“Long before I became a feminist in any explicit way, I had turned from writing love stories about women in which women were losers, and adventure stories about men in which the men were winners, to writing adventure stories about a woman in which the woman won. It was one of the hardest things I ever did in my life.”
The most glorious achievements of sci-fi’s Deviant Age were about breaking boundaries, in many cases those that were so deeply entrenched that readers might not have even known they existed. That is, after all, what the future does — gets rid of nearly everything we thought timeless or immortal.
No one has done that better than Joanna Russ, especially in the brilliant short story When it Changed (read the whole story here) and the follow-up (even more brilliant) novel The Female Man. They are the opening salvo and an outright blitzkrieg, respectively, against everything you thought you ever knew about gender. It’s been mentioned here before how gender is a loaded word. Loaded like a fucking ammo dump, and Russ came to set the whole gunpowder-packed mess ablaze.
Both works hinge around the future, all-female society of Whileaway. Both are in my pantheon of favorites. But fair warning, dear reader: for all the talk about transgressive literature, there are still few works that really, truly shake you up. Both When it Changed and The Female Man made me deeply, viscerally uncomfortable the first times I read them.
I’ve since gone back to both multiple times, and they remain some of the most wrenching, beautiful and utterly human writing I’ve ever seen.
This is the underside of my world.
Of course you don’t want me to be stupid, bless you! you only want to make sure you’re intelligent. You don’t want me to commit suicide; you only want me to be gratefully aware of my dependency. You don’t want me to despise myself; you only want the flattering deference to you that you consider a spontaneous tribute to your natural qualities. You don’t want me to lose my soul; you only want what everybody wants, things to go your way; you want a devoted helpmeet, a self-sacrificing mother, a hot chick, a darling daughter, women to look at, women to laugh at, women to come for comfort, women to wash your floors and buy your groceries and cook your food and keep your children out of your hair, to work when you need the money and stay home when you don’t, women to be enemies when you want a good fight, women who are sexy when you want a good lay, women who don’t complain, women who don’t nag or push, women who don’t hate you really, women who know their job and above all—women who lose. On top of it all, you sincerely require me to be happy; you are naively puzzled that I should be wretched and so full of venom in this the best of all possible worlds. Whatever can be the matter with me? But the mode is more than a little outworn.
As my mother once said: the boys throw stones at the frogs in jest.
But the frogs die in earnest.
-from The Female Man
Looking at the covers above, I think it’s safe to say that some of the publishers missed the fucking point, don’t you?
Story goes like this: On Whileaway, all the men died. A long, long time ago. Humanity went on. Janet, her wife Katy and their daughter Yuki go to meet a delegation of Earth-men, “heavy as draft horses.” These “apes with human faces” who have come to their far-flung planet. This is When it Changed.
The astronauts are your typical post-apocalyptic man-explorer: blithely chauvinistic and hellbent on Earth re-establishing its dominance contact with far-flung colonies (“We can use Whileaway’s genes, Janet.” Strangers do not call strangers by the first name. “You can have cells enough to drown in,” I said. “Breed your own.”)
She is happy. Whileawayans have built their own thriving society, with their own social experiments Upon meeting these emissaries, she’s left with ominous premonitions:
Katy was right, of course: we should have burned them down where they stood. Men are coming to Whileaway. When one culture has the big guns and the other has none, there is a certain predictability to the outcome. Maybe men would have eventually come in any case. I like to think that a hundred years from now my great-grandchildren could have stood them off or fought them to a standstill, but even that’s no odds;
Story goes like this: once upon a times there were four women. There was Janet Evason, a capable, strong “S & P” officer (cop) from Whileaway. She is sent galloping into alternate universes, where she meets Jeannine, a mousy librarian from a world where the Depression never ended and Joanna, a 1970s feminist from (basically) our world.
Lastly, lurking over them all like a tiger’s shadow, is Jael, “Alice Reasoner,” On her world the men and women have broken into separate societies, each slowly circling the other, readying for the final kill. She has metallic teeth and claws, and has used them on many occasions. She swears to go out fighting, strangling her enemies with her own entrails.
The four are all the same woman.
The Female Man is both a deeply personal work and too terrifyingly big for that label to ever do it justice.
Russ herself is many things — a visionary intellectual, an incredible writer a legendarily fiery critic (“It is one of the worst books I have ever read and very enjoyable, but then I did not have to pay for it.”), an unrepentant sci-fi fan (while having done much to take apart its old assumptions), feminist crusader and one of the first major female and openly lesbian sci-fi scribe to hit major success. She’s a figure so fascinatingly complex that it requires an armada of other geniuses to analyze the different facets of her and her work (On Joanna Russ comes out Mar. 2. You should get a copy).
Also, beware: from here, there are spoilers.
The Female Man merages back and forth between the four, intentionally blurring the lines between strong and weak, victor and victim. Dystopia and utopia. It’s never quite clear if Janet is the same as her counterpart from When it Changed or if her Whileaway is another in the multiplicities that Russ has coming into being constantly. She is older, and parts of her past match up with the other story, but others do not, or don’t seem to. One wonders what happened to the bull astronauts. Perhaps men never came after all, or the eminently practical denizens of Whileaway simply decided that things were better if the intrepid explorers never returned to Earth at all.
The novel veers back and forth in themes and settings. At times extremely funny (Janet’s explanation of why having an army make first contact with “aliens” is a dumb idea/ a rollicking dinner party beatdown) and others extremely tragic (many of Joanna and Jeannine’s soliloquies). For the tottering edifice of “gender,” Russ’ words are war-machine, wrecking ball and scalpel all rolled into one.
Whileaway, with its all-encompassing, nurturing social network, uber-capable humans, no hunger, no government and high technology, has been referred to in both critiques and summaries as a utopia, but that misses some of the deeper games Russ is playing.
In the longer form of a novel, Janet’s own thoughts tell a different story. A society entirely of futuristic women is still a society of human beings. It still its boundaries, and a totally encompassing society means that the occasional true dissident ends up, in one of the novel’s most haunting sequences, hunted down in the woods. Occasionally, people will just not like each other, and Whileaway understands their need to just have it out (“I’ve fought four duels. I’ve killed four times.”)
As in all conflicts, eventually the War Between the Sexes hits upon those three hard, sinuously clear sound nuggets of atrocity: Kill Them All.
And so Alice Reasoner ends up puncturing Janet’s lines and ideals too. Like most societies, Whileawayans have mythologized away the piles upon piles of corpses lying at their foundation. Jael doesn’t, but then she’s an has no regrets: she’s red in tooth and claw and proud of it (also Russ’ favorite character, by her own admission). She’s got her reasons.
The word deconstruction has been overused, but what Russ does here is to leave us with the utter ruins of all the old (and still unfortunately quite alive) gender roles. She spares nothing, even tearing into her own alternatives and satires before it’s all done. Layer after layer is ripped away, and what it leaves next is a question I don’t think anyone is wise enough to truly answer.
Russ ends the novel by stepping out from the Fourth wall, yearning for the day when The Female Man will no longer be understood, “For on that day, we will be free.”
Question: A hard one. After all the layers are ripped away, after all the gender stereotypes have been revealed as the hollow shells they are, what’s left?
More importantly, what’s next?