The Female Man (End-of-book post)

[Previous The Female Man post] This book took me a long time.  Hopefully, none of the other books take me anywhere near this long, because I want to read at least three more books and I don't have three more months in which to do it.

That said: This was a pretty good book. Review portion of the post, no major spoilers:  In this book, Joanna Russ evaluates gender as a class system from every angle I could have thought of, and at least two more.  She does so vividly, and clearly.  This book demands a lot of attention, there was nothing in it that I could glide through the way I could with The Ophiuchi Hotline, but it's not difficult -- everything you need to understand is there in the text.  Russ designed the book so that the readers could understand.[1. I think. I don't have a quote to back me up on this or anything.]

It reminds me of 1984 in that way -- that it explores complicated and subtle forms of oppression by using science fictional plot elements, sometimes to exaggerate, sometimes to provide contrast, and sometimes just to show reality as it actually is. But where Orwell was highlighting the oppression of a government, which plans and organizes and has things written down and spelled out, Russ highlights the oppression of culture, which isn't planned or organized by anyone or any group in particular, but is sustained by handed-down traditions and expectations and prejudices.

(I don't know if I've mentioned it here before, but Russ has a non-fiction book, How to Suppress Women's Writing, that explores that kind of institutional social oppression in a much more organized, point-by-point way.)

That said, there are significant issues with how Russ portrays trans identities later in the book. The context is such that, if you stretch for a benefit-of-the-doubt reading, you can avoid a blatantly transphobic reading, but the fact that, later in her life, Russ said that she had been disabused of past prejudices towards trans people[2. Delany, Samuel R. and Russ, Joanna. "The Legendary Joanna Russ Interviewed by Samuel R. Delany." Broad Universe Broadsheet. Broad Universe. Feb. 2007. Web. March 30, 2014.] damages the credibility of that claim.

Alright, so that's the stuff I wanted to say about the book that doesn't depend on spoilers.  Everything below is for my project, and will make no effort to conceal the content of the book for your enjoyment.

Spoilers start here.

The main thing I want to talk about in The Female Man is trans identities -- or, the sort-of-absence of them.  I wrote in the last post about a character who was dissatisfied with her role as a woman in society, but she didn't seem to be experiencing gender dysphoria, exactly?

The issue of trans people shows up much more vividly later on, in the fourth world.[3. There are four worlds in The Female Man, which I'll refer to in what I think was their order of appearance: 1. the real world, home of the character called Joanna, who calls herself the author (I have complicated and irrelevant thoughts on authorial insertion), 2. Jeannine's world, an alternate present-day ('70s) America in which WWII never happened and the great depression didn't end, 3. Whileaway, an alternate distant future with a past similar to Jeannine's world, in which men have been completely wiped out for hundreds of years, 4. Jael's home world, which features complete gender segregation and a full-scale, guns-and-bombs war between the sexes that spans multiple planes of existence.] I don't remember seeing much of the exclusively-women's civilization in the fourth world, but we see a tour of the exclusively-men's civilization. There, hegemonic masculinity is the most fundamental rule, and here's where the biggest issues emerge with trans identities.

In the men's world, some people are forced to transition.

Part Eight, Chapter VII, Pg. 167:

Manlanders buy infants from the Womanlanders and bring them up in batches, ... keep them in city nurseries until they're five, then out into the country training ground, with the gasping little misfits buried in baby cemeteries along the way. There, in ascetic and healthful settlements in the country, little boys are made into Men -- though some don't quite make it; sex-change surgery begins at sixteen.  One out of seven fails early and makes the full change; one out of seven fails later and (refusing surgery) makes only half a change: artists, illusionists, impressionists of femininity who keep their genitalia but who grow slim, grow languid, grow emotional and feminine, all this the effect f spirit only.  Five out of seven Manlanders make it; these are "real-men." The others are "the changed" or "the half-changed." All real-men like the changed; some real-men like the half-changed; none of the real men like real-men, for that would be abnormal.  Nobody asks the changed or half-changed what they like.

I mentioned above a possible reading giving Russ the benefit of the doubt: that the forced feminization of Manlanders who fail to demonstrate sufficient masculinity is meant as an exaggerated criticism of the way hegemonic masculinity affects men who fail to live up to the ideal of the "real-man." In that reading, Russ is only completely failing to think of trans women while she constructs this world.

The less charitable reading is that Russ bought into the prejudice that trans women are men trying to infiltrate women's spaces or replace women in the social order.

(Now that I flip through my bookmarks, I'm noticing more lines that can be read as transphobic.)

I think this book is important, and I'm glad I read it for this project. I also think it was really good, and I wish I could recommend it without reservation as a fantastic exploration of patriarchy and internalized misogyny.  The transphobic parts make real, strong points about masculinity, but I urge anyone who reads this book on my recommendation to look into the treatment of trans women in second-wave feminism and take care to separate Russ's prejudices from her criticism of hegemonic masculinity.

Next, I'm going to be reading Mission Child by Maureen McHugh, because it's the only other book I've got for this project that's a mass-market paperback and I want a break from carrying a trade paperback, because trade paperbacks suck.[4. Trade paperbacks don't suck.  They just don't fit neatly into my coat pocket.]

EDIT immediately after publication: I just want to add a citation to this article,[B., Stephen. "Joanna Russ 1937-2011." Bad Reputation. Bad Reputation. May 10, 2011. Web. March 30, 2014.] an obituary of Russ, for later reference.  I'm also adding a hyperlink to that interview with Russ that I cited, because citations don't contain hyperlinks.