Living in an altered past that never saw the end of the Great Depression, Jeannine, a librarian, is waiting to be married. Joanna lives in a different version of reality- she's a 1970s feminist trying to succeed in a man's world. Janet is from Whileaway, a utopian earth where only women exist. And Jael is a warrior with steel teeth and catlike retractable claws, from an earth with separate-and warring-female and male societies. When these four women meet, the results are startling, outrageous, and subversive.
Russ uses the device of traveling between parallel worlds to present us with four simultaneous perspectives on womanhood. At one end of a particular spectrum is Jeannine, expected and expecting to marry and become a dutiful wife. At the other is Jael, an assassin from a world where women and men have been in open warfare for decades. Somewhere in between sits Joanna, a feminist from a world close to ours who has come to the realization that she cannot win a fight to have women separate-but-equal to men, she must adopt the "male" role and become the female man. Lastly, in a direction orthogonal to the others, sits Janet, from a future world where there are no men and no need to submit, fight or adapt.
The story is challenging to read. Much of it is told in the first person, with the narrator changing constantly and no direct indication of who is speaking at any moment. Even the third person scenes sometimes shift viewpoint in mid paragraph. It's confusing and it's also terribly effective. You find yourself losing the distinctions that placing a label (this here is Jael; that there is Joanna) on a particular viewpoint normally allows. You come to understand that Russ isn't just using the conjunction "or" in presenting the alternatives, she is also using "and". When we finally learn (extremely minor spoiler here) that the women are the DNA analogs of each other from their respective universes, it makes a certain sense as a single woman with myriad aspects, more complex than any of their individual societies envisioned.
And yet, for all that, something seems missing. I perceive the geometry more as a pentagon than a quadrilateral, with one corner left unfilled—there is no woman who is simply equal to a man without seeing herself as a man. Janet comes closest but she does so by finding men irrelevant, almost mythical, rather than engaging them as an equal. I'm not sure what to make of this. Is Russ saying (perhaps because of where she stood in 1975, but perhaps not) that this isn't a possible position? Or, is she leaving the book, itself, to occupy that fifth point: pointing out to the reader that, if woman is this complex, embracing roles habitually seen as male as well as those female, that perhaps there doesn't really need to be a divide and roles are just roles, not gender-specific distinctions?
One of the beauties of this book is that these kinds of questions are there to occupy the reader, should the inclination be present. And, that Russ takes her shots—at both men and women, though men do get the worst of it—without completely getting your back up is an indication of her wonderful humor and her ability to subvert you and make you care. It's good speculative fiction.
Four different women (or perhaps aspects of the same woman) are brought together by a multiversal event. They are Jeanine, Janet, Joanna and Jael. Their origin worlds are very different. Jeannine is from a world where the Great Depression never finished. She has a job and a bedsit and dreams of being married to a decent man -- except that there aren't any. Janet Evason is from Whileaway, a future state where there are no men. Whileaway is a utopia; Whileaway has no men, though the connection between the premises is weak. Joanna (also the author's name) is from a world closest to ours, a career woman in a "man's world". Jael is an assassin from a future world where the war between the sexes is an actual one.
There are no positive representations of men in this book (disclaimer, possibly required for reviewing this book: I am male). They are depicted as universally sleazy, stupid, charmless, controlling, vain, condescending or rapacious. Nevertheless, the presence or absence of men defines the worlds and worldviews of each of the protagonists. Men have long since vanished from Whileaway (originally due to a plague) and their absence is simply not missed. Janet Evason has only mild curiosity about men when she encounters them in the other dimensions. Whileawayean society and culture is described in detail: an underpopulated, technological, agrarian world. Its utopian vision had shades of Ursula LeGuin's 'The Dispossessed', but with less thought. Where was Whileawayean politics? Its police? Its dissidents? There are generalisations like 'Whileawayeans like big asses'. If the book had been simply about Whileaway I would have put it aside.
Joanna and Jeannine live in a world more like our own (or our own in the 1970s perhaps, since some progress *has* occurred in feminism since then). Jeannine just wants to get married, though her boyfriend is exploitative and doesn't seem to care about her. Joanna seemingly hates men, or hates having to deal with men or explain herself to men. In Joanna's case it may be more about self-hate too. Men are portrayed as the reason for bad female behaviour. There are imaginary dialogues in a nightclub and at a mothers' group which portray bitchy, exclusionary and negative female behaviour (notably absent from any Whileaway passages).
Jael is interesting. Her job -- and she gets quite a bit of job satisfaction too -- is murdering men in the constant hot and cold conflict which burns and freezes her world. Ironically she is heterosexual ('I love men's bodies, hate their minds') and keeps a pet man with the intelligence of a dog for that purpose.
