Niall Harrison (coalescent) wrote in instant_fanzine,
Niall Harrison

Book Group Discussion: The Female Man


I'll be honest: I've been putting this off. For far too long.


The primary reason I have been putting off writing this post is nerves, or, if you want to be less euphemistic, fear. The Female Man is not a book that can be read or discussed in neutral terms. That's partly because of the book itself, what it says and how it says, but partly because it has a Reputation. At times, it seems almost to be a shibboleth: reading it is like sitting an exam.

Which makes it quite hard to stand up and say "hey, I didn't think it was all that." Particularly if you are, as I am, a white middle-class male, and therefore not the book's target audience. If I criticise (for example) the character of Janet (as I am going to do), or the style (as I am also going to do), how many people are going to dismiss my criticisms with a disappointed, "well, what can you expect?"

(That's not the scary thing, of course. The scary thing is that they might be right.)


The secondary reason I have been putting this off is that I couldn't find a way into the book. I have been reading around (that in itself says something in the book's favour, surely). So I have read Sarah Lefanu on Russ, Gwyneth Jones on Russ, L. Timmel Duchamp on Russ, and found things to agree and disagree with in each of them. I have read some more of Russ's short fiction. And I eventually wound up reading, for the first time, A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf, which crystallised my way in:
And for the most part, of course, novels do come to grief somewhere. The imagination falters under the enormous strain. The insight is confused; it can no longer distinguish between the true and the false, it has no longer the strength to go on with the vast labour that calls at every moment for the use of so many different faculties. But how would all this be affected by the sex of the novelist, I wondered, looking at Jane Eyre and the others. Would the fact of her sex in any way interfere with the integrity of a woman novelist--that integrity which I take to be the backbone of the writer? Now, in the passages I have quoted from Jane Eyre, it is clear that anger was tampering with the integrity of Charlotte Bronte the novelist. She left her story, to which her entire devotion was due, to attend to some personal grievance. She remembered that she had been starved of her proper due of experience--she had been made to stagnate in a parsonage mending stockings when she wanted to wander free over the world. Her imagination swerved from indignation and we feel it swerve.


But how impossible it must have been for [women writers] not to budge either to the right or to the left. What genius, what integrity it must have required in face of all that criticism, in the midst of that purely patriarchal society, to hold fast to the thing as they saw it without shrinking. Only Jane Austen did it, and Emily Bronte. It is another feather, perhaps the finest, in their caps. They wrote as women write, not as men write. Of all the thousand women who wrote novels then, they alone entirely ignored the perpetual admonishments of the eternal pedagogue--write this, think that.
I might take the first paragraph above as sarcastic, except for the second paragraph: I take Woolf's admiration of Austen and Emily Bronte for finding and holding fast to their unique voices to be genuine, so I also take her dismay at anger's distorting effect in Jane Eyre to be genuine.

I feel much the same way about anger. It is, pretty much by definition, a destructive emotion. When I am angry, I think less clearly, and I write more hastily. Yet The Female Man is a book I have seen lauded, plenty of times, as "wonderfully angry", or similar, a sentiment which, to me, is purely oxymoronic. I do not trust my judgement when I'm angry, so it's far from clear to me why I should trust what someone else appears to have written in the heat of anger.

This is not to say that anger is never legitimate; as Woolf points out, it can be entirely legitimate. But it should not, I think, be given free rein. Woolf herself is clearly angry about the treatment of women's writing, but in A Room of One's Own that anger is--brilliantly--channelled into her own unique, passionate voice. Anger is the reaction; passion is the action.

The Female Man is written as though actively resisting the perpetual admonishments of an eternal pedagogue. It argues; it hectors; it denounces; it lectures. It wants, I think, to inspire action, but there seems to me to be little inspirational in it, little passion; only a constant anger. And ironically, in her resistance, Joanna Russ turns away from her story. It gets tiring.


Here is what it says on the back cover of the copy I read:
Reality Times 3

Joanna's world is recognizable--very like our own. Jeannine's world is much the same--except Hitler never took power, World War II never happened, and the Great Depression continues. Janet's world is something else again. In her world wars are fought, children are born, countries are governed and wildernesses conquered ... and she is the only kind of man there is.

The Female Man
A Startling New Science Fiction Novel By
Joanna Russ

"The most sensational and, paradoxically, the truest novel about the war of the sexes since Philip Wylie's The Disappearance." -- Fritz Leiber, Hugo and Nebula Award Winner

"A wonderfully inventive novel, this interplanetary exploration of Feminist inner space, this sophisticated playful fantasy book which is, of course, all about reality." -- Phyllis Chseler, Author of Women and Madness

"A visionary novel about a society where women can do all we now fantasize in closets and kitchens and beds ... Intricate, witty, furious, savage." -- Marge Piercy, Author of Small Changes
I had to come back and write this section last, because what actually happens in the book is the least interesting thing about it. In brief: a trio of characters start moving between three worlds, none of them ours, and are eventually pulled into a fourth world, which is also not ours, by a fourth character.

