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The Female Man  
TheFemaleMan(1stEd).jpg
Cover of first edition (paperback)
Author Joanna Russ
Country United States
Language English
Genre(s) Science fiction novel
Publisher Bantam Books
Publication date 1975
Media type Print (Paperback)
Pages 214 pp
ISBN 0-807-06299-5
OCLC Number 46425908

The Female Man is a feminist science fiction novel written by Joanna Russ. It was originally written in 1970 and first published in 1975. The book was re-released in 2000. Russ is an avid feminist and challenged sexist views during the 1970s with her novels, short stories, and nonfiction works. These works include We Who Are About To, "When It Changed", and What Are We Fighting For?: Sex, Race, Class, and the Future of Feminism.

The novel follows the lives of four women living in parallel worlds that differ in time and place. When they cross over to each others’ worlds, their different views on gender roles startle each others’ preexisting notions of womanhood. In the end, their encounters influence them to evaluate their lives and shape their ideas of what it means to be a woman.

Contents

Explanation of the novel's title

The character Joanna calls herself the “female man” because she believes that she must forego her identity as a woman in order to be respected (5). She states that “there is one and only one way to possess that in which we are defective…Become it” (139). Her metaphorical transformation refers to her decision to seek equality by rejecting women’s dependence on men.

Setting

The Female Man includes several fictional worlds.

Joanna's World: Joanna exists in a world that similar to Earth in the 1970s.

Jeannine's World: Jeannine lives in a world where the Great Depression never ended.

Whileaway (Janet's World): Whileaway is a utopian society in the far future where all the men died from a gender-specific plague over 800 years ago. Women dedicate their lives to coexisting with each other through hard work. Although the world is technologically advanced, their societies are mostly agrarian. Their technology enables them to genetically merge ovula in order to procreate.

Jael's World: Jael's world is a dystopia where men and women are literally engaged in a "battle of the sexes". Although they have been in conflict for over 40 years, the two societies still participate in trade with each other. Women trade children in exchange for resources. In order for the men to cope with their sexual desires, young boys undergo cosmetic surgery that physically changes their appearance so that they look like women.

Plot summary

The novel begins when Janet Evason suddenly arrives in Jeannine Dadier’s world. Janet is from Whileaway, a futuristic world where a plague killed all of the men over 800 years ago, and Jeannine lives in a world that never experienced the end of the Great Depression. Janet finds Jeannine at a Chinese New Year festival and takes her to Joanna’s world. Joanna comes from a world that is beginning its feminist movement.

Acting as a guide, Joanna takes Janet to a party in her world to show her how women and men interact with each other. Janet quickly finds herself the object of a man’s attention, and after he harasses her, Janet knocks the man down and mocks him. Because Joanna’s world believes that women are inferior to men, everyone is shocked. Janet expresses her desire to experience living with a typical family so Joanna takes Janet to the Wildings’ household. Janet meets their daughter Laura Rose who instantly admires Janet’s confidence and independence as a woman. Laura realizes that she is attracted to Janet and begins to pursue a sexual relationship with her. This is transgressive for both of them, as Whileaway's taboo against cross-generational relationships (having a relationship with someone old enough to be your parent or child) is as strong as the taboo against same-sex relationships on Laura's world.

The novel then follows Jeannine and Joanna as they accompany Janet back to Whileaway. They meet Vittoria, Janet’s wife, and stay at their home. Joanna finds herself under scrutiny when Vittoria uses a story about a bear trapped between two worlds as a metaphor for her life. Jeannine returns to her world with Joanna, and they both go to vacation at her brother’s house. Jeannine’s mother pesters her about her love life and whether she is going to get married soon. Jeannine goes on a few dates with some men but still finds herself dissatisfied. Jeannine begins to doubt her sense of reality, but soon decides that she wants to assimilate into her role as a woman. She calls Cal and agrees to marry him.

Joanna, Jeannine, Janet, and Laura are lounging in Laura's house. Laura tries to glorify Janet’s status in Whileaway, but Janet explains that her world does not value her particularly, but chose her as inter-dimensional explorer because she was more expendable than others ("I am stupid," she explains). At 3 a.m., Joanna comes down, unable to sleep, and finds Jeannine and Janet awake as well. Suddenly they are no longer at Laura’s house but in another world.

