Monday, January 7, 2019

Feminist Futures: The Female Man

Dossier: Russ, Joanna. The Female Man [Bantam, 1975]

Filetype: Book

Executive Summary: Two women -- Joanna, a writer living in 1970s New York, and Jeannine, who lives in a parallel reality where the Great Depression never ended -- find their lives uprooted when Janet Evason, a time traveler from a future, all-female society called Whileaway, gathers them into her orbit.

Joanna is a staunch feminist and shows Janet around her world as the two women attempt to explain each's reality to the other. Jeannine is obsessed with the idea of marriage, and her mother's constant pressure doesn't help things. Jeannine is not enthusiastic about marriage, or her current best prospect, a guy named Cal, but the prospect of either getting married or remaining unmarried consumes most of her thoughts. After Janet collects Jeannine, the three women retreat to the home of a "typical family." This home is provided by the Wildings, and their daughter, Laura Rose, who begins exploring a sexual relationship with Janet.

Janet explains Whileaway's technologically advanced, but largely agrarian society, where all sexual relationships are homosexual, since a plague killed off all men many generations earlier. Children are conceived through a scientific process, and children only stay with their biological mothers for a few years before going away to school and then the series of work placements that will occupy the rest of their lives. Joanna and Jeannine are able to briefly visit Whileaway, and meet Janet's wife. 

In visiting Jeannine's milieu, Jeannine visits her family and goes on dates with several men, trying to imagine what a marriage to one of them might look like, and if it would be better than settling for Cal.

Ultimately, all three women find themselves transported to yet another reality, this time by Jael, an assassin from a dystopian future where the men and women are locked into a literal battle of the sexes. Jael takes the three women through her reality, assassinates a male leader, and reveals the technology that has allowed her to pull together these four versions of the same woman, but from different, parallel timelines.

Feminist Future: Jael suggests to Janet that there was no plague that wiped out the men of her timeline, but rather a literal battle like the one Jael is currently living through, and then the female survivors eradicated that narrative from their histories as Whileaway evolved from the resulting peace. Although Janet doesn't believe her, this suggests that the book is positing three possible futures: one in which the men and women continue on with women struggling to achieve equality and making small progress here and there, which extends from Joanna and Jeannine's presents; another in which, as women are ascendant in power, the men literally fight back against any further progress and the sexes are segregated; and finally, a future in which only one sex survives. The final scenario is the only peaceful one, although Whileaway is shown to have its own share of violence, however rare.

Hope for the Future: At the end of the book and after their stay with Jael, Joanna and Jeannine return to their timelines with a new sense of power and purpose. There is a stronger sense that they will not only advocate more strongly for themselves, but for other women, as well. There's no clear roadmap toward peaceful co-existence between men and women, but the sense that progress is possible is definitely there.

Legacy: This book is probably Russ' most influential work of fiction, where her book How to Suppress Women's Writing is likely her most heralded work of non-fiction. It takes the ideas of feminism and foregrounds them in a fairly didactic way, and confronts head-on many assumptions about ability and the place of women in society. It's interesting to think of this book in conversation with Herland (which Russ may or may not have had access to), because both are largely works of explication, where there isn't a whole lot of plot movement. In the same way that Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote three men that were meant to capture three aspects of masculinity, Russ' four women are clearly archetypes of different aspects of the female experience, if not "femininity." 

It is a near-certainty that, for many female readers in 1975, this book was the first time they were able to see themselves in science fiction. From Joanna's ardent striving for equality in a world that isn't interested, to Janet's deft and capable discharge of her many different roles and jobs, to Jeannine's inner monologue and back-and-forth with her mother about what she was doing with her life, to the ferocity of spirit and desire to exact vengeance that Jael encapsulates, there are so many aspects of womanhood that Russ just comes out and addresses frankly and directly. In The Female Man, there's no way to hide behind the narrative or pretend, like so many of James Tiptree, Jr.'s readers did, that the subtext isn't really saying *that.*

In Retrospect: Stylistically, this book is a challenge. I don't know how critics have parsed it into which literary movements, but to me, the style is postmodern in the same way that the works of Donald Barthelme or some of Kurt Vonnegut's works are. In Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions, there's a moment where he writes himself, the author, into the book as he attempts to deal with the repercussions of his mother's suicide, and in Timequake, he seemed to not really want to write the novel, so he largely wrote about writing the novel. Russ' work here pre-dates those books by at least a decade. She writes herself into the novel, and out of it. Her character Joanna is both her and not her. The writing is elliptical and tangential, and seems less concerned with narrative than emotional clarity. And there are a lot of emotions the Russ is attempting to work through. So certainly, the style of the telling will be a barrier to some readers, as even contemporary experimental novels are. 

The closest we really get to a propulsive narrative happens in the last third of the novel after Jael gathers the other three Js together. This is also the most problematic section of the book. I'm not the right person to have a discussion about intersectionality, but I will say that as a contemporary reader, Russ' characterizations of the marginalized within Jael's gender segregated society made me feel icky. Given what I've already said about the style of the novel, it can be hard to pin down exactly what I think Russ was saying at the time of the writing about non-conforming individuals, but it didn't feel great. I had a bigger problem with those passages than I did with Jael extolling the virtues of killing all men.

I think that in the end, The Female Man is a profound time capsule of a moment in which feminism was undergoing a radical shift toward the mainstream, and as a book that asks more questions than it gives answers, it's still an important read. As a guy, reading this book provides both an analytical and empathetic framework for understanding not just other works by female authors in a broader context, but it also offers a window into moving through the world as a woman. Conversations that Russ presents from a party, or an evening out, I know I've heard before, but they are so cringe-inducing, I can only hope I've never been one of the participants.  

The stylistic experiments are probably less engrossing than they were when they were new, but they help anchor the book in an emotional now that still resonates, almost fifty years after the book was first written.


For its time: 5/5
Read today: 3.5/5.
Wollstonecraft Meter: 8.5/10

Published by Vance K — co-editor and cult film reviewer at nerds of a feather since 2012.