Beyond Feminism

This week Jackie Horne of Romance Novels for Feminists discussed feminism in Kit Rocha’s Beyond series and found it wanting. If you haven’t read the novels or the RNFF post or both, this post isn’t likely to make much sense and for that I’m sorry. It’s just that after reading all the full-length novels and the accompanying novellas, I have reached a very different conclusion about feminism in the Beyond series than RNFF did. I’ve enjoyed these books immensely and, in fact, I’m going to be doing a post about the latest one, Beyond Possession, fairly soon. 
 
I’ll just wade straight into the deep end here. My one criticism of the series, which isn’t really a feminist critique except in the way that it intersects with current romance publishing reality: I have been increasingly annoyed at the “everyone has the same kink” sexual dynamic just because it seems unlikely and has gotten repetitive. There are slightly different shades of BDSM sex in each story, but with a bias toward male dominants and lots of group sex. And while there is a little bit of switching off dominant roles between women and men, the women generally come out on the submissive side in the end.
 
The thing is, there may be a marketing reason for that. I happen to love femdom romance and time and again I’ve heard about its profitability problem stemming from the idea that femdom is not popular with readers. Whether that’s reality or just perception, the end result is the same. Femdom gets short shrift. But romances aren’t manifestos: they need to make money. That said, there are several books left in the series and in fact the most recent novella, Beyond Possession, refers to the heroine as having had a previous relationship with a female dominant. As the women get more freedom and power in the series, which seems to be the case, it will be interesting to see if femdom is a dynamic Rocha feels freer to explore by book 7.
 
But back to the issue of feminism in the text. Starting the series (Beyond Shame) with Noelle, the repressed Eden woman, is telling, I think. Rocha could have started the series with Lex, an obvious choice given her relationship with Dallas, King of the O’Kanes. But instead we get a glimpse of privileged, hypocritical Eden and how damaging its sexual politics and expectations are through Noelle. The world we live in isn’t Sector 4. It’s Eden—in its repression of female sexuality, materialism and exploitive economic policies. Through Beyond Shame, we also get the lay of the land of Sector 4 before Lex and Dallas work out their power dynamics. Things start changing in Sector 4 after Beyond Control, making one series theme that of the evolution of feminine liberation.
 
As an example, RNFF made reference to the commitment ritual of collaring the women with their lovers’ name. If collaring is intended to serve the same purpose as that of a BDSM slave collar, it’s a symbol not only of obedience on the part of the collared, but protection and responsibility on the part of the owner. Plus my recollection is that most if not all the men take tattoos of their lovers’ names somewhere on their bodies. Those things aside though, after Lex accepts Dallas’ collar, the symbolism evolves. He acknowledges her as his Queen and relies upon her for seeing nuances he misses. Even though all the gang members are under Dallas’ dictatorial rule, she doesn’t give him blind obedience as King or committed partner. Or sometimes even any obedience at all. Lex takes as much responsibility for the protection and well-being of the O’Kanes as Dallas does. The collaring becomes a tradition more like our exchange of rings, but in a milieu that values ink over metal. The O’Kane women do not behave at all like slaves, of the BDSM sort or otherwise, outside the bedroom and I think it’s a mistake to equate sexual submissiveness with personal and political submissiveness.
 
The Beyond world isn’t intended to be a feminist utopia from the outset. The concept of a solar flare causing the collapse of society in the series is a relatively recent development: within the lifespan of some of the characters. One thing that happens in societies when resources are restricted is that freedoms that were previously commonplace become more attenuated. I will grant that the absence of any kind of STIs is a bit puzzling. But if we think of the world-building not in the sense of “scientifically-speaking, how could a solar flare cause so much damage?” or “what does the government of Eden look like”, but in the sense of the psychology, sociology, political theory and economics that develop out of an apocalyptic scenario in the Sectors, it’s more revealing. There are no protracted explanations here, but the structures are clear. In Sector 4, government is dictatorial rather than democratic, all work is valued equally (the men don’t receive greater compensation for making liquor runs or bouncing than the women do for dancing or tending bar), the social stigma against sex is lifted, particularly for women, and the most important relationships are ones of friendship and loyalty rather than family group or religious or political affiliation.
 
