sajbrfem: (Default)
[personal profile] sajbrfem
Welcome to the first month of the on-line Women in SF book club. If it is your first time at book club (as it is for all of us!) you must read...

This months book is Joanna Russ' The Female Man, and wow, what a way to begin!

My plan for this reading group is to give my thoughts on the book and maybe ask a few opening questions, then let people run free and do the same in the comments. Feel free to share your general impression of the text, pose questions, or run off in loosely related tangents as you feel.

My thoughts on The Female Man

Firstly let me reiterate 'wow'. I was totally drawn in to every paragraph of this book.

I do suspect that this is a text that will polarize readers, it seems like a kind of a love it or hate it kind of book. I must admit I did found it very difficult to read in a structural and narrative sense. The writing style is extremely fractured with deliberate (and often self conscious) messing around with point of view. I personally felt that this structure was very reflective of the characters and the narrative itself and very much served the 'show rather than tell' rule, allowing me to experience the confusion and multifaceted nature of the characters myself. Though I can understand that this aspect of the book may make some people want to give it away completely. And of course there is the rampant feminism that the author has not even tried to disguise with subtlety :)

It does all start to make sense and fall into place once you begin to suspect that they are all facets of the same character--and I don't think this is meant to come as a surprise, Russ leads the reader to make that conclusion by providing us with clues such as similar childhood memories e.g. both Janet and (I think) Jeannine's first sentences were "see the moon", and both Jeannine and Janet both remember being told that they don't have to climb Everest because a man will do it for them. And then Russ later writes "Alice-Jael Reasoner told us what you have no doubt guessed long, long ago."--Though to be honest I was expecting Russ to most likely leave the story open ended and not explain at all, leaving the reader able to draw their own interpretation.

It seemed to me quite early that the book was a kind of an SF 'what if' imagining of Virginia Woolf's Shakespeare's Sister idea. How do a woman's circumstances really effect her? What would the same woman be like if she was able to grow up in a world without patriarchy? "So plastic is humankind."

The last paragraph was particularly meaningful to me--as both a message and also as an example of how the author has played within the text--(the author speaking to the book):

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.

Sadly it seems we are not yet free. I found the philosophy written within The Female Man to be incredibly relevant and pertinent to my life today--so much so that I found myself perplexed for several moments when I read that the character Jeannine was living in 1969, wondering why Russ had chosen to set Jeannine so far in the past. Up to that point I had read every part of the action as present day and it had no way seemed out of place. I had completely forgotten that the text was written in 1973 (a year before I was even born!). So much of this book echos my own experience that I am stunned by how little has changed. Take for example the party scene (lauredhel quoted and discussed this scene earlier), I have definitely been to that party! The follow up to that with the blue book and the pink book is absolutely priceless:

The little blue book was rattling around in my purse. I took it out and turned to the last thing he had said ("You stupid broad" et cetera). Underneath was written Girl backs down—cries — manhood vindicated . Under "Real Fight With Girl" was written Don't hurt (except whores) . I took out my own pink book, for we all carry them, and turning to the instructions under "Brutality" found:

Man's bad temper is the woman's fault. It is also the woman's responsibility to patch things up afterwards.

There were sub-rubrics, one (reinforcing) under "Management" and one (exceptional) under "Martyrdom." Everything in my book begins with an M.

They do fit together so well, you know. I said to Janet:

"I don't think you're going to be happy here."

"Throw them both away, love," she answered.

The last line makes me want to cheer :)

An interesting thing when taking into account the date the book was written is the accuracy or a few of the technological speculations in the later part of the book, when the Js visit Jael's home:

I showed the Js around: the books, the microfilm viewer in the library in touch with our regional library miles away [internet!], ... I showed them Screen, which keeps me in touch with my neighbors, the nearest of whom is ten miles away [internet/dreamwidth!], Telephone, who is my long-distance backup line, and Phonograph, where I store my music [iPod!].

