The Female Man

by Joanna Russ
Reviewed date: 2010 Nov 9
Rating: 1
214 pages
cover art

The characters in The Female Man are:

  • Jeannine lives in a world where the Depression never ended. She is trapped by strict gender roles, and debates endlessly with herself about whether or not to marry her longtime boyfriend Cal.
  • Joanna comes from a world much like our own. She is often a stand-in for the author. She rebels against the gender roles. By the end of the book, she becomes a female man and a lesbian.
  • Janet is from Whileaway, a future Earth where men are extinct. She visits Joanna's world and marvels at the strangeness and silliness of the social conventions built around gender.
  • Jael's world is constantly at war. Men live in Manland, women in Womanland, and never the twain shall meet.

There is little plot to speak of: Janet slips across to visit Jeannine's world, and together they visit Joanna's world where Joanna shows them around. Janet turns a teenage girl (Laura) into a lesbian. Then Janet, Jeannine, and Joanna visit Whileaway. Next they are all brought to Jael's world. Jael takes them to visit Manland, where she conducts peace talks with a Manlander diplomat. The cartoonishly sexist Manlander makes a clumsy, sexist pass as Jael, so she murders him. Joanna becomes a Female Man. Jael asks if she can use Jeannine's world as a secret military base, and Jeannine agrees. The end.

There is a big deal about Joanna becoming a female man, but it's never explained precisely what that means.

The novel is written in a semi-stream-of-consciousness style. Further, it's written from a fluid first person perspective. No matter who is talking--Jeannine, Joanna, Janet, Jael, or the author--it is always I. And it shifts from person to person, sometimes within the same sentence. It's a conscious choice on the author's part, to illustrate how the different women are all essentially the same person, just in different environments. I can't say that it works. It disrupts the storytelling. On the other hand, the author isn't terribly interested in good storytelling. She's writing a book about women, sexism, and feminism. If the storytelling suffers, so be it.

I can't comment on the feminist message in the book. The world today certainly is different from the world of 1970 when Joanna Russ wrote The Female Man. But as a work of science fiction storytelling, The Female Man fails. It was a chore to read and I derived no satisfaction from it.

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