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!