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
Entry tags:

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.
rushthatspeaks: (altarwise)

[personal profile] rushthatspeaks 2017-04-01 04:13 am (UTC)(link)
It's a little hard for me to talk to you about this book, because we've had such different experiences of it, but I'd like to try.

A small thing: the reason Joanna is the intercultural ambassador is because Janet landed on her when she crossed dimensions. Janet picked her to stay with because Joanna is her alternate self. Joanna dislikes this intensely, but does not have a choice in putting up with it because the powers-that-be (politicians, scientists) are interested in Janet getting what she wants; they want her dimensional-crossing technology. Which Janet is never going to give them, because men. Janet's cause is locating and assisting her alt-selves in whatever ways are possible. She's also trying to keep their home dimensions from being dangerous to Whileaway-- given Whileawayan culture this and her more personal quest are just as important as one another in the eyes of both Janet and her homeworld.

A larger thing: no, Joanna's telling the exact truth in the section about how on that day, we will be free, and I do literally congratulate you on your freedom.

This book saved my life.

It's still the only feminist novel I know which deals with the internalized consequences of the specific shitty gender system I grew up in. The key things about this specific shitty gender system, which it took me years to figure out (it's taken me many more years to even begin to cope with the damage this system has done in my life) are as follows:

1) Gender is not something with which one identifies, necessarily, or at least one's self-identification is irrelevant. Gender is imposed entirely from outside the self, and is a construct of the social environment. Everybody around you will pick what gender you are, usually but not always based on your genitalia, and then treat you according to the role of that gender, with no attention paid whatsoever to you as an individual and your preferences and choices.

2) Once the polity has selected a gender role for you, it is immutable and unchangeable until and after death. What you say about it does not matter. In order for your gender role to change, everyone's perceptions of you would have to change, and-- this is important-- changing your body will not change their perceptions. If I went on hormones, got surgery, etc., and went back to the town I was born in, everyone would treat me like a man precisely until they found out my original name and remembered who I was, at which point I would irrevocably be a woman again, just one to be treated as an outcast and freak.

3) No one wants the gender role 'woman', because everything about it sucks, and there's a lot of gendered work associated with it which nobody wants to do. It is expected that you complain a lot about womanhood, say you don't feel like a woman, etc., because womanhood sucks and women are considered tainted. But you don't get to make the choice. That's why you don't get to make the choice-- because no one in their right mind would choose it.

That's the environment I was raised in, that's the environment Joanna was raised in. In that environment, the way the book works is that everyone you know wants you to be Jeannine, you want to be Janet, you end up being Joanna, and society thinks that if they let you do anything at all with your own agency ever then you'll wind up as Jael. As a genderqueer trans man growing up in that morass, Joanna was the first character I ever read about who could convince me that other people also had my issues. Because the culture around me was so invidious and pervasive and thorough that I thought it was just that I was totally nuts and broken, incapable of being what I was supposed to be or doing what I was supposed to do, and consequently totally undeserving of happiness or of being treated like a human being.

(The people I grew up around really do think that if they treat you like a human being you'll go off the rails and Attack All Men Forever. They actually do.)

Joanna provided, for me, the first vital step towards understanding the concept of transgender at all. We didn't have that concept. I never heard the words for it, I never heard of the existence of body-changing hormones and surgeries, until college, which was long past the crisis point. In high school, Joanna said to me, yes, here is what they say I am, and I cannot change it, but I will also force them to accept what I say I am, with violence if necessary, because I am allowed that as a human being who takes up space and that is the minimum necessary for me to live. The phrase 'female man' is as close as you can get in the culture I grew up in to transmasculine, not just linguistically but conceptually.

So of course the book is shit at transfemininity, because not only is Jael, through whose eyes we see that part, the screaming harpy raving straw feminist of an evangelical's nightmare, she's just as gender-essentialist as Jeannine, in her way. And Joanna has to make up the concept of identifying with a gender yourself instead of the other people around you doing it for you, and forge that concept out of blood and fire, and no one else in the book even gets that far.

But it was far enough to allow me to survive until I got somewhere that allowed me to go farther. It was the bridge between that world and the larger, outer world.