This book is an angry salvo from the intolerant side of feminism, contemptuous and dismissive of men but with a measure of self-loathing too. Man-free Whileaway is depicted as a utopia with few drawbacks, but there was not enough exploration of its ideas to convice me of its plausibility. Try as it might, this book failed to convince me that the genders are better off without each other.
The sections set Whileaway, an all-female future utopia are perhaps the ones that are most worth rescuing. If only because they demonstrate, once again, how much our fantasies can tell us about ourselves. At once futuristic and decidedly agrarian, these sections describe a society that is fluid and protean, where physical and societal structures are constantly being unmade and remade. It presents a charmingly optimistic take on the coming computer revolution, and -- very productively, I think -- attempts to describe social relationships and personal qualities such as strength, aggression and resilience, might evolve in a world where our gender binaries no longer apply. I found myself wondering how much these sections of the book owed to situationism, whose critiques of planning and permanent structures had such influence on Paris '68 protests and, later, on punk rock In another section of the book, a teenage lesbian who's still struggling to accept her own sexuality attempts to navigate family life in the seventies, which may be of at least historical interest to readers. The other sections, which depict a world in which men are pitted against women in a bloody, long-term conflict and a portrait of a woman with pre-feminist ideals in contemporary New York have aged rather less well, particularly the latter. While it's certainly possible that many of the attitudes and social constraints that Jeannine, the protagonist that calls this setting home, are depicted realistically enough, the author somehow manages to condescend to her even more than the various men in her life do. This section of the book feels less like a story than a particularly brutal consciousness-raising session and is a particularly joyless read. "The Female Man" may have been a wake-up call for writers looking to create more explicitly political science fiction, but, forty years on, the book seems overwhelmed by its own contradictions and knocked too far out of balance by the very force of the emotions it contains. It's more recommendable as a fascinating document than as a novel. Not an easy or satisfying read.
An intriguing, witty, surprisingly fresh take on humanity. Highly recommended.
Although The Female Man is billed as a "classic of feminist science fiction," I hesitate to call it science fiction. It's barely even fiction. More accurately, it is a feminist stream-of-consciousness rant that employs speculative what-ifs to imagine worlds both better and worse than our own, specifically the positions of women in those worlds.
Russ herself is one of the four women, the "female man" who tries and fails to make herself into a man in order to succeed in what is presumably our world, at least our world of the 1970s, when this was published. Russ's anger is quite palpable throughout, although she tempers it somewhat with snarky humor. Several times, I found myself wondering whether we hadn't moved past all this male-female behavior that Russ is criticizing, but truthfully, you only have to read a few Internet comments to see it alive and kicking in the 21st century. In that sense, Russ's book is still needed and we are not yet free.
Those readers who come to The Female Man expecting a more straightforward narrative are bound to feel stymied by the lack of plot and the jumping around, without explanation, from one world to the next. Besides our own world, there is Jeannine's world, where the Great Depression has never ended and women are primarily preoccupied with catching husbands, and there is Janet's utopian world of Whileaway, where there are no men at all. I was feeling fairly adrift in all this until about three-quarters of the way through the book, when we meet Jael, a woman warrior in a world where men and women live separately and spend all their time literally at war with one another. This is probably the most cohesive section of the book, where Jael explains more or less what's going on and the plot, such as it is.
Forget it, this book is not concerned with plot. It's concerned with women, with what we endure and how things can possibly be different. Unfortunately, Russ does not seem able to imagine a world where men and women can live together with women not being subject to oppression. I hope she's wrong about that.
Read for female science fiction/fantasy month (June 2014).
The story, however... I found it incomprehensible, buried under the weight of the feminist concerns and issues raised. I would rather have read the story and the examination of the role of women separately, I think. For me, I came to this book expecting a classic of science fiction, and to be honest, it doesn't seem like there's much. It's a thought experiment, which can be done in literary fiction just as well (better?).
I'm a little uncomfortable with it being relegated to the class of science fiction, in a way, instead of being read as a classic in general. So often that's used as a way to minimise the importance of a work: oh, quaint old genre fiction, rather than oh, social commentary. Those of us in the genre know how powerful a tool it is when used to examine society (and if you don't, may I introduce you to the works of Ursula Le Guin?), but in academic circles... we're starting to see more work on genre fiction -- part of my MA was on Tolkien, and mainly on his fiction -- and there's been some good work on fantasy and SF, but it's not as if any of that is even approaching "the canon".
I almost feel like rereading this in an annotated version, or a Norton Critical Edition, would help me appreciate it more. But just on the merits of it as a story... no, I can't say it did much for me.
