Review of The Female Man (1975)


Joanna Russ (writer).

Read in 2019.

“Something very J-ish is going on here”: Four versions of the same person, from different times and places in different quantum-mechanical continuities but with the same initial, all come together to think about gender. One of the four characters is the author, who examines all four as an omniscient narrator in a stream of consciousness.

Distinctly a second-wave feminist tract, but not radically so. In its final few paragraphs, the author looks forward to a time when the book will seem “quaint and old-fashioned”. To me, having come of age in third-wave feminism and reading somewhere near the peak of fourth-wave feminism, it seemed that time had already come.

The tameness of the work comes in part from its lack of a central thesis. Russ’s idea of a female man, meaning a woman who’s able to join a conversation with men without standing out, is hardly a driving force. It’s described in part as a means of taking power:

[...] treat me as a Man until it enters your muddled, terrified, preposterous, nine-tenths-fake, loveless, papier-mâché-bull-moose head that I am a man. (And you are a woman.) [...]

If you don’t, by God and all the Saints, I’ll break your neck.

That’s page 136 of the SF Masterworks edition. Rather than launching or precisely formulating this idea, Russ uses SF to illustrate the idea and dress it with emotion. This is done through a series of embedded essays rather than the narrative of the book.

The overarching plot can be summarized as follows: Womanlanders, i.e. women from a dystopian continuity of open warfare between the sexes, want to expand to other continuities. Under the stated interpretation of quantum physics, this cannot possibly help the Womanlanders defeat the Manlanders. It can only help them lose that war, because there would be no way to return to their continuity after retreating to another. It is thus implied that the Womanlanders see themselves as fighting all men everywhere, even from continuities like Janet’s, where no men exist. Jael the Womanlander seeks permission from her alternate selves for such invasions. Over a Thanksgiving dinner, she is alternately invited and rebuffed.

That’s an editorial cartoon reifying the war of the sexes as it was fought in the 1970s, married to “Where do the Birds Fly Now?” (1971). It does not sum up to a polemic: Russ does not celebrate Jael’s invasions as a positive or edgy fantasy, nor do they even occur within the frame of the narrative. The author’s interests are not in the plot. They are in the non-narrative, essayistic explorations of gender roles, which take up the majority of the book.

Of the essays, Jeannine’s part six is the most interesting, showing the intimate effects of de Beauvoir’s marginalization and Friedan’s feminine mystique. Unfortunately, it doesn’t make sense that Jeannine missed out on women’s liberation because Hitler failed as a politician named Schicklgruber, a mere whisper of a suggestion for explaining the state of her world. There is no explanation at all for the four women’s particular affinity, and no part of the book comes close to examining the roots of the problem.

Russ anticipates criticism of her structual choices as “feminine lack of objectivity ... this pretense at a novel ... trying to shock ... the tired tricks of the anti-novelists” (page 136f, ellipses in the original). To anticipate such criticism does not invalidate it. The book would have been stronger incorporating the matter of the essays into a more classical structure like Way Station (1963), dropping the metafictional sequences such as the little blue and pink books codifying gender roles in part three.

By constantly showing Janet to be a simple allegory of liberation, Russ prevents the reader from considering Janet as a person, or Whileaway as a ponderable society. This leaves the thought experiment lacking in integrity. Russ confirms she came up with the name of Janet’s world from the phrase “while away the hours”, i.e. idle fantasy as distinct from thoughtful, self-consistent worldbuilding for the purpose of writing well. It’s deliberately thin anti-mimetic posturing and there is no apparent reason for it. In 1975, I suppose the “anti-novel” was still a novelty in SF circles. By contrast, The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) is a novel and has aged better.

Janet’s mode of life is a joyful parody of masculinity, the “lift that bale and tote that barge” variety where the major social problem is the 16-hour work week: Work is too darned absorbing. This is more funny than it is insightful. Trying to articulate what constitutes manhood, Russ writes only “Manhood, children ... is Manhood” (page 20, ellipsis in the original). This is not even specific enough to be essentialist. It’s possible that the book as a whole did some good, invigorating feminists and opening the eyes of a few sexist readers, but it seems far from optimal for either purpose.

References here: Dhalgren (1975), We Who Are About To... (1976), “If Men Could Menstruate” (1978), Always Coming Home (1985), “Angel One” (1988), Noein: To Your Other Self (2005).

text fiction