Friday, June 21, 2013

Feminism and Revenge: Lori Austin's BEAUTY AND THE BOUNTY HUNTER

I'm not typically a big fan of Westerns, of either the literary or the filmic variety. So many include unthinking stereotypes of Native Americans—some of the obviously negative, Indians-as-bad-guys variety, far more of the seemingly positive but just as misleading "noble savage" kind—that my cringe-o-meter is constantly beeping. And others focus on adventure rather than character, not a problem for many readers, but a turn-off for this particular one.

So when I picked up a copy the first installment of Lori Austin's "Once Upon a Time in the West" series, Beauty and the Bounty Hunter, I was primed for disappointment. But I don't think it was only low expectations that led me to be so charmed by this tale of a ruthless bounty hunter and a beautiful con artist on the lam in the post-Civil War west. Is it because Austin invites readers in on the deceptions, rather than trying to pull the wool over our eyes?

The title itself (chosen by the Marketing department?) is more than a bit of a con—a cute reference to a familiar fairy tale (and Disney movie) designed to make readers laugh their way into purchasing. Readers expecting a straightforward retelling of the classic story of a beastly man transformed by the love of a beautiful woman are bound to feel a bit cheated, for Austin changes or simply ignores many of "Beauty and the Beast's" key elements. She inverts the story's traditional gender roles: our "ruthless bounty hunter" is a woman, Cat O'Banyon, while our "beauty" is the trickster confidence man Alexi Romanov. And unlike the Villeneuve or Beaumont stories, or the Disney film, which rely upon the decidedly unequal power dynamic of having a female beauty living as the guest/prisoner of a male beast in his castle, Austin sends Cat and Alexi off on a road trip of equals, two competent, bickering protagonists bent on catching (or avoiding) a killer. Little else in the novel, plot-wise at least, mirrors the story the book's title is meant to evoke.

Austin's novel is far more interested in the degree to which stories—the stories we tell each other, and especially the stories we tell ourselves—can not only shape identity, but can help mitigate the pain of trauma. Both Cat and Alexi have prior histories, both with others and with each other, when the action of the novel begins. Cathleen Chase was once a southern belle, a newly married woman who moved west to start a new life with her beloved husband after the ravages of the Civil War. But after that husband chose to die himself rather than allow his wife to be murdered, Cathleen reinvents herself as Cat O'Banyon, determined to wreak vengeance on the man who not only killed her lover, but made a mockery of his very sacrifice by raping her.

Before she can do so, however, she must learn an entirely new set of skills. Skills only a man who dons disguises and spins tales so compelling that strangers give him all their coin, and smile while doing so, can teach. Alexi Romanov can hardly be the trickster's real name, but then again, Cathleen need not tell him hers, either, when she challenges him to teach her all he knows. The name of the game they will play is pretend, a game that not only can reap financial rewards, but more importantly, can "get you through the night, through the pain" (257). When you've been hurt far beyond what you can tolerate, pretending you're someone else may be the only way you can survive.

What conman Alexi asks for in return for his lessons—that Cat pay not with the coin she doesn't have, but with her body—is something most readers would find difficult to countenance if this were the the first glimpse they were given of Alexi as a character. But we're introduced to Cat and Alexi long after that first meeting, after Cat has left the confidence man far behind to pursue her quest for vengeance. Readers find out about the beginnings of their relationship only after they've been told other stories, stories that give proof both to Cat's myriad strengths and to Alexi's strong feelings for her (the story is told in alternating viewpoints). A story's power to persuade lies not just in its details, but in the order in which those details are revealed.

Or which details are withheld, up until the very last moment. We do not find out until very late in the novel what Alexi's own real story is, how trauma has shaped not only Cathleen but also a young immigrant once known as Fedya. And it is only at the book's very end that Alexi's real motive for that seemingly heartless bargain with Cat is revealed—an arrogant, touching, yet ultimately false belief in the message of the original fairy tale after which this book is named. Beauty, even when Beauty is a trickster, does not have the power to transform, to redeem, a Beast. "I thought I could fix you," Alexi tells Cat at novel's climax, an ironic statement given his own inability to move beyond the traumas of his own past (296). Alexi's make-believes, and his inviting of a "ruined" woman to his bed, may have helped Cat to survive, but ultimately it is only Cat who can "fix" Cat. By choosing to affirm life rather than simply deal death, Cat comes to the shocking realization that there might be life beyond revenge, and that she might just have more than one life story to tell.

