Book Review: The Female Man

The Female Man
The Female Man by Joanna Russ
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I’m still trying to decide if I liked this book.

Being a meta lover, I dug Russ’s writing style. It had this wonderful stream of consciousness that reminded me of Virginia Woolf, particularly during Jeannine’s parts. I also kind of liked the whole breaking the fourth wall aspect, though it made for difficult reading. I remember when it came to me like a jolt that all three characters were the same person. And I felt proud for recognizing that.

But aside from the writing style, I grew bored with the story real quick. I’m sure when it first came out, it was amazing and it rattled cages and whatnot. I also got a lot of the anger Russ was expressing. But I couldn’t identify with it. Part of it is the characters. There’s no real women or men in here, just cardboard cutouts. Aside from the “J”s, all the women are either asinine or male versions of women, and all the men are chauvinistic sexaholics. It got old real quick.

The whole “get married, then stay at home and be pretty” lifestyle Russ rants about just did not apply to the black women of my childhood. My grandma did laundry for a living, put herself through nursing school and had several kids through different men (she eventually married the last one). She didn’t have time to sit around looking pretty. There was this whole educated white woman privilege theme running through the story that grew wearying after a while. There were even a couple of scenes where Russ lapses into black slave “Massah” talk. I know she was trying to show how farcical it was for women to put on a show for men, but to try to compare that with how Black people were treated in that time was very ignorant and stupid on Russ’s part.

I really wanted to read more about Whileaway. Russ told us all these details, but the story never focused on it. It was more Janet playing commentator: “I’m a visitor here! Your world is weird!” Then she sort of faded into the background. At least Jeannie’s story grew on me, simply because it was the most complete and coherent. Joanna grew tiresome after a while with all her man hate. By the time Jael came along, I was skipping more pages than reading them. Laura, the only female character not a “J”, faded in and just as quickly faded out. What I wanted was a science fiction story. What I got instead was a long diatribe dressed up in science fiction clothes.

Was Russ’s anger justified? Yes, I think so. Did this book need to be written? Yes, absolutely. Is it relevant now? Is many of the ideas in it still relevant? As I write this, everyone is talking about Steubenville. It feels like nothing’s changed. And yet there are women and men alike challenging rape culture, calling out the media for their coverage. So people are at least more aware and crying out for justice and change.

But was this a good story? I don’t think so. I think I’m going to go read When it Changed, which I believe has what I want: a story set in Whileaway, and Russ’s good writing to boot.

View all my reviews

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