Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Purity Culture and The Dresden Files

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The Fandomentals reviewed the first of Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files previously, analyzing the problems in the 2000 debut novel, specifically the issues with sexism. However, there’s an important conversation to have regarding purity culture and what it means for a work or series to improve. Storm Front and the subsequent novels provide an excellent arena in which to have that conversation. It’s urban fantasy at it’s best and worst, and that’s important.

Spoilers for Storm Front.

Purity Culture

What is Purity Culture and Why Do We Care?

Purity Culture as it derives from sexual purity isn’t relevant to our discussion. However, Purity Culture in social justice circles proves to be far more relevant. But also equally terrifying. Social Justice Purity Culture entails a deeply discriminatory attitude against everything that does not reach a certain level of ‘wokeness’ or ‘purity’. It contributes to call out culture. To be clear, the idea of analyzing media based on diversity and representation is good, I’ve done it. However, that’s not the same thing as Purity Culture.

Where Purity Culture steps over the line is when it says that anything not sufficiently ‘pure’ should never be consumed by anyone. When you can never atone for a single mistake. Purity Culture derives from fundamentalist Christian thought patterns, but it doesn’t allow for confession and redemption. It does not take context into consideration, such as when the thing was created or if the author has improved since then.

Obviously, there are some exceptions. Like when something doesn’t improve. Or when the creators and their creation not only fail to improve, but rather double down on discrimination or harmful stereotypes. Or, if it’s just so offensive in it’s entirety that to even make it would prove counterproductive.

Disregarding such exceptions, Purity Culture is deeply entrenched in our society now, and I find this to be a problem. This slippery slope could veer scarily close to censorship, of the Platonic and fundamentalist types. The value in How to Kill a Mockingbird and Tom Sawyer is plain. We should not continue on a path that would ban these and endless more books, as to do so would also drain our culture of something valuable. We would never stop.

So What Does This Have to do With The Dresden Files?

All of this is not to say that the previously mentioned review of Storm Front is wrong. The insights discussed about the first book are stunningly accurate. However, this first book isn’t the last in the series, and I think the books improve greatly. The Dresden Files start out pretty offensive. Storm Front is a truly, horribly bad start to a series. But, the series does not remain truly, horribly bad.

In Jim Butcher’s introduction to the third audiobook, he declares it to be the book where the series hits its stride. Likewise the Tor re-read discusses how the early writing reads shakily, but also mentions that the series improves.

I first read The Dresden Files as a teenager, a relatively sheltered, sometimes ignorant of nuances teenager. In fact, I agree with the Storm Front review author. If I had encountered this series now, as someone more educated about and deeply invested in intersectional feminism, I would hate it, too. Nevertheless, I want to revisit this series and examine how it improves and how it doesn’t.

In this series of articles, I will look through each book and pull out the best moment overall, the best piece of worldbuilding, and the element that most improved over the course of the book. I’ll also pull out the worst moment and the moment where improvement stops and slides back down. In doing so, I hope to foster acceptance of and pride in the improvements made, rather than leaving a person or work behind because of the worst moments.

So What Happened in Storm Front?

The novel begins with Harry Dresden, a hardboiled detective, listed under ‘Wizards’ in the phone book. This world is like Harry Potter, where magic doesn’t show itself to normal people, so he doesn’t get much business. He gets a client named Monica who wants him to find her missing husband. Then, he gets a call from Sergeant Murphy of the Chicago Police ‘Special Investigations’ about a murder she wants him to consult on. Something ripped out the hearts of two people: a crime boss’s assistant and a sex worker who works for a vampiress madame.

Storm Front takes us into Harry’s world, where he meets with Mac, Morgan, and Susan. Mac owns a magic bar where everyone is welcome. Morgan works for the White Council, an organization of wizards. He thinks Harry killed the victims with black magic. Morgan thinks Harry deserves to be killed for murdering with magic and dabbling in black magic again. Susan is a reporter for a supernatural magazine who asks Harry on a date.

Harry connects his cases to the distributors of ThreeEye, a new drug that uses magic to induce a drug trip. He meets Bianca, the aforementioned vampiress, and confronts her, barely escaping a demon several times, once with Susan involved. Then, he finds out that Victor Sells, Monica’s missing husband, created ThreeEye, abused his wife, and killed his sister-in-law when she tried to make him leave Monica. Victor worked with a couple that wanted Marcone, the crime boss, dead. He also planned to kill Harry for investigating him. Dresden falls out with Murphy then makes up with her over the course of the investigation. Ultimately, Harry stops Sells and rededicates himself to protecting Chicago from the supernatural.