The characters and the worlds are: Janet, who comes from Whileaway, an all-female utopia; Jeannine, who comes from the alternate history described above, in which progress towards equality of the sexes has been retarded relative to our world; Joanna, who comes from a world in which every adult is given a book of rules explaining how men and women behave, and live by them; and the fourth character, Jael, who comes from a dystopia in which the war of the sexes has become literal. Janet and Jeannine's worlds seem to be presented as plausible; Joanna and Jael's worlds seem to be presented as satiric exaggerations.

Jael is responsible for gathering the Js (as diverse representatives of the same genotype), with the intent of asking them if her people can use their worlds as bases in the ongoing war. Along the way we get tours of each world framed in terms of their sexual politics, which of course reflect on our sexual politics in ways that are (for me) alternately enlightening, subtle, baffling, laughable, profound. The greatest strength of The Female Man is that it is a book that makes you argue with everything it says.

There are first-person and third-person sections; each character gets an opportunity to narrate; and Joanna Russ-the-author interjects at various points. It is, in form, content and execution, not the sort of thing you would expect from the lurid first-edition cover or the excitable description above.


The Female Man is divided into nine parts, each of which is divided into a number of sections, numbered with roman numerals. Most of the time, but not always, successive sections are narrated by different characters. Sometimes this is fun and interesting. Sometimes it's not. This is the start of part two:

Who am I?

I know who I am, but what's my brand name?

Me with a new face, a puffy mask. Laid over the old one in strips of plastic, a blond Hallowe'en ghoul on top of the S.S. uniform. I was skinny as a beanpole underneath except for the hands, which were similarly treated, and that very impressive face. I did this once in my line of business, which I'll go into later, and scared the idealistic children who lived downstairs. Their delicate skins red with offended horror. Their clear young voices raised in song (at three in in the morning). I'm not Jeannine. I'm not Janet. I'm not Joanna.

I don't do this often (say I, the ghoul) but it's great elevator technique, holding your forefinger to the back of somebody's neck while passing the fourth floor, knowing he'll never find out that you're not all there.

(Sorry. But watch out.)

You'll meet me later.


As I have said before, I (not the one above, please) had an experience on the seventh of February last, nineteen-sixty-nine. (p. 19)
... at which point it's a bit hard not to throw the book across the room in exasperation at being treated as a half-wit. Seriously: section I is in italics, and explicitly tells us (a) that it's not being narrated by any of the characters we've met so far and (b) that the narrator is leaving for now, although she'll be back later. Section II is not in italics, and we're not expecting the same narrator, but just to make sure the point is hammered home--it's not characterisation, it's only there to make sure that we don't misunderstand how the book is going to work--Russ has this character tell us that she's not the same narrator as above. Well, no shit, says the reader.

It's not exactly a move that gains the reader's trust. Which is a shame, because quite a lot of the time there's nothing like such explicit hand-holding; narrators come and go with charming indifference to anything resembling a logical progression, to the point where in several sections it's impossible to actually work out who "I" is. (Which, yes, implies that a lot of the time the characters don't have particularly well-differentiated voices; but given that they are all variations on the same character, I think that's forgiveable.) But every so often the authorial hand comes back down again, making sure that we get it (there's an entire section devoted to pre-empting the criticisms that reviews of the book will use), squashing anything resembling life out of the story. The revelation that the Js are the same, for instance, is prefaced with: "Alice-Jael Reasoner told us what you have no doubt guessed long, long ago" (p.159). Pointing out that you've been witholding information for no good reason doesn't make it any less a cheap narrative trick.


I'm actually not convinced there are any characters in this book. At more than one point, I felt like I was reading an idiot plot, but I think it's fairer to say that all the characters just props for argument. That's fine, in itself; even the fact that it's a thoroughly rigged argument is fine; the problem is that the presentation of the rigged argument, as noted above, is frequently clumsy. And that draws attention to the deficiencies of the characters.

Certainly none of them are convincing as people. Janet, we are told, researches the world she finds herself in; but because the plot requires her to instigate various conflicts, to demonstrate things about the world, she routinely shows no evidence of having learned anything from her research, or at the very least no inclination towards applying her knowledge. We understand the world she finds herself in far more quickly than she does, on the basis of far less information--we only have access to what Russ lets us know.

