I'm a sick woman, a madwoman, a ball-breaker, a man-eater; I don't consume men gracefully with my fire-like red hair or my poisoned kiss; I crack their joints with these filthy ghoul's claws and standing on one foot like a de-clawed cat, rake at your feeble efforts to save yourselves with my taloned hinder feet: my matted hair, my filthy skin, my big flat plaques of green bloody teeth. I don't think my body would sell anything. I don't think I would be good to look at.
My recent stint of reading and writing about US feminist author and academic Joanna Russ (see also here and here) comes to an end, for now, with her best known work of fiction, The Female Man (1975). I read it some time ago, but I've been putting off posting on it - in part, I must confess, because I have been struggling with how to approach it. It is a searing read, emotionally and intellectually demanding, and any attempt to blog about it inevitably feels... if not quite trivialising, precisely, then certainly a long way from encompassing the whole. Also, every time I start typing I flash back to this beautifully snarky passage,
You will notice that even my diction is becoming feminine, thus revealing my true nature; I am not saying "Damn" any more, or "Blast"; I am putting in lots of qualifiers like "rather," I am writing in these breathless little feminine tags, she threw herself down on the bed, I have no structure (she thought), 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."
Very swampy in my mind. Very rotten and badly off. I am a woman. I am a woman with a woman's brain. I am a woman with a woman's sickness. I am a woman with the wraps off, bald as an adder, God help me and you.
... and reflect, ruefully, on how often I fall back on crutch words like 'rather' and 'somewhat', myself. I tell myself I'm just being arch; but can I avoid them, for the length of one post?
The other obstacle to writing about the book is the frequency with which it shifts registers, and the consequent impossibility of doing justice to - indeed, of getting a handle on - all its narrative modes. As in the examples quoted above, long passages are told in a first-person confessional style, which at times becomes full-on stream-of-consciousness. These confessionals come from several different voices. The novel centres on four women - Joanna, Jeannine, Janet and Jael - who, we eventually discover, are versions of the same person. This produces a third source of difficulty: it is rarely announced, directly, who the 'I' of any given passage is, so the reader must piece together from tone and reference who is speaking. In some cases, of course, not knowing is the point; their experiences, as women, are universal, or universalised in the telling.
The four Js grew up on parallel worlds, but are brought together in the course of the story, by Jael, to experience, and learn from, each others' lives. The bulk of the close-in first-person narration falls to Joanna - an unhappy academic on what seems to be our own world, in the 1970s - and, later on, to Jael, a paragon of rage from a world where the battle of the sexes has been brutally, bloodily literal for decades.
Joanna is the 'female man' of the title. Near the start of the novel she tells us that, when the events of the story began, she "had just changed into a man", although her "body and soul were exactly the same". Later, she explains what this means: she had realised that, in a man's world, the only way to play, to survive, was to remake herself and adopt masculine tactics:
I'll tell you how I turned into a man.
First I had to turn into a woman.
For a long time I had been neuter, not a woman at all but One Of The Boys, because if you walk into a gathering of men, professionally or otherwise, you might as well be wearing a sandwich board that says: LOOK! I HAVE TITS!
And to be recognised as a woman is to be dismissed, out of hand:
To be female is to be mirror and honeypot, servant and judge, the terrible Rhadamanthus for whom he must perform but whose judgment is not human and whose services are at anyone's command, the vagina dentata and the stuffed teddy-bear he gets if he passes the test. This is until you're forty-five, ladies, after which you vanish into thin air like the smile of the Cheshire cat, leaving behind only a disgusting grossness and a subtle poison that automatically infects every man under twenty-one.
As she plays host to Janet, larger-than-life visitor from the women-only planet of Whileaway (a place first seen in Russ' famous short story of first contact, 'When It Changed'), Joanna grows from mortified mediator to forthright feminist. Coming from a world without men, Janet functions as a beginner's guide to the network of assumptions and restrictions that is the patriarchy, cursed as she is with the conviction that others will treat as a human being rather than - as the quotation goes - a doormat or a prostitute. Initially, Joanna is alarmed by her unwanted guest's loud voice and unseemly (because unfeminine) behaviour; she chides and chivvies Janet into wearing more feminine clothes and learning to do as she is told ('sit down', 'we don't do that', 'you must', etc.). Then Joanna takes her to a cocktail party, and it all goes about as well as you might expect, particularly when Janet starts being subjected to harassment (the 'I' here is Joanna):
It's the host, drunk enough not to care.
Uh-oh. Be ladylike.
[Janet] showed him all her teeth. He saw a smile.
"You're beautiful, honey."
"Thank you. I go now." (good for her)
"Nah!" and he took us by the wrist. "Nah, you're not going."
"Let me go," said Janet.
Say it loud. Somebody will come to rescue you.
Can't I rescue myself?
All this time he was nuzzling her ear and I was showing my distaste by shrinking terrified into a corner, one eye on the party. Everyone seemed amused.
