The Female Man, Joanna Russ

thefemalemanThe Female Man, Joanna Russ (1975)
Review by Megan AM

“Everyone knows that much as women want to be scientists and engineers, they want foremost to be womanly companions to men (what?) and caretakers of childhood; everyone knows that a large part of a woman’s identity inheres in the style of her attractiveness.”

“Laura is daydreaming that she’s Genghis Khan.” (p 60)

Joanna Russ’s 1975 turbulent treatise on female oppression, The Female Man, begs for interaction from the reader. It taunts with its candor. Even as a forty-year-old book, it dares you to disagree. For the modern reader of this not-really-tale, side effects may include chest tightening “buts”, understanding “ohs”, and flustered “oh come ons”.

In a recent article with, Kim Stanley Robinson describes Russ’s The Female Man as the “book that made me laugh the hardest while slapping me in the face”. He couldn’t be more precise.

The lives of four women collide: the uber-feminine doormat Jeannine, the rough-and-tumble person Janet, the agro-reactionary murderer Jael, and the rational, scholarly Joanna, our dear author, who communicates her own internal arguments and confusions via these four women. On the face of it, the women are presented as coming from four alternate worlds, but one infers quickly that the characters are non-entities, and that Russ is essentially arguing with herself, and with society, via these personalities. She conveys a divided female psyche that despises the status quo, yearns for gender equality, yet doesn’t want to annoy people, and feels guilty for achieving her own version of equality by essentially giving up her femininity in the academic world.

Four women. Four J names. Different facets of Russ. Different facets of womanhood. Sometimes the narrator refers to “the Weak One” and we don’t know who that is. Is it Jeannine, the young and naïve girly girl, who wants ever so much to get married, but for some reason she won’t? But she’s the quickest to accept and justify violence.

Uncertainties like that define the relative amorphousness of this novel. Its structure is as fractured as the author’s identity, with chapters ranging in length from one sentence to one paragraph to ten pages. Storylines bounce to and fro, interrupted by personal statements, poems, anecdotes, and uncomfortable revelations about self and society.

This is a book of harsh truths, stylized in biting, provocative, funny ways:

In 1975, Russ reminds us, “There are more whooping cranes in the United States of America than there are women in Congress.” (p 61)

She takes on marriage: “You can’t imbibe someone’s success by fucking them” (p 65).

She discusses social conditioning:

There is the vanity training, the obedience training, the self-effacement training, the deference training, the dependency training, the passivity training, the rivalry training, the stupidity training, the placation training. How am I to put this together with my human life, my intellectual life, my solitude, my transcendence, my brains, and my fearful, fearful ambition? …You can’t unite woman and human any more than you can unite matter and anti-matter… (p 151)

She posits a world without men by introducing Janet, from Whileaway, which is ten centuries ahead in an alternate future, where men have been long ago wiped out by way of disease: “And about this men thing, you must remember that to me they are a particularly foreign species; one can make love with a dog, yes?” (p 33)

Russ’s witty cantankerousness is hard to put down, even if some of her references feel outdated to younger readers. Her portrayal of a typical party includes inane social chatter that illuminates the patronizing gender games people play (“His Little Girl” and “Ain’t It Awful”), which seems ridiculous to this late-born Gen-Xer, who hopes no one still talks that way today. It’s hard to believe people ever talked that way.

Even if some of her portrayals might not quite mesh with today, enough truths bubble up to make this a relevant and influential discourse on gender relations. The majority of women I encounter still view marriage as a goal and career, their identities exist through their kids, and the career gap is still gaping.

But most compelling about this novel is the intimacy Russ shares. She splays out her soul, a psychic vivisection for the world to see. Blood pumping, heart beating, eyes agape, and mouth roaring. Sometimes it’s too much and we feel embarrassed for her. Its cringe-inducing roughness is a little too roar-full. Younger generations like myself may balk at the more extreme portrayals of casual sexism, or find this mid-century roaring tiresome. (Women of my generation don’t roar. We death-stare. Much more effective.) Most surprising for me is realizing that this was written only four years before I was born. I was born into this society???

But even if society has progressed beyond the immobile social roles of Russ’s generation, and even if younger generations can’t completely relate to the society Russ depicts, The Female Man still gives us kernels of familiar insidiousness that peek out from the corners. Today, social media has allowed us to see more brash displays of dangerous misogyny, but it’s the subtle sexism that’s most overlooked, and easiest to ignore. Russ reminds us of those places where our standards have been calloused, where our vigilance has waned.

