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Storm Front is a Study in Sexism

Neele

Neele

Neele is a university student with an aversion to sunlight, a love for storys and science and immense procratination skills.
Neele

Here on The Fandomentals we usually write about and discuss things we love, but every now and then someone decides to bite the bullet. Well, now it’s my turn. I bit the bullet. I read Storm Front, the first of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files novels.

Oh, boy it was a ride. The worldbuilding was messy, but the plot was decent. Nothing great but enjoyable, or it would have been, if not for the sexism. The sexism ruined it. Not that sexism isn’t everywhere. It is. Still, given that the book is written using the first person perspective, the sexist perspective of the protagonist colors everything he sees. And, therefore, everything the audience reads. It gets nauseating. And since I had to suffer through this lens, you will, too.

Let’s start with the protagonist, Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden, the man who believes:

“men ought to treat women like something other than just shorter, weaker men with breasts.” (p.11)

Yes, that is an actual quote.

Harry is a wizard, the phone book says so, and he is behind on rent. Luckily a woman “with a voice that was a little hoarse, like a cheerleader who’d been working a tournament” (p.5) contacts him about her missing husband. They decide to meet up to discuss it further. But first, Harry has to take a look at a crime scene.

At the hotel where the crime scene is at we meet Detective Karrin Murphy, the original tough girl, who prides herself in never showing weakness. First thing Dresden does is an extensive and appreciative description of Murphy including her,

“kind of cute nose you’d expect on a cheerleader.” (p.10)

Seriously, what is this fixation with cheerleaders? Aren’t they usually pretty young? Is that an American thing? This is not the last time this comparison comes up, clearly.

He goes on to speculate how her legs look beneath her trousers, and physically races her to the door so he can hold it open for her, She finds this irritating and does not wish for it, yet he does it anyways. Chivalry may be an outdated concept, but in itself it is usually not malevolent. Undermining the authority of the woman who is supposedly in command by habitually going against her explicit wishes in said chivalry, that’s something else.

Before entering the actual crime scene in the bedroom, Harry looks around and finds some woman’s underwear, which is again described extensively and appreciatively. The first description of the actual corpses is this:

“They were on the bed; she was astride him, body leaned back, back bowed like a dancer’s, the curves of her breasts making a lovely outline. He stretched out beneath her, a lean and powerfully built man, arms reaching out and grasping at the satin sheets, gathering them in his fists.” (p.15)

Only then does he mention that both of their ribcages seem to have exploded. Clearly that is of lesser importance.

I…have a lot of questions that are unaccounted for in Dresden’s description. Why does rigor mortis keep them in this aesthetically pleasing position? Logic and biology would have them slump down long before it sets in. How can her breasts still be as lovely as described when her ribcage is exploded? Anatomy doesn’t work that way, Harry Dresden.

Harry then concludes that the murderer of the woman (in her twenties, in fabulous condition) and her lover is a woman. Why?

“Because you can’t do something this bad without a whole lot of hate. […] Women are better at hating than men. They can focus it better, let it go better. Hell, witches are just plain meaner than wizards. This feels like feminine vengeance of some kind to me.” (p.21)

This earns him a “Chauvinist pig” remark from Murphy, but I wouldn’t take anything coming from her as serious critique of sexism. Even if she intended it thusly, the outcome of her remark (i.e., nothing) doesn’t support reading it that way.

Speaking of outcomes, spoiler alert, the killer was not a woman. Does this undermine the sexist lens Harry sees through? Maybe it could have, had he ever reflected on it. We learn that the murdered man is a gangster named Tommy Tomm and the woman, a sex worker in the employ of the vampire Bianca.

 

We get another extensive and over-appreciative description of a female character when Dresden meets up with Monica Sells, the woman with the missing husband. It’s not worth repeating in full, but trust me, it’s more of the same. Turns out her husband, Victor, disappeared three days ago. He showed an interest in magic, which is why she contacted Harry rather than the police. She tells him to look around the family’s lake house and leaves him with a scorpion pendant that belonged to her husband.