And that even the same story, especially a story we tell about our own past, can be open to interpretation. Cat may see ruin when she looks in the mirror, but Alexi sees courage and determination. And while Alexi sees a betrayer, a killer, in the far-too-familiar story of his own past, Cat shows him a man making the best of a horrific situation, a situation with no possible right choice. Stories may keep us alive, but too often we're limited by our own narrow ways of interpreting them. Fear may blind us to the most important, most human, parts of our own stories, but the people who love us can help us to see our stories, and ourselves, in an entirely new light.

Of course, this is just my interpretation. One reviewer on Goodreads suggested Austin's book embodies "rape culture," an interpretation with which I disagree, even though I can see how one might make a case for it. I'm curious to see if there are any other readers out there who, like me, view Austin's romance as invested in feminism and equality between the sexes, rather than in rape culture?

Photo/Illustration credits:
Walter Crane, illustration from Beauty and the Beast: Wikipedia
Snake Oil Salesman: The Banning Museum
Vase or Two Faces: Optical Illusion Collection

Signet, 2012.

Next time on RNFF:
What's new about "New Adult"?


  1. I haven't read the book, but calling Alexis' demand that Cat sleep with him to receive his help rape when it was actually the last few pages of the book that upset the reviewer is illogical. The demand took place much earlier; it's what the reviewer learned about his knowledge of Cat's past that upset her and makes her characterize him that way. If it should be characterized as rape, that was true back when she read it, not made true later on by what he turned out to know.

    That said, the premise is at least dub con, but whether it embodies rape culture or shows someone rising above it is hard to say without reading the book.

  2. Dubious consent.

  3. Replies
    1. It's not a legal term. It's widely used in trigger warnings for fanfiction, where it usually denotes circumstances where there is coercion via an outside force (sex pollen and the like) or a power imbalance (such as teacher/student) but the sex itself is not nonconsensual -- once the hurdle of the premise is cleared, both parties are on board and enjoying themselves.

    2. Thanks, lawless, for the clarification. I'm not at all familiar with fanfiction conventions, and appreciate the guidance.

      I'm not sure if I'd consider the situation here as dub con. Alexi makes Kat an offer, which Kat can take or leave. He's not her employer; he simply has skills she wants to learn. She's free to reject his offer or to accept it. His motivation for asking her to pay via sex is to get her back on the horse, so to speak, to move beyond her sense of violation by engaging in sex by choice. One may find his motivation stupid, misguided, even condescendingly arrogant; one may find it hard to believe that a rape survivor would agree to the terms of his bargain. But I don't think the power dynamics are such that Kat has no choice in the matter.

    3. Sexual abuse doesn't necessarily have to entail one person having no choice. There's not really a clearcut line between something being a choice and something being coercion. That's why there's such a bitter controversy around prostitution in general in feminist circles. And there are cases, like the teacher/teenage student example mentioned above, where something can be a mutual choice but still abuse.

      I haven't read the novel, so I suppose context matters a lot. To what extent could Cat "take or leave" the bargain? To what degree was she resistant to sleeping with Alexi? If Alexi sensed that she was (a) not willing to sleep with him unless she had to and (b) willing to suffer greatly to get revenge (which it seems clear she was), then by offering that bargain he was choosing to have her betray herself in pursuit of her goal.

      I think I can understand the reviewer's delayed reaction in that light and the light of my own experiences. If Alexi was just someone who wanted sex as payment and DIDN'T believe Cat would never normally consent to sex, then it's easier to give him the benefit of the doubt that he thought it wasn't a big deal for her given that she agreed. Instead, he knew it was a big deal for her and that she was only doing it because she'd do anything to track down the murderer.

      To use an analogy, think of two friends where one constantly uses an insult against them--maybe they're two boys and one always calls the other "faggot". There's a big difference if he's thoughtlessly joking around like teens do and think his friend's okay with it vs. if he knows his friend's gay and hurting inside from the bullying but justifies the name-calling by saying it'll help his friend get used to it and become immune to homophobia. That isn't how it works, and even if it is, he should let his friend choose whether or not to try that remedy, and it's worrisome that he decided to take the matter into his own hands based entirely on his own analysis of the situation, no communication involved.

      And that's the other part that's so triggering about Alexi's words later on: This is a manipulative man who has decided to "fix" a woman without her input or her consent. He's decided that he knows what's wrong with her, that it's really something "wrong" with her and not a quirk or a part of who she is, that he knows how to fix it, and that he's going to carry out his plan on her without her knowledge. To the OP that apparently seems like a regrettable but fairly non-threatening viewpoint, but to me and I suspect the negative reviewer it's something darker.