While not the first person to envision the internet as such it still struck me as a very intuitive speculation on the ways such a communication network might be used.

I also had a theory when reading early on that perhaps the Janet character was not actually in the physical space with the others, but was somehow watching via a continuous web-cam or reality tv channel--the way that she would say things to the others, sometimes pleading for different behavior, though was rarely heard, and she seemed to be able to disappear and tune out when she wanted. This turned out not to be the case, but I can easily see it happening now in a world that knows the Big Brother series.

There is so much more to say about this book, for me every paragraph held a gem, and so many quotable one liners! Please feel free to share your favorites. I now declare WiSF book club open!

(no subject)

Date: 2009-06-26 09:12 pm (UTC)
kathmandu: Close-up of pussywillow catkins. (Default)
From: [personal profile] kathmandu
Oooooohhh, one of my hot-buttons. I'll try to be coherent and moderate.

Yes, the 'her pay minus daycare costs' formula is not fair. You're both parents, so you're both responsible for taking care of your child, right? So half the cost of daycare should be charged against his income. Even if you're staying home doing all of it, half the going rate of daycare should be accounted as the value of services you're supplying to the family.

I also highly recommend a recent book called The Feminine Mistake. It is all about the issue of working after getting married or having kids, and it makes a lot of points about why continuous employment is better for you, your marriage, and your kids. One of the crucial points the author made was that it's not just a matter of this year's income versus this year's expenses.

Staying in the workforce means more chance of progressing on a career track, with promotions and raises. Leaving the workforce, even for one year, means you effectively start over at the entry level and entry-level salary; you lose the raises and promotions you got before you took time out, and would have gotten afterward.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-06-25 05:03 am (UTC)
lauredhel: two cats sleeping nose to tail, making a perfect circle. (Default)
From: [personal profile] lauredhel
I have lots to say about this, but just for a start: I was struck by the way in which some bits seemed rather dated, but some bits have remained (unfortunately) utterly fresh and current. I've mentioned the party scene, but there's also the wonderful Bingo section in the middle of the book, where Russ anticipates all of the antifeminist responses to the book itself, and strings them together.

We would gladly have listened to her (they said) if only she had spoken like a lady. But they are liars and the truth is not in them.

Shrill… vituperative… no concern for the future of society… maunderings of antiquated feminism… selfish femlib… needs a good lay… this shapeless book… of course a calm and objective discussion is beyond… twisted, neurotic… 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… hermetically sealed… women's limited experience… another of the screaming sisterhood… a not very appealing aggressiveness… could have been done with wit if the author had… deflowering the pretentious male… a man would have given his right arm to… hardly girlish… a woman's book… another shrill polemic which the… a mere male like myself can hardly… a brilliant but basically confused study of feminine hysteria which… feminine lack of objectivity… this pretense at a novel… trying to shock… the tired tricks of the anti-novelists… how often must a poor critic have to… the usual boring obligatory references to Lesbianism… denial of the profound sexual polarity which… an all too womanly refusal to face facts… pseudo-masculine brusqueness… the ladies'-magazine level… trivial topics like housework and the predictable screams of… those who cuddled up to ball-breaker Kate will… unfortunately sexless in its outlook… drivel… a warped clinical protest against… violently waspish attack… formidable self-pity which erodes any chance of… formless… the inability to accept the female role which… the predictable fury at anatomy displaced to… without the grace and compassion which we have the right to expect… anatomy is destiny… destiny is anatomy… sharp and funny but without real weight or anything beyond a topical… just plain bad… we "dear ladies," whom Russ would do away with, unfortunately just don't feel… ephemeral trash, missiles of the sex war… a female lack of experience which…

Q.E.D. Quod erat demonstrandum. It has been proved.

I'll need to read the book again to pick out the trans issues; my first read I was mostly struggling to get a handle on POV and the general story.

