her bio-dad.

    It introduces a level of tension to the relationship that you don’t usually see in biological/adopted parental relationships in fiction. Your parents might turn evil or run away or check out, but very rarely do they officially quit as your parents. Surrogates have that option. At the same time, characters’ parents usually never get a scene where they actively decide to parent this kid, superpowers, bad luck, and all, while the surrogates have made that choice.

  21. Athenia says:

    Yeah, I want to second what Liz said. It is thee trope of children’s fiction to remove one or both of the parents so that the child can “grow up.” I think one can argue that Disney takes this trope–particularly with mothers–too far. Probably with Pixar too?

    Interestingly, in the manga/anime Sailor Moon, the main character Sailor Moon does have an intact family, but many of the other characters have absent or dead parents.

  22. Andie says:

    For some reason, reading this thread, I keep coming back to the women in Anne rice’s The Witching Hour.. The earliest generations of witches in the stories were all very close to their mothers, learning and passing their knowledge, as well as the Daimon Lasher from generation to generation… It was when the women began having no relationship with their mothers (Antha, Deidre, Rowan) that their power was in jeopardy.

    I’m not sure what the significance is in the context of this thread, but it’s something I keep coming back to.

  23. Andie says:

    For some reason, reading this thread, I keep coming back to the women in Anne rice’s The Witching Hour.. The earliest generations of witches in the stories were all very close to their mothers, learning and passing their knowledge, as well as the Daimon Lasher from generation to generation… It was when the women began having no relationship with their mothers (Antha, Deidre, Rowan) that their power was in jeopardy.

    I’m not sure what the significance is in the context of this thread, but it’s something I keep coming back to.

  24. Emie says:

    Interesting post, I have never really thought about this before. But it does make a lot of sense. And it makes me think of other stories that haven’t been mentioned. Like Harry Potter losing both of his parents, and most of the parent figures in his life. In “A series of unfortunate events”, Violet, Klaus and Sunny are orphans at the very beginning of the series. (ASOUE is not exactly urban fantasy I know, but it does take place in a sort of strange, alternate universe of Earth). And Gemma Doyle’s mother dies in just the first couple of chapters in the trilogy, and her father is absent most of the time.

    Interesting, yet scary trend/trope indeed.

  25. Tamara says:

    I’ve just finished reading Packaging Girlhood by Lamb and Brown, which analyses the images of girls and girlhood that are being marketed to girls and I really recommend it. It also covers the issue of portrayal of mothers in books for girls, noting that they’re often portrayed as the one who upholds a version of femininity that the heroine is rebelling against (American Girl books). Or they’re useless or dead (including fathers). The writers are concerned too that this devalues mothers and sets girls up to be more vulnerable to messages from commercial interests.

  26. Lara Emily Foley says:

    Buffy’s Mom does not belong in this conversation. She is alive for 4.5 of the 7 seasons, she factors in very much after that (she’s never forgotten). Her death is one of the most respectful and realistic treatments of death in Television history (if not in the history of fiction). To reduce Joyce to just another dead mother is an insult.

  27. Pingback: Signposts Passed at Dusk: Where are the colors in Movie Posters; where are the moms in Urban Fantasy; and where lies ideology in the Wedding Dress? « hap·stance dep·art

  28. ellid says:

    Dead parents (not just dead mothers) are common in all branches of fiction, not just urban fantasy. It is not unique to YA, children’s books, or any other genre, and I really do think you’re pushing this a bit too far. Yes, it’s a shame that more girls don’t have a strong relationship with their mothers, but part of the hero’s journey is being alone, so why is this surprising? And why is something that’s been a common trope in all fiction suddenly a feminist issue? Exactly the same thing happens to male characters and fathers.

  29. Ashley says:

    Buffy’s Mom does not belong in this conversation. She is alive for 4.5 of the 7 seasons, she factors in very much after that (she’s never forgotten). Her death is one of the most respectful and realistic treatments of death in Television history (if not in the history of fiction). To reduce Joyce to just another dead mother is an insult.

    Exactly my thoughts!