Joanna, Jeannine, and Janet have arrived in Jael’s world which is experiencing a 40-year old war between male and female societies. Jael explains that she works for the Bureau of Comparative Ethnology, an organization that concentrates on people’s various counterparts in different parallel worlds. She reveals that she is the one who brought all of them together because they are essentially “four versions of the same woman” (162). Jael takes all of them with her into enemy territory because she appears to be negotiating a deal with one of the male leaders. At first, the male leader appears to be promoting equality, but Jael quickly realizes that he still believes in the inferiority of women. Jael reveals herself as a ruthless assassin, kills the man, and shuttles all of the women back to her house. Jael finally tells the other women why she has assembled all of them. She wants to create bases in the other women’s worlds without the male society knowing and eventually empower women to overthrow oppressive men and their gender roles for women.

In the end, Jeannine and Joanna agree to help Jael and assimilate the women soldiers into their worlds, but Janet refuses. Jeannine and Joanna appear to have become stronger individuals and are excited to rise up against their gender roles. Janet is not moved by Jael’s intentions so Jael tells Janet that the reason for the absence of men on Whileaway is not because of a plague but because the women won the war and killed all of the men. Janet refuses to believe Jael, and the other women are annoyed at Janet’s resistance. The novel ends with the women separating and returning to their worlds, each with a new perspective on her life, her world, and her identity as a woman.

Character summary

Major characters

Jeannine Dadier is a librarian who lives in a world that never escaped the Great Depression. She believes that “there is a barrier between [her] and real life which can be removed only by a man or marriage” (120). She doubts her boyfriend Cal’s ability to make her happy, yet eventually she succumbs and becomes engaged to him. At the end of the novel, Jeannine appears to have broken from the expectations of marriage and welcomes the social revolution against men.

Joanna, living in the 1970s, comes from a world remarkably similar to Earth. The feminist movement has just begun, and Joanna is determined to refute her world’s belief that women are inferior to men. Joanna is witty and smart; however, she struggles to assert her abilities and intelligence among her male peers. She repeatedly refers to herself as the “female man” (5) to indicate her adoption of the male gender role and separate herself from being identified as just another woman.

Janet Evason Belin comes from a futuristic world called Whileaway where all the men died of a gender specific plague over 800 years ago. She is a Safety and Peace officer, similar to a police officer, and has just become an emissary to other worlds. She is married with Vittoria and has two children. In addition to being confident and assertive, Janet is perhaps the most independent from men because she has never experienced a man’s presence.

Alice Jael Reasoner, often referred to as Jael, is an assassin living in a world where a 40-year old war has caused men and women to separate into warring societies. She is a radical and does not appeal much to her emotion but, focuses solely on facts as they are presented to her. Jael is the instigator behind the four women’s meeting and appears to be proposing a revolution against all men.

Minor characters

Laura Rose is the daughter in the family that Janet stays with when she is visiting Joanna’s world. She proclaims to be a “victim of penis envy,” frustrated that she must stifle her potential in order to become a housewife (65). Janet’s confidence and independence from men fascinates Laura, and Laura begins to pursue a sexual relationship with her. Laura is the only character other than the four major ones to have the narrative told through her perspective.

Cal is Jeannine’s boyfriend and soon-to-be fiancé. Jeannine does not believe that Cal is masculine enough to provide for her.

Mrs. Dadier is Jeannine’s mother who lives with Jeannine’s brother and his family. When Jeannine spends a vacation at her brother’s house, Mrs. Dadier plagues Jeannine with lectures regarding the importance of marriage.

Major themes and symbols

Gender roles

Written during the 1970’s when the feminist movement was at its height, The Female Man studies how women struggle to retain their identity as women yet still assert themselves as equals to men. The novel’s main theme of gender roles occurs in each of the four characters’ worlds. Because of the different environments in which they were raised, each woman has a different idea on what it means to be a woman. Jeannine believes that only marriage can validate her existence while Janet, because of the absence of men in her world, does not understand how women can be inferior to men. Joanna searches to establish her identity as a strong individual and believes that she must adopt masculine characteristics in order to be viewed as an equal. Because Jael is in war with men, she believes that men are expendable and should be eliminated. The novel investigates each of the women’s views and questions how far women should go to break gender roles.