A couple of things which stood out as a bit dated to me, very much products of their time, was the idea of parent/child separation as an ideal (one could very much argue about whether that part was supposed to be Utopian or not, but I got the impression it was). I see this in other feminists today who subscribe to certain 70s schools, Firestone etc, who have this idea of an ideal society being one in which not just all adults help pitch in to care for kids, but kids rapidly shed any attachment to their family of origin at all.

The other thing that I think is a bit dated, but still fascinating to turn over, is what you've talked about in your post - the idea of extreme human plasticity. Again this idea reached its peak in circa 1970 gender discourse, leading to disasters like the John/Joan issue where a boy whose penis was destroyed in circumcision complications was raised as a girl, with tragic results.

Re: Family of Origin

Date: 2009-06-25 11:32 pm (UTC)
kathmandu: Close-up of pussywillow catkins. (Default)
From: [personal profile] kathmandu
The parent-child separation turned up in several works of feminist SF from that era; Suzy McKee Charnas' book Motherlines had children running through the camp in packs, without much interaction with adults, until they reached puberty.

I suspect a couple of things may have contributed to communal childrearing and separation from parents as an ideal. One was the feelings of mothers (and there was less access to contraception then, so more women responsible for raising children they didn't even want) who found themselves run ragged as the only responsible childrearer. They tended to think that if children are a necessary contribution to society's continuation, everyone should share the responsibility: it shouldn't be just the birth mother, overburdened, with maybe a little grudging help from other adults.

The other thing is that little nuclear households, especially if there's only one car and the man has it, are wonderful breeding grounds for abuse. Women who were abused by close family members sometimes concluded that familial isolation Had To Stop. Children should be in contact with lots of other people and not dependent on or forced to live with blood relatives.

Re: Human Plasticity and Trans Issues

Date: 2009-06-25 11:15 pm (UTC)
kathmandu: Close-up of pussywillow catkins. (Default)
From: [personal profile] kathmandu
I didn't read the section in Manland as being about trans issues at all. My understanding was that Russ was illustrating problems with culturally defined femininity: that 'feminine' gets defined in terms of what the ruling (male) class wants from us, regardless of how far that departs from reality. So women are supposed to be slim, busty, big-eyed, long-legged, deferential and passive, but sexually eager, even though most women are not any one of those things and practically no one is all of them at once. But people (especially men, and especially back in the seventies), told each real woman that she was failing to be womanly.

I think Russ was parodying that when she showed the Manlanders separating from women because they disliked real women so, but forcing some of their own to fake femaleness (to indulge the men's egos and sexual desires). They didn't want real women, but they wanted the social role of women.

And we, in the real world, get told that there are evolutionary reasons why men just naturally desire women of a certain physical appearance ... but actually the 'ideal' changes every few generations, and is different in other parts of the world. So we know it's not natural, it's cultural conditioning.

Russ illustrated that by having the Manlanders periodically ask the Womanlanders for physical specifications for their fake women. The Womanlanders, as a joke, sent the Manlanders specifications that were less like real women every time. The Manlanders never caught on, and conditioned themselves to desire the fakes, and perceived real woman as subpar.

Which reminds me of Shakesville's "Impossibly Beautiful" series, and Photoshop Disasters' examples of photos edited to show limbs in impossible positions, or a woman with no bellybutton because it's not 'sexy'. And I heard that the reason high-definition television has been slow to catch on is that you can see tiny wrinkles, sometimes even pores, and generations of men who've imprinted on (lower-res) porn now find that repulsive. Human beings have bellybuttons and pores and tiny wrinkles around their joints, but some men have been conditioned to where they apparently can't be turned on by real people, only by unreal images.

Re: Human Plasticity and Trans Issues

Date: 2009-06-26 02:03 am (UTC)
lauredhel: two cats sleeping nose to tail, making a perfect circle. (Default)
From: [personal profile] lauredhel
I think it's less that Manland is 'about' trans issues, and more that it erases them, odd as that might sound. A wholly binary gender system is assumed in the basic setup there. I don't think the segment is worthless or has nothing to say - please don't get me wrong - but I can see (and I'll need to re-read, as I mentioned) how the book is not exactly sensitive to the truth that many humans don't naturally have straighforward cis identities.

