Imagine your life is overwhelmingly mundane, you are doing okay for yourself but nothing spectacular is happening and your love life is non-existent. That is the way of the world for Penny Harrigan, a gender politics studied lawyer who cannot pass the bar exam. That is until she meets mega-millionaire C. Linus Maxwell who invites her to dinner, then takes her to dreamy Paris where the world of uncapped sexual gratification is revealed to her.
In Beautiful You, Palahniuk explores sex, female satisfaction, male manipulation and female repression. I found it to be a wild ride, but a very interesting consideration into the idea of female sexuality being regulated by men, as well as female sexuality being left unsatisfied by men. I was concerned that this book would be entirely unfeminist, in the way of women being sex dolls for men. These days I try and approach things with an analytical eye. It makes reviews more interesting because I have more to say beyond simply that “I liked it;” but also it’s because I don’t want to be reading things that are sending the wrong message.
Palahniuk is an American novelist most famously known for Fight Club. However, Beautiful You is my first read by him and I was a bit nervous because I have heard his books are quite filthy (which is fine, but as long as such filth is of analytical value), and can be pretty dark. According to Wikipedia (in my defense, I just googled him to have his repertoire in my next tab), Palahniuk describes his work as transgressional fiction (cue secondary Wikipedia page). Transgressive fiction focuses on "characters who feel confined by the norms and expectations of society and who break free of those confines in unusual or illicit ways." Now, I knew nothing about Palahniuk except recommendations from friends but this Wikipedia definition nicely sums up how I felt about Beautiful You.
Beautiful You is a prime example of Transgressional fiction because Penny only found herself in Maxwell’s clutches due to the social notoriety around him. The novel starts with quite a horrific rape-esque scene. Penny is in a courtroom, she is the only woman there, and after being sexually attacked against her will, she is being attended to by paramedics who are recognizing her as C. Linus Maxwell’s ex; they state “you should have married him...Lady, if you’d have married that guy you’d be richer than God.” This harsh scene sets the tone for the novel. The story is then told leading up to this event. For me, despite how confronting this scene was, I was highly intrigued as to how Penny got in this situation, if people are reprimanding Penny for not marrying him, then why didn’t she? What has happened to Penny to lead her to this situation?
Thus starts the “romance” (loose use here) of Penny and Maxwell. She literally falls at his feet and it is from here that she essentially does anything for him. She presents no protest; however, I didn’t see an overwhelming urgency for clear consent. At one point Penny describes their interaction as “sweet consensual torture” which sounds highly questionable to me. Through this, I felt as though Penny was going along with this situation because well, why wouldn’t she by conventional societal standards? She is getting sexual gratification from one of the richest men in the world, to any sane person in this fictional world, she would be crazy to not be loving it. From here, Penny proceeds to become Maxwell’s sex guinea pig as he researches female pleasure for his line of sex toys.
I feel as though this novel can be considered feminist through this transgressional sphere because Penny overcame the man who was using her for self gain and wanted to refute the sexual environment he was inflicting upon women of the world. Despite the knowledge that the outcome would ultimately be unfavourable to her, she was highly determined to ensure that Maxwell’s manipulation and control of women was put to an end. Penny also owned her involvement in the creation of these repressive sex toys, albiet she didn’t know they would cause mass oppression of women through their right of sexual freedom, but she knew she played her part and ultimately wanted to right her wrong. Furthermore, she bettered herself and wanted to do one better than Maxwell. She was educated in the ways of tantric sex and wanted to use them to help the women of the world, rather than control them. Also, Penny did not simply want to destroy him because of what he did to her, it wasn’t a personal vendetta, but because of what he did to all women. Now that looks like a pretty good feminist to me.
In Beautiful You female satisfaction is used as a tool against women to ultimately repress and control them. It provides commentary on the nature of sex in the modern world. Female sexuality is often deeply misunderstood, in Beautiful You it comes as no surprise that when a woman is presented with an object of satisfaction that they completely jump at the opportunity. Through Maxwell’s sex toys Palahniuk metaphorically shows the danger and injustice that comes with disregarding female pleasure. However backwards, Palaniuk has used Beautiful You to highlight the importance of female pleasure, to the most extreme degree he shows how society breaks down without women and how industry thrives because of them. The tag line “A billion husbands are about to be replaced” is interesting to me, because you don’t replace something unless there is a better option or something is not providing sufficient use to you anymore. So I think that in some ways, this brainwashing of women at the hands of a created technology is commenting on the fact that perhaps men need to do better, to do more, in order to improve female satisfaction.
Palaniuk shows us that female anatomy is complex, and I mean everyone knows that the female orgasm is more than just friction, but through this and through Penny’s story, Beautiful You highlights the extremes that come with male regulation and male ignorance of female sexuality and pleasure. Through fictional female repression, to me, it seems that Palahniuk is contributing to a greater conversation about the representation of women in literature. Hopefully more male authors will start to consider the way female pleasure/sexuality is represented in their writing *cough cough* Stephen King…
By Chuck Palahniuk
206 pages. 2014.