The logical thing to do now is, of course, visit the nearest bar, McAnally’s, the pub for the wizarding community. There he meets Susan Rodriguez, the book’s only person of color. After the obligatory overly-appreciative female character description, this time including exotifying her darker skin and the “lazy appeal of her dark eyes” (p. 55).

Susan is a reporter, and she, too wants information concerning the murders.

“One of the things that appealed to me about her was that even though she used her charm and femininity relentlessly in pursuit of her stories, she had no concept of just how attractive she really was.” (p. 57)

The author was probably going for Obliviously Beautiful. But, it seems more like Susan’s lack of confidence is seen as more attractive than the presence of it given how Dresden treats Karin Murphy. She is also written as clearly attracted to Harry. While she is flirting in part to obtain information she is shown to be disappointed that “[Harry] didn’t look down her blouse even once” (p. 57). He did look, actually.

Harry then drives out to look around to the Sells’ lake house, where he summons a fairy to blackmail for information. Said information is that someone was having sex and ordered pizza the previous night. The conclusion Harry draws on the missing husband?

“He was lurking about his love nest with a girlfriend, like any other husband bored with a timid and domestic wife might do under pressure.” (p. 76)

When he turns to go, the warden Morgan appears and reminds Harry that he is the magic counsels prime suspect for the murders. he is being watched and any breaking of the laws of magic will lead to execution. Returning home, Harry decides to prepare an escape potion before meeting with Bianca. He doesn’t know the ingredients, so he summons Bob, an air spirit living in a human skull.

Bob, as can be expected of bodyless spirits, is obsessed with sex and easily insulted in his masculinity. After asking for details about Susan’s looks, he agrees to help with the escape potion but under the condition that Harry prepares a love potion, too. This, naturally, makes Harry contemplate Susan.

“I thought, if Susan should ask me for some kind of demonstration of magic (as she always did), I could always-

No. That would be too much. That would be like admitting I couldn’t get a woman to like me on my own, and it would be unfair, taking advantage of the woman.” (p. 94)

Clearly, he has his priorities straight (that’s sarcasm, if you can’t tell). Dear Harry Dresden, consent shouldn’t be an afterthought, especially not to your ego.

He does agree to brew the potion, even if he does not intend to use it. (Obvious Chekhov’s gun here.) As for the ingredients of a love potion? Tequila (“so long as it’ll lower her inhibitions”), chocolate (“chicks are into chocolate, Harry”), perfume, lace, the last sigh at the bottom of the glass jar, candlelight, a torn up $50 bill (Harry was out of diamonds and money is “very sexy”), and “the ashes of a passionate love letter” that turn out to be torn pages from a romance novel (p. 97). You better believe the quote Bob chose from the novel started with “her milky white breasts” because what else would it start with?

Now on to my least favorite chapter, the meeting with Bianca the ‘vampiress’. After a phone call from Murphy who complains that “that bitch won’t talk to us” (p. 102), Harry decides to stop postponing the encounter. They meet at Bianca’s Velvet Lounge. Harry is led in by her assistant, Rachel, and the description of her physical appearance is thankfully neglected. For now.

Bianca, when she appears looks “too good to be true” (p. 109).  She flirts with Harry (as most women do), but when he brings up the murder of her employee, she attacks him, drawing blood. In losing control of her demeanor, she loses control of her appearance.

“It had a batlike face, horrid and ugly, the head too big for its body. Gaping, hungry jaws. It’s shoulders were hunched and powerful. Membranous wings stretched between the joints of its almost skeletal arms. Flabby black breasts hung before it, spilling out of the black dress that no longer looked feminine.” (p. 111)

It. In losing her attractive appearance Bianca goes from ‘she’ to ‘it’, from person to animal or thing. Like the warden, Bianca thinks Harry murdered her employee. Only when he manages to convince her otherwise and talk her down, does she return to her attractive human form. Her “flabby black breasts swelled into softly rounded, rosy-tipped perfection once more” (p. 115).

She 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 f*cking cries because of it. Make it stop.