Re: Human Plasticity and Trans Issues

Date: 2009-07-10 04:22 am (UTC)
jetsilver: Photograph of bare tree branches against a winter sky. (Default)
From: [personal profile] jetsilver
I forgot to actually post my agreement with this comment the first time I read it, apparently.

I was also bothered by the confused scenario of whether there was choice involved, against how characters lived their lives if they did end up "trans" - and of course, the ever-present, problematic (but in this context, narratively necessary?) reinforcing that trans women are not women.

Re: On Humour

Date: 2009-06-25 07:24 am (UTC)
lauredhel: two cats sleeping nose to tail, making a perfect circle. (Default)
From: [personal profile] lauredhel
I think the rapid code-switching between humour and seriousness (and the overlap) is one of the really interesting and complex things about the book - and something that again I think I'd need a dedicated re-read to really get my head around.

But it was definitely hilarious. In parts.

I'm curious to hear what others think of the dubcon/noncon sex scenes.
Edited Date: 2009-06-25 07:25 am (UTC)

Re: dubcon stuff

Date: 2009-07-06 03:29 am (UTC)
lauredhel: two cats sleeping nose to tail, making a perfect circle. (Default)
From: [personal profile] lauredhel
I wasn't 100% convinced the first scene was 100% con - it seemed to me that Laur wasn't exactly an enthusiastic participant (at least, not from the start). Janet pushes her.

Laur lay stiffly back and shut her eyes, radiating refusal.

Janet turned out the bedside light.

Miss Evason then pulled the covers up around her shoulders, sighed in self-control, and ordered Laur to turn over. "You can at least get a back-rub out of it."

"Ugh!" she said sincerely, when she began on the muscles of Laura's neck. "What a mess."

Laura tried to giggle. Miss Evason's voice, in the darkness, went on and on: about the last few weeks, about studying freshwater ponds on Whileaway, a hard, lean, sexless greyhound of a voice (Laur thought) which betrayed Laura in the end, Miss Evason stating with an odd, unserious chuckle, "Try?"

"I do love you," Laur said, ready to weep. There is propaganda and propaganda and I represented again to Janet that what she was about to do was a serious crime.

God will punish, I said.

You are supposed to make them giggle, but Janet remembered how she herself had been at twelve, and oh it's so serious. She kissed Laura Rose lightly on the lips over and over again until Laura caught her head; in the dark it wasn't really so bad and Laura could imagine that she was nobody, or that Miss Evason was nobody, or that she was imagining it all. One nice thing to do is rub from the neck down to the tail, it renders the human body ductile and makes the muscles purr. Without knowing it, Laur was in over her head.

Re: On Humour

Date: 2009-07-21 07:16 am (UTC)
kathmandu: Close-up of pussywillow catkins. (Default)
From: [personal profile] kathmandu
"It occurs to me that, read quite seriously and literally the meaning of the reading would change completely--for example there isn't anything funny about ripping peoples throats out or breaking someones arm at a party."

This bit of the discussion made me think of Regina Barreca's book on women's humor, where she says: "The writer Kate Clinton has come up with a compact word for feminist humorists---'fumerists'---because it captures the idea of being funny and wanting to burn the house down all at once. Feminist humor, according to Clinton, 'is about making light in this land of reversals, where we are told as we are laughing, tears streaming down our faces, that we have no sense of humor.'" Inventing a word for it suggests this has come up before in feminist humor.

They say sometimes you have to laugh or cry, and Barreca suggests that laughing has more of an assertive element. Barreca devoted a lot of the book to the idea that, while a lot of masculine humor focuses on making fun of the weak and outcast, women's humor tends to poke fun at the powerful, as a form of self-defense or a way to regain perspective.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-06-25 12:04 pm (UTC)
emma_in_dream: (Due South)
From: [personal profile] emma_in_dream
I totally failed to find my copy of *The Female Man* but I do have fond memories of it. The Pink and Blue books - so true.