Joanna is often cast as the observer, and is (inevitably) sometimes conflated with the author; less time is given to developing her internal life than that of any of the others, and she remains something of a cipher to the end. Jeannine--who we are told has the potential to be the most intelligent of the Js--is for most of the book a laughable caricature of repression:
Jump up, wash the table, pick up the salt that falls on the rug and brush it up with the whisk-broom. Is that all? No, mend Cal's clothes and her own. Oh, let them be. She has to pack and make her lunch and Cal's (although he's not going with her). That means things coming out of the icebox again and mopping the table again--leaving footprints on the linoleum again. Well, it doesn't matter. Wash the knife and the plate. Done. She decides to go get the sewing box to do his clothes, then changes her mind. Instead she picks up the murder mystery. Cal will say, "You didn't sew my clothes." She goes to get the sewing box out of the back of the closet, stepping over her valises, boxes of stuff, the ironing board, her winter coat and winter clothes. (pp 106-7)
This goes on for several pages without becoming noticeably more nuanced; Jeannine's ultimate development towards feminist consciousness seems equally hamfisted. The Female Man is not a long book, but it tends to say what it has to say several times, to make sure you've heard.

Jael is the most interesting of the Js. This is partly because by the time she comes on-stage all the setup is starting to pay off--the last three parts of the book are noticeably more complex and interesting than anything that comes before them; part seven, in which we actually find out what being the female man means, is very well done--and partly because, despite the absurd absolutism of her world, she herself retains a hint of independence. We are not told what to think of her as comprehensively as we are told what to think of the other three.


The Female Man is sometimes extremely funny.
This book is written in blood.

Is it written entirely in blood?

No, some of it is written in tears.

Are the blood and the tears all mine?

Yes, they have been in the past. But the future is a different matter. As the bear swore in Pogo after having endured a pot shoved on her head, being turned upside down while still in the pot, a discussion about her edibility, the lawnmowering of her behind, and a fistful of ground pepper in her snoot, she then swore a mighty oath on the ashes of her mothers (i.e., her forebears) grimly but quietly while the apples from the shaken tree above her dropped bang thud on her head:

It is sometimes extremely evocative:
Waking up in a Vermont autumn morning, inside the glass cab, while all around us the maples and sugar maples wheel slowly out of the fog. Only this part of the world can produce such colour. We whispered at a walking pace through wet fires. (p.184)
The inconstancy of tone throughout the book is surely deliberate. I'm not sure that makes it any more effective.


Does The Female Man need to be science fiction?

I started wondering about this about half-way through the book. This view is not untypical, as far as I can tell:
As a work at once of art and propaganda, this book is comparable to some of the later novels of H.G. Wells (albeit Russ's style is much different from Wells's), and its publication was greeted in much the same way. That is, reviewers tended to treat it simply as propaganda and then (having regretted its lack of art) go on to find its message reasonable or unreasonable. But the time-travel, time-track concept is worked out here better than in any other SF novel I know, and the characters and settings are very vividly realized. In sum, it is a superior SF novel, though perhaps too demanding in an emotional sense ever to be popular even with those expressing the currently fashionable opinions on women's liberation.
The Female Man takes place in a quantum existence. Every decision creates a new worldline; traveling back in time is possible, but as soon as you're there your presence diverts that past towards a different future. It's more accurate, therefore, to refer to what happens to Janet, Jeannine and Joanne, as they move across the worldlines, as "probability traveling". So far so standard (although admittedly, it may not have been when it was written). What interests me about this, though, is how it affects the presentation of Whileaway, and how we perceive it.

Before The Female Man there was "When It Changed." In that story, Whileaway is another planet, cut off from the part of human civilization that still has both sexes. It is therefore possible for men to stumble across Whileaway, and they do, resulting in a tragedy reminiscent of Tiptree's "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?" except that the loss of utopia is only delayed, not prevented. It is a brilliant, gut-punching story. Gwyneth Jones seems to prefer it to The Female Man:
Naturally the party of spacemen--seen only through the women's eyes--comes off badly in this account. But on the other hand the women of Whileaway are not unreasonably idealised. Their society is no more idyllic than the average well-heeled American wilderness community in fiction--pioneer independence, love and respect for the wild, good country folks, haven't had a murder here in years, don't have to lock our doors around here. These women are "the whole of humanity"--an important concept that Lefanu raises elsewhere. They have the full range of human vices and virtues intact. By the time we meet Whileaway again in The Female Man, it has been got at. Its inhabitants have become female characters in a feminist science fiction, their vices and virtues bowdlerised and engineered precisely to fit the current demands of sexual politics. [...] "When it Changed" is feminist fiction. The Female Man is feminist satire. [...] And feminist satire, for the female sf reader, is as disappointing as it is invigorating. There is a sense of loss, a sense of another world denied. Changing story into satire defines yet another area where women work, while men play. (Deconstructing the Starships, pp125-6).
There is clearly something to this. See my thoughts on characters and some of the worlds above; the book is umpteen times longer than the short story, and has to provide more detail about the worlds it includes, but feels in the end somewhat flatter.