As for the restrictions on jobs offered to women the RNFF post mentions, I think it’s both deliberate and short-lived. The series is asking what-if questions about how social dynamics might be different given different cultural assumptions, like any good SFF. Rocha set up a universe that’s in some ways a mirror image of ours. Women have wrested a lot more freedom in what we can choose to do work-wise in our world, but slut-shaming, rape culture and double standards between the behavior expect of men and women are rampant. And whatever economic freedoms women have gained here, that privilege generally assumes both means and education. Women who don’t have means or education end up waiting tables, tending bar, coerced into sex work, working for maid services, in low-wage retail, etc. The work options for women in the early books of the Beyond series correspond rather neatly to those offered to women in our world. At least, if you take social class into account: those of relatively less social standing and education have fewer opportunities, making the question of work less a feminist question than a question of class. 
 
So without the stigma of using your body for gainful employment or the danger of being abused for it, what systems might develop? That’s one question being asked here. The women who bartend and wait tables do so under the protection of the O’Kanes. Our waitresses and bartenders make their living from tips, which are resented by some restaurant patrons and controlled by bosses who allocate shifts and tables, sometimes based on favoritism. And restaurants play all kinds of games with wages. The women (and incidentally, men) who dance/perform in the O’Kane club make good money in safety and they’re
not being sold for sex by a pimp or rounded up and used for breeding like in the communes (and in a lot of other dystopian literature). This is sex work, but it’s not coerced.  I realize there’s feminist debate about whether that’s a possibility, of course, but the assumption Rocha seems to be working from is that it is possible and that there’s power associated with it: both personal and economic. In book 5, it’s clear that Trix even derives healing from her shows.
 
Plus, as the series progresses, new options for work open up. The line RNFF quotes about Noelle making herself useful as a bartender, maid or sucking dick (which refers not to prostitution, but to being Jasper’s kept woman) is from Dallas in book 1. Dallas gets a feminist education by Lex in book 2 and then continues being schooled in subsequent books. Noelle is shown taking a tech support/systems engineering role in the novellas. In Eden, she had the same knowledge, but was expected to deploy it in the manner of a posh 1940s housewife: by being a good conversationalist and hostess for her husband. In Sector 4, she’s not only sexually liberated, she’s useful, which is a revelation for her. By book 4.5, Dallas assigns the new woman Mia to his accountant, not for sex (which is what she was coercively trained for in Sector 2), but for administrative support. The most recent heroine, Tatiana, makes soap and keeps that work when she becomes an O’Kane. Plus from the very beginning, Nessa (a woman) is the distillery manager for the gang, making O’Kane whiskey, the product that has bought nearly every scrap of wealth the gang has, hardly a low status occupation. 
 
By this most recent novella, Beyond Possession, the women go out on their own, trying to rescue one woman’s business (who isn’t officially an O’Kane yet) from being burned down by Dallas’ political rival. When Dallas chastises the women for putting themselves in danger, Lex stands up to him, insisting that their way of life is just as much under threat from the Sector power games as that of the men. Dallas can dictate all he wants, but in Beyond Possession, the women going out on their own solve not only their own problem, but that of the men by killing Dallas’ political rival. 
 
My point is that we get to see increased freedom develop over the course of the series based on feminist influence (Lex) on the government (Dallas). The Beyond books aren’t at any level designed to make
readers feel happy and comfortable except in their HEAs for the featured couples. They’re gritty, difficult and ask uncomfortable questions about power structures, social class and morality in addition to questions of the capabilities, rights, and responsibilities of men and women. And while they don’t portray an ideal feminist society (or, with the extreme levels of violence, any kind of ideal society), under Dallas and Lex’s influence, it seems to be heading in the direction of full equality. 
 
Many thanks to Ana Coqui, who helped me clarify my thoughts for this post and contributed many of the specific details from the books that I’ve cited in support of my argument.She also recommended the series to me in the first place, for which I’m very grateful!