Sexuality

Sexuality becomes a recurring theme throughout the novel, primarily explored through Janet's experiences. Janet believes in an active sexual life, and her sexual relations with other women stems from her desire for emotional intimacy. Men do not exist in Janet’s world, and the women of Whileaway therefore have relationships only with other women. Although Janet cannot have sexual intercourse with a woman in the same way she would with a man, her relationships with women exceeds the physical satisfaction that she believes men can provide. When Janet and Laura are intimate with each other, they are both emotionally pleased because, as women, they understand each others’ needs better than a man would understand. Ultimately, the text suggests that, for women, emotional fulfillment is more important than physical pleasure.

Nature vs. nurture

The differences between each of the women’s personalities suggest that the environment/civilization from which they come shape their beliefs and actions. Jael says, “Given a reasonable variation, we are the same racial type…what you see is essentially the same genotype, modified by age, by circumstances, by education, by, diet, by learning, by God knows what”(161). Through Jael’s revelation that they are in fact each other’s counterparts, the text shows that though the women have the same genetics, the radical differences between the women’s views must be a result of their varying environments. The text sheds light on the importance of environment because the feminist movement sought to reconstruct society’s preexisting ideas of women’s roles.

The moon

The moon is a recurring symbol that appears when the narrative focuses on Jeannine and Joanna’s perspectives. Jeannine’s first sentence is “See the moon,” and when Jeannine runs away from her family, Joanna finds her “looking at the moon” (111,113). Joanna realizes that all of the significant figures in any field are always male, and she laments that she was “never on the moon” (135). The moon may be a reference to the Greek goddess Artemis, the ultimate independent woman warrior. Jeannine’s obsession with the moon is her unconscious desire to be free from society’s limitations on women. Joanna’s statement can be interpreted as her inability to ever achieve true independence since she must reject her femininity in order to be regarded as an equal to men. The moon is relevant only to Jeannine and Joanna because they live in worlds where women are considered subordinate to men. Janet recalls that her first sentence was also "see the moon" which provides support for the interpretation that the four J's are essentially the same person.

Technology

The symbol of technology is represented most prominently in Janet's all-female utopian future of Whileaway. The text implies that the futuristic technology of Whileaway is how the women of Whileaway can become the strongest, most advanced, best-equipped version of themselves to ensure ease in carrying out vocational and professional tasks. Technology on Whileaway is the factor that ensured an increased overall intelligence through genetic engineering. Technology is approached as something that is essential to Whileaway culture and its ability to grow and thrive. The women do not show either a strong appreciation for or disregard of their world's technology. They treat it, rather, as something that is just present and does not need explanation or background. Technology is used in Jael's dystopian, sex-warring world in much the same regard; simply as an integral, ever-present entity.

"Representations of technology provide [Russ] a way of talking about temporality and change, about historicity and futurity, including agential social change" (406).[1]

Structure and format

The novel is divided into nine parts, with each further divided into chapters. The sections of the novel are usually dedicated to one character’s perspective, but often the point-of-view changes between the four characters and skips from location and time. For example, part five begins in Jeannine’s world yet the narrative is through Joanna’s perspective. The novel never clearly indicates who is speaking and, as a result, often creates confusion in the narration. The novel does provide clues, however, so that the reader can infer the identity of the narrator.

Joanna, Janet, and Jael’s perspectives are expressed through the first person narrative, but they often refer to themselves in the third person while the narration is still through their point of view. Jeannine’s perspective is initially told solely through a third person narrative. Jeannine does eventually adopt a first person narrative, indicating her emerging doubt of her dependence on a man and her fate as a dutiful wife. Joanna recognizes that her own style of narration reflects a feminine quality. Joanna says, “I have no structure…my thoughts seep out shapelessly like menstrual fluid, it is all very female and deep and full of essences, it is very primitive and full of ‘and’s,’ it is called ‘run-on sentences’” (137). Joanna also inserts common conversations in the form of a script that demonstrate her frustration with men’s ignorance of women. Janet often gives background history on Whileaway to provide insight on the nature of her world. Jael is slightly introduced in part two, signaled by an italicized text; however, her story begins in part eight with a repetition of the italicized chapter. The novel mostly focuses on Jael’s perspective until the end of the novel except for a few moments when the narrative is told through the other three’s point-of-view.