But I also think the relocation of Whileaway from our future to a parallel universe is important. We are told: "Whileaway, you may gather, is in the future. But not our future" (p.7). We can't get there from here. It is properly utopian, in the sense of being unattainable, and that makes it harder to wish for than the version in the short story. A similar distance affects Jael's world. The only impact the worlds have on each other comes after the book's final page. Would The Female Man read any differently if it was presented as a dream, rather than as science fiction? I'm not sure it would, which suggests to me it doesn't take full advantage of its chosen idiom.


Perhaps my central problem, though, from which all the above flows, is this: the book was published in America 1975, and I'm reading it in the UK in 2006. That's a big enough distance in time and space to literally make it hard for me to know where the satire stops, above and beyond the usual instabilities of science fiction. Take this:
It's very upsetting to think that women make up only one-tenth of society, but it's true. For example:
My doctor is male.
My lawyer is male.
My tax-accountant is male.
The grocery-store-owner (on the corner) is male.
The janitor in my apartment building is male.
The president of my bank is male.
The manager of the neighbourhood supermarket is male.
My landlord is male.
Most taxi-drivers are male.
All cops are male.
All firemen are male.
The designers of my car are male.
The factory workers who made the car are male.
The dealer I bought it from is male.
Almost all my colleagues are male.
My employer is male.
The Army is male.
The Navy is male.
The government is (mostly) male. (pp203-4)
Reading this, I think: My doctor is a woman. My dentist is a woman. My optician is a woman. The MD of my company is a woman. Almost all my colleagues are women--and I work in a technical, scientific job. One of the three firemen who turned up after the false alarm at work last week was a woman. There are six flats in the building I live in; three of them are owned by women. I have no idea what the gender of the manager of my local supermarket is, but I wouldn't want to assume it was a man.

This is not to say that everything is a-ok now (clearly it's not), but simply that I cannot tell whether this list was true when Joanna Russ wrote it, or whether she was exaggerating for effect. Similarly, when Russ tells us that "Now in the opera scenario that governs our lives, Janet would have gone to a party and at that party she would have met a man and there would have been something about that man" (p.30), and proceeds to relate a sequence of events which, when portrayed as a certainty, seem downright archaic--is she being serious? Or parodic? And when Janet first arrives, she is interviewed on tv. The interviewer is slow on the uptake, and shows a complete lack of professionalism. Nobody in the book comments, but we can feel Joanna Russ breathing down our necks, saying see! See how absurd this is! And the problem is, though I can conceive of a similar interview taking place today, I can't conceive of it going uncriticised--so yet again, I don't know where the satire stops.

I don't know how to read this book.

The ending, of course, is famous for addressing this problem. Here it is:
Go, little book, trot through Texas and Vermont and Alaska and Maryland and Washington and Florida and Canada and England and France; bob a curtsey at the shrines of Friedan, Millet, Greer, Firestone, and all the rest [...] Do not complain when at last you become quaint and old-fashioned, when you grow as outworn as the crinolines of a generation ago and are classed with Spicy Western Stories, Elsie Dingmore, and The Son of the Sheik; do not mutter angrily to yourself when young persons read you to hrooch and hrch and guffaw, wondering what the dickens you were all about. Do not get glum when you are no longer understood, little book. Do not curse your fate. Do not reach up from readers' laps and punch the readers' noses.

Rejoice, little book!

For on that day, we will be free. (pp. 213-4)
It's a neat little spot-turn, particularly because it returns you from the book to the world on Russ' terms, not yours. It's just a shame it's not true. Clearly, for many people, The Female Man was and is a revelatory book; but without devaluing that experience, I think we can say that times change, and that we are, perhaps, rapidly approaching the point where a lot of people will not be able to fully understand it without recourse to sources external to the text. Like me, such readers may find the politics oddly monochrome, and the rants bemusingly obvious (as in, "who on earth is ever going to espouse the kind of idiotic philosophy that this book rails against, and expect to be taken seriously?").

But the catch is, the reasons for The Female Man are not gone; excellent books like Gwyneth Jones's Life address their contemporary, more subtle, harder to satirise incarnations. There is work still to be done: and in that context, the ending could even be downright dangerous, because it gives the people who didn't get the book license to dismiss it. And for all that it seems to me severely flawed, I think that would be a mistake. Because if the times have changed, at least in the literary world (and the science fiction world) those changes may well be in part because of this book; and thinking about that is a useful thing to do.

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