Note: This essay contains spoilers for the entire Laundry Files series, which you will probably enjoy more if you read it with its plot twists intact.
The Laundry Files is an unlikely candidate for a source of feminist characters. To date, all four novels, two novellas, and two short stories have been told primarily from the first person perspective of its male hero and most of the stories do not pass the Bechdel Test. While the women of The Laundry Files rarely talk to each other, each of the female lead characters are strong, active, and well developed. However, rather than having female characters exert agency and influence on the story by putting them in traditional leading or powerful roles, they occupy the same minor roles which women typically occupy in spy-thrillers or horror stories, (the two genres which The Laundry Files occupies). But within the stories the characters either subvert or use traditionally non-feminist tropes in surprising and feminist ways.
The Damsel In Distress
In her recent series on tropes in video games, Anita Sarkeesian describes the trope of the Damsel in Distress as “a plot device in which a female character is placed in a perilous situation from which she cannot escape on her own and must be rescued by a male character. Usually providing the core incentive or motivation for the protagonist’s quest.” The Damsel also frequently rewards the hero for rescuing her with her romantic interest and is notable for her passivity and lack of agency. In many cases, the Damsel could be replaced by a valuable but inanimate possession, with very little alteration to the story. This describes Mo’s role in The Atrocity Archives to a tee. Bob, the male protagonist, is initially drawn into the case which makes up the plot of the story when he is sent to meet Mo, and then receives a phone call from her, telling him that she has been kidnapped. He defies orders to rescue her and Mo is returned to England with him, and forced to join the Laundry before she is kidnapped, and rescued by Bob a second time. Throughout the novel Mo is stripped of agency and shuttled around by Bob, The Laundry, and terrorist group who keep kidnapping her. After the second kidnapping, she literally has to be carried out of her kidnappers’ base.
Within the context of The Atrocity Archives Mo’s damseling is somewhat justified in that she is a civilian and so lacks the skills to fight supernatural threats herself, while Bob works for an agency formed specifically to fight supernatural threats. It is also somewhat redeemed, in that, while Bob and Mo do begin a romantic relationship over the course of the novel, Mo is the one who actively pursues a relationship with Bob based on her own interest in him (who is largely pleasantly shocked by her interest) rather than passively bestowing her romantic interest as a reward for saving her. The run-up to her asking him out on their first date is a discussion, not about him saving her life, but about computing, in which they share an interest. Mo, thereby, retains her romantic and personal agency, even when her agency within the story has been removed.
In the rest of the series, Mo turns out to be made of sterner stuff than your average princess and spends the next two novels returning the favor for Bob’s initial rescue. Bob comments that “I rescued Mo once, years ago; it’s ironic, a real giggle, that she turns out to be stronger and tougher than I am.” In The Jennifer Morgue it is Mo, not Bob who is deemed tough enough to literally become the quintessentially heroic James Bond, and who ultimately saves the day through an all-out assault on the villains, rather than the subterfuge Bob had been employing. In doing so, she reveals to both the reader, and to Bob, that, rather than accept her Damsel role, she used it as a catalyst to become a hero. This is followed up in The Fuller Memorandum when she is both the person who ultimately saves Bob from the Cult of the Black Pharaoh, but also the only person who they never successfully deceive. Far from being reducing her to a love interest and a plot-driving prop, Mo’s time as a Damsel in Distress, and establishment as Bob’s love interest has turned Mo into one of the series bravest and most active heroes.
The Femme Fatale
The basic trope of the femme fatale is a beautiful and explicitly sexy, but also morally ambiguous or dangerous woman who is usually affiliated in some way with the villain. She typically uses her sexuality as a tool or a weapon, and this is often contrasted negatively against a more virtuous romantic rival. Like many femme fatales, Ramona Random is introduced in a strapless silk gown with “jewelry dripping from her in incandescent waves” and not only does she use her sexuality as a weapon, it has actually been weaponized. As she warns Bob, “every guy I’ve ever slept with died less than twenty-four hours later.” Bob is made to work with her, since she is a representative of the Black Chamber, another supernatural intelligence agency which is consistently positioned as antagonistic towards Bob’s own organization, The Laundry, and which is notorious for its unethical conduct. Furthermore, throughout the majority of The Jennifer Morgue Ramona is contrasted, by Bob, against Mo (by then Bob’s long time girl-friend) who is, comparatively wholesome. She is a model femme fatal, or would be if it wasn’t an enormous lie.
