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Table Of Contents
III. The Party-Goers
1. Joanna - a female man in New York
2. Janet - a woman from Whileaway
IV. The Party Scene
Joanna Russ‘ The Female Man may strike the first-time reader as chaotic, a babylonic confusion of different voices, devoid of plot or any kind of traditional narrative continuity. Anyone who tries to find a hidden pattern behind the text does so in vain. The venture of an interpretation of the novel is, to say the least, a difficult one:
Students facing Joanna Russ for the first time, students who have learned to take modernist writers like James Joyce or Virginia Woolf without flinching, do not know what to make of The Adventures of Alyx or The Female Man, where characters refuse the reader's search for innocent wholeness while granting the wish for heroic quests, exuberant eroticism, and serious politics. The Female Man is the story of four versions of one genotype, all of whom meet, but even taken together do not make a whole, resolve the dilemmas of violent moral action, or remove the growing scandal of gender.1
Transferring the protagonists into different continuums gives the author the opportunity to confront different concepts of gender, because the societies they come from construct gender differently. The more these characters mingle, the more their respective sub-identities become strangely irrelevant - they are all J, after all. In the course of the novel it becomes increasingly difficult to pinpoint without doubt who is talking at a given moment. This strategy multiplies the number of justifiable interpretations.
This and the maximum length of the paper considered, I will restrict myself to the analysis of one example for such a confrontation of different constructions of gender. I have chosen the second chapter of the third part of the novel, which I will refer to as "the party scene" in the following. In this scene, Joanna takes Janet to a cocktail party without the guests' being aware that Janet is the mysterious visitor from another dimension. In order to prepare for the detailed analysis of this scene in part II of the paper, I will give an overview of the two participating main characters and their respective continuums in part I.
I. The party-goers
I. 1 Joanna - a female man from New York
Joanna lives in what can safely be considered as "our" reality, the 1969-New-York- version of it, to be precise. Her character is arguably the most prominent narrator of the novel. The St. James Guide to Science-Fiction Writers clearly sees Joanna in the novel's centre of gravity: "The book is built around the digressive journal of a present-day woman who encounters three other selves."2 A statement as definitive as this about a text as open and unconventional as The Female Man is prone to debate, of course. The other side of the spectrum, as represented by Michael Goodwin, does not even grant the novel a plot, let alone a centre of gravity. To him the four protagonists are merely "free-floating through a mirror-maze of events and characters."3
Joanna, at times quite explicitly based on the author herself4, is an intellectual and painfully aware of the suppression of women in her society. She knows what goes awry between the sexes but she does not break out of the conventions, both because she does not want to endanger her own place in society, and, as her evident cynicism suggests, because she does not expect anything to change anyway. She is, although she has a far greater understanding of the discrimination of women and the arbitrariness of the gender roles, even more pitiable than Jeannine, because she suffers greatly from the knowledge that her being a woman is inseparably connected to certain expectations of the men around her and certain patterns of behaviour towards her.
[If] you walk into a gathering of men, professionally or otherwise, you might as well be wearing a sandwich board that says: LOOK! I HAVE TITS! there is this giggling and this chuckling and this reddening and this Uriah Heep twisting and writhing and this fiddling with ties and fixing of buttons and making of allusions and quoting of courtesies and this self- conscious gallantry plus a smirky insistence on my physique - all this dreary junk just to please me.5
In order to survive in the struggle everyday life presents to a woman striving to succeed in a man's world, she adapts to it by completely renouncing her being female and basically behaving like a man, like 'One Of The Boys', who, as it is pointed out on several occasions scattered all over the book, rule the world.6
She collapses under the strain of the 'disembodiment' when a small encounter with a book-shop clerk shows her that in spite of the constant act she puts on she is, above all, perceived as a woman.
With familiar archness he waggled his finger at me and said "tsk, tsk"; all that writhing and fussing began again, what fun it was for him to have someone automatically not above reproach, and I knew beyond the shadow of a hope that to be female is to be mirror and honeypot, servant and judge, the terrible Radamanthus for whom he must perform but whose judgement is not human and whose service's are at anyone's command7
The great despair that overcomes Joanna when she realizes that how she behaves cannot disguise what she is renders her cynical, cold and brutal. "For years I have been saying Let me in, Love me, Approve me, Define me, Regulate me, Validate me, Support me. Now I say Move over."8 She begins to treat the world the way the men have treated her. Ironically, only the discovery that the reception of her femininity is not something she can change enables her to undergo this final metamorphosis into the creature that gives the novel its title:
I think I am a Man; [...] you will think of me as a Man and treat me as a Man until it enters your [...] papier-maché-bull-moose head that I am a man. (And you are a woman.) That's the whole secret. Stop hugging Moses' tablets to your chest, nitwit; you'll cave in. Give me your Linus blanket, child. Listen to the female man.9
I.2 Janet - a woman from Whileaway
Janet Evason is an emissary from Whileaway, which is earth in an alternate future. Russ originally invented Whileaway for her short story When it changed (1972) and developed it further for The Female Man, where the important aspects of Whileawayan society are described in great detail. In order to introduce Janet, I think it most effective to present the living conditions in her 'home universe', because that is what she is supposed to be representative of as an ambassador.