According to her, Tommy Tomm was one of the better clients, because “he treated [sex-workers] like real people” (p. 116). She has no idea to a possible motive, but provides Harry with the phone number of Linda Randall, the murdered woman Jennifer Stanton’s former co-worker and roommate.

When Harry leaves, Bianca, hungry from seeing Harry’s blood, feeds on her assistant Rachel. And this is when the story decides to describe her appearance. In full.

“Bianca’s tongue flashed out, long and pink and sticky, smearing Rachel’s wrist with shining saliva. Rachel shuddered at the touch, her breath coming quicker. Her nipples stiffened beneath the thin fabric of the blouse, and she let her head fall slowly backwards. Her eyes were glazed over with a narcotic languor, like those of a junkie who had just shot up.

Bianca’s fangs extended and slashed open Rachel’s pale, pretty skin. Blood welled. 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. 120)

Was all this necessary, for the characters? The worldbuilding? The plot? Hardly. Like the extensive description of female characters, this is purely to cater to the (presumably straight male) reader.

Harry contacts Linda Randall, she works as a chauffeur and repeatedly refuses to meet him. Does he leave her alone? No. He tracks her down while she is waiting for her employers.

“Well, you’ve got me cornered, don’t you? I’m at your mercy. […] And I like a man who just won’t stop.” (p. 126)

Like almost any other woman, she flirts with him, partly to distract him from the fact that she is hiding something. We learn that her and Jennifer Stanton were occasional lovers (hypersexualized bisexuals, yay!) and that they would often meet customers together (bisexuals in threesomes, yay!), including Jennifer’s fellow murder victim. The conversation ends with the arrival of Linda’s creepy employers, the Beckitts. It is implied that besides being the chauffeur she is intimate with at least Mrs. Beckitt.

Afterward, Harry confirms that there really was someone having sex at the lake house by talking to the pizza- delivery guy, who says it was more like an orgy. He also learns that there was someone taking pictures from outside.

The next day Harry visits Murphy at the police department. On the way up, he sees the arrest of an addict high on the pseudo-magical drug ‘three-eye’. The woman “looked like a teenager having a fight with an out-of-town boyfriend” (p. 142)Gods, can you please stop infantilizing women/ comparing them to teenagers!

Anyway, he sees and stops the escape attempt of the three-eye addict, which leads him to conclude that the drug is in fact a magical substance. It’s supplier is a magician capable of murdering Jennifer Stanton and Tommy Tomm. After fainting in Murphy’s office due to a concussion (he was attacked the night previously), Murphy drives him home and tucks him into bed. She kisses him on the forehead when she leaves, because all women are attracted to Harry Dresden. He wakes up to a storm and realizes that it is an adequate supplier of energy to magically murder someone. Indeed, there had been a storm on the night of the murders.

He plans to get dressed for a meeting with Linda Randall but has not yet done so when the doorbell rings. It is Susan, the date he has forgotten. This he judges to be “a little rude of me” (p. 165).

He leaves Susan in his living room and takes a shower. Hearing someone come down the stairs to his apartment, he hurries to the door in a towel. If Susan opened the door and it was Linda “that would be the cattiest thing you’ve ever seen” (p. 168).

It is not Linda, it is a demon, who tries to kill him. Fighting the demon Harry loses his towel (of course he does). He shoves Susan downstairs with instructions to drink the escape potion. She drinks the love potion instead (of course she does). Eventually both her and Harry seek refuge from the demon in a small protection circle they are not allowed to leave. Which is obviously when the love potion kicks in.

Harry has to protect Susan from breaking the circle and accidentally killing them both because “she [is] beyond reason, the potion [has] kicked her libido into suicidal overdrive” (p. 179). He is the sensible one. Because female sexuality is irrational and animalistic. Through all of this Bob only comments how great the love potion is working.

They escape with help of the escape potion. At first Susan refuses to drink it, endangering them further. Harry has to promise to sleep with her afterwards to get her to drink it. Once outside they could easily shake of the demon by passing flowing water, readily available in the storm. But naturally the different potions Susan drank interfered and leave her vomiting and unable to walk. As it is there is no chance for both of them, our ‘hero’ “[would] never make it with her slowing [him] down” (p. 187).