I bet that when I was 19 or 20 I would have absolutely been blown away. If you're young, open to creative writing, interested in feminist history, you'll probably like this. I'm too old and cranky to work this hard for the scraps of enlightenment I can get more pleasurably from other books.
If it hadn't been for the fact that I wanted to tick it off of a list I'm going through, I might not have finished it. It seemed bonkers, and the style certainly made it impossible for me to read it terribly closely and to make sure I understood who was who - quite frankly, I can't say there is any plot in there. But there are some brilliant explorations of different male / female interactions at varying degrees of unhealthiness which at the end make up for the difficulties - which I don't put it past Russ to have deliberately ...plotted.
On second thought: I'll give it a four star rating.
I agree with most of the author's complaints about how suffocatingly sexist the world can be. It's enough to drive a person crazy. Which is perhaps what she was trying to express all the times she stopped telling the story and spewed words randomly onto the page.
The transphobic tendencies towards the end didn't make much sense, especially for a book that spends so much time playing with gender...
The best writing is in the descriptions of Whileaway, and in the "our reality" interviews with Janet.
This is considered a classic by many and I really wanted to enjoy it. I expected it, like a lot of old sci-fi, to not be an easy read. I hoped it would challenge me the same way Steinem, hooks, Leckie, Hurley, LeGuin and others have challenged me.
I hated it.
The style this is written in makes it hard to read. The book has 4-5 POVs and it switches between them without warning or notice, making whatever plot there is difficult to follow. The Joanna character breaks the 4th wall frequently, and that makes her (probably on purpose) difficult to distinguish from the other 3 characters. Especially Jeanine. This is combined with an at times ranty stream-of consciousness and strange choices of similies (guilty like a box?).
The books is also, like a lot of 70s sci-fi, dated. I am not drinking from the same communal myth and meme pools as the author and that creates extra distance.
I think that someone more familiar with the time and context this was written, and more willing to spend time to analyze the book will enjoy this a lot more than I did. It's probably not a bad book, it just that this book and I are at very different stages in our respective lives.
I would definitely NOT recommend this book.
I remembered that long ago I had read a short story collection by Russ (Extra(ordinary) People) and really disliked it. I also read her novel ‘We who Are About To' and was seriously unimpressed. But I didn't think I'd read The Female Man, so I was willing to give it a go due to its classic status and all... Reading it, I realized that I had actually started reading it long ago - but I think I QUIT part way through, because only the beginning was familiar. That is so unusual for me - I hardly EVER quit reading a book. But it was so bad.
Seriously, stuff like this is why I don't call myself a feminist - I just don't want to be associated. It wasn't empowering, it was stereotyped and cliched, and DEPRESSING - not depressing because of women's place in the world, depressing because the author comes through as a sad, lonely, bitter, nasty person, full of resentment and hate for EVERYONE. I consider myself to be a strong, independent woman who at least tries to love life and embrace happiness – and, according to this type of woman, that's not feminist.
And on top of that, it wasn't even well-written. It's scattered, awkward, without any coherent plot. It's just badly thought-out – more like random thoughts and polemical jottings than an actual novel. (I guess one would call this a ‘postmodern' style, if one wanted to dignify it.)
There are four main characters (although one doesn't show up till most of the way through the book). They are from different worlds, and there's some vague mention of travelling between worlds, which I suppose is the justification for it being called sci-fi, but it's really more of a metaphorical device, so that the different ‘types' of women can interact.
Joanna - is obviously the author. In the book, she comes across as unhappy, and without much notable personality.
Jeannine - is a cliché of a weak woman oppressed by Man. She lives in a world where the Depression never ended, and is the worst stereotype of a librarian. (As a librarian, this offends me). She has a fiance that she's not attracted to, (she doesn't seem to like sex at all) but she feels the need to Be With A Man and Get Married due to personal loneliness and social pressure.
Jael - is from a future world where women are at war with men. She is the cliché of the woman who acts like a Man because she thinks that is what one needs to do to get ahead. She likes sex and has a cloned, nearly-brainless male sex toy.
Janet - comes from Whileaway, an all-female world (men died in a plague 900 years ago). This seems to be Russ' idea of a utopia – sort of. It's AWFUL! It's also kind of weird. The women of Whileaway are kinda stocky, have big butts, and wear pajamas all the time. (no makeup, of course!) They're really smart and technologically advanced. They live in group families, but travel separately all the time and don't form long-lasting intimate bonds, usually. They have sex, but it's a stress-free, unromantic kind of sex. (There is a funny scene describing a dildo when a young woman from ‘our' world finds one on Janet's bed – ok, that's the best part of the book). They work very few hours, but because they are intelligent and therefore not suited to work (?!) they think they work all the time. They're always changing jobs and being sent to different places, without any say-so. The death penalty is in effect for those who try to avoid these duties. There's no overarching government and no wars, but the society, which is the same planetwide, seems just as oppressive as any government, and fatal duels are frequent and accepted. Children live at ‘home' till 5, then are sent to crèches, then leave to begin independent life at 12. All these peoples' lives seem to be completely devoid of fun.
