Feminism in fiction: Joanna Russ’s “The Female Man”

Recently I’ve been trying to finish up the half-read books on my shelf so I can get rid of them, and the latest was The Female Man, Joanna Russ’s groundbreaking 1975 work of feminist science fiction. It was very interesting, though not something I’d ever turn to for entertainment. For one, it reads like Joyce’s Ulysses  — impressionistic and stream-of-consciousness, though fortunately it’s not quite as impenetrable as Ulysses. It’s the sort of book where you’ll read a chapter of the viewpoint character ruminating on some childhood memory, then read the CliffsNotes and be informed that it was actually about the character masturbating on the beach.

…say what?

In any case, The Female Man is a book to be read for the ideas and the prose (which is quite arresting in places); it would be disingenuous to discuss it in terms of story or characters, so I don’t intend to. The ideas, meanwhile, are of feminism — some of it feminism of the man-hating, ball-busting lesbian variety (literally, in this case) — but the thing to remember is that this book was the progenitor of the genre. When she wrote this, feminism was still potent and radical, it hadn’t yet devolved into the unfortunate offshoot that we’re more familiar with — or rather, the oft-parodied stereotype that it’s become in recent years.

(And I wish I could say that there are no such feminists, humorless and uptight and ready to jump on any real or perceived slight, but unfortunately I’ve met them.)

But what I hadn’t met were men with the kind of attitudes that feminism originally developed as an antidote to. My closest experience with that was reading Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories as a kid and being outraged by his chauvinism. These days, no one but the most atavistic fringe elements will unironically assert that women are intellectually inferior to men, or that they belong in the home, barefoot and pregnant. We’ve achieved a society of on-paper equality, which makes it easy to forget how far we’ve come, how much more feminism was fighting for just forty years ago.

The male characters in the book are not really characters (no more than the women are; everyone’s an archetype) — they’re avatars for expressing the range of attitudes that faced women at the time — a patronizing, "father knows best" doctrine of separate but equal that isn’t entirely gone. People won’t articulate it as bluntly as they used to; I imagine that men don’t realize they’re doing it, and many women don’t notice because it’s always been there.

Anyway, all that was just the backdrop so I could leave you with a passage that I thought was beautiful:

She was reading a book, with her hair falling over her face. She was radiant with health and life, a study in dirty blue jeans. I knelt down by her chair and kissed her on the back of her smooth, honeyed, hot neck with a despairing feeling that now I had done it — but asking isn’t getting. Wanting isn’t having. She’ll refuse and the world will be itself again. I waited confidently for the rebuke, for the eternal order to reassert itself (as it had to, of course) — for it would in fact take a great deal of responsibility off my hands.

But she let me do it. I can’t tell you how reality itself tore wide open at that moment.

Unhealthy dependencies, my thoughts, my fiction

I was reading a book entitled Emotional Child Abuse, which deals mostly with the myriad ways that ill-adjusted parents can pass that along to their ill-adjusted kids, and I found an interesting passage on dealing with death:

"Parents whose relationships with each other are totally symbiotic are setting up problems for their children. The children may fear that if one dies, the other will soon follow suit. This does in fact happen sometimes. One subject’s father died of cancer, and her mother died a few months later of a broken heart. When parents are totally dependent on one another, the children may get the impression that life is completely worthless without an all-encompassing bond, that one’s profession and children and friends are comparatively insignificant, and that the death of a lover is an overwhelming, devastating tragedy from which one can never recover."

"When parents fail to heal from the death of their spouses, they bring their child up in a bleak, lonely environment, passing on a distorted view of death, mourning, and love."

This put me immediately in mind of Christine Feehan’s Dark ~~~ series, which by no means the only offender, but a particularly egregious example of the soul-bonding/life-mates/etc trope that paranormal romance has been flogging to death recently. Because in those books, and many others like them, that all-encompassing bond is treated as the be-all and end-all of life. Which I think is one of the reasons why — despite the fact that it’s a bad, bad book in a genre I don’t read — I was driven to "fix" it with Dark Deviance. (That, and Feehan’s total, blind heteronormativity. Her world doesn’t allow for the existence of gay people.)

Instead, the main character in my story isn’t particularly in love with the idea of lifebonding, because all it’s done in his own life is produce a pattern of neglect, where the people who should have cared for him are instead caught up in their own romantic concerns. And why as an adult, he makes a conscious rejection of the ideal that privileges romantic love over all else. (Which doesn’t make Dark Deviance any less a love story, but it means he’s out doing things, running a business and kidnapping people and going to the opera, instead of sitting at home miserable about being single.)

The other party in that love story is more worried about the loss of autonomy that comes of falling in love in a canon where you somewhat literally have to do anything that your mate’s happiness requires. Which is also an issue that I felt needed to be fixed.