Gender & SexualityLiterature & NarrativePoetry & ProsePolitics

The Pseudo-Hysterical Female Man

This essay first appeared in print in the second issue of Ex Abyssō.

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, Janet.

Don’t, Janet.

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.


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