On Joanna Russ & The Female Man

I’m reading On Joanna Russ, edited by Farah Mendlesohn, right now and I get to re-read The Female Man by Joanna Russ later today (both for an article I’m working on), and this is one of those times when I feel extremely lucky. I love Joanna Russ’s work and the fact that I get to revisit it and write about it as part of my job makes me very happy.

Mostly, I love her anger. The Female Man is just brimming with it, but what makes it so wonderful is that it’s angry while also funny and inspiring and so, so, so smart. Russ identifies the sexisms – both large and small – that she and her contemporaries lived with and she destroys them by showing how ridiculous they are and by imagining a world where they don’t exist.

Even Whileaway, the future utopian world that Russ creates in The Female Man, includes anger. Not only does the existence of such a world, in which women are free to live fully human lives and are not constrained by gender roles, prompt such angry or frustrated questions as “Why we can’t live more like this now?” and “Why are we still living with so much oppression and sexism?”, there’s also anger expressed by Russ’s characters who live and have grown up in that utopia. The bitterness of those questions are not in these characters, though. Just natural, human anger expressed at other humans – because in Russ’s work, even utopia isn’t perfect. That’s what makes it interesting.

I’ve taught The Female Man before and I wrote about it in my dissertation, so I’ve read it several times and I always love it. Not everyone does, though. I taught it only one semester (paired with Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland) and my students disliked it so much that I haven’t tried going back to it since. I think their dislike was a combination of confusion and defensiveness. They got confused because the plot involves a lot of jumping around between times, places, and voices, and there are many cultural references they aren’t necessarily familiar with. This made its meaning hard for them to parse and they resented having to work so hard for it. In addition, I was not teaching a classroom full of feminists; I was teaching average college students in Texas who were taking a literature course to meet their general education requirements. They are not automatically on board with Russ’s feminist politics, and her anger, therefore, felt like an attack on them (for some, not all). Where I identify with Russ’s anger and am empowered and emboldened by it, they feel the need to protect themselves from it, I believe. I still hope for an opportunity to teach the book to a class that will appreciate it and gain something from it, but I’m not sure where I’ll find that.

I’ll end with a few quotes from the book that I love and an encouragement to read it if you haven’t already. It’s not to everyone’s taste – clearly – but it is brilliant and it has such important things to say about gender, sexism, resistance, and hope. And, sadly, although some cultural referents are dated, the ideas and arguments of The Female Man are still relevant today.

“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.”

“If you scream, people say you’re melodramatic; if you submit, you’re masochistic; if you call names, you’re a bitch. Hit him and he’ll kill you. The best thing is to suffer mutely and yearn for a rescuer, but suppose a rescuer doesn’t come?”

“Remember: I didn’t and don’t want to be a ‘feminine’ version or a diluted version or a special version or a subsidiary version or an ancillary version, or an adapted version of the heroes I admire. I want to be the heroes themselves.

What future is there for a female child who aspires to being Humphrey Bogart?”

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