Joanna, looking back on the scene with a more cynical eye, notes drily how Janet fails to follow the script, imagined as a book in said man's possession, which explains how women will always back down, and give in (and here the narrative voice switches back and forth between Joanna's observation and extracts from the 'text' of the book). Janet does everything women are trained by society not to do: she makes no attempt to cushion her refusal, ignores the flattery, is unmoved by the suggestion that she's a prude, and not cowed by his increasingly violent insults - above all she fails to be blushingly polite, at every step of the way, to the man whose attention she never wanted in the first place and whose contempt only becomes more obvious the longer she subverts the script. Harpy. Ball-breaker. Uppity. Ugly bitch.
When the intrusive host won't shut up, Janet shrugs and knocks him to the ground. Her life has given her tools that Joanna and her contemporaries do not have, or would never contemplate developing in the first place; it simply isn't done for a woman to stand up for herself in this way. This isn't to say Whileaway is presented as a utopia; the way of life is heavily functionalist ("Whileawayans work all the time. They work. And they work. And they work"). It has rigid social structures of its own which, inevitably, means that some do not fit in, and are alienated. Janet, for one, expresses feelings of superfluity and constriction; she relishes the change of scene of travelling to other worlds, even if she has been sent on the mission precisely because she is not necessary to her society. As Gwyneth Jones notes in her essay 'In the Chinks of the World Machine: Sarah Lefanu on Feminist SF', the version of Whileaway we see in The Female Man is a satire of the all-women separatist worlds of 1970s feminist SF - as opposed to that in 'When It Changed', where it is a serious exploration of an environment in which women are not just people, but the people. In 'When It Changed', the women set the agenda, they are the yardstick against which humanity is measured; in The Female Man, they are a reaction, shaped to the argument being made.
Janet is a chaotic, liberating force for both Joanna and Jeannine; she is bemused by the social niceties - which boil down to the overriding dictat that women be nice - that she encounters in the worlds parallel to her own. The other worlds, in turn, are bemused by her: but how can women live without men? In another switch of narrative register, we're presented with the transcript from Janet's appearance on a chat show, in which the (male) interviewer struggles manfully with the notion that the women of Whileaway could possibly be happy without the almighty penis company of men:
MC: Don't you want men to return to Whileaway, Miss Evason?
MC: One sex is half a species, Miss Evason. I am quoting (and he cited a famous anthropologist). Do you want to banish sex from Whileaway?
JE (with massive dignity and complete naturalness): Huh?
MC: I said: Do you want to banish sex from Whileaway? Sex, family, love, erotic attraction - call it what you like - we all know that your people are competent and intelligent individuals, but do you think that's enough? Surely you have the intellectual knowledge of biology in other species to know what I'm talking about.
JE: I'm married. I have two children. What the devil do you mean?
In some ways - if not nearly enough - things have changed since The Female Man was published; episodes such as the cocktail party or Janet's TV interview are, in any case, painted with the exaggeration-for-effect that its science fictional elements allow. Most women today, at least in this country, are much less likely to encounter such overt hostility at a social gathering. (It's hardly unknown, though.) But the script remains familiar; even today, there can be few women who haven't encountered the men who, when ignored or given a summary brush-off on the street or in a bar, turn nasty because pushing button A didn't produce outcome B - or, in the case of the "Smile, love!" types, because they only ever wanted to command your attention and one way is as good as any other (what else, after all, could a woman have to think about anyway?).
Likewise, how often do we hear the half-joking, half-serious question when the topic of gay marriage arises: so which of you is the man, eh? Who's the husband, and who's the wife? Because 'traditional' marriage is definitely not about immutable, unequal gender roles, oh no. One character recalls to Janet how she was told - as a rebellious teenage girl whose skill at maths and failure perform femininity led to fears that she might become (gasp) a lesbian - that,
I must understand that femininity was a Good Thing, and although men's and women's functions in society were different, they had equal dignity. Separate but equal, right? Men make the decisions and women make the dinners.
The Female Man is polemic, not realism; it is an argument, an exhilarating salvo. Therein lies its continuing value - perhaps more than ever in a time when explicit misogyny may be frowned upon in many (or even most) quarters, but the implicit expectations of patriarchy remain operative, in near-silence. (See also: Mad Men.) Through Joanna, Russ calls out the party host's behaviour for what it is - not flattery, but a power play, a performance - and they remind women that we don't have to stick to the script. We don't have to smile and politely demur - to perform pretty, passive femininity - while we're yelling inside. Russ also, crucially, reminds us of the broader narrative that frames and necessitates such performances. A narrative that is still very much with us, as when - for example - so much of the commentary surrounding a high-profile, very accomplished woman's wedding takes it for granted that said wedding is the most important day of her life (and not, of course, of the groom's). (Meanwhile, unmarried women must be sponging off the state.) Elsewhere, Russ has Joanna mock the equally backhanded mythologising of motherhood: "This is the most important job in the world. That's why they don't pay you for it."
The embodiment of this fluffier (and more insidious) side of sexism - and the ways in which some women buy into, enforce, and perpetuate it - is Jeannine, a sheltered, infantilised flake from an alternative 20th-century US in which the Great Depression rumbles on. For much of the novel, Jeannine does not self-present; instead, we only see her through the eyes of the other Js, or third-person narration, or else through context-stripped transcripts/playscripts of her conversations:
JEANNINE: Mrs. Robert Poirier. Jeannine Dadier-Poirier. Ha ha! He's good-looking. Cal – Cal is - well! Still, Cal is sweet. Poor, but sweet. I wouldn't give up Cal for anything. I enjoy being a girl, don't you? I wouldn't be a man for anything; I think they have such a hard time of it. I like being admired. I like being a girl. I wouldn't be a man for anything. Not for anything.
