This 2004 book is the second in Kelley Armstrong’s Women of the Otherworld series, preceded by Bitten. It holds a 4.15 rating on Goodreads.
Even though she’s the world’s only female werewolf, Elena Michaels is just a regular girl at heart — with larger than normal appetites. She sticks to three feasts a day, loves long runs in the moonlight, and has a lover who is unbelievable frustrating yet all the more sexy for his dark side. Like every regular girl, she certainly doesn’t believe in witches. Then again, when two small, ridiculously feminine women manage to hurl her against a wall, and then save her from the hunters on her tail, Elena realizes that maybe there are more things in heaven and earth than she’s dreamt of.
I really, really disliked this book. The above description from Goodreads is actually a pretty good summary of why I found this book so disappointing.
First, Elena’s “lover who is unbelievable frustrating yet all the more sexy for his dark side,” is actually an abusive sociopath, and the book completely lets him get away with it.
Second, the “ridiculously feminine women” who manage to throw her against a wall are actually two powerful witches who are constantly torn down and belittled by Elena AND Clay for, as far as I can tell, simply being women.
Third, Elena suffers from a false sense of superiority. She’s awful and has no idea. I’m not even sure that Armstrong knows how awful Elena is – but before I spiral down a rabbit hole of a rant, I’m going to attempt to structure my arguments. Beware of minor spoilers.
Submitting to Toxic Romance
There has rightfully been a lot of talk lately of “toxic masculinity.” Being that this book is 14 years old, it comes as no surprise that Clay meets all the criteria. What is alarming, though, is the willingness for the book to brush it off at its worst, and submit to it at its best. And I do mean submit – because Elena is hyper-aware of Clay’s toxicity. The parts that disturb her, she ignores. The rest of it excites her. So, she submits. She admits defeat. She lets him wear her down.
This relationship is built on a foundation that is fundamentally abusive. When Clay fell for her, she was a human. Fearing that they couldn’t be together forever with him as a wolf and her as a woman, he bit her. Changed her, with no warning. He essentially murdered her, taking her human life away from her in a way that made sure she’d never have it back. And, in a way that ensured she would NEED him, forever. That’s not okay. it made me think of the movie Passengers and the crazy troublesome “abduction as romance” trope (check out Pop Culture Detective’s video about this here – it’s chilling!).
ANYWAYS, Elena struggles a little with Clay’s actions in book one, Bitten, but by Stolen she’s mostly decided to shrug it off. She figures she can’t forgive him, but also can’t be without him. So, that’s it; he wins. Their relationship is portrayed as a whirlwind of sexy, passionate romance from then on. Sigh.
This is where I really grit my teeth. This, to me, is infuriating. The treatment of Paige and the witches in this book is inexcusable and comes off as internalized sexism. The fear of women with power. Elena is a werewolf. In fact, she’s the only female werewolf – which means, by definition, she harnesses a male power. That this makes her somehow superior to the witches who wield what is acknowledged to be a very female power is bananas. But more about that in a bit. Here, I just want to discuss the treatment of female power in the book.
One of the most prominent film theories is that of the Monstrous-Feminine (Barbara Creed, 1993). It actually builds off of a key horror film theory, The Return of the Repressed (Robin Wood, 1986), which essentially asserts that movie monsters are manifestations of what society represses – the Other. This Other is defined as anything outside of a white, male, heteronormartive, status quo; including women. The Monstrous-Feminine takes this a step further, suggesting that women are portrayed as to be feared by men as an “all powerful, all destructive figure who arouses fear of castration and death,” etc etc etc. In short, powerful women are villainized in popular culture as a response to male fears that the patriarchal norms society is built upon can and will be challenged.
Not on Clay’s watch. He’s having none of this female power bullshit. He immediately looks down on Paige, even when she is offering to do magic to help find Elena. Even when she DOES do magic to help find Elena. In a gut-wrenching scene, Paige pulls Elena’s consciousness into her own body so that she can speak to the pack. When Clay looks at her, he sees only Paige and isn’t even willing to entertain the idea that Elena might be in there. Worse, the way he looks at Paige (as Elena) is enough to break Elena’s heart. He looks at her as though she’s nothing more than a human – a human woman. Beneath him. Unworthy of him. She sees this, and it destroys her. It’s a look she can never forget. In this moment, we not only see how how Clay really feels about women, we see how important it is that Elena is not one. She’s a wolf. In being less-woman, she is more-equal. More worthy. It’s terrible.
Then there’s Bauer. A woman whose story is all about being passed over because she’s a woman. When she decides to do something about it, to take control over her life and attain true power, she’s punished for it. Made into an actual monster. All I can do is shake my head.
Elena, the “Cool Girl”
I’m sure we are all familiar with the Cool Girl trope. I get the impression it’s been talked about more recently in the context of Gone Girl, which I still haven’t read or seen (tsk, tsk). Basically, when I think of the “cool girl,” I think of an ideal woman who is fun and sexy and laid back, indulging in beer and nachos with the guys, all while maintaining a size 2 dress size. Isn’t that the dream? Isn’t it also an unfair standard that is, for most people, entirely unattainable? So, maybe we should stop making women feel bad for not meeting it. Maybe someone should send Elena the memo.
Elena is very proud of her cool girl status, and she never misses out on an opportunity to tear down other women by contrast. Every minute she spends in the vicinity of another woman, she is either thinking smug comments and rolling her eyes at their “ridiculous femininity,” or assuming the role of leader because she figures women can’t actually take care of themselves. But, in the midst of her superiority complex and woman-hating, there’s an undercurrent of envy. She describes Paige as having: “the kind of figure men love and women hate, the full curves so maligned in a world of Jenny Craig and Slim-Fast.”
Throughout the book, Elena exhaustively self-depreciates her lack of hips, her small breasts, her small rear. But this is all in her internal monologues, of course, because on the outside, she’s too busy judging other women to judge herself. When in a room with women, Elena is basically in a perpetual state of eye-rolling, and it’s absolutely draining.
I feel let down. I feel like I have to give up on Armstrong; that I have to stop encouraging bad images of women by buying books like this. But, I would also like to believe that she has grown as a writer between 2004 and now. In fact, I know she has to some degree, because I started reading her later books before I came to this renowned series. They’re not perfect, but they are better. Much better.
Maybe the problem is Elena. Maybe I’m not getting what Armstrong is trying to say about her. It seems like as the series carries on, Paige becomes the protagonist. I am very curious if that new point of view will shift the tone of the series in a more positive way. I may need to borrow it from a library, just to see. And, if you’ve read book 3 with Paige in the lead, and want to share your thoughts, please do! I really want to know.
Stolen, however, only gets a 2/5 rating from me. Partial points for the storyline which is an intriguing enough mystery, and for giving me something to cling to through Paige and Savannah (female characters who are actually interesting). And, a bonus point for making me use my critical thinking cap to tear it up. I knew that MA in Film Studies with a specialization in Gender and Horror would come in handy one day. Yes!
Side note: The television series Bitten is actually really good, and Elena didnt bother me at all in it. Just throwing that out there.
- The American Nightmare: Horror in the 70s – Robin Wood (view the PDF)
- The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis – Barbara Creed (buy the book)