I didn’t like “The Female Man.” It will probably take three posts for me to tell you how much.

21 04 2010

I’ve read about four books since my last post, and I am terribly behind on the blog. If there is any excuse for this, it is that one of them was The Female Man by Joanna Russ, it made me extremely uncomfortable, and I wasn’t sure what I wanted to write about it. The books I read between The Female Man and this attempt to write about it have given me some insight and direction, but I still haven’t come to terms with the book. Perhaps the time has come to force it.

In The Female Man, we meet Janet, Jeannine, Joanna, and Jael, who live in versions of reality in which the conflict between men and women plays out in different ways. Joanna’s reality is the most like ours, that is, the most like ours was around the development of Second Wave feminism. Jeannine lives in a reality in which the Great Depression never ended and women’s role in society is quite restricted. In order to become a whole person, Jeannine must marry and produce children. Though she is not comfortable in this role, her family members remind her of it regularly, and she gives up hope for a better life. Janet is from a planet called Whileaway where all the men died in a plague about 800 years before the story takes place, and the women live a strange, communal lifestyle in which very young children are raised together in nurseries by mothers enjoying the one year of vacation they will experience in their lives, older children roam the world learning, young adults travel and do physically demanding work, and eventually join families, and the older women do sedentary, intellectual tasks. In Jael’s world, men and women are at war with each other – literally – and Jael uses violence in her interactions with men because she has long ago learned that attempts to achieve equality are futile. The book offers us insights into the feminine condition by sharing each woman’s reaction to the lives and difficulties of the others, potentially inspiring us to think about our own experiences as women.

Some critics describe The Female Man as one of the most influential and important works of feminist SF ever written, so it must have made it through to someone. There are certainly many works of wonderful feminist SF out there now, and Joanna Russ is responsible for blazing that trail, I am glad for this book. I don’t know enough about the history of feminist SF to guess at whether or not these claims are exaggerated. But there are other works of feminist SF from the 1970s that are much more radical and that resonate with me today. This one just makes me cringe.

My first minor complaint is a stylistic one. Each J-character takes the role of narrator, sometimes telling the story from an omniscient point of view, sometimes from a more limited first-person one, and it’s not always obvious when these transitions take place. At times, it is difficult to differentiate the narrative voices. This is surely a stylistic device, intended to demonstrate that the characters are in fact the same woman, nurtured by the environment in different ways, proving that women’s apparent weakness is the result of their upbringing, rather than any natural feminine deficiency, but it made it difficult to keep track of where the story was going and, more importantly, why the story was going there. I don’t need an easy-to-follow literature for dummies structure to appreciate a story – there are plenty of postmodernist texts that I adore and have no problem with, but reading The Female Man, I was more frustrated by the deliberately disconcerting structure than enlightened by it.

My second and third complaints – the important ones – are that The Female Man is surprisingly misogynistic, and horrifyingly transphobic. I realize that Joanna Russ is apparently no longer anti-trans, but the incredible, sexist disgust with which Russ portrays trans characters in the book is downright creepy by my standards. The fact that she no longer feels that way and that societal values are different from what they were when she wrote it doesn’t make me like the book any more. But more on both of those topics later; each one deserves a rant of its very own.

Currently Reading: Boneshaker by Cherie Priest