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: 2009-07-09 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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