On Whileaway, only women exist due to an epidemic that killed all men thirty generations before the time when Janet is sent to Joanna's continuum. Their mastery of science and technology enabled the women to reproduce parthogenetically and to increase the work-power of one person thousandfold by means of an "induction helmet", to mention only two of the typically science-fictional super-powerful technologies Russ envisioned for Whileaway. She does not attempt to actually explain the exact process of the genetical engineering that renders the male contribution to reproduction unnecessary. The possibility of parthogenesis is merely an instrument for Russ to be able to outline a one-sex-society, and, having been interested (and successful) in natural sciences, she knows that the mere attempt to do so would inevitably be exposed to the danger of ridicule. Instead, as Sauter-Bailliet explains, Russ anticipates the inevitable disbelief towards these science-fictional inventions by not taking them too seriously herself.10
In general, Whileaway is depicted as a utopian place. There is no environmental pollution, in order to avoid dullness and boredom the people change their jobs regularly, just about everything is reason enough for the people to celebrate, including death, the acquisition of new shoes and nothing at all.11
The consequence of the absence of men for the construction of gender in Whileaway is simple: if there is only one gender, there is no need to construct it one way or the other. Above all, the Whileawayan is a human being, free of the tyranny of intersexual power struggles and foremost free of sexual violence, be it verbal or physical:
There's no being out too late in Whileaway, or up too early, or in the wrong part of town, or unescorted. You cannot fall out of the kinship web and become sexual prey for strangers, for there is no prey and there are no strangers [...] there is [...] no one who will follow you and try to embarrass you by whispering obscenities in your ear, no one who will attempt to rape you, [...] bitterly, bitterly sure that you are a cheap floozy [...] who can't say no [...]. You can walk around the Whileawayan equator twenty times [...] with one hand on your sex and in the other an emerald the size of a grapefruit. All you'll get is a tired wrist.12
The sexual relations in Whileaway, Sauter-Bailliet points out, are between two equal human beings and not subject to the power politics between men and women.13
There is no feeling of possesiveness in these relations. Monogamy is voluntary, polygamy is not condemned: "Vittoria is probably whoring all over North Continent by now, I should think. We don't mean by that what you do, by the way. I mean: good for her."14
The only sexual taboo is a great age difference between the lovers.
Nevertheless, is Janet's world really simply "a happy Utopia inhabitated by superior women who have gotten along supremely well ever since all the men died hundreds of years earlier?"15
Whileaway is more complex than that: "Whileawayans are not nearly as peaceful as they sound."16 Taking into consideration that the average Whileawayan life is a rather pre-arranged structure, with sometimes harsh duties and hard work inflicted upon the people, it is inevitable that a controlling authority of some kind exists. The novel only hints at it, but the 'Safety-and-Peace-Officers' responsible for the Whileawayan equivalent for 'law and order' are obviously licensed to kill:
A Belin, run mad and unable to bear the tediousness of her work, flees above the forty-eighth parallel, intending to remain there permanently. [The] S & P for the county follows her - not to return her for rehabilitation, imprisonment, or study. What is there to rehabilitate or study? We'd all do it if we could. And imprisonment is simple cruelty. You guessed it.17
The permanent undercurrent of violence and a sublime form of totalitarianism in the depictions of Whileaway add a decidedly menacing streak to the otherwise idyllic setting. It is not merely a mere escapist fantasy, but a realistic attempt to simulate an alternative evolution of mankind.
II.1 The Party
As a preparation for the party scene, chapter I of part three presents a twisted Pygmalion: Joanna has made it her business to teach Janet how to behave in her continuum, all the while secretly hoping for the "opera scenario that governs our lives"18 to happen:
...Janet would have gone to a party and at that party she would have met a man and there would have been something about that man; he would not have seemed to her like any other man she had ever met. Later he would have complimented her on her eyes and she would have blushed with pleasure; [...] She would have said: I Am In Love With That Man.That Is The Meaning Of My Life. And then, of course, you know what would have happened19
The wording "governs our lives" suggests that Joanna feels tyrannized by this romantic ideal and by the fact that everyone is supposed to crave for it. The description of the scenario itself is, in its breathless delivery in one single paragraph, reminiscent of a mantra, a recitation. The reader gets the impression that this story is something Joanna (and, as "our lives" suggests, every woman) knows by heart and would be able to "play back" like a shot.