Literary significance and reception

Because the field of science fiction was largely male-dominated, The Female Man was initially received as negative propaganda. As the feminist movement began to gain attention, however, many regarded the novel as one of the most influential works in feminist literature and its wide acceptance heralded the start of feminist science fiction.

“A work of frightening power, but it is also a work of great fictional subtlety…it should appeal to all intelligent people who look for exciting ideation, crackling dialogue, provocative fictional games-playing in their reading.” – Douglas Barbour, Toronto Star

“A stunning book, a work to be read with great respect. It’s also screamingly funny.”- Elizabeth Lynn, San Francisco Review of books

"In sum, it is a superior SF novel, though perhaps too demanding in an emotional sense ever to be popular even with those expressing the currently fashionable opinions on women's liberation." --R.D. Mullen

Allusions and references

Allusions to other works

The character Janet, and a different version of Whileaway (a planet colonized from Earth, rather than a future version of Earth itself), exist in both the novel and the short story "When It Changed".

Joanna alludes to Grendel's mother to demonstrate that a woman can be both a nurturing mother and an aggressive, strong woman.

Joanna references Mill when she lists the many examples of how men have historically oppressed women.

Jael is named after Yael, who kills Sisera by driving a tent peg through his skull while he sleeps. At one point Russ describes Jael in words paraphrased from the Book of Judges: "At her feet he bowed, he fell, he lay down: at her feet he bowed, he fell: where he bowed, there he fell down dead" (Jdg. 5:27).

Allusions to history

Russ’s novel refers to the problematic issues in the 1970s when the feminist movement rose to power. Because The Female Man was written during the 1970’s, the character Joanna’s world is most similar to the world the author lived in. The novel also addresses the environmental movement as shown through Janet’s utopian society. Though Janet’s world is extremely technologically advanced, the women choose to live in agrarian societies. Whileaway forms an idealistic image of an organic environment where nature is preserved despite the radical development of technology.

Joanna (the author) also mentions the Great Depression, which occurs in 1929 when economies all over the world took a devastating turning point. In Jeannine’s world, however, the Great Depression never ended. The text suggests that the continuation of the Great Depression forced women to seek husbands for financial support and prohibited women from finding jobs of their own. As a result, the text implies that the Great Depression perpetuated gender roles.

Awards and nominations

The Female Man won one of three Retrospective Tiptree Awards (1996). It was also a nominee for the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1975.

Publication History

February 1975, United States, Bantam Books ISBN 0-807-06299-5, paperback.

2000, United States, Beacon Press ISBN 0-807-06299-5, 17 March 2000, paperback.

References

  1. ^ Susana S. Martins. "Revising the Future in the Female Man". Science Fiction Studies 32 (2005): 405-422. Salem State College Reference Library, Salem, MA. 08 Apr. 2008.

Further reading

  • Bammer, Angelika. Partial Visions: Feminism and Utopianism in the 1970s. New York and London: Routledge, 1991.
  • Barbour, Douglas. "Joanna Russ's the Female Man: An Appreciation." The Sphinx: A Magazine of Literature and Society 4.1 (1981): 65-75.
  • Cortiel, Jeanne. "Joanna Russ: The Female Man." A Companion to Science Fiction. Ed. by David Seed. Blackwell Companions to Literature and Culture; 34. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2005. 500-511. ISBN 1-4051-1218-2
  • Delany, Samuel R. "Joanna Russ and D. W. Griffith." PMLA 119 (2004): 500.
  • Martins, Susana S. "Revising the Future in the Female Man." Science Fiction Studies 32 (2005): 405-422.
  • Rosinsky, Natalie M. "A Female Man? The 'Medusan' Humor of Joanna Russ." Extrapolation 23.1 (1982): 31-36.

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