From this, I take away that: Joanna Russ probably likes big butts. ;-) (Oh, she also definitely likes smoking but doesn't like drinking) She has serious problems forming deep relationships with lovers or children (she really doesn't seem to UNDERSTAND intimate relationships at all), and she secretly(?) wishes for an incredibly homogenous, organized society where everyone has an exactly equal place, without any need to put effort into developing your own identity and having to create that place for yourself. Because life is hard, she's decided that the Reason is MEN. When she fails to find common ground with other women, she says that's because those women have been subverted by MEN and MALE-DOMINATED SOCIETY.
I disagree strongly. I don't think that, fundamentally, women are any different than men. I don't think that a woman-only society would be war-free or homogenous. Moreover, I don't WANT that homogenous kind of society on any level! I would rather go through the trauma of finding myself than have an identity basically handed to me. I don't think that the reason that people have problems in relationships or problems with loneliness is because we have two genders – I think it's inherent to humanity. People can have ALL KINDS of disagreements that have nothing to do with gender. All men are not the same. All women are not the same. Yes, life can sometimes be really hard. It can be lonely. But really, the problem isn't sexism. I'm not saying that sexism doesn't exist, or that it doesn't need to be addressed – but the real problems of sexism are not addressed here at all.
I guess a surprising part of this book to me was the hatred of other women. (I expected the man-hating.) But there is just so much vitriol here directed toward women. It's like Russ is so unhappy that she deeply resents any woman who seems happy with her life. She sees them as lying or brainwashed – as Jeannines or Jaels. She feels that individual success (or empowerment) and what society considers to be ‘femininity' are mutually incompatible. It's actually a bit enlightening, to see this perspective – but I just wanted to yell, "No! You're just WRONG! You don't understand PEOPLE!" at so many points during this book.
At one point in the book, Russ throws in a page or two of excerpts of criticism of her work. I had to laugh, because I totally agreed with about 70% of it - Part 7, Section III: "maunderings of antiquated feminism...this shapeless book...some truth buried in a largely hysterical...of very limited interest. I should ... another tract for the trash-can...burned her bra and thought that . . . no characterization, no plot...really important issues are neglected while...another shrill polemic which the...this pretense at a novel...trying to shock... the usual boring obligatory references to Lesbianism [and statutory rape no less!]... drivel." (I don't have the book on me, so I copied that from a web page – there were more accurate bits in that section, I thought, but you get the idea.)
Oh, the other funny thing is that in at least two places in the book she praises Kate Millett. I met Millett. She used to live on the Bowery, and she'd occasionally stop by CBGB Gallery. She came by one time during my club night, and started talking to me at the door. She seemed almost unwilling to believe that the night was 'mine,' (how could a woman be in charge?) and then started yelling (well, practically) at me because the music that was playing wasn't a woman. I tried telling her (which was true) that although the singer was male, the bass player in the band was a woman, but that didn't seem to count, somehow. She was just going on about how I should support women. (Oh, and she was definitely bona fide CRAZY).
I wanted to like this book, I really did. I have a special interest in sci-fi written by women, and I was vaguely surprised that I had never read any of Joanna Russ’s books before. So I was looking forward to reading it with pleasurable anticipation.
However, I was really disappointed, and gave up about half way through. (I won’t summarise the plot here, as that has been done exceedingly well in another review – so will move quickly on to my own personal responses to the book). For a start, I found the writing style exceedingly difficult to get on with; quite a lot of the time it’s hard to tell who is talking (or being narrated), but more importantly, there’s no clear connection between different parts. And so, because you can’t work out who is talking, or why they are saying/doing what they are, you can’t get to know and understand the characters. What’s more, there’s nothing even remotely resembling a plot (not that I found, anyway)!
Yes, it’s true that there are sections of dialogue which are witty and satirical – it was these that kept me reading as far as I did get. And yes, I suppose it is ideologically interesting, but there’s far too much pontificating about male behaviour – or at least the author’s idea of it, which I thought was overly stereotyped (yes, I know she is making a point, but I think she is too heavy handed about it).
All in all, I found this book to be bewildering and uncoordinated. For me it didn’t work either as science fiction, or as “women’s literature”.