    It’s definitely worth it to look at how fiction treats mothers, but as was pointed out by many other commenters, the fathers of the example hero(ine)s used in this essay were also absent/dead, which really undermines the strength of this argument. A wealth of information on (& examples of) characters with absentee parents exists at tv tropes, but don’t click on the link unless you have hours and hours to spend clicking on all the related tropes….

  30. @Lara Emily Foley

    The point is that she is dead just like many other mothers in the genre. No matter how respectfully her death was treated, Buffy didn’t truly become and adult until her mother died.

  31. Andie says:

    ut don’t click on the link unless you have hours and hours to spend clicking on all the related tropes

    No kidding. Wish I had thought of that last night before clicking the link in the fascination thread.

  32. Athenia says:

    It’s also worth noting how many of these “failure” mothers are marginalised. Lettie Mae is both black and poor. Abby is black. Darla from The Crow is a poor drug user. Even Sally’s mother on Being Human (US) is only around for 2 episodes of character growth for Sally — and in that time we learn she had an affair while with Sally’s father and wasn’t there for Sally as she wanted and needed. All the mothers we’ve mentioned are disposable characterisation tools — but the wealthy or middle class white mothers in The Secret Circle, Charmed, The Vampire Diaries, The Dresden Files, Once Upon a Time, Underworld and True Blood are killed off or absent through forces outside their control. They are absent because they are victims — and certainly beyond reproach. While poor women or mothers of colour are not innocently absent, they are to blame for their failure.

    Just wanted to say–I totally agree on this point.

  33. Emily says:

    As many other commenters have already noted, these absent mothers make more sense if you put them in the context of where these books are taking their genre conventions from. Urban Fantasy is something of a modern fairy tale or folk legend, and if you look at most fairy tales (or other children’s literature, Disney movies, superheroes, etc) you’ll find almost entirely absent parents. This is because these tales are about children or young people, and in order to give them agency or allow them to complete their narrative arc the parents have to be out of the way. These stories often involve the protagonist learning something or gaining some kind of prize by their independent action in the face of danger. Danger isn’t so dangerous, nor action so independent, if your mom is there to help you every step of the way. Could these books have more present mothers and still be good? Of course, just look at Buffy’s mom, who was present for most of the series. But this is not the easiest nor most historically common method of giving the young people in the story room to complete their coming-of-age. The easiest and most common way to do that, from Grimm to Disney to modern Urban Fantasy, is to get the parents out of the way.

    As for the evil parents, for most children their parents represent adults or society in general, so having an evil mother or father serves as a stand in for either the evils of the adult world to children or the evils of society as a whole. Also, having a bad relationship with an absent or evil parent is an easy way to give a character a flaw that is entirely not their fault and which can be remedied without changing their character. It’s the easiest and cheapest characterization trick, and authors in every genre have been using it for centuries.

    Are all these things still problematic? Yes, of course. But they’re not particular to Urban Fantasy, and their inclusion certainly isn’t a new trend.

  34. gamer says:

    As someone who’s inadvertently done this in her own stories, I have two reasons: A) I was raised solely by my father after my mother died, so it’s very natural to me (though I realize this likely not the case for 99% of the people who write this), and B) parents in the picture just bog down the story, especially if you’re writing children or young adults that typically have a close relationship with them. Instead, you want an independent person that doesn’t have to call in to mom/dad every time they want to go slay a vampire. As an adult, it’s just natural to not have to worry about kid stuff anymore, even though you’re writing one. But a good writer would be able to.

    If you DO opt to have a parent and routinely pick the father (and you don’t have a personal history like I do) then you should definitely take a good look inwards and ask yourself why. I caught myself making all of my side characters male, for instance. I’m trying to correct that.

  35. Esti says:

    @Fangsforthefantasy

    The point is that she is dead just like many other mothers in the genre. No matter how respectfully her death was treated, Buffy didn’t truly become and adult until her mother died.

    Actually, I’d say that Buffy didn’t really become an adult until Giles went back to England in season 6. After Joyce’s death, Buffy turned to Giles — who was always a father figure for her — to play the responsible adult role, handling things like household finances and discipline of Dawn. After everything she’d been through, she wanted to remain in her comfort zone of teenage slayer instead of taking up the roles of an adult and surrogate mother. Giles saw that she wouldn’t be able to really grow up so long as he was there to lean on, and he left to prevent her dependence on him from interfering with her transition into adulthood.

