The Purpose and Utopic Nature of Violence in Russ’ “The Female Man”
Russ’ The Female Man is a key text of feminist science fiction. Writing in response to Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, Russ explores “gender, Utopia and the divided self” (xii) in her convoluted narrative that spans multiple universes and hundreds of years. A key concept in this exploration is arguably the theme of violence, which plays a prominent part throughout the various plotlines. Postulated as both a cause of and answer to female repression, female violence serves various purposes in the four different universes, from Joanna’s attempt to subdue Janet’s independence, to Jael’s visceral murder of a man who propositions her. Russ’ use of violence is in places shocking, in others cathartic, but always thought provoking as she seeks to close the gap between what her women essentially are, and what they (in the case of Joanna and Jeannine in particular) pretend to be.
While not a utopian text in and of itself, The Female Man contains within it a world many critics describe as utopian: Whileaway. However, Whileaway also contains examples of violence, which instinctively seems to contradict the idea of a perfect society, or a traditional utopia. However, in considering Whileaway as a response to and reflection on the deficiencies of female agency, an argument could be made that the perpetration of violence could be read as a utopian element.
Russ’ narrative structure purposefully blurs the lines between the four worlds she explores. Through the segmentation of her chapters (parts), with often little obvious continuation between speakers and events, Russ invites comparison between characters, episodes, worlds, and occasionally between the fictional situations of the book and reality. The reader is forced to piece together multiple plotlines and events, all the while exploring the minds and stories of four different women – who are then revealed to all be the same women, in different time continuums. This muddling of events and persons forces the audience to reflect on the theme of the “Everywoman”; the shared experience of the female gender, and the role women are relegated to, despite differences in culture and society. In turn, the novel contains many different examples of violence, in many contexts and of varying severity. The treatment and purpose of female violence, in such a convoluted text, is difficult to ascertain and streamline. However, there are underlying themes and ideas which intersect and are amplified by Russ’ portrayal of female violence, as well as surrounding political structures which both validate and condemn violence throughout the novel. Violence is thus arguably not only a novel inclusion here, but intrinsic to the effect of the text as a whole, helping develop the characters, the conclusion, and indeed the reader’s understanding of reality through reflections on the limitations women are subjected to in society.
The beginning of The Female Man is littered with examples of not only male oppression, but female repression: “I’ll watch the ailanthus tree” (4) Jeannine thinks, in agreeing to make love without wanting to. “Say it loud. Somebody will come to rescue you.” (44) Joanna instructs Janet, while praying she doesn’t rescue herself. Although both Jeannine and Joanna’s social worlds are the product of previous male oppression, the majority of the action concerns women and their interactions with one another. Violence in The Female Man works primarily with this repression as being of more importance, part of the ‘divided self’. We see violence perpetrated in three main ways: to support repression, to combat repression, and regulated in the unrepressed society of Whileaway. In supporting repression, Joanna ineffectively attempts to contain Janet, working towards ‘civilising’ her. During the party on Joanna’s earth, Joanna repeatedly kicks and even strangles Janet, in an attempt to prevent her from upending the status quo of male-female interactions. Interestingly, although depicted as quite vicious, it is unclear as to whether or not these actions are actually perpetrated, or whether they take place solely in Joanna’s mind as she watches on. The lack of reaction to Joanna’s actions by their male companions suggest that Joanna was either incredibly subtle, or did not actually touch Janet. However, one man does notice a change in Janet’s expression, supposedly due to Joanna’s restraint, and he chalks it up to his own effect on her, showing comical ignorance of the actions of women outside his own presuppositions. The latter idea echoes strongly with other episodes throughout the book – the interview between Janet and the male reporter upon first contact, for example, or Cal’s sexual persistence despite Jeannine’s aversion. Joanna’s violence, then, can be treated either literally or metaphorically, although there is a stronger case for reading it literally. In any case, it perpetuates the doctrine of her world; that women are secondary to men, to the point that women themselves will punish other women who overstep their bounds. This episode also touches upon the theme of invisibility, which both Joanna and Jeannine try to circumvent, and Janet and Jael are confused by and ignore respectively. The latter two women, used to being both seen and heard amongst the women of their own worlds, break through this lack of acknowledgment through violence – the two major scenes of violence in the novel.
