When I saw that Tor.com had an article discussing how liberal urban fantasy was compared to epic fantasy, I wondered if it was a joke. My first reaction was to laugh. But apparently someone seriously thought that, hence the discussion.
Taking liberal to mean a stance of current progressive things, like equal rights for all, diversity, representation, and all that (rather than being a member of a certain political party), urban fantasy does not fare well. I wouldn't say it's necessarily worse than other speculative sub-genres, as they all have their successes and failures, but it's not standing out in the crowd.
So, why would anyone think it does?
I suspect it's because on the surface level, it looks hopeful. Women are often the main characters, taking on jobs traditionally taken on by men, such as combat roles. From a read of the back covers, it looks like it's about independent women doing their own thing. But once you scratch at that, it doesn't hold up.
On the side of representing women, a few common issues are:
- The strong women are only selectively strong. It's common for these women to be raped (or threatened with rape) at some point during the series, in situations where they took risks, often directly contrary to a man's orders or advice. This is so common that author Seanan McGuire was asked when her characters would be raped (not if they would be).
- The women are often paired with abusive love interests, who try to control them apparently for their own good. This is shown as romantic and desirable.
- The women rarely have positive relationships with other women (which I discussed previously as the jealous evil harpy phenomenon... it can pop up in any sub-genre, but urban fantasy has a lot of it).
- Though the special woman acting as protagonist gets freedoms, these are only for her, often due to her magic powers. They don't apply to other women. Especially not average un-magical women.
And that's only one aspect. Most of these women are white, straight and able-bodied. Where a protagonist doesn't fall into this category, it's usually because he's a white straight able-bodied man. Sometimes a character is portrayed as mixed race, but this is done in a way that implies the non-white ancestry is to make the character "exotic" or justify their magic powers. They won't be seen as non-white by anyone else, face any issues, or have any cultural connections*.
The community the characters live in is often majority white, even when set in real cities where this isn't the actual demographics. Fiction can change things... but it's a little coincidental that it's always changed to make it white, and not to hypothesise an America that wasn't colonised at all, or a Great Britain that was taken over by the Mongols.
Where characters who don't fit this mono-type pop up, they're often minor characters who are walking stereotypes and not an example of good representation. Such stereotypes are used to maintain the status quo, not to challenge it.
Answers on a postcard for the last major urban fantasy release where the protagonist was in a wheelchair or was very old (in the actual sense, not the looks-twenty sense). Some people rarely appear even as stereotypes.
Of course, there are exceptions to everything. I have read urban fantasy with a wider range of characters and where women outside of the main character are not vilified. I've also read epic fantasy that does the same. But this doesn't make a genre ahead of the game. No matter how many examples you list out, you can't escape that the biggest sellers are conservative. The Dresden Files is about a straight white man in a whitewashed Chicago. The Mercy Thompson books have a rape plot and abusive love interest, along with being mixed race for the magic powers. These are the ones often recommended when people ask for typical examples of the genre**.
The only saving grace with this is I wasn't the only one to wonder if it was a joke. Some of the commenters did too. There's hope that one day, no one will have to explain that progressive means a whole lot more than a woman picking up a sword.
* I discussed this in relation to Native American leads in urban fantasy. Fangs for the Fantasy talked about it in general terms, of why a mixed race character doesn't automatically mean it's inclusive.
** It's not inherently wrong to like things that are problematic. I liked the first two Dresden Files. The problem is when that liking is used to excuse the problems as not really being problems, or hassle people who point out the problems for being unreasonable (how dare people have opinions on the things they read, and other such arguments). It helps to realise that the bestsellers might not be someone's best introduction to the sub-genre.