melannen: Commander Valentine of Alpha Squad Seven, a red-haired female Nick Fury in space, smoking contemplatively (Default)
melannen ([personal profile] melannen) wrote2017-03-31 02:24 pm
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FMK: The Female Man

The nearest pokestop I can access is approximately 1 hour's walk from my house. Fun facts! (But I did get my third 7-day streak in a row, yay me walking four miles in the rain.)

So, The Female Man by Joanna Russ. This is a book that has A Lot Of Things To Say so I am absolutely not going to even attempt to do that justice in this post, okay. tl,dr: I am going to keep it on the shelf, but I am going to keep it resentfully.

It is very much:
a) second-wave feminist, and
b) literary fiction, not genre fiction.

Read it if you want to read a frequently didactic and/or polemical text that exemplifies second-wave feminism but is relatively readable despite that. Or if you like the sort of literary fiction that is obsessed with its own genius and hits all the cliches from over-elaborate structure to self-insert MC who is a frustrated writer in NYC to the affair with a much younger woman who you are in a position of authority over but you couldn't help it, she came on to you and you were really sex-deprived, what were you supposed to do! Only with white feminists instead of boring white dudes. At least the sex scenes are reasonably well-done.

If you are interested in really cool post-capitalist post-industrialist utopian worldbuilding, read it but skip everything but the sections in Whileaway (and maybe the chapters at the end with Jael, but only if you are willing to wade through the neck-deep transphobia in those). It's pretty easy to tell which chapters are Whileaway and you won't be missing any important "plot" if you skip the rest, I promise; it barely exists and doesn't make a lot of sfnal sense when it does. (Or just read some Monique Wittig instead, 'Lesbian Peoples' is nothing but the second-wave feminist lesbian utopian worldbuilding.)

It's honestly really hard for me to separate my problems with it between the second-wave feminist part and the literary fiction part, because they basically both reduce down to the MC is a self-absorbed asshole with no real empathy in her POV.

So there are three-and-a-half main characters, Janet, Joanna, Jeannine, and Jael (who only shows up at the very end). Joanna is the POV, but it's a very confusing POV that fades in and out from her being a proper character and her being a smugly meta author-character who can ignore reality for the sake of narrative. They are all, in some sense or another, alternate-universe versions of each other. (It actually took me quite awhile to figure out if the smug author-POV was actually the same character as Joanna, but I think so? Or at least it's left deliberately unclear, and the author is at least more Joanna than the others, but some of the author-POV segments contradict the rest of Joanna's story.) Janet is from a far-future postcapitalist utopia with no men. Jeannine is from an alternate history where WWII never happened and the US is stuck in stasis in the late 1930s. Joanna is from "the real world". Jael is from an alternate future where men and women are separated into two literally warring camps.

Janet and Jael's worlds are both really interesting. Jeannine's world is less well-developed - it really is just 1930s NYC with a few cosmetic updates - but she is probably actually the most well-rounded as a person. Joanna's world we get almost no grounding in, presumably because she's supposed to be the reader insert character whose world is already familiar we all automatically identify with her.

I found Janet, Jael, and Jeannine (especially Jeannine) way more relatable in every possible way and Joanna so alien as to be nearly incomprehensible most of the time.

Part of this is that 1975 NYC got dated very quickly (and in a way that Jeannine's 1930s isn't). But it's also something I experience with a lot of "mainstream" fiction, that they present a worldview that just has nothing in common with the world I experience, and also has no conception that any other worldview is possible or worthwhile.

(Maybe that's the real distinction between SF/genre and 'literary' - that literary fiction is by and for people who can't imagine feeling more at home in an alien time or place than in their present, and don't want to.)

Jeannine in particular gets treated like crap by Joanna's POV - she consistently describes her as a shadow or, frequently and unironically, an inanimate object! This angry feminist who is all about respect for women as long as they are upper-middle-class educated outspoken feminists apparently! - never as a person with her own vibrant life. And yet she gets to have more of a life than any of the other three; she has a family, a job at a library, a cat, she likes mystery novels and trees and looking out the subway windows at New York City, she wishes she had a bigger apartment but also doesn't want the bother of taking care of a bigger apartment. All she really needs to do to have my dream life is deal with the clinical depression (ADMITTEDLY not simple) and then drag the "boyfriend" to Greenwich Village so they can meet some lesbians and fairies and realize why their relationship isn't working out. But she's poor and introverted and socially awkward so she's clearly not a real person amirite or amirite.