Chapter II of part three of The Female Man is Joanna's account of the actual cocktail party she visits with Janet that ends in chaos and embarrassment because Janet fails to live up to the expectations towards female behaviour that are considered appropriate on such occasions. In other words, Janet is completely ignorant of the way gender is constructed in Joanna's continuum, because she comes from a dimension that only knows one sex. Putting such a character in the midst of a cocktail party automatically generates a regular flood of misunderstandings, awkward situations and inevitable faux pas on both sides. A party, at least a party like the one in question, is an especially fertile breeding ground for these complications because it is, figuratively speaking, a theatre of war of the battle of the sexes. Women try to be as attractive to men as possible and the other way round.
To Janet, the ultimate outsider, this concept is incomprehensible. The notorious matter of beauty and style is the first stepping stone Joanna trips over that Janet does not even acknowledge as a matter of any importance:
[My] hair feels as if it's falling down, my makeup's too heavy, everything's out of place from the crotch of the panty-hose to the ridden-up bra to the ring whose stone drags it around under my knuckle. And I don't even wear false eyelashes. Janet - beastly fresh - is showing her usual trick of the Disappearing Lipstick. She hums gently. Batty Joanna.20
The party scene's special atmosphere is constituted by two main elements: Janet's candour and its violation of the conversational and behavioural conventions and Joanna's acidic and razor-sharp observations of these conventions. She gives an overview of the assembled women, giving them speaking names that reduce them to the respective feminin pattern of behaviour they have adopted. There are, among others:
Lucrissa, whose strained forehead shows that she's making more money than her husband; Wailissa, engaged in a game of ain't-it-awful with Lamentissa; Travailissa, who usually only works, but who is now sitting very still on the couch, so that her smile will not spoil; I looked for Ludicrissa, but she is too plain to be invited to a party like this, and of course we never invite Amphibissa, for obvious reasons.21
The contempt that informs these lines fits into the characterization of Joanna, because in Joanna's helpless situation it is of course not only the men who subdue the women whom she disapproves of but also the women who let themselves be subdued so willingly. Quite consistently she includes herself in this depiction by saying "we" and even speaking of herself as "Joanissa"22. The idea of the New Feminism is ridiculous to these women, as they declare in unison when a male party guest dismisses it as unnecessary.23
Janet's attitude on entering the party is that of an excited child in the zoo: "[The] first uncontrolled contact with the beastly savages. 'You'll tell me what to do,' she says, 'won't you?' Ha ha. He he. Ho ho. What fun. She bounces up and down." On the party, Janet has three conversations with men, all of which go wrong on different levels. The first of these men, the "long, lean, academic, more-or-less young man."24 quite clearly makes a pass at her following the usual procedure by getting her a drink. Janet, unaware of the potentiallly sexual implications of this symbolic act, makes the alcohol the topic of conversation: "'Ethyl alcohol?' She puts her hand over her heart in unconscious parody. 'It is made from grain, yes? Food? Potatoes? My, my! How wasteful!'25 This remark, although utterly serious and honest, is mistaken as an attempt to charm him. When he takes the next step of the ritual of party courtship, Joanna senses danger and takes Janet away.
The second man, reduced to his ginger moustache by Joanna, is not as explicitly trying to conquer Janet as the first man, so Janet begins to take a certain degree of sympathy for him. His affection for her changes into cold fear when she reveals the origin of her scars:
'That's from my third duel,' she says,'see?' and guides Moustache's hand (his forefinger, actually) along her face. (...) This mad chick doesn't seem so nice to Moustache any more. He swallows. 'What do you fight about - girls?' 'You are kidding me,'says Janet. 'We fight about bad temper - what else? Temperamental incompatibility. Not that it's so common as it used to be but if you can't stand her and she can't stand you, what's to be done?' 'Sure,' says Ginger Moustache. 'Well, goodbye.'26
Paradoxically, the communication with Janet only functions as long as it goes wrong. The first man comes back and begins a conversation about feminism, which is especially dangerous subject matter, of course.
The comic effect of this scene results from the suspense Joanna is exposed to due to the fact that she is at no point able to foresee what Janet will do next. Observing Janet is a constant struggle for composure, especially for a woman like Joanna, who is so extraordinarily aware of the "sexually hostile rites between men and women".27 Every other little piece of party conversation, perfectly common under normal circumstances, might trigger disaster:
'For example,' he went on, (...) you have to take into account that there are more than two thousand rapes in New York City alone in every particular year. (...) Men are physically stronger than women, you know.' (Picture me on the back of the couch, clinging to her hair like a homuncula, battering her on the top of the head until she doesn't dare to open her mouth.)28
When of all people this man begins to make an amorous advance, Joanna cannot take the tension anymore and decides to call off the party.