So things like wishing Jeannine could meet up with thirties queer culture, or that Joanna could have some solidarity with the other women around-- it's nice, these are nice dreams. They aren't possible, because it's literally unthinkable for Jeannine to do anything that massive social expectation does not tell her to do, ever-- she cannot think of it, it will never go through her mind-- and Joanna is behaving against her gender role expectations just as hard as she can and the people all around her are only sending the signal freak, freak, freak. (You know, in these circumstances, when somebody else is anything like you. I once hitchhiked halfway across a city, as a young, female-presenting person, in rough neighborhoods, after dark, to exchange four words with somebody I thought might be a lesbian. Joanna would see it if it was there to be seen. For years at a time, it isn't.)

A lot of Joanna's problems are because they tell you when you're little that if you're a genius, if you're good enough, you can be An Exception and not be A Girl, and this particular lie is one I also spent a lot of time struggling with, because it is a pernicious lie but what if you're just not good enough yet? She has to insist that no, they'd treat her this way if she were motherfucking Shakespeare, they wouldn't even notice she was motherfucking Shakespeare. She was the first person I ever encountered to see through that lie.

So she's telling the exact truth in that end monologue, if the book doesn't hit you it is because you are free from an extremely particular set of prisons. Mine was eighties and nineties rural Ohio; at one point we lived ten miles from where Leelah Alcorn would eventually kill herself, so I don't think things have changed there one damn bit.

I will always be grateful to Russ for helping me get the hell out. This book was the light at the end of the tunnel. I don't know if it still would be, for anybody nowadays, but I have a sneaking feeling we're not as progressive everywhere as all that, so.
alatefeline: Painting of a cat asleep on a book. (Default)

[personal profile] alatefeline 2017-04-01 07:12 am (UTC)(link)
Very fair.
ruric: (Default)

[personal profile] ruric 2017-04-01 08:04 am (UTC)(link)
I read The Female Man when I was about 14. I hated it with a passion, and it plus one other book - name lost to the past - put me right of Russ's writing. Forty yeas later and I might, somewhat reluctantly, be willing to give her another shot.

It made me very wary of feminism too - but I got over that a LOT faster :)
recessional: bare-footed person in jeans walks on log (Default)

[personal profile] recessional 2017-04-02 01:32 am (UTC)(link)
Yeah I...tried with this book a couple times and it epitomized "look I recognize that where you are in your head is shitty but in your attempts to get somewhere else you have spent this entire book spitting on me and punching me in the head."

It was EMPHATICALLY EMBRACED and considered Perfect by second wavers I encountered who also made it very clear that if one did not do exactly as they said was Right you were a Collaborator and deserved anything that happened to you.

So all my associations with it are....bad. >.>
sophia_sol: drawing of Combeferre, smiling and holding up a finger like he's about to explain something (Default)

[personal profile] sophia_sol 2017-04-02 02:16 am (UTC)(link)
This is really interesting, thanks for sharing your thoughts! I had no idea what this book was about, just that it was very well known in the context of feminism. So I am glad to know more, between your thoughts and the discussion in the comments
nenya_kanadka: I was distracted by boobies! (@ boobies!)

[personal profile] nenya_kanadka 2017-04-06 12:13 am (UTC)(link)
This entire discussion is fascinating--thank you!

I have a copy of the book on my shelf, having been given it by a lesbian friend who really resonated with it, but not having gotten around to it yet. Your review makes it sound like something I may someday try out of curiosity, but I also feel way less guilty for not having read it yet! 😂

With both queer and feminist stuff I have often felt the way you do about this book--as if I'm reaching out for something Like Me (non-heteronormative, or not crushingly sexist, or whatever), and I hear that this book does that thing, and then I read it and I get slapped in the face about how I'm Wrong and Bad...this time from the other side. From the people who are claiming to support me and saying they hate the things that hurt me.

It's a special kind of pain. These days I'm a little better about realizing that different people need different ideas and stories and ways of conceptualizing things at different times, and that doesn't necessarily make either of us wrong. But that sense of betrayal from feeling like you reached out a hand for help and then were smacked down and told you were unworthy of help--when, perhaps, the reasons you're A Collaborator have less to do with the social justice issue at hand and more to do with a cultural difference or class issue or slightly different experiences...yeah. I feel you.

When I'm not in that angry, hurt space, it can be really fascinating to learn about different experiences under the same larger banner of feminism (or queer experience). Both for its own sake (I like to learn new things and understand people!) and as a way perhaps of being better at not doing that awful "you are wrong because you don't have my brain" thing to other people.