8 comments

  1. I enjoyed the RNFF piece but also thought it wasn't precisely right. To me the "problem" with the Beyond series–and I don't really think it has a problem per se, but rather, the place from which I can see someone launching a valid feminist critique–is the overwhelming sameness of the narrative arcs. I've only read the first three books, but while Noelle, Lexi, and Six were very different characters, I found their respective romantic arcs somewhat similar: Noelle had to learn to discard the definitions of purity and virtue she'd learned in Eden; Lexi had to learn to trust Dallas and to put her experiences in Sector Two (a place I want to know more about) into context; Six had to learn to trust Bren and to put her experiences in Sector Three into context. The men, who are all more or less alpha, screwed up by assuming they knew better than their lovers what they wanted. They all broke up. They all got back together. Kink and group sex were part of all these journeys.

    There's nothing wrong or inherently anti-feminist about any of these narratives. Noelle/Jax was the most traditional; Lexi/Dallas probably the least because of how important she was in running Sector Four. Any of these books could be defended as feminist. But when each of the women makes similar choices, and when the men do as well, it begins to seem less like individual choices and more like another form of socialization that while not as limiting as Eden (or even perhaps our world) maybe isn't truly subversive.

    I'd love to see what Rocha might do with a beta hero. Or with a femdom story, as you suggest. Or with a character who isn't into kink and exhibitionism. Or how one of their characters might critique the submission as power play narrative (which shows up in BDSM romances all the time and also in Evangelical culture; Marie Griffith's fascinating God's Daughters could offers a good description of this, and applies to Noelle's life in Eden). I'd also like the series to deal with how Dallas rules on a day-to-day basis because the sort of feudal anarchy he's been able to get away with so far isn't going to cut it as his power grows.

    So…yes. The series has a lot to say about power and gender and violence. But while the RNFF review didn't totally convince me, I'm not sure Rocha's narrative when taken as an aggregate is as feminist or subversive as it could be.

  2. I think things do change more in later books and in the novellas. For one thing, the novellas focus in on different aspects of the world than the full-length novels do: the most recent one gives us more details about Sector 4 history and the marketplace, for example. As Dallas' power base expands in later books, we also get glimpses of other Sectors (including Sector Two, especially in book 5) and there is continual fretting about how to manage more territory with the same resources–manpower/muscle but also through efficiency and diversification. Six comes into her own with respect to muscle, as do Noelle & Mia on the business side. And in two of the more recent books, we get pairs that aren't into the group sex thing, even if they are still kinky (Ford & Mia, Tatiana & Zan). If the overarching arc is going where I think it's going, the relationship between Eden and the Sectors is going to change fundamentally by the end of the series. I don't want to oversell the allegory, but I think the story really will end up being one of how full participation, freedom, equality and respect of women makes everyone stronger as Sectors that resist that reality fall.

    Also, I totally agree that I'd love to see a different kind of hero in the series, but you know I'm always begging for more non-alphas. I do kind of feel like we're back to "the market" there though. The romance market wants alpha heroes. I think, in particular the MC market is beholden to this structure and these, at least nominally, are kind of like MC books maybe? I don't know, I haven't read a "true" MC rom. It will be interesting to see what happens in the next Beyond book with Jared the male prostitute as the hero. He's not a guy who seems inclined to solve problems with his fists, but you never know what might happen when a supporting character becomes a hero.

    I'm also interested in your comment at the end about how the books aren't as feminist or subversive as they could be and I guess I just wonder how feminist or subversive we can get in genre romance. I mean, with some few variants to take into account same-sex relationships, menage romances and HFN endings, in the vast majority of romance, we're still mostly looking at one man + one woman = marriage, children, house, maybe work or spirituality if we're looking at a book with an unusual amount of context. And while maybe elements of that aren't as much of a given as they once were, that's basically what any romance is aiming at. In general, and maybe this is sad or limiting, I consider romances to be feminist that aren't in some way explicitly anti-feminist. Can you give an example of a work you'd consider to be particularly feminist and subversive?

  3. Hmm…within genre romance, probably not. ; )

    Something that's truly subversive is going to explode genre boundaries and expectations in ways that would be unpalatable to romance readers. I can think of films that do it (e.g., Mulvey's Riddle of the Sphinx), but they throw out the narrative baby with the bath water. I can't imagine it working in romance.

