A Quill Pen

The Female Man

by Joanna Russ

April 2005 book review (3 of 3)
by Collie Collier

Self-reflection and awareness is critical to maintaining a healthy self, I believe, and taking the time to critique oneself is part of that awareness. So too, I feel, is social criticism essential to maintaining a healthy society. If we refuse to question ourselves or our society, to address contentious issues, we will find ourselves woefully unprepared for the random exigencies of life.

That being said, I feel there is criticism, and there is criticism. A constant diet of wailing and breast-beating may assuage guilty consciences, but it does nothing to address whatever issue is causing the guilt. Good criticism contains a possible solution for the problems it discerns -- not just a list of faults.

This is the major problem I have with most radical feminist writing. I already know there are problems with the society we live in. Yes, the author may describe the problems in a particularly clear or evocative manner, but so what? Tell me how we can fix it! That's far more important, at least to me, than the author's literary wit. At worst, if the author has no idea on how to fix things, I want them to say so -- don't just suggest we need to eliminate half the human race!

All the females

But enough wailing on my part -- this review is supposed to give you some idea of what the book is about. Russ' The Female Man is a rambling, almost stream-of-consciousness sort of story. It is science fictional in that it contains cross-time and -dimensional travel, both in and out of body. No attempt to explain the how of this travel is ever made -- the whole literary point is simply to put four culturally divergent but genetically similar women together for a societal comparison/contrast study. In a nutshell, it is the account of a modern-day woman dealing with the incursion of three other-dimensional variants of herself.

The four women are temporally located as follows: Jeannine is from "now," in a dimension where we never recovered from the Depression. Thus the only socially acceptable roles for women are wife, teacher, or nurse. Joanna is also from the "now," but her home dimension is this one -- our world. Jael is from slightly in the future, in a world where men and women are locked in constant, bloody conflict. Finally there is Janet, from a far future world where there are no men whatsoever, due to a plague.

There isn't really a story in the classic sense of the word. We wander confusingly, almost randomly, from one point of view to the next: now observing Janet in the third person, now eavesdropping on Jeannine's splitting personality, next obsessing in the first person with Joanna.

It is a sad testament to the lack of any real plot that the author spends several paragraphs babbling about how her book will doubtless be trashed and belittled by the establishment. Sadly, I feel little remorse in adding my criticisms to that postulating paragraph. Quite frankly, while I didn't use the patronizing, male-sounding tone she writes into the text, I still don't feel it was that good a book.

Furthermore, I'm not going to have my mind changed on that account simply because the author already knows some of the criticisms likely to be leveled against her writing. I don't respond well to projected martyrdom or attempts to "guilt" me into some particular action -- or lack thereof.

The symbolism of names

The most dramatic member of this peculiar quartet of dimensional-variants-on-a-single-genetic-theme is the assassin Jael, code-named "Sweet Alice." She is from a world where the men and women are at intermittent, bloody war with each other. The men's society is portrayed as the worst of brainlessly insecure chauvinism, surgically altering anyone not "man" enough into the female-looking sexual toys of those males strong enough to brutalize anyone weaker than they.

Unfortunately the women's society (which is supposedly better) has some elements I find equally repugnant. As a single example, Jael owns a pretty male sex toy which was created out of chimpanzee genetics, wired into her house computer, and made incapable of rational thought. How is that any better than creating a pretty female sex toy out of male human stock? At least the female-looking sex toys created by the men can think for themselves. Slaves are capable of revolt -- vibrators are not.

Historically, Jael was a Hebrew woman who slew Sisera, an enemy Canaanite general, by driving a tent peg through his head while he lay trustingly asleep in her tent. Sweet Alice is another name for the flower Alyssum, but I believe we can more fruitfully search for relevance to this story in the movie Alice, Sweet Alice. Best known today as Brooke Shields' first movie, it is a horror flick with an innocent seeming 12 year old girl as the slasher/murderer. Also obvious in the movie is quite a bit of brooding, bloody Catholic iconography.

Thus we are not surprised to see the assassin Jael slash up the male enemy general with her technologically enhanced fingernails, after he attempts to rape her due to his mistaken belief she "wants it." It is a grotesquely stereotypical scene, each participant gleefully egging the other on into their bloody, terminal conclusion.

I say stereotypical because the man is presented as the worst type of brainless, egotistical jock, and the woman as the absolutely justified sexual temptress/murderer. I do not care for thoughtless stereotypes any more than I care for moralistic nonsense expressed through staging and script immunity. I've talked to few jocks, but I know of at least one gentle, kind, thoughtful man who is also very physical. Furthermore, anyone who feels men have the market cornered on obsessive megalomania as expressed through physical competition -- has obviously not talked to enough women athletes!