Although The Female Man is a product of its time, we are not quite living in its desired legacy. This should be required reading for all. We should never become comfortable enough to allow this novel to be forgotten.

This review originally appeard on From couch to moon.

The Female Man, Joanna Russ

The Female Man, Joanna Russ (1975)
Review by Ian J Simpson

Nature versus nature. An age old debate. Hugh Everett’s Many World Interpretation of quantum mechanics makes it a modern debate. Place the same person with the same genes and the same potentials in different environments with different societies and histories, and see how they develop.

In principle, a wonderful concept for a science fiction novel.

The Female Man is renowned for being a classic feminist work of science fiction. In the interest of disclosure, I am male. However, I wish to discuss this novel not as a feminist tract, but as a science fiction novel.

The plot synopsis is somewhat indescribable. Briefly, there are 4 protagonists; Joanne, Janet, Jeannine and Jael, and they all exist in various alternate histories.

Jeannine is a romantic librarian from a place where the Great Depression continued for many years. She exists for marriage; it will make her complete. Joanna’s home is the most similar to our home. It is the 1970s and she is a funny and intelligent feminist. She has chosen a male gender role in society; hence referring to herself as a female man. Janet is from the world of Whileaway, where men died out from a gender plague centuries ago. She is a peace keeper, other world emissary wife and mother of two. Alice Jael is a radical living in a world where the genders are at war and has brought the women together.

Given this, one might expect a radical piece of science fiction adventure, where women across the different realities join together in search of truth, harmony, justice and equality. What we get instead are a series of set pieces where the women move to a variety of situations where they show each other how they live and more importantly, how women live (and how they are treated by men when men are available). As with all good fiction, the characters are flawed and have motivations in diverse shades of ambiguity. They grow and learn and ultimately become better, or at least better informed, individuals. However, in contrast to most good science fiction, the plot is a side-show. The science fiction within this fiction is negligible at best. I don’t expect detailed information about how and why characters move across realities, or detailed back stories about how the plague affects only one gender, but if you are science fiction, then be science fiction. I read The Female Man in the hope of a great science fiction story, but I what I got was a lecture.

Which brings me nicely to the actual plot. I have nothing against the concept of plot-less fiction; indeed, I have a fondness for meta-fiction, the surreal or streams of consciousness. Naked Lunch is one of my favourite reads. I would compare this novel closely to the latter in terms of style. There are passages of opinion, imagined conversations, style changes and so on. Again, I have no issue with this. In fact, I welcome it. Some of the imagery and prose was very readable. Sometimes, unfortunately, it was unclear who was speaking, as perspectives regularly changed. Reading this book, however, felt like I was in a sermon, not a story. I felt disappointed at that. Sure, the characters move from situation to situation and overcome difficulties and there is coherence in the message as they learn more about each other and how they live. However, I just wasn’t entertained. Whatever the message or agenda, science fiction should be about good stories. And this isn’t one of them.

The Female Man, Joanna Russ

The Female Man, Joanna Russ (1975)
Review by Martin Wisse

The Female Man is the third book in my list of works by female sf authors I’ve set myself as a challenge to read this year. Of the books on the list it is the most explicitely feminist one, a cri de coeur of “second wave feminism”, a science fictional equivalent of The Feminine Mystique. Written in 1970 but only published five years later it was somewhat controversial, science fiction never having been the most enlightened genre in the first place. Reading it some thirty-five years later it’s tempting to view it as just a historical artefact, its anger safely muted as “we know better now” and accept the equality of men and women matter of factly, its message spent as sexism is no longer an issue, with history having moved on from the bad old days in which The Female Man was written.

Rubbish, of course, but seductive rubbish. The reality is that for all the progress made since The Female Man was published, its anger is not quite obsolete yet, or we wouldn’t have had the current debate about the lack of female science fiction writers in the first place. What’s more, The Female Man ill-fits in this anodyne, whiggish view of history anyway. Russ is much more angry than that. She’s utterly scathing in her view of men in this novel, reducing them to one-dimensional bit players: thick, macho assholes her much more intelligent heroines have to cope with. You might think this “hysterical”, “shrill”, “a not very appealing aggressiveness” but Russ is ahead of you and has included this criticism in her novel already, on page 141: “we would gladly have listened to her (they said) if only she had spoken like a lady. But they are liars and the truth is not in them”. Russ was too smart not to understand that no matter how non-threatening and “rational” The Female Man might have been written, (male) critics would still call it emotional and not worth engaging. But Russ uses her anger as a weapon and tempers it with humour and some of the angriest, bitterest scenes are also grimly witty.

