Joanna Russ’ The Female Man (1975) wants very badly to be a hysterical novel. Hysterical in the feminist psycho-analytic sense: containing voices fourfold, sometimes contradictory, the result of a woman’s straining against the boundaries of a male-established and dominated symbolic order: (science) fiction in this case.
Jeannine is the closest to a hysterical woman we find in the novel—she makes rash, seemingly irrational decisions, overwhelmed by the many constraints and injustices inflicted upon a young woman like herself by the alternate-reality American society where the sexual revolution never happened.
The main hysteric, however, is supposed to be the novel ‘s authorial voice itself, the 4th J, the perspective that joins together in fiction the lives of the novel’s protagonists. All women, all variations, a personality refracted in four shades, as stipulated by the book’s ‘many worlds’ premise.
These four voices display a richness of feminine analysis and emotion: sharp criticism of mid-20th century sexism, a liberated vision of a future where there are only women who live, if not in perfect harmony, at least according to their own values; the world of Whileaway is one of pastoral, futuro–agricultural down-to-earth happiness, spirit of adventure, and lesbian free love.
And there is rage, too. Effective and powerful when dealing with sexism in society, more difficult to judge when the book turns meta.
At times Russ herself, through the novel’s ‘authorial’ voice, rages against particular expectations vis-a-vis fiction: coherence, overview, logic, eloquence. The Female Man does not play by those rules. It purports to be a hysterical novel.
By pointing this out explicitly, Russ overplays her hand. The litanies of criticism that the book levels at itself and its author at one point are an ineffective device. Yes, books don’t have to follow stodgy conventions of linearity and coherence, and indeed, anyone criticising The Female Man for these reasons would be missing the point. At the same time, novels by both men and women had been transgressing such conventions for decades by the time Russ came on the scene… invalid criticism is not necessarily an argument for a book’s worth.
I’m working with the assumption that the criticisms above are real and quoted, and not imagined. If it is the latter, Russ’ shot would be even further from its mark.
The more sexist criticisms are understandably frustrating for an author, but here too the same applies: being the target of malicious and bigoted criticism is a mark neither of virtue, nor of artistic worth. And, after having read The Female Man, I’m afraid that some of the criticisms ring truer than Russ would have liked.
Despite her protests to the contrary, I think we are justified in asking whether the hysterical mode is in fact the best one for presenting Russ’ ideas on the possible pasts, presents and futures of women.
The self-referential criticism becomes particularly grating when it comes to the description of the dubious relationship between Janet and Laura Rose. Dubious because Laura is a teen, and Janet an adult woman. Dubious because Janet takes the relationship into sexual territory without the authorial voice’s consent, the same authorial voice who subsequently has no qualms with describing this “wrong” sexual relationship—and here I quote:
Then she put her hand on Janet’s knee, a hot moist hand with its square fingers and stubby nails, a hand of tremendous youthful presence, and said something else, still inaudible.
Leave! (I told my compatriot)
First of all, it’s wrong.
Second of all, it’s wrong.
Third of all, it’s wrong.[…]
Janet pulled her up on to her lap – Janet’s lap – as if she had been a baby; everyone knows that if you start them young they’ll be perverted forever and everyone knows that nothing in the world is worse than making love to someone a generation younger than yourself. Poor Laura, defeated by both of us, her back bent, glazed and stupefied under the weight of a double taboo.
Don’t exploit. That little girl’s sinister wisdom.
Janet proceeds to ‘shake off’ the author’s protestations and she and Laura have sex in the next subchapter.
I suppose Russ wants us to read this as a taboo-breaking depiction of what happens when two women who are interested in each other take the freedom to explore that interest in whatever way they want. Which would have been fine if one of the women had not been 17.
As it stands, the whole bit is as exploitative as can be: an author’s self-insert inducting a deliciously alluring (intelligent, wears a biker jacket, reads a lot) young girl into the ways of sapphic love.
And yes, men get away with writing such dubious fantasies all the fucking time. So Russ decides she gets to do that too, while simultaneously decrying how problematic said relationship is, according to her own standards, or at least those of society. Russ really does want to have her cake and eat it too.
The whole move is disingenuous to say the least. Is this double voice, this tornness between desire and taboo, Russ’ way of being hysterical?
The novel’s hysteria also takes us into unwelcome places when it comes to men. The Female Man is about as little concerned with men’s feelings or actual lived realities and thoughts as men tend to be in their novels with women’s emotional and intellectual lives. In a way, we could construe this as Russ again merely taking up the same space that male authors do. That’s fair, but also more than a little unambitious. Russ’s approach can be juxtaposed with Ursula K. Le Guin’s more conciliatory approach to tackling sexism and gender in her fiction (Liptak 2014). In the end it is only Le Guin’s approach that I am truly able to embrace.