    And even that ignores the fact that Joyce’s death was so pivotal because Buffy’s father was already gone. He was completely absent from her life for the run of the show (and he didn’t live far away — he was in CA and close enough that in one episode he was supposed to drive down to take her out for her birthday but bailed at the last second), there were repeated references to his absenteeism, and his absence clearly played a big role in Buffy’s development as a person. Joyce may have died, but only after we saw 4.5 seasons of their interesting and realistic mother/daughter relationship; Buffy’s dad was a non-entity from day one of the show.

    If you’re more interested in the portrayal of mothers in fiction, that’s cool — I think it’s an interesting subject and it’s certainly possible to just discuss that. But if you want to analyze what you think is a trend of absent mothers, you can’t refuse to acknowledge the equally prevalent trend of absent fathers. Especially if that results in taking issue with specific examples of absent mothers while giving a pass to absent fathers in the very same stories.

  36. Emily R. says:

    The trope of the absent mother is an interesting one to look at, and I think you’re absolutely right to have pointed out the pattern.

    I think this pattern actually dates back to the Gothic genre that rose to popularity in the 18th century, another genre written primarily by women and consumed primarily by women. To date, it has received little quality critical attention, possibly in part because of its status as women’s genre fiction (though it has certainly received more attention than UF fiction, which is something I’m trying to address).

    The above link is to a study that deals with absent mothers in the Gothic, and I think a lot of the analysis in it can be applied to UF texts. The writer talks about several of the things you’ve mentioned here, notably the fear of mothers, and the fear of becoming a mother.

    I agree with several of the above commentators that Buffy’s mother falls into a different trope category. One of the patterns of coming-of-age stories is the death of the main character’s primary care giver. The absent mother theme doesn’t hold up well in cases like Buffy where her mother is actively and supportively present through more than half of the series. By comparison, the almost entirely off screen death of Elena’s parents serves, as I think you rightly observe as a sort of insta-characterization ploy.

    Thanks for this awesome post! Lots of food for thought here.

  37. petpluto says:

    The point is that she is dead just like many other mothers in the genre.

    To build upon Esti‘s post, Joyce may be dead, but she is not “just” like many other mothers in the genre.

    Most of the mothers in the OP are dead from the start. They are in some cases the impetus of the hero’s journey (Supernatural, Harry Potter, etc), and in some cases they are shorthand for “tragic childhood” (Southern Vampire Mysteries, for example), and in some cases their deaths are reexamined or further explained to add more depth to the story later on (Harry Potter, SVM, Supernatural).

    Joyce Summers doesn’t fit into that narrative. She is an actualized character in the series, with her own issues, her own wants, and her own desires that are both related to and separate from her daughter. She is not absent. She is not just an object meant to further Buffy’s journey. She is a mother, and she sometimes screws up and she sometimes says the wrong thing, and she sometimes comes through for her daughter in shining moments. She and Buffy had a complex relationship, and it evolved over the years. Even when she didn’t know about Buffy’s vampire slaying ways, she was still an active and available parent.

    To put her in the same category as mothers who function merely as a plot device and who are never present at all (due to being dead) is to ignore a fundamental aspect of the issue – which is, I would say, whether or not mothers in particular are cast aside and made insignificant in UF, or YA novels in general. For the record, I disagree with the idea that this is a problem, due in part to reading Bruno Bettelheim. Whether it is lazy storytelling is a different issue entirely.

    But to add Joyce Summers to the discussion is to dilute the available evidence, because she does not fit with the trope the other examples I know enough about to speak on intelligently do.

  38. Meg says:

    I agree that this is a major and extremely awful trend, but I feel compelled to defend Blood and Chocolate, which is one of my favorite books with an awful movie adaptation:

    In the book, the heroine doesn’t get along with her mother, they’re both grieving differently over the death of the father, and they’re at odds when it comes to pack politics – but the two are shown to care for each other and the mother has a fair bit of influence on her daughter’s life, inasmuch as anyone has influence over a rebellious teen apt at sneaking out of the house. This is not true in the film, but that isn’t the author’s fault and I hate that the film twisted the book so much!

