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.

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