As Stephen B writes: “Russ was not aiming for that universality – she was all about binary. Her message wasn’t that gender expectations shouldn’t be forced onto individuals, it was that women are oppressed by men. Right now.” As a trans woman, the binary approach is very apparent, and it hurts.
It is at its most painful in Russ’ descriptions of the alternative future that is split into Manland and Womanland. The “real-men” of Manland are machismo embodied, who import children from Womanland. The weaker, more feminine ones they surgically alter into the “changed” and “half-changed”, the latter of whom “keep their genitalia”. They are used for sexual pleasure and unmanly labour. In some twisted way, these are the novel’s idea of trans women, in other words, although Russ never even graces these non-characters with the appelation “woman”.
This idea itself is already arguably transphobic, since she never ever entertains the the possibility of anyone actually choosing to undergo gender transition. The only one of these forced trans people to even get a voice is ‘Anna’, a half-changed, who is introduced as follows:
[…] such a vision was he, so much he wore, such folds and frills and ribbons and buttons and feathers, trimmed like a Christmas tree. Like Garbo playing Anna Karenina, decorated all over. His green eyes shrewdly narrowed. This one has intelligence. Or is it only the weight of his false lashes? The burden of having always to be taken, of having to swoon, to fall, to endure, to suffer, to wait, to only be? (p. 165)
More than anything else, such a description is indicative of a revenge fantasy where certain ‘men’ ‘finally’ have to endure what all women have to. Surprise, Russ, you didn’t have to fantasise about that! Trans people could have told you as much.
She even goes to far as to have ‘Anna’ correct one of the protagonists when she refers to ‘him’ as ‘her’:
Anna, with a mechanical shiver of desire, says that we must go with him.
‘Her?’ says Jeannine, confused.
‘Him!’ says Anna in a strained contralto. The half-changed are very punctilious — sometimes about the changeds’ superiority and sometimes about their own genitals. Either way it works out to Him. (p. 165)
Let there be no doubt that whatever one of the protagonists (or the reader?) might think, these are MEN.
Writing this, re-reading and copying down these bits, is painful. Plain and simple. And not the constructive kind of pain, the kind you that accompanies growth. No, it’s the unnecessary, vicious kind inflicted by cruel people.
Moving to the other end of science fiction, from Jael’s dystopian Manland/Womanland to Janet’s Whileaway, we suddenly find that trans people, tellingly, are nowhere to be found. There is apparently no place in Russ’ utopian vision for trans people. The women there are free to be as manly as they want, but they are always women.
In other words, depending on the fantasy, trans people are either reduced to sad victims of perverted male obsessions, or they are erased entirely.
Hysteria, apart from its convoluted history, can be seen as a mode of being/behaving, psycho–artistic in the sense that the hysteric, crushed by external pressures, seeks release in whatever direction it can find, resulting in a person displaying manifold, seemingly contradictory behaviours (see Bronfen 1998 for an extensive pyscho-analysis of cultural and medical hysteria).
In this context, it is disappointing that the perspectives Russ presents are so limited. For a book that is so heavily about gender, the unsubtle way Russ has her characters talk about people outside of the gender binary is inexcusable. The depiction of trans people we’ve already covered, and intersex people aren’t mentioned at all. The same goes by and large for the intersection of feminism with race. A few n-words are dropped in the novel as a severely problematic handwave to indicate that society X is not only sexist, but also racist. But no rich insights into the matter are to be found.
The Female Man, then, wants to be hysterical. But, being a novel, and not a directly experienced monologue by a performing author, it has passed through stages of design, revision, editing. By design, then, and not spontaneously, it flails about in its confusion, hurting not just itself but the reader as well. The result is deeply flawed. It’s a novel that offers a few scathing criticisms, but is marred by its dogged refusal to extend a hand to the Other and treat them as kin, in the Harawayan sense of the word (Haraway 2016). In this case, the other is anyone who is not a cis white lesbian.
- Stephen B. 10 May 2011. “Joanna Russ 1937-2011”. Bad Reputation. https://badreputation.org.uk/2011/05/10/joanna-russ-1937-2011/
- Bronfen, Elisabeth. 1998. The Knotted Subject. Hysteria and its Discontents.
- Haraway, Donna. 2016. Staying with the Trouble. Making kin in the Chthulucene.
- Andrew Liptak. 20 November 2014. “The Radical Joanna Russ”. Kirkus Reviews. https://www.kirkusreviews.com/features/radical-joanna-russ/
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