I recommend her *What Are We Fighting For* as the best introduction to the overlapping issues of race, class, sex and disability.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-07-07 03:38 am (UTC)
emma_in_dream: (Dark Angel friendship)
From: [personal profile] emma_in_dream
I also plan to have a read of 'how to suppress women's writing'.

Which is super but a bit focussed only on the white women's writings. You just have to accept that.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-06-25 09:29 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I feel slightly out of place in this discussion. Growing up in a conservative Christian household, and going to a Christian school as well.

I haven't really been out in the "real world" for very long, so I have a little trouble relating to the book.
Although I must say that sometimes it seems like I do all the work talking with a guy. Other times I have deferred to a boyfriend even if I thought I was right.

I loved the ending quote of the book. "Rejoice, little book!

For on that day, we will be free." Because I did have trouble relating to a lot of it. I wasn't brought up required to wear dresses, encouraged to wear makeup, or high heels.

I'm sorry if this doesn't apply very well to the book, but I'm still trying to grasp how it fits in my life. I don't have very much work experience yet, nor nearly as much life experience as I would like. Maybe in a couple of years, it will speak to me more than it does now.


(no subject)

Date: 2009-07-04 04:11 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I think the part of this book I can relate to most is the party scene. Most guys are looking for something different (ie. physical) in a relationship.

Also as says, it was the first time in her life that she had done something perfectly OK."

and I agree. If I get married. I want it will be one of the most important decisions of my life, I don't want to give into pressure.

It's interesting to hear all of the different view points in this group. And I think the view points are very applicable, because this book is science fiction, but it is also written with a hope that soon the book will be obsolete and make little sense to those reading it. I feel like that moment is coming, slowly and surely.

How times changed

Date: 2009-06-26 09:18 pm (UTC)
kathmandu: Close-up of pussywillow catkins. (Default)
From: [personal profile] kathmandu
One of the bits that stood out most to me was when Jeannine, the most oppressed one, agreed to marry her boyfriend. She didn't really want to marry him, but she couldn't progress in a career (because of discrimination), and she didn't have any other romantic prospects, and she couldn't stay single forever because her family was pressuring her to get married.

So she said yes, and then she told her family, and (quoted from memory) "it was the first time in her life that she had done something perfectly OK."

Just OK. Not scenes of rejoicing, not cause for celebration or congratulations. The best achievement of her life was just that no one could find grounds to criticize her right this minute.

I've read a lot of second-wave feminist writing, and I run into systemic sexism and casual insults myself, so sometimes it looks like all the same problems are still here unchanged. And then I run into something like that, and it shows me how much things have improved.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-06-28 07:51 am (UTC)
jetsilver: Black background with white text reading: "she showed him all her teeth. He saw a smile." (teeth)
From: [personal profile] jetsilver
I was glad to a break between finishing my first read and discussion starting, because I found this a complex book to sort out my reactions to.

Some parts I loved fiercely - the party, the pink and blue books, Russ' anticipation to what will be said of the work (or possibly, reprinting of reactions to previous works of hers), the epilogue. Janet describing how she turned into a man. The things I recognised as my own experiences.

I was incredibly interested in Janet's world, and intrigued by Jael's hints as to what happened to create it. I was interested in Jeannine, and her story, and the Joanna character's subtle disdain of her. I was a little squicked by Janet's relationship with Laur.

I found Jael in turns compelling and repulsive. I had to read a lot of the Manland sections with a wince to the trans issues there.

So, on reflection, I loved this book. It confused me, made me cheer, made me grin fiercely (showing all my teeth), disturbed me, disappointed me, hurt me, made me laugh.

And I pretty much fail at objectivity!

