‘The Female Man’ by Joanna Russ

I had never heard of Joanna Russ until I picked up this book in the library. Here’s some info extracted from her Wikipedia entry (I have edited a bit):

Joanna Russ (February 22, 1937 – April 29, 2011) was an American writer, academic and feminist. She came to be noticed in the science fiction world in the late 1960s. At the time, SF was a field dominated by male authors, writing for a predominantly male audience, but women were starting to enter the field in larger numbers. Russ, an out lesbian, was one of the most outspoken authors to challenge male dominance of the field, and is generally regarded as one of the leading feminist science fiction scholars and writers. She is best known for The Female Man, a novel combining utopian fiction and satire.

She sounds cool, she sounds influential - perhaps even ‘important’. So why have I not heard of her? I don’t know - maybe I’m ignorant, or maybe it has something to do with her being female, angry, and brilliant. Oh, and gay. Some people don’t like that sort of combination.

Again, from Wikipedia:

Russ's writing is characterized by anger interspersed with humor and irony. James Tiptree, Jr, in a letter to her, wrote, "Do you imagine that anyone with half a functional neuron can read your work and not have his fingers smoked by the bitter, multi-layered anger in it? It smells and smoulders like a volcano buried so long and deadly it is just beginning to wonder if it can explode." In a letter to Susan Koppelman, Russ asks of a young feminist critic "where is her anger?" and adds "I think from now on, I will not trust anyone who isn't angry."

(To my surprise, I discovered that James Tiptree, Jr was a pen name of a female SF writer named Alice Bradley Sheldon, who tricked innocent SF fans into reading her books by pretending to be a man. No! Naughty Alice! Bad girl! No!)

Back to the book. It’s angry, alright. It’s bitter. And there’s lots of comedy. But what about the plot?

Err, well. If you read the introductory essay or the blurb on the back of the book, you would learn that in The Female Man, Russ is exploring the concept of the ‘multiple universes’ interpretation of quantum mechanics, in which (basically) the idea is that whenever an event can happen in more than one way, the universe splits to cover all possibilities. For example: in one universe Jeannine caught the bus; in another she missed the bus; in another Jeannine rode a bike, in another she stayed at home, etc etc. (Sliding Doors also explores this concept, sort of.)

In The Female Man, multiple versions of ‘Jeannine’ are brought together; they meet and discuss the differences between their various Universes (which are far more different than the trivial examples I just gave); The various ‘Jeannines’ (of whom Jeannine herself is the only one named ‘Jeannine’) learn about each other and themselves. They come to realise that they are all (in some sense) alternative versions of the same individual human being. In the end they find out who brought them together and why and blah blah blah.

It’s a pretty crazy concept for a story, but it kind of makes sense - like Sliding Doors, right? Like a science fiction remake! Cool, man.

But no - the Female Man is not like that at all. The story, as described, gives a thoroughly misleading impression of what the book is really about. Technically yes, the plot is exactly what we are told it is. It’s just that the plot is entirely irrelevant except that it serves as a framework on which to hang a two hundred page schizo-feminist rant.

When I say ‘schizo-feminist’ I am not referring to a flavour of feminism, nor am I trying to denigrate the rant. I mean that the rant is split into multiple perspectives (those of the various ‘Jeannines’) so that as a whole it does not attempt to make a coherent ‘argument’ or express a single coherent ‘viewpoint’. The rant shifts between the various perspectives, and it’s not always clear which version of ’Jeannine’ is currently speaking.

To put it another way: The Female Man is written from multiple first person viewpoints. The various viewpoints are not clearly delineated, and in any case the different viewpoint characters are all, in a sense, the same person (‘Jeannine’ as she exists in various parallel universes.)

If that makes sense to you, then I’ve probably explained it far more clearly than is really justified by the text. None of this stuff is spelled out - the fact is that the only way to figure out what the fuck is going on is by reading the book. Other readers may well interpret things differently - and I think that’s kind of the point.

