Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Female Man - Joanna Russ

A beautiful chick who swims naked and whose breasts float on the water like flowers, a chick in a rain-tight shirt who says she balls with her friends but doesn't get uptight about it, that's the real thing. 

Bantam, February 1975
Yeah, if you think you're going to find anyone like that beautiful chick in this novel, keep looking. She's not real, or never was real, or real only in the imagination of the fool that wastes his time seeking her. I don't know which, because the passage above is a single chapter out of Joanna Russ's 1975 classic The Female Man.

I didn't say "Feminist" classic, or Science Fiction classic because I don't feel equipped enough to address this book on either of those terms. What I know about Feminist Literature could be fit into a shot glass. As for Science Fiction, yes, you'll find this novel under that category, but I think it's a limiting label. It's "science" fiction in that it has time travel and parallel dimensions but I would be tempted to just call it a novel of ideas and leave it at that. As for plots, I couldn't summarize one here for you. It doesn't matter. There isn't a point to reading a book like this to see what happens next. In fact, often in the novel, I didn't know which dimension I was in, or whose voice I was listening to. Sometimes it's clear, but there are 4 viewpoints to see through in the pages that trying to find solid purchase within any one of them is frustrating. So I let the novel present itself to me on its own terms and discovered that, once I surrendered to it, I really liked it.

There are four characters: Janet, Jeannine, Joanna and Jael. Janet is from a future (not "our" future) society named Whileaway where males have been extinct for more than 800 years. Jeannine is from a contemporary (parallel?) society wherein the Great Depression continues into the 70's. There was no feminist shift in attitudes, likely no civil protest to speak of. Woman may have jobs, but their place is to marry and have children. Joanna's (Joanna Russ?) world is "our" world as it was in the 70's, and Jael's world is that in which a war of the sexes has been waging for several decades. All four women are gathered into one time and place in the novel, and all four women are the same woman living apart in their own time and place. How they relate to each other, and what each separate dimension exposes them to is what the novel is about. And let me warn you, men, mankind, the male species, the beings with the Y chromosome, do not represent here well at all.

For example, there is Cal, who is Jeannine's fiance. Cal is something of a bore, who is likely impotent as well. Cal's relationship with Jeannine is one of convenience for him, and one of nothing for her. There is no benefit to Jeannine for having Cal in her life, beyond saving her from becoming a spinster. Then there is Davy, who is Jael's boytoy. And that is in the literal sense. Davy is a robot, designed for Jael's pleasure only. The sexes live apart in Jael's world, and the men address their sexual desires by selecting certain boys to undergo surgery to change them into something resembling females. Joanna's world has your standard run of the mill jerkoff guys in it who objectify women, fear women, blame women, hate women, desire women, and...well you get the idea. Her world is our world and the women in it have learned to play the game. More on this below. Janet's world, in the future, has managed without men for so long that they're not even missed. Janet's world comes across as perhaps the most desirable of all options. So let that sink in for moment. The best option is a world without men. Perhaps it's a debate worth having that Joanna Russ intended this as a takeaway. I don't know.

This novel was published in 1975 and a woman's role in that time is not where it is today. By those standards the novel has been regarded as some as a product of its time. But, really is it?  Consider the recent cases on the news of connected young men of means and "good" upbringing basically getting away with sexually assaulting young women. They didn't just come up with the idea of violating women out of the blue. Look at the one father who pleaded for leniency for his son for "twenty minutes of action." And for every case that makes the news there is no telling how many don't, for this very reason. Go online and see how often women are harassed about their looks. Women have yet to earn what men earn for the same job. Yes, there is an exception and an example here and there of the female CEO. But step back and look at the scrutiny that female CEO must face on a day to day basis that a male executive never would. Look at the Hollywood machine churning out big budget films every year, and the roles that women are given and the double standard of sex vs violence on film. Our adult movies coat sex in lurid and violent tones. In American suburbs children are "protected" from women who dare to breastfeed in public. If you think an angry book like The Female Man is dated, then you've probably been living under a rock.

He gave her to understand that she was going to die of cancer of the womb.
She laughed.
He gave her to understand further that she was taking unfair advantage of his good manners. 
She roared.
He pursued the subject and told her that if he were not a gentleman he would ram her stinking, shitty teeth up her stinking, shitty ass. 
She shrugged.
He told her that she was so ball-breaking, shitty, stone, scum-bag, motherfucking, plug-ugly that no normal male could keep up an erection within half a mile of her.

So yeah, I liked this book a lot. I'm glad I read it. It's challenging, it's angry. It shouldn't be forgotten so easily.


  1. I read it years ago. I really liked, is consistent with radical feminism, but in the end Russ accepts a certain harmony between the sexes.

  2. Hi Johny, this is a novel I should probably try reading again. There are probably subtle themes I'm sure I missed on this reading. Thanks for the comment.