Manly man that he is Harry decides to fight, especially when the demon’s master appears as a phantom made of shadows. Harry channels the storms lightning to vanquish them both. Oh and Linda Randall is dead, which is a why she missed her appointment with Harry.

Dresden and Murphy inspect the crime scene. Again, the first thing he does is inspect her underwear lying around and note that she liked her ‘toys’. Then we get more vivid description of her dead, naked body.

“Linda had been on the phone when she died. She was naked. Even this early in the year, she had tan lines around her hips. She must have gone to a tanning booth during the winter. Her hair was still damp. She lay on her back, eyes half-closed, her expression tranquil as it hadn’t been any time I’d seen her.” (197)

No anatomical impossibilities this time. An exploded ribcage still leaves some very nice hips to ogle, though. Sorry, dressed, non-sexualized corpses are clearly too much to ask for. Linda Randall with her “vulnerability that magnified the other parts of her personality” (p. 198) and her so-called “Slut act” (p. 129) is treated in death as she was treated in life, poorly.

We learn that Linda’s employers lost a daughter in a shooting involving some of Johnny Marcone’s men (the guy Tommy Tomm worked for). When Murphy confronts Harry with the fact that Linda had his card, he internally remarks that she doesn’t look at all “like a cutesy cheerleader” (p. 202).

Again, she demands that he share his information with her and the police force, because he is a strong suspect for the murders. Again, he refuses to do so, deciding that telling her would endanger Murphy, as if leaving her blind doesn’t. Also, he fears, that in admitting he knew Linda, Murphy might question whether they were lovers and as “Linda wasn’t exactly a high-fidelity piece of equipment” (p. 202) ascribe him jealousy as a motive. Harry leaves after Murphy, in tears, promises to arrest him the next day if he doesn’t start cooperating.

While thinking about “doing Murphy’s job for her”  (p.206) Harry is attacked again. In the struggle his attacker manages to steal some of his hair, a necessary ingredient for the chest exploding spell. The guy escapes, but Harry recognizes him as one of Johnny Marcone’s men.

Since he is certain that the murderer is the one supplying the city with three-eye, he seeks out Marcone. Learning that his guard has collaborated with the drug supplier and undermined his control of the city’s organized crime, Marcone has him shot. Unfortunately for Harry ,the hair has already been passed on.

After wandering around in the rain musing about his dead mother and witnessing an execution, Harry breaks into the now abandoned apartment of Linda Randall. After sleeping there for a while he finds a film canister of the same type that was at the lake house. This time, it actually containing film.

That is when someone else breaks into the apartment. The man, Donny Wise turns out to be the photographer from the lake house and another occasional lover of Linda’s. She promised him sex in exchange for him taking photos of the orgy at the lake house she was participating in, supposedly trying to get leverage on some of the other participants. So many levels of wrong in this.

Harry burns the film, lets the photographer go, and heads of towards Monica Sells’ house. Monica, of course, breaks down crying. He learns that she was abused as a child, and that “she’d married a man who provided her with more of the same” (p. 243).  Look, abuse narratives have a place in stories. They can be justified, even important, if the author can handle them respectfully. Here, it is treated as one note. It adds nothing vital to the story in a way to make it justified, nor is it more closely examined either. It’s a Tragic BackstoryTM for a Tragic Female CharacterTM. Full stop.

We learn that Monica Sells and Jennifer Stanton are sisters (there were no discernable clues for this). Victor Sells, a wizard, powered his spells for producing three-eye first with his wife’s fear of him, then with the lust of the people he was organizing orgies with, including his wife, her sister, Linda and the Beckitts. Worried about the wellbeing of her children Monica spoke to her sister, who got Linda to provide leverage on Victor and threatened him with exposure. He killed both them and Tommy Tomm, who was most likely collateral damage.