      Recently a man who I thought I was going to have a romance with told me that he strangled the last woman he was involved with until she almost passed out because she wouldn't listen to him when he told her how awful death was, he inferred she might kill herself, and he thought it was his job to fix the situation by SHOWING her how awful it was to die. Needless to say, I told this man goodbye and not to contact me. He called and sent texts telling me he thought he could "help" me and "fix" me, even though I continued to tell him I didn't want to talk to him and that he didn't have permission to try to help me and so on. If he contacts me one more time I'm getting a restraining order.

      His favorite Disney movie is Beauty and the Beast.

      Life's more complicated than "Everyone who tries to fix you is horribly abusive and you need to get away from them" or even "Transactional sex is abusive" or even "Every book with a sympathetic portrayal of an abusive man is part of rape culture", but I'm glad for the negative review because I'd probably find this content disturbing and triggering. I think it depends on your own experiences.

    4. Anonymous, thanks for sharing your thoughts here. I definitely agree that "it depends on your own experiences," how you react/interpret a text. But hearing other people's interpretations can also influence your readings.

      You're making me think harder here about this book. Does the fact that the book asserts on an explicit level that Alexi's desire to "fix" Cat was wrong make up for the fact that in some ways, his "fixing" worked? Cat leaves Alexi the first time when she begins to have feelings for him, when she begins to find sex with him appealing. Does the book want to have it both ways? Or is it asserting that a person who has been traumatized can recognize another traumatized person, and can help her deal with her trauma by helping her shape a new story to tell about her life?

      Why do romance novels so often insist that men who want to control women's lives are appealing, when in real life they are so often just frightening and sickening? Do many women want men to control them, at least in a fantasy space? Or is it more that romances are trying to reconcile women to a position of subordination, to make it appealing, because it is so difficult for many women to escape that position in a patriarchal society?

      Please stay safe; go and get that restraining order if you feel at all in danger from Mr. "I can fix you." He sounds like the one who needs fixing...

    5. "Do many women want men to control them, at least in a fantasy space? Or is it more that romances are trying to reconcile women to a position of subordination, to make it appealing, because it is so difficult for many women to escape that position in a patriarchal society?"

      I'm surrounded by relationships attempting to create this fantasy on earth, so I've got to respond. It's both.

      I know some men who desperately want to play the "white knight"; they have a romanticized view of what they can and should do for a woman, born as a wish fulfillment for their own idealized selves, rather than about the women they are involved with. I think they swallowed the message that their magical love conquers, which in turn makes their existence vital and their relationships without complications or change. Naturally, this grandiose, important fantasy self can't be challenged by intimately engaging with another adult - they wouldn't be able to face such competition without experiencing a maturation that might challenge their perception of their value. Some of these guys have matured into secure men with equable relationships, but many I know haven't. (I have to note these aren't evil guys. At least their masculine self-identification through dominance is a loving, gently/condescending authority rather than a violent one. Right?)

      Conversely, I have a female friend who, since I've known her, has repeatedly sought romantic relationships that would "fix" her life, a magical love that would vanquish her past demons. As we've transitioned from college to fully fledged adulthood she is finding it harder to find her idealized "fixers", the men who would genuinely want to save her from herself (as per their own heroically imagined selves) and still be able to engage in an enduring, healthy relationship. She wants to give up control, or personal responsibility for her emotional state, because she believes that this fantasy relationship to be an easy route towards healing; she desires for a romantic, controlling man to be real whose, again, magical love conquers all and she won't have to confront her hurt self. She does attract "fixer" types, but they aren't her "prince". The intelligent, self-posed, and progressive/liberal men she wants do not, in essence, want a "child-bride". (I know that's insulting towards my friend, but that's how she presents herself once she's in relationships: non-threatening, vulnerable, needing constant care/affirmation.) And she is ultimately too intelligent to seek a man who would infantilize her to serve his own sense of importance - hence, she desires a savior/fixer whose love will "lift her up where she belongs".

      I think these men are popular characters in romance because "fixers as princes" do not exist in real life, or not for very long. This fantasy man legitimizes a woman's desires to not be responsible, hence infantilizing her, and legitimizes existing relationships that refuse to view women as fully realized, equable adults. I like that this book took the myth of romantic fixer and instead of following fantastical conventions made it reflect reality: the myth is impotent and insulting.

      Damn, I obviously needed to purge that out of my system. Thanks for providing a space to do that, especially within the context of romance entertainment. I just started writing new adult romance, and what I've read in that genre so far is disappointing.

