This book won a Nebula Award, and is considered to be a classic of feminist science fiction.
I remembered that long ago I had read a short story collection by Russ (Extra(ordinary) People) and really disliked it. I also read her novel ‘We who Are About To' and was seriously unimpressed. But I didn't think I'd read The Female Man, so I was willing to give it a go due to its classic status and all... Reading it, I realized that I had actually started reading it long ago - but I think I QUIT part way through, because only the beginning was familiar. That is so unusual for me - I hardly EVER quit reading a book. But it was so bad.
Seriously, stuff like this is why I don't call myself a feminist - I just don't want to be associated. It wasn't empowering, it was stereotyped and cliched, and DEPRESSING - not depressing because of women's place in the world, depressing because the author comes through as a sad, lonely, bitter, nasty person, full of resentment and hate for EVERYONE. I consider myself to be a strong, independent woman who at least tries to love life and embrace happiness – and, according to this type of woman, that's not feminist.
And on top of that, it wasn't even well-written. It's scattered, awkward, without any coherent plot. It's just badly thought-out – more like random thoughts and polemical jottings than an actual novel. (I guess one would call this a ‘postmodern' style, if one wanted to dignify it.)
There are four main characters (although one doesn't show up till most of the way through the book). They are from different worlds, and there's some vague mention of travelling between worlds, which I suppose is the justification for it being called sci-fi, but it's really more of a metaphorical device, so that the different ‘types' of women can interact.
Joanna - is obviously the author. In the book, she comes across as unhappy, and without much notable personality.
Jeannine - is a cliché of a weak woman oppressed by Man. She lives in a world where the Depression never ended, and is the worst stereotype of a librarian. (As a librarian, this offends me). She has a fiance that she's not attracted to, (she doesn't seem to like sex at all) but she feels the need to Be With A Man and Get Married due to personal loneliness and social pressure.
Jael - is from a future world where women are at war with men. She is the cliché of the woman who acts like a Man because she thinks that is what one needs to do to get ahead. She likes sex and has a cloned, nearly-brainless male sex toy.
Janet - comes from Whileaway, an all-female world (men died in a plague 900 years ago). This seems to be Russ' idea of a utopia – sort of. It's AWFUL! It's also kind of weird. The women of Whileaway are kinda stocky, have big butts, and wear pajamas all the time. (no makeup, of course!) They're really smart and technologically advanced. They live in group families, but travel separately all the time and don't form long-lasting intimate bonds, usually. They have sex, but it's a stress-free, unromantic kind of sex. (There is a funny scene describing a dildo when a young woman from ‘our' world finds one on Janet's bed – ok, that's the best part of the book). They work very few hours, but because they are intelligent and therefore not suited to work (?!) they think they work all the time. They're always changing jobs and being sent to different places, without any say-so. The death penalty is in effect for those who try to avoid these duties. There's no overarching government and no wars, but the society, which is the same planetwide, seems just as oppressive as any government, and fatal duels are frequent and accepted. Children live at ‘home' till 5, then are sent to crèches, then leave to begin independent life at 12. All these peoples' lives seem to be completely devoid of fun.
From this, I take away that: Joanna Russ probably likes big butts. ;-) (Oh, she also definitely likes smoking but doesn't like drinking) She has serious problems forming deep relationships with lovers or children (she really doesn't seem to UNDERSTAND intimate relationships at all), and she secretly(?) wishes for an incredibly homogenous, organized society where everyone has an exactly equal place, without any need to put effort into developing your own identity and having to create that place for yourself. Because life is hard, she's decided that the Reason is MEN. When she fails to find common ground with other women, she says that's because those women have been subverted by MEN and MALE-DOMINATED SOCIETY.
I disagree strongly. I don't think that, fundamentally, women are any different than men. I don't think that a woman-only society would be war-free or homogenous. Moreover, I don't WANT that homogenous kind of society on any level! I would rather go through the trauma of finding myself than have an identity basically handed to me. I don't think that the reason that people have problems in relationships or problems with loneliness is because we have two genders – I think it's inherent to humanity. People can have ALL KINDS of disagreements that have nothing to do with gender. All men are not the same. All women are not the same. Yes, life can sometimes be really hard. It can be lonely. But really, the problem isn't sexism. I'm not saying that sexism doesn't exist, or that it doesn't need to be addressed – but the real problems of sexism are not addressed here at all.
I guess a surprising part of this book to me was the hatred of other women. (I expected the man-hating.) But there is just so much vitriol here directed toward women. It's like Russ is so unhappy that she deeply resents any woman who seems happy with her life. She sees them as lying or brainwashed – as Jeannines or Jaels. She feels that individual success (or empowerment) and what society considers to be ‘femininity' are mutually incompatible. It's actually a bit enlightening, to see this perspective – but I just wanted to yell, "No! You're just WRONG! You don't understand PEOPLE!" at so many points during this book.
At one point in the book, Russ throws in a page or two of excerpts of criticism of her work. I had to laugh, because I totally agreed with about 70% of it - Part 7, Section III: "maunderings of antiquated feminism...this shapeless book...some truth buried in a largely hysterical...of very limited interest. I should ... another tract for the trash-can...burned her bra and thought that . . . no characterization, no plot...really important issues are neglected while...another shrill polemic which the...this pretense at a novel...trying to shock... the usual boring obligatory references to Lesbianism [and statutory rape no less!]... drivel." (I don't have the book on me, so I copied that from a web page – there were more accurate bits in that section, I thought, but you get the idea.)
Oh, the other funny thing is that in at least two places in the book she praises Kate Millett. I met Millett. She used to live on the Bowery, and she'd occasionally stop by CBGB Gallery. She came by one time during my club night, and started talking to me at the door. She seemed almost unwilling to believe that the night was 'mine,' (how could a woman be in charge?) and then started yelling (well, practically) at me because the music that was playing wasn't a woman. I tried telling her (which was true) that although the singer was male, the bass player in the band was a woman, but that didn't seem to count, somehow. She was just going on about how I should support women. (Oh, and she was definitely bona fide CRAZY).