(no subject)

Date: 2009-07-09 02:42 am (UTC)
ext_348511: (Default)
From: [identity profile]
Joining the discussion very late here (work has been somewhat hectic for the last couple of weeks), but jetsilver's comment pretty much summarises my reaction to the book, too.

I also wanted to add something about the dubcon/noncon sex with Laur. I definitely thought it was problematic, but I got the impression that Russ recognised that, and was purposefully mirroring the stereotypical boy-pressures-girl dynamic (by "stereotypical", I do not mean "false", by the way) and, in doing so, trying to illustrate some of the wrongness with that dynamic.

I could be wrong about that. I'm keeping in mind the year the book was written, and the fact that at that time compared to now, more readers in the general community would have seen lesbian sex as "wrong", "unnatural" or "sinful". Perhaps Russ wanted to use this reaction to mirror what was/is maybe seen as perfectly normal and natural between het teenage lovers. I don't know whether that technique succeeds, necessarily. But given the rest of the book, I can't believe that Russ could have missed the problematic dubcon/noncon just because both participants were women.

Wrt trans issues: yes, what lauredhel said; I agree that there is an erasure of trans issues in Manland.

Also, did anyone else find it interesting that in Janet's time, surnames still used the "-son" suffix? That seemed to say to me that Russ was saying something like: even though that society got rid of men, it did not get rid of patriarchy completely (not just because of the fact that the suffix was "-son" rather than, eg, the Icelandic "-dottir", but also because the suffix was used at all - ie the importance of lineage). (PS I've just finished reading Woman on the Edge of Time and I think it provides an interesting contrast on that point.)

(no subject)

Date: 2009-07-09 05:38 am (UTC)
jetsilver: Photograph of bare tree branches against a winter sky. (Default)
From: [personal profile] jetsilver
Jo, your points about the dubcon sex are interesting - on reflection, I got that impression as well; that of deliberate mirroring of "normal" sexual relations between men and women. And it was that that shocked me all the more, as you say: how could Russ have included something like that in her book? It was a blindsided sort of moment for me as a reader. It seems unlikely that it was unintentional.

I don't know what I was supposed to get out of that scene, as a reader. I came away with an impression of - I think malice is too strong a word, but I can't think of better; perhaps contempt? - toward Laur from Janet. Perhaps for being afraid of sex with a woman, or afraid of sex full stop, perhaps reacting to internalised homophobia on Laur's part? I'm not sure. If so, that might also mirror an adult man's impatience with a girl's non interest in sex.

Jo, I don't have my book to hand just now, but I think I remember Janet telling us at one point that what we translate as "son" is actually more like daughter in her language, it's just that the Joanna timeline hears it as son. I did wonder about that choice myself; if it was just another way to illustrate the way Joanna's timeline is so heavily in favour of the male, it didn't make too much of a point of it.

Thanks for the clarification

Date: 2009-07-10 03:48 am (UTC)
ext_348511: (Default)
From: [identity profile]
Thank you both for that clarification (I admit to not re-reading the book for a couple of weeks, and I don't have my copy with me at the moment). So Russ was still making a point with the use of the suffix "-son", just maybe not the one that I was thinking about! :)

Also, I think that concept of the importance of lineage is still patriarchal, but maybe that's just me :) (And again, because of the contrast which I think Woman on the Edge of Time provides, but I figure it's a bit OT to bring that up in detail just yet ;) )

(no subject)

Date: 2009-07-14 02:12 am (UTC)
lauredhel: two cats sleeping nose to tail, making a perfect circle. (Default)
From: [personal profile] lauredhel
I think this is pretty close to my reaction. I recognised the dynamics between the two, I just wondered "Why?", and that was never really dealt with. It seemed to come out of nowhere, and sort of go nowhere in the end; the dissonance wasn't resolved. Maybe that was the point, but it didn't quite work for me.

Which is why it stood out so prominently, because most of the rest of the book is so skilfully crafted.


sajbrfem: (Default)

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