On top of that it’s not always clear if the various ‘Jeannines’ are really all physically present; sometimes it makes sense to think of them as a group of several people; other times it makes more sense to think of the personalities as all inhabiting a single individual at the same time. Sometimes it’s not clear what makes most sense.

In short, this is a very weird book.

And it’s brilliant. It’s one of the greatest things I’ve ever read. It is astonishingly good.

The rant is beautiful:

I fell in love at twenty-two. A dreadful intrusion, a sickness. Vittoria, who I did not even know. The trees, the bushes, the sky, were all sick with love. The worst thing (said Janet) is the intense familiarity, the sleepwalker's conviction of having blundered into an eruption of one's own inner life, the yellow-pollinating evergreen brushed and sticky with my own good humour, the flakes of myself falling invisibly from the sky to melt on my own face.

The rant is cynical:

(Amicissa dreams: perhaps he won’t have the insatiable vanity, the uneasy aggressiveness, the quickness to resent any slight or fancied neglect. Perhaps he won’t want to be top dog all the time. And he won’t have a fiancee, And he won’t be married. And he won’t be gay. And he won’t have children. And he won’t be sixty.)

The rant is hilarious. My favourite line:

I guess Anna’s boss just wanted to see the alien poontang.

The rant is angry:

‘Let go, —‘, said Janet (some Russian word I didn’t catch).
‘Ha ha, make me,’ said the host, squeezing her wrist and puckering up his lips; ‘Make me, make me,’ and he swung his hips from side to side suggestively.
No, no, keep on being ladylike!
‘Is this human courting?’ shouted Janet. ‘Is this friendship? Is this politeness?’ She had an extraordinarily loud voice. He laughed and shook her wrist.
’Savages!’ she shouted. A hush had fallen on the party. The host leafed dextrously through his little book of rejoinders but did not come up with anything. Then he looked up ‘savage’ only to find it marked with an affirmative: ‘Masculine, brute, virile, powerful, good.’ So he smiled broadly. He put the book away.
‘Right on, sister,’ he said.
So she dumped him. It happened in a blur of speed and there he was on the carpet. He was flipping furiously through the pages of the book; what else is there to do in such circumstances? (It was a little limp-leather - excuse me - volume bound in blue, which I think they give out in high schools. On the cover was written in gold WHAT TO DO IN EVERY SITUATION.)
‘Bitch!’ (flip flip flip) ‘Prude!’ (flip flip) ‘Ball-breaker!’ (flip flip flip flip) ‘Goddamn cancerous castrator!’ (flip) ‘Thinks hers is gold!’ (flip flip) ’You didn’t have to do that!’
Was ist? said Janet in German.
He gave her to understand that she was going to die of cancer of the womb.
She laughed.
He gave her to understand further that she was taking unfair advantage of his good manners.
She roared.
He pursued the subject and told her that if he were not a gentleman he would ram her stinking, shitty teeth up her stinking shitty ass.
She shrugged.
He told her she was so ball-breaking, shitty, stone, scumbag, mother-fucking, plug-ugly that no normal male could keep up an erection within half a mile of her.
She looked puzzled. (‘Joanna, these are insults, yes?’)
He got up. I think he was recovering his cool. He did not seem nearly so drunk as he had been. He shrugged his sports jacket back into position and brushed himself off. He said she had acted like a virgin, not knowing what to do when a guy made a pass, just like a Goddamned scared little baby virgin.
Most of us would have been content to leave it at that, eh, ladies?
Janet slapped him.

The Female Man was published in 1975 . Nearly forty years have passed, and it would be nice to pretend that times have changed. Well, they haven’t changed enough. Because the rant remains relevant.

It’s not always comfortable reading - male readers, in particular, may find it hard to enjoy the rant in it’s entirety. But it is a wonderful, brilliant, epic rant. I cannot praise the rant highly enough.

And the story? Well… never mind that - it’s beside the point. The plot does come together, and it does make sense, in a way. But it’s best not to worry about the plot. Just sit back and enjoy the ride.

It’s wonderful.