In the first half of the book, Janet becomes the subject of unwanted sexual attention, relegated to the position of an object to be imposed upon rather than a person in her own right. Having already spent the better part of an evening attempting to at least partly follow the social mores of the partygoers, Janet loses patience and physically subdues the male host, although she does not cause lasting harm. In contrast, when Jael is subjected to unwanted male attention while she attempting to conduct business in Manland, she relishes in the anger this stirs up within her, and violently kills the man in question.
Although each situation differs in context and outcome, the interactions between men and women in both episodes follow essentially the same structure. The men and women come together for conversation, during which the men are presented as comically oblivious to their own sense of inflated superiority. The men automatically treat the women as being inferior, seeing them first and foremost as sexual objects to bolster their own egos. The women initially quietly refrain from upsetting the flow of things, until the men’s overtures overstep their bounds, resulting in the women quickly and physically subduing them.
The physical reactions of both Janet and Jael are cathartic in different ways. With Janet, we see a character who has already been established as being intelligent, independent, and entirely self-sufficient, pigeon-holed into the position of a helpless, sexual object:
If you scream, people 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? (45)
This role ill-fits the headstrong Janet. The juxtaposition between what the audience knows her to be, and what the host of the party presumes she is, is incredibly comical. The misinterpretation of the word “savage”, the insults he throws at her, his flipping through his small blue instruction manual, all work to render him a figure of contempt and ridicule. However, the true humour of the interaction lies on the part of Janet, who simply cannot be insulted by the notion that she will be undesirable to men. By using a character who cannot partake in the male/female dichotomy, simply because it does not exist for her, Russ sends up the implications of a world where women are seen to exist solely for the benefit of men. Similarly, Jael, who is also free of this dichotomy, is able to commit violence without fear of repercussion. She genuinely enjoys the buildup of anger and frustration, caused by the lack of awareness of the overimposing man:
This is the time for me to steal away, leaving behind half my life’s blood and promises, promises, promises; but you know what? I just can’t do it. It’s happened too often. I have no reserves left. I sat down, smiling brilliantly in sheer anticipation… (172)
By the time both women take down their respective men, the audience is primed for a release, an answer to the indignation both women have been subjected to. What differentiates the two scenes however is the gratuitous, satirical violence Jael inflicts upon her victims, and the reactions of the other women to her actions. Janet has already been established as being averse to needless violence in a conversation with Laura Rose, and here all three women are visibly frightened. In contrast, Janet’s violence leaves Joanna, and indeed the audience, questioning their experiences of similar interactions, rather than repulsed. Her calm defense of herself renders the alternative – simply allowing the inappropriate behaviour to continue – somewhat ridiculous. Both Jael and Janet seem justified for their actions in context, but in comparison, Jael’s actions feel more morally objectionable. “Was that necessary?” she is asked, and the answer is obviously no, but Jael instead responds with “I liked it” (177). The same question could be posed of Janet, yet it is not. Instead, Janet gently persuades Joanna to throw her little pink book, symbolic of repression, away. This suggests that Russ’ ideas of acceptable violence and female expression have limits.
While Jael’s violence befits the war her world is perpetuating, Janet’s home planet of Whileaway is entirely at peace with itself, but not entirely without conflict. Whileawayan society comprises a curious mixture of freedom and regulation. The incredibly structured system of life milestones and societal expectations are juxtaposed with fluid familial structures, freedom to travel, and the doctrine of personal independence in the midst of a strong social framework. Women are encouraged to be curious, to roam as far away from home as they please, to form and dissolve families as needed, and to marry without monogamy. When contrasted with the three other worlds of the novel, Whileawayan society seems the most perfect model for happiness, and indeed is overtly stated to be so: “Janet… living as she does in a blessedness none of us will ever know” (206). And yet, there is no emphasis on Whileaway for the importance of happiness over all else. Instead, passages detailing life on Whileaway describe the various intense emotions that arise over the course of a normal life. Mothers and daughters “howl” when the daughters are sent to school (45), the “sickness” of falling in love (74), Janet’s “grief about (for)” Jael. Anger and violence are facets of this freedom of emotion, most obviously culminating in the perpetuation of duels. Comparable to the duels in reality between men throughout history, which were often intrinsically tied to honour and convention, these duels are regulated by both law and social expectation. There is also a clear difference between duelling and murder: “it’s murder if it’s sneaky or if she doesn’t want to fight” (53). Duels on Whileaway, while a product of mutual dislike, also do not occur out of hate: “For sport, yes, okay, for hatred no. Seperate them.” (48). Regulated as such, duelling becomes not an escape from the constraints of society, but rather a part of the social structure.
