Everyday Semiotics

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Joanna Russ’ “The Female Man” (1975) is one of the most challenging books I’ve read in a long, long time.

First because I am a male and the book is openly hostile toward males.

Secondly because, unlike a lot of other science fiction, it doesn’t let you get comfortable after it has estranged you. That is to say: Once you’ve figured out that androids are an underclass you’ve pretty much got “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” under control. But with unexpected bursts of narrative jujitsu, “The Female Man” keeps upending the reader’s control over it.

It’s all very pomo and self-referential and I don’t know how I feel about that type of thing anymore … but here it seems necessary in a non-abstract way. Russ devotes a page and a half to fragments of very probable book reviews, worth quoting at length:

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 …

I’ll stop there because that last one’s the one that really kicked me in the balls. The mode of the foregoing is easily recognizable: moving from outright dismissal to condescension and at all times chauvinistic. Then imaginary critic No. 26 invokes his own deficiency in understanding “the female perspective,” but the condescension is still taut.

This stings because I have spoken words to this effect to a woman --- and I know I’m not the first --- and now I have been given them back to ponder. How much more sarcastic could this phrase be, “a mere male”? Rhetorically it’s very elegant because it compacts whole paragraphs of opposite meaning into that one word “mere.”

I never realized.

Men in “The Female Man” excel at being deaf and dumb (Cf. Boss in Eight/VIII and Davy in Eight/XI). Men in this book are assaulted by women for being ignorant. One is killed. Holy shit.

I’m in a weird sort of double bind trying to write about this novel: On the one hand I feel like anything I could write would, at best, convince Joanna Russ to keep walking if she ever found me bleeding to death in the street. On the other hand I feel silly for feeling that way. But that’s not simply a contrarian reaction of the first feeling: I think it has more to do with being afraid of committing the sin of trapping myself in the gender binary while at the same time fearing the binary is inescapable.

Both pretty weak positions from which to be actively offering critical insights.


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At 6:42 PM, Blogger Pirate Prentice said...

On a lighter note …

“The Female Man” has been on my reading list for a few years now, recommended way back when by Chip Delany, in whose gender-critical writing I once was steeped. I knew nothing about the book’s content ahead of time. Could it have been coincidence, though, that I requested it via interlibrary loan shortly after finishing “Y: The Last Man”?

Janet Evason’s world, Whileaway, endured its own (albeit protracted) gendercide, leaving a civilization entirely of females, whose genetic science is luckily advanced enough to allow continued reproduction.


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