ME: Has anyone proposed the choice to you lately?
Jeannine finally gets a voice of her own when she begins to find independence, a selfhood that exists above and beyond the femininity she is expected by her family, and society, to perform - that is, to be well-groomed and sweet-tempered at all times, so that she can make the transition from dutiful daughter to dutiful wife with ease. Jeannine is what a proper woman should be, like the middle-class ideals of the 1950s never went out of fashion. Joanna notes the mindset and behaviour that must be cultivated:
all I did was
dress for The Man
smile for The Man
talk wittily to The Man
sympathize with The Man
flatter The Man
understand The Man
defer to The Man
entertain The Man
keep The Man
live for The Man.
Of all the Js, Jeannine stuggles the most with what other women bring into her life. She is repulsed by a brief trip to Whileaway, where she feels "out of place", putting her hands over her ears and shutting her eyes and telling herself "I'm not here" so that she doesn't have to see the other women there - "big eyes, big breasts, big shoulders, thick lips, all that grossness", the female form without the male gaze to validate its attractiveness.
The polemic of The Female Man is at its most forceful, meanwhile, in Jael. If Jeannine's storyline explores familial pressures on women, Joanna's is concerned with their social and professional handicaps, and Janet shows us the opprobrium attracted by women who attempt to disregard men in their lives, Jael's role in the story is all about violence. She reflects on the first time she heard about a woman she knew being raped, and saw how it "creates a luminous and beautiful tableau in people's minds" of right and wrong and shame. "I slowly came to understand," she says, "that I was face to face with one of those shadowy feminine disasters, like pregnancy, like disease, like weakness; she was not only the victim of the act but in some strange way its perpetrator; somehow she had attracted the lightning that struck her out of a clear sky". Good girls don't get raped; she shouldn't have worn that, she shouldn't have walked there, she must have provoked him.
But Jael does not only remember violence; she also, discomfortingly, inflicts it, and revels in it. "I don't threaten. I don't play," she tells us, before she "gaily" murders a would-be rapist. Far from crying self-defence, however, in response to the horror of the other Js she lays claim, with pride, to her transgressive, unfeminine aggression: "'I don't give a damn whether it was necessary or not [...] I liked it.'" Her first-person narration is pure fury - a sharp, precise statement of intent that has absolutely no patience left with which to soften the blows of its bitten-off syllables:
For every drop of blood shed there is restitution made; with every truthful reflection in the eyes of a dying man I get back a little of my soul; with every gasp of horrified comprehension I come a little more into the light. See? It's me!
I am the force that is ripping out your guts; I, I, I, the hatred twisting your arm; I, I, I, the fury who has just put a bullet into your side. It is I who cause this pain, not you. It is I who am doing it to you, not you. It is I who will be alive tomorrow, not you. Do you know? Can you guess? Are you catching on? It is I, who you will not admit exists. [...]
I, I, I. Repeat it like magic. That is not me. I am not that. Luther crying out in the choir like one possessed: NON SUM, NON SUM, NON SUM!
More than any of the other main characters, too, Jael's narrative explores how the nominal beneficiaries of patriarchal social organisation convince themselves that they are doing the right thing, and how much they define themselves in opposition to women, struggling with their own self-image when their unexamined dominance over the 'fairer sex' - the dominance on which their selfhood and their place in masculine society depends - is challenged. (There is, of course, no room for feminist men in Jael's vision of the world.) Why are feminists so angry? This, she explains, is why: that they are expected to cultivate helplessness for the sake of some men's fragile egos, and to enjoy it:
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 to ensure the flattering deference to you that you consider a spontaneous tribute to your natural qualities. [...] On top of it all, you sincerely require me to be happy; you are naively puzzled that I should be so wretched and so full of venom in this best of all possible worlds.
In many ways, The Female Man is easy neither to read nor to like. It is spiky and difficult and uncomfortable, calculated to satirise and inspire anger - to demolish more than to build. But it is never less than urgently compelling, and, after all the enraging things its characters experience and recount, its conclusion is even uplifting - or, more accurately, cathartic:
Live merrily, little daughter-book, even if I can't and we can't; recite yourself to all who will listen; stay hopeful and wise. Wash your face and take your place without a fuss in the Library of Congress, for all books end up there eventually, both little and big. Do not complain when at last you become quaint and old-fashioned, when you grow as outworn as the crinolines of a generation ago and are classed with Spicy Western Stories, Elsie Dinsmore, and The Son of the Sheik; do not mutter angrily to yourself when young persons read you to hrooch and hrch and guffaw, wondering what the dickens you were all about. Do not get glum when you are no longer understood, little book. Do not curse your fate. Do not reach up from readers' laps and punch the readers' noses.
Rejoice, little book!
For on that day, we will be free.