The Best Moment – The First Confrontation with Morgan

Our introduction to Morgan begins with a distinct description of him as, “The man with the naked sword,” (p. 80). He then proceeds to sentence Harry to death for breaking the Laws of Magic, “by the sword, to be carried out at once.” (p. 81). Butcher then spends eight pages describing their confrontation. Harry spends his time either snarking at Morgan or frantically trying to avoid Morgan’s sword. They talk about the case and Harry collaborating with the police. Also about Morgan’s deep-seated conviction that Harry killed Tommy Tomm and Jennifer Stanton.

It’s a really good dozen pages because it develops the Laws of Magic, as well as introducing Morgan, the White Council, and Harry’s signature sense of humor.

“Have you ever been approached by a grim-looking man, carrying a naked sword with a blade about ten miles long in his hand, in the middle of the night, beneath the stars on the shores of Lake Michigan? … If you have not, then believe you me, it can scare the bejeezus out of you.” (p. 82)

Butcher does humor so wonderfully.

The confrontation also includes Harry’s love of pop culture in another joke after Morgan leaves.

“[Morgan] was like this big, cartoon tomcat waiting outside the mousehole for the little mouse to stick its nose out so he could smash it flat with one big paw. I was feeling a lot like that little mouse. I let that analogy cheer me up a bit. The cartoon cats always seemed to get the short end of the stick, in the end. Maybe Morgan would too.” (p. 89)

It’s a thinly veiled Tom and Jerry reference. Harry’s pop culture fanaticism is part of what differentiates this series from other urban fantasies for me.

Most Improved – Monica’s Character

Monica is the linchpin that ties the story together. In the beginning, Monica calls Harry and lets him know her husband went missing and she wants to hire him. Then she makes an appointment where she elaborates on the situation. Her husband recently explored magic then packed a bag, so she’s worried. Harry describes her as, “too nervous to risk looking at my eyes” and, “wholesome and all-American” (p. 41). In short, she’s the standard pulp novel damsel-in-distress.

She lets him know about her husband’s lake house, and when he investigates it, he finds a roll of film outside. This leads him to find information about the Shadowman, the one who killed Tommy and Jennifer, and lets him tie it all together. She’s the one who drops hints that let him solve the case.

Late in the book, he goes to Monica’s house to talk with her. He does something called a soul gaze, which lets people see the other person’s soul. “I hadn’t wanted to know that she had been abused as a child. That she’d married a man who provided her more of the same, as an adult” (p. 264). Then she tells him everything about Victor Shadowman, how he fell in with magic, scared her, scared her kids. How he constantly wanted more and more.

Monica does everything deliberately. She drops hints to Harry at precisely the right time, helping him stop her husband and avenge her sister Jennifer. Butcher doesn’t portray abuse in a groundbreaking way, but Monica rebelled against her abuser indirectly to inform someone who could stop him, and that shows incredible strength. She grew from the stereotypical damsel figure she was at the beginning of the novel, and at this point in the series, that’s enough.

Best Worldbuilding – Harry’s Relationships with People

This first installment in the series dumps us into Harry’s pre-existing relationships with other people. And I love it. This detail makes the world more than just another detective novel. It relishes in the friendships Harry already made and welcomes us in.

We saw this with Morgan a little. Morgan’s bias against Harry formed years ago, and we’re seeing the results of it now in how they relate to each other.

This also shows with Murphy. When we first see her, Butcher juxtaposes her reaction to Harry and Carmichael’s. “[Carmichael] was Murphy’s partner and the resident skeptic,” (p. 15). Compared to Carmichael, Murphy is open about her request for Harry’s assistance. There’s an easy give and take between the two of them. Murphy sometimes acts skeptical, but she respects Harry’s opinions on magic When Harry refuses to tell Murphy anything else at the site of the third murder, he sees her face change. “I sensed, more than saw, the hardening around her eyes, the little lines of hurt and anger,” (p. 220). In that moment, Harry loses Murphy’s trust, and that hurts them both. It speaks to their previous partnership and friendship.