The catastrophe happens only in the very last moment, when the host of the party embraces Joanna and Janet drunkenly in order to receive a good-bye kiss. Joanna, familiar with situations like these, gives into it in order to avoid a fuss:
If you scream, people will say you're melodramatic; if you submit, you're masochistic; if you call names, you're a bitch. Hit him and he'll kill you. The best thing is to suffer mutely and yearn for a rescuer,but suppose the rescuer doesn't come?29
As opposed to that, Janet, in whose original universe these categories do not even exist, does not feel in the least obliged to endure this annoyance. When the host does not oblige her repeated request to be let gone, she uses brute force and throws him on the ground. In the scene that follows this first act of violence on Janet's part, the rules for male and female behaviour are metaphorized in the respective blue and pink little books everyone carries around. He begins to shout at her what his book considers insults to her femininity. These, of course, completely fail to cause the desired effect, because a woman independent of and unimpressed by masculinity can hardly be hurt by the statement that "no normal male could keep up an erection within half a mile of her."30 It is only when he calls her a baby that she reacts, but, this too a very Whileawayan trait of character, she reacts with counter-aggression and not with feeling hurt. Another fight ensues, in which he is defeated for the second time.
The male aggression of the host, literally 'by the book', holds no power over Janet, simply because she does not have the counterpart of this set of rules. The whole intention of the party scene (if not the entire novel) culminates in Janet's last line, uttered when Joanna, who has picked up the host's blue book, compares it to her pink one: "Throw them both away, love".31
The Female Man is a novel so rich and multi-layered that literally every little chapter, every enigmatic aside, spawns a whole new world of associations. It is only when you take into consideration that the novel deals with the idea of the existence of infinite parallel universes and establishes the possibility of travel between these continuums that you understand the seamless shifting between different settings, times and points of view to be essential to the novel. The Female Man is, if you will, not only about multiple dimensions, it attempts to be a multi-dimensional narrative in itself.
The party scene has a special standing in the midst of this recklessly avant-garde and New Wave novel, because its subject matter is rather conventional. As opposed to settings like Manland or Whileaway, cocktail parties in New York are nothing new to modern literature. It is Russ' accomplishment to have taken a fresh look at this well-known subject and to have created a description of a party that is an unforgettable and entirely new experience for the reader.
Russ, Joanna. The Female Man. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986.
Bainbridge, William S. Dimensions of Science-Fiction. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986.
Haraway, Donna J.: Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, London: Free Association Books, 1991.
Sauter-Bailliet, Theresa. "Joanna Russ, The Female Man (1975),"Der Science Fiction-Roman in der angloamerikanischen Literatur. ed. Hartmut Heuermann. Düsseldorf: Bagel, 1986. 355-377.
"Russ, Joanna", St. James Guide to Science-Fiction-Writers. ed. Jay P. Pederson. 4th edition. Detroit: St. James Press, 1996. 793-794.
"Damn it, Janet!", title of a song from the musical motion picture The Rocky Horror Picture Show, (1975) which deals with sexual liberation and the breaking up of traditional gender roles.
Cover artwork of mechanical animals (1998) by Marilyn Manson, a rock musician whose songs and stage persona deal with topics like male and female identity and androgynism.
1 Haraway, Donna J.: Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, (London: Free Association Books, 1991) 178.
2 "Russ, Joanna", in: St. James Guide to Science-Fiction-Writers, ed. Jay P. Pederson, 4th edition, (Detroit: St. James Press, 1996) 794.
3 Goodwin, Michael, quoted in: Contemporary Literary Criticism, vol. 15 (Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1983) 461.
4 In one elaborately hedged aside anticipating the expectable critical scolding of the novel even her surname is mentioned (pages 140-141).
5 Russ, Joanna., The Female Man, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1986) 133.
6 Sauter-Bailliet, Theresa: "Joanna Russ, The Female Man (1975),"Der Science-Fiction-Roman in der angloamerikanischen Literatur, ed. Hartmut Heuermann (Düsseldorf: Bagel, 1986) 368.
7 Russ, 134.
8 Ibid., 140
9 Ibid., 140.
10 Sauter-Bailliet, 362.
11 Russ, 102-103.
12 Ibid, 81-82.
13 Sauter-Bailliet, 362.
14 Russ, 79.
15 Bainbridge, William S.: Dimensions of Science-Fiction, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986) 191.
16 Russ, 49.
17 Ibid, 55.
19 Ibid, 30.
20 Ibid, 33.
21 Russ, 34.
22 Sauter-Bailliet 364
23 Russ, 37.
24 Ibid., 35.
25 Ibid., 36.
26 Russ, 41.
27 Spector , Judith A. as quoted in: Sauter-Bailliet, 364.
28 Russ, 44.
29 Russ, 45.
30 Ibid., 46.
31 Ibid., 48.
- Quote paper
- Benjamin Hessler (Author), 2001, "Damn it, Janet!" - The Party Scene in "The Female Man" by Joanna Russ, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/102884