The Female Man by Joanna Russ

 

The Female Man by Joanna RossGeneral FictionScience Fiction The Female Man
Joanna Russ; Beacon Press 2000
WorldCat

There is no way to explain Joanna Ross’ 40-year-old novel. The Female Man is alternative science fiction. It is a feminist book; it’s definitely a product of the time it was written (late 1960’s to early 1970’s). But the underlying message still applies.

It is difficult to see the underlying message, though. The reader first has to realize is this book is very abstract. It jumps between different realities. There is a science fiction tenant that says every time a person makes a decision, another reality breaks off with a different possible decision. Multiple possible decisions means multiple universes or realities break off and start a new, separate timeline. The Female Man loosely uses that idea.

Janet is from a world where all the men were killed by a plague centuries earlier. Her society is agrarian yet technologically advanced enough to create a machine for someone to jump to different realities. In Jeannine’s world the Great Depression has been going on for over 30 years and Hitler died in the 1930’s avoiding World War II. Joanna lives in a world similar to the American 1960’s we can remember when women still stay at home, supported by their husbands, and are only now considering joining the work force because they want to, not because they have to. Jael is from a reality where men and women live apart in different distinct societies.

Ross divided The Female Man into nine parts, and each part into smaller sections, jumping back and forth between worlds, and situations. The book is very confusing if the reader doesn’t grasp this quickly. The author jumps back and forth from being a third person narrator/observer to being a first person participant.

There is a cocktail party scene that wouldn’t happen overtly now in the 21st century, but is certainly reminiscent of the early 1960’s. Janet is talking with those strange creatures, men. Throughout the party the men are jovially putting women down or making advances. Janet doesn’t understand much of what they are saying but what she does is either confusing or annoying. The narrator has to remind her to be quiet and observer – don’t lose her temper. The men are being asinine. Those scenes fit my memories of similar scenes in romantic movies from that time, so appear realistic.

Sexuality is discussed throughout The Female Man. One reporter asked Janet about erotic love on her planet of women only. The reporter seems to believe there isn’t any sex on that planet. Janet quickly sets her straight and begins to explain when the television show quickly switches to a commercial… Both heterosexual and homosexual relationships are explored. The attitudes of each different reality gives an overview to numerous types of relationships.

I had to look The Female Man up in Wikipedia when I was about half way through so I could get a handle on this book. I understood the feminist statement but was having trouble following the jumpy narrative. I read just enough from the beginning of Wikipedia’s article to get some insight into what was happening and the narrative style Russ used in this book.

The overall message of The Female Man is obvious – women may be equal to men, but men don’t recognize that. Women don’t always recognize that, either. While we’ve come a long way since the 1960’s, it’s still a problem. Recently (in 2014) there have been headlines about studies showing that women still only earn about 70% of the income that a man earns. There are more subtle messages as well in The Female Man – many of which I missed. Russ’ novel is one that is good for group discussion – a reader will learn more about the book when examining others’ opinions, then fitting them together with perceptions already made.

When it comes to narrative, I tend to do better with concrete than abstract.I struggled quite a bit with Russ’s narrative. It starts at Point A and ends at Point B, but it meanders to Point C, Point D, etc, before it comes back to Point B.

The Female Man does what it means to. While the book has the obvious tones and settings from the time Russ wrote it, the issues it discusses are still in place. I often found myself thinking of my life and the men in it over the years both personally and professionally.

Interesting book? Definitely. Entertaining book? Not in the traditional sense. Worth reading? Absolutely. Have your senses of men and women in American/First World society challenged. Read The Female Man.

Notice: Strong sexual content, Non-graphic violence, Strong language

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