(Jeannine is also the only character who isn't incredibly fucking transphobic, btw. I suspect if they did find queer culture, they would be very happy together, she seems to like transfeminine people and Cal likes pretty dresses. If you don't want to wallow in transphobia, basically stop reading as soon as you meet Jael. Not that there isn't some before that, but it doesn't punch you in the face repeatedly and maliciously until the Jael segment.)

(Honestly, if Joanna had grown up on Tumblr she probably wouldn't be using 'she' either, but she would very likely bite you if you tried to tell her that.)

(Somebody write me a Female Man AU where it lives up to the title and Jeannine was already involved in 1930s queer culture - image if 1930s NYC queer culture had just kept going for decades instead of hitting the brick wall of the 1950s! - and gently helped Joanna find her inner genderqueer self, and meanwhile Whileaway actually has some way of dealing with trans and intersex people and Jael teams up with the trans women instead of beating the shit out of them. please please.)

I'm struggling to even name anything that Janet or Joanna gets to like. Janet likes her wife? And sex with girls? Joanna likes.... basically just disparaging other women, afaict.

It's telling that the only one of them who is shown as having women friends is the one from the planet with no men. And this is presented by the author pov not as a problem with them being all twisted up inside, but with all other women being stooges of the patriarchy and therefore unworthy.

There's this scene where Joanna takes Janet to a party which is supposed to be a typical Earth party (I have never been to a party like that nor ever plan to be) where Joanna is giving all of the other women there horrible nicknames that reduce them to simpering gold-diggers who only care about male approval, and I just want to shake her and go, all of these other women are probably dying inside too and are going to go home and talk about how terrible the party was and they just tried to get through it! maybe you could try talking to one of them instead of just feeling superior! or maybe even listening to Janet, who you brought, instead of treating her like an embarrassment!

Joanna is also really, really bad at her 'job' of being a cultural liaison and it is never explained how she got it and why she wasn't immediately removed from it.

And... how much of all that is wrong with Joanna's POV is about its coming out of the New York intellectual/literary tradition with all its angsty English professors and their affairs, and how much of it is second-wave feminism, and how much is that second-wave feminism (or at least a lot of its most-read writers) came out of the same cultural space as the English professors and their affairs (and were not infrequently the women involved in those affairs.)?

But there are all of these women around Joanna and Jeannine who are fighting their own fights, and the same fights, but also getting on with life, and the POV never even stops to think that maybe there are ways to do feminism that don't involve being white, over-educated, financially stable and obsessed with success, male approval, and self-actualization. So there you go, there's second-wave feminism for you.

The above makes it sound like I hated the book, and okay, I did hate the book a little. But for all of second-wave feminism's issues, it wasn't wrong about the things it did deign to pay attention to, and on the whole, neither is this book. And if there's anything last year in America taught us, it's that the job they were trying to do in the 60s and 70s and 80s still isn't nearly done. And for what it is - for a literary novel published in 1975 but tLHoD was published in 1969 that is too into its own cleverness to get out of its own way and frequently interrupts itself for long tirades of textbook second-wave feminism, it's pretty readable and makes important points, and Whileaway makes up for a lot.

But if an SF writer randomly put in a chapter in the middle of a book that was literally nothing but ranting about how mainstream critics failed to recognize the author's genius, they would be laughed out of fandom regardless of how justified they were.

I mean, even Ann Rice hasn't tried that yet.

There's a self-congratulatory bit at the end about how if a time ever comes where women read the book and don't resonate with it, that means its work is done. a) its work is not done, b) resonating with Joanna is not the way to finish it.

Also why the hell did she feel the need to keep translating the matronyms as ---son even after she learned they were matronyms not surnames, it's not like Evasdottir is an incomprehensible name to modern Earth people.