Leaving her to her weeping, Harry meets Jenny, the Sells’ daughter, who knows that her father’s not one of the ‘good guys’ anymore. Fueled by manpain, Harry decides to call Murphy. Murphy, however, has made good on her promise. Since Harry has not deigned to communicate anything at all, she is waiting for him, searching his office, handcuffs ready.

Panicked, he tells her not to look into his desk drawer because there is an evil wizard’s magical scorpion talisman in there he neglected to mention. Logically, Murphy does what every cop would do when a suspect tells them not to look inside the drawer. She looks inside the drawer.

Again, dashing hero Harry Dresden hurries to the aid of a damsel in distress that wouldn’t be distressed at all if not for him. When he reaches her,

“Murphy lay there, curled on her side, her golden hair in an artless sprawl about her head” (p. 264).

Seriously, please consider getting to the rescuing part. This is a woman in distress, who cares whether her hair sprawls artlessly or not!

The scorpion is alive, it is big and growing. Harry calls 911 for Murphy’s shoulder wound and poisoning. Murphy does the counterintuitive thing to staying alive and handcuffs Harry to herself. This effectively inhibits most of his movements and prevents him from fighting the scorpion. The “stubborn bitch from hell” is literally tying our protagonist down (p. 265).

They make it out, barely killing the scorpion. The EMTs arrive, as does the storm. Harry does not expect to survive the storm if he doesn’t act immediately, so he slips Murphy’s hand out of the handcuffs, leaves her with the EMTs, and limps over to McAnally’s. There, he borrows a car determined to outdrive the storm to the lake house, knocking out Morgan who has again come to confront him on the grounds of the murders. His dead mother gives him strength to get there.

He arrives just as Victor Sells is preparing the sacrificial rabbit for his ritual. The Beckitts provide the necessary lust as fuel for the spell. Harry breaks the circle in time to prevent the ritual, but not prevent the killing of the rabbit though. The naked Beckitts grab guns and start shooting while Victor sets more scorpions loose before resorting to starting a fire.

Harry doesn’t catch fire, but the house does. Then Victor makes the mistake of summoning the previous demon in Harry’s presence.

“I thought of little Jenny Sells, oddly enough, and of Murphy, lying pale and unconscious on a stretcher in the rain, of Susan, crouched next to me, sick and unable to run.” (p. 310)

Thinking of the poor women Victor harmed (not that two out of three weren’t put into harm’s way by none other than Harry himself), our brave hero wrests the demon’s control from Victor without claiming it for himself. Harry then watches the demon turn on Victor and devour both it and his scorpions.

Morgan shows up just in time to save him from the burning building. He ends up in the hospital, right down the hall from Murphy’s room. Harry sends her flowers, she throws them in his face. I hope the authorial intention here was to show that Murphy is still mad about the lies and needlessly endangering her, but I fear that it is meant to show that she is a Strong WomanTM who doesn’t need flowers from men.

In the end, Susan agrees to another date. They are implied to have had sex because this is critical information for the reader. it wouldn’t be part of the ending monologue otherwise.

Yes, this is the end, the book is finally over. It managed to be sexist on both character and narrative level. I didn’t even write down every instance; it’s that pervasive in the story. For everybody not reading this book, congratulations, you dodged a bullet. Thankfully, I’m not inclined to self-torture, which is why I won’t read the second Dresden book.


Pictures courtesy of Roc Books
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  • Priscilla

    Oh boy. I heard good things about the Dresden Files and considered reading them myself. Now I’m glad I didn’t, I don’t think I could have handled that amount of sexism. And the books are actually quite recent, we can’t even use the excuse of “they’re a product of their time” or “back then stories like this were tolerated”.

    • Timothy John Sturm

      … yeah, unfortunately I can’t defend the sexism in this book that much, although in later books it’s much less, and what sexism there is is more a symptom of Harry Dresden than it is Jim Butcher, evidenced by when he writes from a different perspective in the series or in other book series. Dresden does undergo real character development in this area over the series, but doesn’t really stop being a little sexist, in the same way that I have to admit I’m sexist and have instinctual sexist thoughts despite years of deprogramming and trying very hard to be feminist. (But that could just be me projecting, so disregard if you want).