With Mac, the friendship is cooler. After Harry’s encounter with Susan at his bar, he talks to Mac a little. Eventually Mac responds, “Dumb,’ … Mac’s face flickered into that smile, and it made him look years younger, almost boyish. ‘Not her,’ he said. ‘You,” (p. 63). The conversation implies knowledge about each other, and a later loan of Mac’s car signifies trust. Butcher characterizes their friendship without rhapsodizing about how they met.

There’s not much to say about Susan’s friendship with Harry. Butcher deserves some credit for including a person coded Latinex in his first book, even though there are several problems. But I’ll save that for later.

Worst Worldbuilding – Bianca

The way Butcher treats Bianca in this book is sad. Looking back on this book and knowing how the series and the lore around vampires changes, it becomes infuriating. If he had introduced Bianca in later books, the entire way she manifests as a vampire likely would have changed. Her personality would probably have changed too, because this incarnation of Bianca pulls whole-heartedly from the Dragon Lady trope. If Butcher wrote this five years later, her entire character would have been different, respected, and beyond the surface we have here.

When I reread the previously mentioned review of Storm Front, I read something that crystallized how the narrative treats Bianca. Neele writes,

“[Bianca] is willing to talk now, yet she’s still embarrassed and furious at Harry and herself. Because she lost control? No, because what she wants most in the world is to be beautiful. He saw her ‘true’ form and now knows she is ugly; she … cries because of it. Make it stop.”

I can only echo that final sentiment. The way the narrative treats vampires in general and Bianca specifically both objectifies and sexualizes them and not from any deeper, story driven modus. The only thing that survives from this incarnation is the flesh mask.

Rachel’s death only continues to serve this point. Later books mention that vampires can control their blood-lust. The excuse offered in this book, that Harry started bleeding and Bianca couldn’t control herself, is voided by the narrative. “Bianca’s tongue began to flash in and out, faster than could really be seen, lapping the blood up as quickly as it appeared. Her dark eyes were narrowed, distant. Rachel was gasping and moaning in pleasure, her entire body shivering,” (p. 129). The moment only serves to titillate the audience. It doesn’t serve the story.

Worst Moment – Harry’s Benevolent Sexism

While not really one moment, any review has to address this problem. Neele’s review focused entirely on this, and even the Tor book review spends a good paragraph talking about sexism in Storm Front.

Neele’s review for The Fandomentals highlights how Harry views women, discussing the lingering narration that, as with Bianca, only serves to titillate. It also discusses the casual sexism of Harry’s belief that ‘women hate more easily’ and his chauvinism in opening doors for Murphy that she doesn’t want opened for her, a habit Harry describes as old-fashioned chivalry.

Harry says, at one point, “men ought to treat women like something other than just shorter, weaker men with breasts,” (p. 11). I believe this statement, coupled with the act of opening doors for Murphy, was intended by Butcher as a celebration of gender difference. However, it did undercut Murphy’s express wishes, which reflects poorly on Harry, especially in light of current conversations about consent.

Now we cycle back to Susan. In case you’re unaware, Harry has a skull named Bob. Bob enjoys talking about sex and also knows various potions. In repayment for a teleportation potion, Bob makes Harry prepare a love potion. The way Bob describes it sound like a date rape drug, something to “lower her inhibitions,” (p. 102). Now, Harry plans never to use the potion. However, when a demon traps him and Susan in his basement, he mixes up the potions and accidentally gives Susan the date rape potion. She immediately starts fawning over Harry, and the narration starts using words like “sultry” and “passionate.”

Given that Susan Rodriguez already tried to manipulate Harry with the offer of a date, which led them to the basement in the first place, there’s a problem. She’s the only one coded Latinex in the entire novel. Not only does she use sexuality to manipulate Harry, she then falls victim to the date rape potion. That’s exceedingly problematic.


Thankfully, everything gets better from here. Both the books and their messages improve. This is the book with the worst implications and the most up-front benevolent sexism. After this, the worldbuilding doesn’t just titillate anymore, and the things that were good further improve from here on. Harry’s friendships deepen, and he develops more of them. The world grows more complex, and we gain more of the humor and pop culture references that Butcher excels at.

I look forward to this attempt at finding value in what Purity Culture would deny has any. Thank you for starting this journey with me, and I look forward to next month’s article and seeing your comments on this one.

Image Courtesy of Roc Books

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