    6. Hey, Abigail, thanks for stopping by and adding your thoughts to the conversation. Venting and purging about antifeminist frustrations is always welcome here!

  4. I haven't read the book but I have some questions if you are still following this post. What are the story roles for the characters? Who's the protagonist? Who's the main character? etc.

    As for the dubious concent or ethically questionable helping piece, try looking at it another way. What was the author's purpose in using that particular scene? What did it accomplish? Was it to redeem the hero and show that he may be ethically questionable but that he dealt mostly honorably with the heroine? Was it to show that the hero recognized the heroine's pain even back in the day? Was it to prod the heroine into a final character transformation phase?

    Compare the couple in this book with Lord of Scoundrels. Why is it okay for Jessica to "fix" Dain but not okay for this hero to fix this heroine, assuming of course that the heroine is the protag of this story as Dain was the protag of his story.

    (Used this story because I noticed you had a post with Dain while I was reading through your archives.)

    BTW: I hated Jessica's manipulation. Thought it was completely out of characters and a result of the authorial hand moving the character to transform Dain.

    Why do romance novels so often insist that men who want to control women's lives are appealing, when in real life they are so often just frightening and sickening?...

    They are great questions but I'm not sure you're starting in the right place. Start by asking who the story is about?

    If the story is about the male then many readers might consider anything that happens to the helper characters along the way as the protag pursue his goal and potentially transforms as inconsequential. Always? Nope. Depends on how a person reads and also how we pull apart stories and even view our own culture.

    Think beyond romance and romance genre, isn't there a tendency in our culture to forgive the protag of their sins as they pursue their goal? The latest incarnation of James Bond is actually a pretty nasty serial killer and yet most don't judge Bond on his criminality, we excuse it for the "greater good" of our story experience.

    In general there are lines. Exactly what those lines are for each person differs as does how engaged a person becomes in the story. Are they constantly nitpicking because of inconsistencies or has their mind filled in the blanks and thrown away pieces of the story that don't work for them and created their own internal movie of what the story is?

    For example, I don't think my connotation of middle class is the same as yours but I grew up in a very different environment and I believe that middle class was a propaganda mechanism / phrase in a class war in a country that doesn't like to believe it has classes.

    So there I kind of took on three different posts. LOL Good stuff on your site. Really made me think. Thanks!

    1. Hi, AQ:

      Thanks for stopping by, and for adding your thoughts to this post about Lori Austin's book. Her novel switches back and forth in point of view from the two main characters, so I'd say that we have dual protagonists here. Both have a character growth arc over the course of the novel, and have a different outlook on life, and on themselves, by book's end.

      You bring up an interesting question: when do we think it's ok for one person to "fix" another, and when do we think it's a problem? Especially in romance, are men more in need of "fixing," in order to make them appropriate romantic partners? As a feminist, am I more comfortable watching a woman "fix" a man than I am in watching a man "fix" a woman?

      What actions of Jessica's are you referring to when you write that you "hated Jessica's manipulation" in LORD OF SCOUNDRELS?

      Lots of other ideas in this post, but I'll leave it at this for now...

    2. The whole bastard child subplot necessary to finalize Dain's transformation and to save the child from ruin. Can we say romance heroine? Maybe I should've said I hated the author's hand here as Jessica's character is a pawn to it.

      I actually loved Act 1. I enjoyed the rest but lost my enthusiasm in Act 2 when I realized that the rest of the story was about getting Dain through his character arc. Very well done novel. Still lots of fun.

      Staying with story role: Lord of the Rings has many point of view characters who have well-defined goals and take definitive action toward accomplishing said goals but when you break the story down into who and what the story is about: it's Frodo and the destruction of the One Ring. So Frodo is the protagonist. All the other characters, even though they are the protagonists of their own stories, are there to either help or hinder Frodo on his quest.
      In The Dark Tower series by Stephen King, Roland is the protagonist of the series.

      I believe most genre fiction stories have only one protagonist when you break them down.

      Leaving it here to stay focus. Would definitely like to continue on the fix track.

    3. What do you think the central question is to Beauty & the Bounty Hunter is?

      Basic central question breakdown: who is your main character? What is she/he trying to accomplish? Who is trying to stop her/him? What will happen if she/he fails?

      Who do you think is the protagonist of Lord of Scoundrels?

  5. Oh, and sorry I inadvertently deleted a tiny transition piece about middle class v. working class so I just realized my example doesn't really make sense. And now I don't remember exactly what brilliant (LMAO) stuff I originally said.