      I will note, and this is something I usually say to anyone who is struggling through the first few books… even Jim Butcher himself admits that he feels bad for people who want to get into the series, BECAUSE they have to read his shitty writing from back then. He will admit it’s not good, let alone the level of awesome that Dresden Files series has been popularly associated with.

      Every person I’ve ever met who tried to get into Dresden, eventual fan or not, has always struggled with Storm Front and Fool Moon (Book 1 and 2), between crappy writing and the study in sexism. Book 3 is… alright, and Book 4 is commonly where it starts getting really good. If that’s not enough motivation (or hope or whatever word qualifies) to push through the early books, then… I guess a shame, but I get it, I really do.

      • Neele

        I read that the later books are better, I also read they are worse, actually I´m curious what might be the case, I´m slightly tempted to continue, especially because the worldbuilding wouldn´t just be “there” anymore, but if Fool Moon is much like Storm Front… We will see.

      • Priscilla

        It’s always good when an author improves. Everyone has the right to make mistakes, after all, and I’m glad the Dresden Files everyone loves are actually better than this. I’m still not sure I could stand two books of sexism without a great writing to compensate (and even so, sometimes the sexism is just too much), but it’s good to know the series has more to offer in case I wanna read it.

      • Katie

        Do you think it’d be possible to just skip the first three? Or is there enough continuity where it would’t make sense?

        • Timothy John Sturm

          I mean yeah you can wiki or recap read the first two, but the third book is where the series really kicks off, so no don’t do that. Also introduced a lot of important characters you should meet.

          The third book isn’t bad it’s just… not quite at the level of the books to come after. So yeah, If you’re going to blunt the pain, read the third and recap the first two through the wiki or tvtropes

        • Apfeljunge

          the first 2 books are also available as comics which are much less painful to read because it is over much faster.

    • Neele

      Yes, I read this to my sister, whose answer to any concerns of mine are usually “you are overreacting”, and her reply was literally “how did this get published”.

  • Hekateras

    Oh Jesus. I’d HEARD that it was bad, but…

  • Katie

    YIKES. This was a very good write up, but I couldn’t even make myself finish reading about all the sexism. Thanks for biting that bullet!

    • Neele

      Sorry you couldn´t finish the article, but it really was that bad.

  • Kraas

    Cool, now I have another reason not to read this series besides not liking urban fantasy.

  • Barbara Kateřina

    Thank you so much for this. To quote from my article on dated media, “my attempt to finally read Dresden Files (…) was aborted after about fifty pages because I just couldn’t deal with sexism permeating the story.” But I’ve heard it recommended by so many people I was wondering if I was perhaps the only one to see it. So, thanks for the confirmation. Also also for the bravery and determination to soldier through. I couldn’t do it.

    • Neele

      It was (not) a pleasure,
      at least I had my red marker, so I could note down everything that offended me and make statistics about it.

  • Stephen Garrett

    I pretty much echo the idea of skipping to “Grave Peril”.

    Most of the fandom theories on the way Harry sees women is that it has to do with him being in his mid-20s and single, with the later books reflecting a combination of A) actually being in a relationship and B) his growing maturity.

    “Summer Knight” is when we start to get “Murphy is Awesome” scenes. 😀

    • Neele

      If Harry is supposed to be in his mid twenties, then why does he always Sound like “I have so much experience in Magic” and “I have seen so many Things over the years”? I would have placed him at least at a decade older.

  • Apfeljunge

    as a big fan of the series, I fell compelled to defend it. The first 2 books are kinda rough but I think butchers other series and his later books prove that he can write non-sexist narrative and that Harry Dresden view of the world is not supposed to be the “correct” one. He is sexist, in an old fashioned way, and as “problematic” as that might be, he is at least well intentioned.

    The fact that he usually sees women as beautiful damsels to be rescued even comes up repeatedly in the series and bites him ass.

    Anyway, if one wants to read only one Dresden novel to judge the series I would put Storm Front at the bottom of the list and “Dead Beat” at the very top

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