    What I was trying to say was that sometimes we want to call stuff that's interrogates gender norms (or whatever) feminist and we should be careful about this. I have a running argument with a friend of mine about whether The Simpsons revises the family sitcom. Her argument is that in so many ways it does–but it also keeps the nuclear family intact, which is what I point out every time we have the discussion. So The Simpsons is revisionist but ultimately conservative (as in, it conserves the genre). While the show plays with the elements of something like Leave it to Beaver to All in the Family or Family Ties or whatever, they are the same elements.

    So the Beyond series seems to be doing that to a certain extent. It plays with the elements, but they're the same elements. It's playful but not subversive. But at the end of the day, I'm not really interested in whether the Beyond series feminist or sexist because I think they're good books. (And you've inspired me to keep reading them. I will say that what I find most interesting about them is the sort of over-arching political stuff, not the sex or even the romances.) Maybe the question should be instead what are the books saying about sexism, gender, violence, and sexuality? What imaginative answers are they giving to questions about power? About how societies should be organized? Etc. These answers are ultimately going to be a more complicated one than just saying "they're feminist" or "they're not feminist."

  4. You're so smart! Yes, it's easy to get caught up in a label debate and you're totally right that ultimately how we label it isn't what's important. Hey, actually there was a Wonkomance post about genre labels today that was really interesting: http://wonkomance.com/2014/11/13/virtual-shelves-meta-that-matters-and-shades-of-should/. I'm going to create a Very Good Books shelf on Goodreads now.

    And if I inspired to you to keep reading the series then that makes me happy. The political stuff is totally what's keeping me going now that I've kinda overdosed on their particular brand of raunchy, orgiastic sex. It's the questions of power in interpersonal relationships, civil society, and the state that I find fascinating: some of that is gender-based, but the economic piece is as least if not more important. I would expect more of that as we get closer to the end. So read away and then we can talk political theory. And actually, let me know when you're ready for the next one–my recollection is that they may be Kindle-lendable.

  5. You should definitely read Beyond Solitude novella, Mia and Ford's book. They are not exhibitionists, they story is actually very private and you learn a ton about the inner workings of Sector 2.

    "Maybe the question should be instead what are the books saying about sexism, gender, violence, and sexuality?"

    I agree, that would be more interesting questions to ask about the books.

    Like Elisabeth, I am curious where Jared's story will go. They posted the first chapter of Beyond Innocence today. And while I wished they would have made him some sort of beta hero, instead more a different kind of Alpha, I do wonder how his version of masculinity (cultured, refined, controlled) will be portrayed against the prevailing thuggish version that predominates in the books.

    As to whether they are creating subversive HEA's within Romance, I think Bree and Donna often mention how much push back they get on their HEAs. There is exactly one baby in the O'Kane and it doesn't belong to any of the book couples. That shouldn't be that remarkable in this day and age but apparently they still get a lot of knock against their work for it, despite the fact that all the characters end up in committed if unconventional relationships.

    I do think the true HEA in the novels however are that one can find belonging, meaning and love in families created out of loyalty and sacrifice, not simply in groups bound by blood and marriage.

  6. Okay, I'll keep reading. ; )

    I agree that the lack of baby epilogues, the fact that some of the couples aren't strictly speaking monogamous, and the omission of marriage are all revisionist. I definitely think the Beyond series is more feminist than most romances. But again, I'd rather talk about how texts "do" gender and sexuality than debate whether they are or are not feminist.

  7. Really late to the discussion here. I never really thought about the beyond series as being feminist. If something is anti-feminist, I tend to just not read it, and that leads to an array of different configurations that may or may not be feminist. But then I read misTaken from Hot Alphas and was just appalled at the denigration of those who enjoy romance and with the feminist diatribe/apologetic vibe that switches to submission for submissions sake. I found it sort of offensive. Right after that I read Beyond Innocence and the feminist themes just hit me over the head. Granted some of that was because Lili was learning how free she could be. But yeah, seen in comparison to Hot Alphas (which had to be some naive writer trying to figure out feminism in romance), it was eye opening. It's one of my favorite series. And within the constrains if the genre is day they do a good job, though I'd like to see a femdom couple.

    Basically speaking, I agree, this site does show social change, more so in this latest book where note we've got a lady spy.

  8. […] it’s the easiest book thus far in a series that pushes boundaries in nearly every direction. I wrote about that a bit last week. While each book features a complete romantic arc for a couple (or triad in the case of one of the […]

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