The character who gets the most 'screen time' is Janet, the woman from the all-woman society. She is the most developed character in the book, with a plain, straightforward name meaning simply "God is gracious." Sturdily pragmatic, she is the most emotionally balanced of the entire group -- the rational and logical cop, the clear-eyed puncturer of our culture's male egos. She often expresses my views when she repeatedly and exasperatedly asks Joanna why Joanna does what she does if she hates it so.

Janet is apparently from the far future (as opposed to the near future of Jael's world), and her society is a paragon of personal freedom and beneficial genetic management. At Jael's assertion that the man-warring dimension is the temporal bridge between modern-day and the manless dimension's future freedom, Janet calmly refuses to believe such virulence and hate could have produced her world.

In an effort to balance the sheer starry-eyed wonderfulness of Janet's society as compared to ours, she's apparently been sent here simply because she's expendable and the leaders of her society are curious. Janet herself doesn't seem to have any real agenda except to present a slightly bemused foil to the inanities Joanna sees in our modern day world. I found it terribly sad the author apparently felt female freedom and emotional balance was achievable only in a world with no men whatsoever.

One of the women is, unsurprisingly, from a more misogynist society than ours. Jeannine is like her name -- a diminutive variant on the original Janet. She is a timid, repressed, frustrated woman who has bewilderedly bought into her society's belief that the only societal role for nice women is 'wife.' She is, of course, smarter than her potential fiancée and struggling with well-meaning, soul-destroying pressure from her surrounding friends and family.

Jeannine wafts palely about through the story accomplishing nothing, behaving much like a ghost even in the scenes where she's the central character. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she gets the least screen time, and with good reason -- she's shallow and boring, and you wonder why she doesn't just kill herself if she's in this much internal angst and despair, yet still refusing to do anything about it. She is the heavy-handedest rendition of feminist fears I've seen in a while.

Jeannine may be how the French refer to their beloved and inspired Joan of Arc, but the voices this Jeannine hears cannot motivate even a shred of self-determination in her. In the end her only rebellion towards her own passively accepted social slavery is nothing more than to let Jael's world establish outposts for their man-hating army in her misogynistic dimension. This, the condemning of her world to a horrific and soul-destroying war, is apparently viewed as strength by the author.

Our main speaker/protagonist is the modern-day woman who, unstartlingly, bears the same name as the author: Joanna. She appears, in her own way, as much a helpless captive of societal gender roles as Jeannine is. Like Jeannine, she is a bit difficult to keep track of in the story, being occasionally embodied, sometimes a cautioning-but-mostly-ignored Jiminy Cricket voice to Janet, and occasionally just a ghostly pair of watching eyes.

Also like Jeannine, in her ghostly wanderings she makes no impression on the world, even during the time she claims to be a man. I wasn't really sure why she claimed this, to be honest. She did nothing decisive, strong, or authoritative, and conversely she also didn't try to force herself sexually on uninterested or unwilling women -- attributes she seems to imply all men have. Instead she simply marvels bemusedly at them, apparently as incapable of decisive action as Jeannine.

Joanna means "to ascend, like a mountain goat." Unfortunately I could see no ascension towards understanding on her part -- merely a slow-dawning awareness of how nonsensical some of her culture's social taboos were. She provides some of the most acerbic commentary about misogyny in our world, but after a while you find yourself wondering why she continues to follow these social dictums if she so clearly realizes they are counterproductive and self-damaging.

Ultimately Joanna makes no effort to try to fix or fight the situation; she just gripes about it. Finally, after much indecisive blathering from her, we receive closure from Jael -- and what a coldly vicious closure it is. Not content with making their own dimension a blasted, dying battlefield (I couldn't quite justify calling it a no-man's-land), Jael's leaders have her ask the other three women for permission to establish secret cross-dimensional outposts on the other three dimensions as well, from which to wage war on men.

After the characters have all made their choices and said their goodbyes, they leave, and the author segues into some rather maudlin ramblings about the impact her book should have. She concludes with a long-winded, rather saccharine wish for a time when this story will be regarded as outdated and irrelevant, rejoicing with self-congratulatory anthropomorphism to her "little book" about how then "we" will be free.