Every element of Ramona’s femme fatale persona has been imposed on her by an external agency. Her exaggerated looks and sex appeal are the result of a glamour (essentially an illusion), her weaponized sexuality is the result of a succubus, a demon the Black Chamber has forcibly anchored to her to control her, since she isn’t working for them willingly. Her interest in the case of Jennifer Morgue and Bob specifically is also externally forced on her, first by the Black Chamber, then by the Destiny Entanglement created by the Laundry, and then finally by the James Bond Geas which forces the characters of the Laundry Files to conform to the plot and characterization of a James Bond novel, where femme fatales are common. Even her supposed romantic rivalry with Mo is subverted. Ramona and Bob are not romantically interested in each other, and Mo is more concerned about Ramona being a threat to Bob’s life than his romantic attention. While the two women are presented by the flow of the narrative as competing Bond girls to Bob’s 007, it is revealed that Bob and Ramona are, in fact, the good and bad Bond Girls supporting Mo. Mo then further subverts the fate of the typical femme fatale, by saving both bond girls (rather than the more typical route of killing the femme fatale or leaving her at the mercy of the villains), specifically by destroying the elements binding her to the artificial femme fatal role thereby freeing her to pursue her own interests. While she has not recurred within the series, so her current actions are unknown, Ramona is not punished either for her prior alliance with Bob’s enemies, for having her own goals to pursue, or for her use of sex and sexuality to pursue them.
The Mary Sue
The Mary Sue is a trope which originated in fanfiction and refers to an idealized female character who is improbably powerful and skilled and desirable or interesting to the main characters and who either lacks flaws or whose flaws are seen as in some way endearing. The Mary Sue uses her powers to derail the narrative away from the canonical leads and towards themselves. This is usually seen as a negative trope, and Mary sue characters are widely regarded as poorly written. Notably, this refers almost exclusively to female characters. Just as there is no fully developed male equivalent of the Damsel in Distress or the Femme Fatale, male characters are rarely characterized as Mary Sues, even when they meet all the criteria. Batman is a word perfect Mary Sue, but far from rendering him poorly characterized or unlikeable, his exaggerated traits are what have made him such an iconic and beloved character. It is only when the idealized character is female that they are accused of being unrealistic, derailing or unlikeable.
Persephone Hazard was orphaned in the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia at eight, made her way to Italy and was adopted by an Italian duke at ten. She graduated high school at fifteen but when her adoptive parents were murdered she founded and ran the world’s most successful private occult intelligence network instead of attending university. She is a genius, she looks like a model, she knows multiple martial arts, and is skilled with multiple weapons. She is a skilled hacker and computational demonologist but she is also psychic and a powerful magician. This makes her much less ordinary and much more powerful than any other character in the series. Bob, the protagonist, is assigned to follow her lead so while the story of The Apocalypse Codex is told from Bob’s point of view, it is Persephone’s actions which drive the plot. These are all features of a classical Mary Sue, especially her dominance in someone else’s story, which is otherwise largely restricted to transformative fiction.
However far from derailing Bob’s story, his apparent retreat to the sidelines to follow Persephone actually drives his character development and reveals an important plot twist. So, while she appears to be an outsider derailing Bob’s story Persephone is actually an element of the wider Laundry Files universe who Bob is just now encountering as his own character develops. Persephone Hazard is not a Mary Sue, Persephone Hazard is Batman.
The Laundry Files combines the horror and spy thriller genres, neither of which are traditionally kind to female characters; like the disposable blonde victim of a horror flick or the classic, vapid Bond Girl. The women of The Laundry Files exist in the roles you would expect for the genre. They are supporting characters in a story about and told by a male spy, and they are connected to tropes which are highly gendered and usually sexist. The Damsel in Distress and The Femme Fatale, when played straight, are less fully formed characters, and more problems for men to solve. The idea of The Mary Sue is specifically a condemnation and a mockery of the idea of female characters whose abilities are unmatched within a narrative. Mo, Ramona and Persephone are all capable, active characters. This is not due to the roles they occupy within the narrative, which are typically considered limiting, but to how seriously they are taken within those roles. The Laundry Files is a man’s story, but its also a spy’s story, so while men are good at sneaking and stealing secrets, to really change the playing field or burst in and save the day, you need a woman.