Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Mixed-Message Feminism: Kristen Callihan's SHADOWDANCE

     "You go into that house, and you'll have every human there in a snit. Women are not fit to handle death, much less view a murder site. You know that as well as I."
     "Not fit to handle death?" she ground out, her arms twitching to do him violence.
     But he waved an annoyed hand. "Do not start quoting Wollstonecraft on me. I'm repeating pure social fact. That is what they believe. And that is what they will do, should you"—he pointed at her for emphasis— "waltz in there and expect to be treated like a man." (41)

Some romances wear their feminism openly on their sleeves. Others don the thinnest of feminist overcoats, shoddy garments that don't really hide the restrictive patriarchal underthings lurking beneath. And some dress in traditional, often repressive, tropes, then transform them before our very eyes, dowdy, dated gowns refashioned for contemporary times and mores.

And then there are the romances so weighted down with scarves and necklaces, furbelows and furs, that you're not quite sure what ideology they are meant to convey. Reading Shadowdance, the latest book in Kristen Callihan's Darkest London Victorian steampunk romance series, presented just such an experience. Even while I found much of the book frustrating, there's something about it that's sticking with me, making me want to puzzle out just what lies behind its appeal. Bear with me as I attempt to unravel its mix of old-school romance tropes from its empowered heroine discourses.*

Trafalgar Square, sans demon bodies...
The main plot of Shadowdance focuses on the search for a murderer who is preying upon demons and leaving their corpses in the middle of Trafalgar Square. We soon learn, however, that this is not your typical who-dunit, for the murderer is none other than our book's hero, former valet and now Regulator (a type of investigator) in the secret Society for the Suppression of Supernaturals (SOS), Jack Talent. In the previous book in the series, Jack had been kidnapped and tortured by vicious demons aiming to drawn on the healing power of his shifter blood; in this book, we discover that his torture included not only verbal and physical, but also sexual abuse. Jack is hunting down and killing the demons who preyed upon him, unable to live in the world if he must share it with his abusers. But now someone has begun killing shifters like Jack, too, not just demons. Has another murderer joined the game?

Theme-wise, the novel is less interested in catching a murderer, and more interested in how a man responds to sexual violation. Is it different from how a woman reacts? Shadowdance invites us to ask such questions by casting a woman with her own history of sexual violation as Jack's counterpart. The daughter of a courtesan, Mary Chase was on the verge of being auctioned off to the highest bidder to pay her mother's debts when she fled into even worse hands: three "thugs" caught her in the street and raped her. She escaped them only to be hit and killed by a gin cart. She now exists thanks to a demon-invented mechanical heart, as a GIM (or Ghost in the Machine), and, like Jack, works as a Regulator for the SOS. She's been told by an informant right from the start of the book that Jack is the murderer, yet even though he's been teasing and insulting her for the past four years, she feels she needs to find proof before she can feel justified in turning him in.

Because Mary, we discover, has already trod the path Jack finds himself on:

"The first thing I did after becoming a GIM was to hunt down each piece of filth who raped me.... I gutted them. And each time, I returned home and threw up until there was nothing left inside of me. It was as if they raped me all over again." A hard, choked laugh left her. "You've thought me a cold fish, a heartless creature.... You were right. I am. I've spent a decade learning to feel nothing.... I looked the other way for you, and will keep on looking, because I know, Jack. I've been there too.... just as I know that if you keep this course, there will be nothing left inside of you, either" (330).

Both men and women long for revenge against sexual abusers, Shadowdance suggests. But is such revenge against sexual predators allowable? Ethical? Psychologically healing or hurtful? Early on in the book, Jack expresses doubts about his own course: "Relief and despair mingled. Jack now had the means to kill those who had hurt him. But deep in his heart, he feared that was not what would heal him." (164) Mary's later admonition seems to give weight to such doubts. Yet shortly before this little speech, readers watched Mary kill one of Jack's tormentors herself, "Because Jack could not live in a world where they existed, and now, neither could she" (314), because she's fallen in love with him. And when he finds out what she's done, "A strange, happy ache surged into something sharp and cutting, wonderful yet at the same time terrible. Mary had killed for him" (335). In older stories, heroes often killed men who had raped their beloveds; is Callihan's inversion of the trope a feminist move, or simply a confusion about which message about revenge to convey? Or a bit of both?