Time traveling to today

Overall I did not enjoy this story. For all the fascinatingly different cultures and ideas all the women were exposed to, none of them seemed capable of personal change. If this is all Russ believes we have to look forward to, why even bother? Furthermore, I have to refuse her beliefs about men and women -- I know there are kind and thoughtful men, just as I know there are stupid, vain, thoughtlessly rude women.

The very idea that the only way to female freedom and salvation is through a society free of men is (at least to me) merely a feminist mirror image of patriarchal condescension of women. Neither is healthy, and I must question the conclusions of those who believe one of these two attitudes is the only correct answer to this contentious issue.

I do not intend to belittle these issues, of course. Yes, I know there are far too many men who tragically believe they are the center of the universe, and who believe women are there purely as their potential sex toys. I also know there are many women who have, equally tragically, bought into this gender-based nonsense, turning their lives into shallow and flirtatious ads for passing boyfriends.

This does not automatically equate to needing to eliminate all the men, though! Far more logical, I think, to simply not deal with people who are so pathetically shallow and insecure.

It's easy to say my suggestion is unrealistic, but there are those who said slave emancipation was unrealistic also. As everyone "knew" at that time, slavery was essential to the nation's economy, and was an institution created and blessed by god itself. They were wrong, and that's the whole point -- doing what is truly right is not always easy, and is usually not popular -- but it is still right.

Killing all the men, or enslaving all the women, is not right. Putting up with any institution or law which belittles the dignity of the human spirit is wrong. Unfortunately, Russ' book offers us nothing startling or revelatory to fix the tragic issue of social inequalities -- she simply trots out the tired old unpleasantry of getting rid of the conquerors in order to become a conqueror oneself. Personally, I think as a species we're smarter and more innovative than that, and I've no desire to fall for such a simplistic, even (dare I say it) patriarchal solution to this complex and difficult issue.

To be fair, I come from a different generation than the one this book reveals. It was written in 1975, and Russ' ideas were supposedly quite revolutionary for that time. From what I've been able to dig up about that era, awareness of the imbalanced female/male social power relationship was far less then than it is today. Male behavior which now is looked at with derision and amused scorn would then (or so I've been informed) apparently have been considered normal -- "just boys."

If that's truly the case, I'm very pleased the book did some good and had an impact -- I've been told it made a huge stir then. However, I think it's time to move past the limiting pre-suppositions of this book -- that the only good society for women is one free of men.

Let us not forget what it has to teach us about the "bad old days," definitely... but let us move decisively forward into the potential for female freedom, equality, and emotional stability -- in a world where men also can be free, equal, and emotionally stable. Until everyone is free, everyone is at some level still a slave.

Reader Comments

09.16.04: George's thoughts

(and my replies)

Interestingly, both of these books, written for the feminist market, reminded me of a concept often used in writing fiction for the young adult (YA) market.

In many YA books, adults must be either clueless as to the real conflict of the story, incapable of effectively engaging in the conflict, or absent all together.

These story structures are used to keep the YA protagonists at the center of the story. Adults historically have power and authority and are symbols of power and authority. If the stakes in the conflict are sufficient to hold the reader's interest, then the author has to construct the story such that the authoritative and powerful people (the adults) don't take over.

So, in YA fiction the adults don't know about the secret conflict that the kids engage in. Or the adult that knows about the conflict is crippled or doesn't have the special abilities that the kids have. Or the kids are isolated from adults and have to solve the conflict themselves.

In the feminist books that you talk about, these authors seem to have done to men what YA authors do to adults. Because men have historically been symbols of power and authority, they have been rendered clueless, incapable, or mostly eliminated from the stories.

Generally, I find these solutions unsatisfying in YA and feminist fiction. I would rather build up the importance and capabilities of the protagonist(s) rather than tear down the rest of the world.

You know, that's it precisely, George. I've been turning this issue over and over in my head, trying to put my finger on exactly why these two books (The Female Man and Les Guérillères) were so unsatisfying, and I think that's it -- if men, the 'historic enemy,' are so pitiful, then what does that say about women's ability to free themselves? And if the whole issue is equivalent to nothing more than taking candy from a baby, then what glory in so easy a conquest?

I want an enemy worth fighting, not whiny sex-crazed milksops. If I lose, then by god people will know I fought my hardest, and it was a damn amazing enemy that defeated me. And if I win, then yay me -- I must be quite something to have beaten such a vindictive and pervasive enemy!

And of course, there's always that quiet, nagging thought in the back of my head -- aren't simplistic binary thought patterns what women are accusing men of? And if so... why are women casting this dialogue in those terms? As the button said:

Women are from Earth. Men are from Earth. Cope!