  39. Cagey says:

    While it’s true that fathers are also absent, the father is rarely used as a plot or character device the way that mothers are, from my experience. So many of these stories try to give characters depth through the trauma of a lost or missing mother, or reveal that the mother had a secret which drives the mystery at the center of the plot. So while parents may be absent to give agency to the characters, the mother is very often put out of the story to create a connection to the conflict for the main character and an excuse for certain emotional issues. What’s also interesting is the way this works in conjunction with other tropes around women in urban fantasy, like portrayals of grotesque or neglectful motherhood: female monsters having some twisted version of family that the book/show/movie makes clear we’re meant to revile, in ways that fatherhood is not often treated.

  40. Day says:

    I would argue that the nature of the urban fantasy genre tends to exaggerate the misogynist trend already deeply ingrained in fairy tales and general fantasy. Often, the main character needs to take part in a secret world–and removing parents greatly simplifies this plot necessity.

    If you’re looking for good counter-examples (to enjoy), I recommend Kim Harrison’s hollows books–which have a wonderful portrayal of a mother being important in the life of her fully adult child–and many of Kelly Armstrong’s books also have good portrayals of mothers who are people and get to stay alive. Additionally, I’ll add my voice to the idea the Buffy doesn’t properly take part in this trope.

    I also wonder whether parent removal reflects the fact that urban fantasy as a genre deals heavily in themes of isolation and survival, and retaining the mothers of main characters raises pressing questions about why the main characters are in such bad situations if they have present, loving, and competent parents. I would argue that (related to isolation and survival as central themes) finding or developing relationships with nurturers, mentors, and surrogate mother-figures is also a recurring theme, and that the loss of this active process would be a major change in the genre.

    Also, motherhood isn’t entirely absent–it is far more common to see main characters take on mothering roles or have (or plan to have) children of their own.

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  42. jose says:

    This is a pretty interesting article.

    It does bug me when this is done in a sloppy way. Not having any family has a big impact on your life. When authors have a character with dead parents or who grew up an orphan and this has no further impact on their life it bugs me. I think this is one of the things that the dresden files got right. The lack of a family growing up is a major part of the main characters psychological make up.

    Also Buffy’s mom doesn’t really fit this trope for the reasons listed up thread.
    2.

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  45. Excellent post. Mothers don’t do much better in Jane Austen novels either. Women might be able to have it all if they didn’t feel compelled to disown their mothers.

  46. MadGastronomer says:

    Seanan McGuire’s October Daye books sort of do this, much as I love them. Toby is half-human and half-fae. She was taken away from her human father when she was very young. Her fae mother was always a little off-kilter, and once Toby was grown, went completely mad and wandered off into the wilderness — but does still occasionally turn up to protect her daughter. Her mother’s mother is around and takes an active interest in her life, but Toby has no idea they’re related until well into the series. And Toby herself is a mother estranged from her daughter, having been taken away by a spell when her daughter was very young, and kept away until her daughter was a teen. When she finally got free, her daughter refused to have any relationship with her, having no idea that the fae exist, so Toby can’t tell her what happened. Still, Toby’s motherhood and her mother are pivotal to the story and to the character. There are also multiple other mothers or mother figures in the story, most of them extremely devoted to their children and very present. Motherhood and the lengths a mother will go to (including Toby’s mother and grandmother, and Toby) is a major theme of the series as a whole. Every book prominently features at least one mother-child relationship.

    McGuire’s new series, InCryptid, has a main character whose mother is very much alive and a part of her life, and so is her entire extended family. She’s chosen to move halfway across the country from most of them, because she would like to do something with her life other than studying and sometimes hunting monsters (ballroom dance, for some gawdawful reason; I think McGuire was going for the inverse of Buffy or something, where she has to try to steal moment from her family’s “normal” world of the supernatural to try to do something more mainsteam), but she keeps in close touch with them.

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  48. Surprise says:

    Yes, as mentioned previously, Buffy’s Mom was alive throughout most of the Buffy series, and even her Dad made a few brief appearances. Just another reason to appreciate Joss Wheden.

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