The book's mixed messages about female sexuality are similarly puzzling. On the one hand, Callihan depicts Mary's sexual desire in evocative, detailed prose:

She did not feel like herself anymore, didn't recognize this woman she'd become. An invader had taken over her skin. Logic had fled like a frightened spirit. Instead she felt. Everywhere. Everything. Her bones thrummed. She was at once too heavy yet oddly buoyant. Her breasts ached and tingled, as though the flesh there had been asleep ad now needed to be rubbed fully back to life. A horrid though, and yet the very idea of big, rough hands rubbing over her tender flesh...God almighty, she quivered. Intolerable.
     It was endless, this feeling. When she walked, she felt the length of her own legs and the curve of her bottom, where the fabric of her drawers moved and teased. And she felt her own slickness between her legs, a strange slip-slide that sent little judders of sensation over her, an uncomfortably hot syrup that coated her inside and out. (209)

Yet Mary, we discover, was only pretending to be another man's courtesan during the book's prologue, a role that inspired much of the jealousy and anger underlying Jack and Mary's subsequent relationship. In fact, Mary has never engaged in consensual sex with anyone, making her a virgin in all but name. Given the sexual attack she suffered, her lack of desire makes sense. But it also leads to the question: would Jack's overwhelming attraction to Mary have been quite so overwhelming if she'd turned out to truly be as sexually experienced as he'd originally thought? The above passage actually opens with the line "Blast him," as if all of the feelings she's experiencing stem from Jack, rather than from something within her; is it only because Mary has found her one true love that she's allowed to experience sexual desire?

How does the book attempt to depict feminist heterosexual love? Jack and Mary's relationship through much of the book is that of the typical bickering romance pair, attracted to one another but sublimating that attraction into biting wit and cutting insult. Given his murderous spree, Jack clearly has reason to set Mary at arm's length. And its not only demons in the flesh that keep them apart; there are multiple personal demons in Jack's past, too, some of which tie him to Mary's death. The two begin to move past their bickering only after Jack's desire to protect her leads to revelations about his past, a past that included even more abuse than Mary, or readers, had been told of. Only when Mary doesn't reject him as undeserving, as everyone else in his family had, and Jack is able to share the pain of his childhood trauma with her, can the two begin not to forget the pains of their pasts, but to face them and move on together.

Jack, needless to say, is the epitome of the tortured hero, the man women readers love to love because we want to be the one and only one who can ease his pain. In Old Skool romances, such pain-abatement typically requires that the hero to dramatically change his spots, turning from a demanding, demeaning alpha male into a vulnerable (at least to the heroine), kindhearted fellow. Is the initial abuse the hero dishes out to the heroine more palatable if the hero doesn't really change, but rather, like a faded dress remade, turns the fabric of his personality inside out, making what was once hidden away inside available for external viewing? As Mary puts it, "On the outside Jack Talent was tarnished and battered, but underneath he was sterling. Not even Jack truly understood this. But she would help him see it" (361). Does presenting masculinity as breakable, rather than invulnerable, send a clearer feminist message?

For her whole life, she'd thought of men in terms of force. Blunt instruments that asserted their will and strength. Jack was that, more so than most. But she had never truly realized a man's vulnerability, that a man might need comfort and tenderness. In truth, a man was like crystal, all hard, cool surfaces and solid strength, yet so easily broken if mishandled. (361)

At the novel's climax, the relationship between Jack and Mary has been transformed, and not only in the sexual realm. Jack receives the typical message from the villain, listing, "a time, a place, and request that Jack arrive alone" (381). At this point, readers might be forgiven for expecting him to sneak off, to steal away from Mary without telling her, in order to keep her safe, in typical romance hero fashion. But instead, "Jack, having learned a thing or two from the men in his life, all of whom loved headstrong women, woke Mary and showed it [the note] to her" (381). Afterwards, the two set off together, each now willing to share their work, and their burdens, with one another.

As Jack recognizes after the two become separated, "How could he be strong and still keep her safe? He couldn't. The realization surged through him. He had to rely on her strength to get her through. He had to believe in her. Just as she believed in him" (403). A relationship of equals, each contributing his or her strengths. But is the fact that Mary's "strength" takes the form of the ultimate sacrifice of self, rather than an act of physical bravery, a throwback to the endlessly self-sacrificing heroines of romance novels past? Or a sign of a feminine (feminist?) kind of heroine-ism?

Even after spilling all the above ink, I'm still left feeling confused. Would stronger editing have been able to help Callihan convey her ideological and thematic messages with less ambiguity? Or is the ideological muddle intentional, a way to appeal to both readers longing for empowered heroines and to those who prefer their stories more Old Skool?

Do you have thoughts on Callihan's novel (and series)? Have you had similar experiences in reading a romance that seemed to convey mixed mixed messages about its embrace of feminist ideals?

Photo credits:
Trafalgar Square: The Victorian Web
Bickering Hearts: Zazzle.com

* And to unravel both from writing that could benefit from a more careful editing. Shadowdance opens with a prologue, and continues into a narrative, that is overly dependent on readers' knowledge of the previous books in the series to make sense. I've actually read all three of the previous full-length books in the series, and I had difficulty at times following things, and I'm not a careless reader. Please, Kristen Callihan (and fantasy writers the world over): do us all a favor and don't name-drop or event-drop until our heads are spinning, especially if you're writing a series with different protagonists in each book. For example, don't mention "Una" if you're not going to explain who she is, or if she's never going to appear again in the later story...


Forever, 2013

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