The Female Man is about four women, or four versions of what could be the same woman. There’s Janet Evanston Berlin, from the all-female world of Whileaway, ten centuries in the future, but not our future, who is sent on a crosstime reconnaissance of other Earths. There’s Jeaninne Dadier, a librarian in a WPA library in New York in 1969, on an Earth in which WWII never happened and the Great Depression kept grinding on, lost between her own desire grab the brass ring of marriage and children and her own knowledge/fear that this won’t make her happy either. There’s Johanna, also from 1969 but more like our own and not coincidently sharing a name with her author. And finally there’s Alice Reasoner aka Jael, from an Earth in which men and women live completely separated from each other, in a state of Cold War. It’s Jael who had brought the other three together, to recruit them and their world for the war between the sexes.

Quite obviously, each of the main characters is in a different stage of this war. Janet’s Whileaway is the dream, the utopia, where the struggle has been won for so long it has been forgotten, while Jeannine’s world is one where it still has to start and Jael’s own world is where it has come out in the open. Remains Johanna and her world, which I think we can take to be our own, where this struggle is ongoing but largely unrecognised. One example of this struggle – and of Russ’ sharp wit and sense of humor – is the party Johanna takes Janet to incognito so she gets to witness the mating rituals of the North American male in action– boorishness, aggression, wounded pride.

Despite their symbolic value, the four Js are no cyphers, but fully realised characters and Russ spends most of the book writing their back stories, in their own voices. At the same time these four women are all clearly in essence the same woman, in different circumstances and the way Russ tells her story underscores that. Sometimes she uses the third person to talk objectively about a character and her feelings, sometimes her story is told in the first person, with viewpoints shifting quickly between characters and worlds, where every now and then it becomes impossible to figure out which “I” is actually telling a story. Frequent cutting between stories and short chapters help with this confusion and it takes effort to keep track of who is talking when – you just have to let go in the end and go with the flow.

The Female Man is a tough book, but not a hard book to read. Joanna Russ is a brilliant writer and everything in here sparkles; at times you can only sit there open mouthed with awe. It’s a tough book because of the raw anger Russ has put in it, the anguish and frustration of Jeaninne, Jael and Johanna (he character and the author both). None of these women is happy or able to do anything about their happiness, unlike the well adjusted Janet, who never had to deal with men until she started jumping worlds.

Janet is also the only one with a proper fulfilling sex life without hang-ups, in contrast to the patriarchy-ridden other three. She’s the only one who gets to have sex in the book, with a young woman who until then was continually frustrated with the expectations her family and society expect of her to be satisfied with pretty dresses and babies. “The usual boring obligatory references to Lesbianism”, as Russ again anticipates her critics. Though there is only one overt sex scene in the novel, sexuality is an important current in the book, with Janet and her healthy sexuality a rebuke to the phallocentric assumptions continuously echoed by any male character, unable to understand how anybody could have sex without a penis involved somehow. This is as much a queer book as a feminist book.

This is also a book where there are no important male characters; they’re bit players, caricatures, stereotypes but never important other than as objects for the main characters to have to work around or manipulate. As such it’s a mirror image of about ninety percent of science fiction written up till then and a fair chunk written after it as well. It’s easy not to notice this gender imbalance in ordinary novels: it’s only because it is unusual to have an all-female or largely female cast that you notice.

The Female Man itself is Johanna (Russ) who could only be taken seriously as a human when she turned herself in a man, “one of the boys” having to turn male in her thoughts and attitude to be able to exist on the same level as man are priviledged to do naturally, but at the loss of her female identity.

The Female Man is excellent if not free of flaws – Russ’s descriptions of the “changed” and “half changed” feminised men of Manland in Jael’s world is transphobic in effect if not perhaps in intent – but despite this, this is a classic science fiction novel anybody interested in the genre should read.

This review originally appeared on Cloggie.