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[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: 2009-06-25 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.


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