Whileawayan society seems organised to promote individual freedom over the societal conventions. This includes facilitating and regulating anger and violence, rather than condemning or ignoring it. Violence is also treated as a normal part of growth: “Understand, I have put all that behind me now; I am an adult; I have a family.” (41). Perhaps most importantly however, violence is not an expectation of young women, nor the province of a special few, but a choice that all are capable of making. In the short story prequel to The Female Man, Russ explores the society of Whileaway when threatened with male astronauts from a declining earth. The character Katherina is depicted as more of a pacifist, less aggressive and overtly confident than her wife. Yet it is she who fires a gun at her would-be conqueror, stating that the reason she never allowed herself a gun up until that point was not because she was afraid of violence, but because she was afraid she would commit violence.
This is in contrast to traditional ideas of men and women in reality, who are viewed as inherently violent and nonviolent, and are treated accordingly. Similarly, the treatment of female violence in literature contemporary to The Female Man is fairly atypical. In writing her satirical feminist treatise, the SCUM Manifesto, Valerie Solanas suggests a process gratuitous violence by ‘SCUM’ women, in order to rid the world of men. At the time, she was met with a certain amount of condemnation and disgust, and the treatise was used to malign all feminists after Solanas’ attempted murder of Andy Warhol. However, Solanas perpetuates this idea of a divide between women capable and incapable of violence, condemning the latter to ruin. Another example of female violence, Tiptree Jr’s novella Houston Houston, Do You Read?, focuses on graphic male violence and only hints at physical female aggression at the conclusion. Neither text supposes violence as an inherent part of all female nature, but rather a means to an end, and neither advocate violence as recreation (although the manifesto lavishes in its violent language). While women were portrayed as strong in both examples, Whileaway is unique in its novel presentation of female violence for ‘sport’, motivated by inclination rather than necessity. In this female-only world, violence is portrayed as the ultimate release from the social expectations of bi-gendered universes, the ultimate freedom.
Many critics discuss Whileaway as an example of a Utopian society. Whileaway certainly contains many conventions of utopias, but also defaults on some typical utopian ideals. In contrast to other utopian books, which focus on the political, economic, and social organisation of society, Russ’ depiction of Whileaway focuses more on the human result, rather than the facilitating system. This is a move away from the earlier writers of the genre, such as More, Morris, and Bellamy, whose novels are overly concerned with a possible political solution, however unlikely in practice, to the injustices of their day. Comparable with Perkins Gilman’s “Herland”, Whileaway is not a solution, but rather a more reflective meditation on gender-imbalances. However, this does not automatically deny Whileaway the status of utopia, either. To deem Whileaway a utopia, or not a utopia, is a convoluted matter which necessitates a broader discussion of the genre in general. A simpler question to consider here instead is whether or not the regulated violence of Whileaway necessarily denies it the status of utopia altogether. Violence is a necessary component for the overall argument of The Female Man and an inherent part of Janet’s character; her violence is a product of Whileaway, yet she is lauded as being part of a ‘blessed’ society nonetheless. Can violence have a place in a utopia at all?
If the purpose of a utopian society is to describe a perfect, peaceful, society, with all sources of conflict negated in favour of perpetual happiness, then Whileaway must be excluded. However, if the purpose of a utopia is to reflect upon the limitations of a certain sect of society, either by remedying or drawing attention to the perceived flaws in a positive way, then Whileaway is most definitely a utopia. Both understandings of the genre are possible, but this latter reading is supported by Carol Farley Kessler, who in her exploration of United States feminist utopias deems female utopias a somewhat different beast from their male counterparts in the organisation of ideas. Although there are similarities between the two, and both forms function on the premise of a perfect society, the female utopias she studied lean towards the economic, political and social liberation of women, with a focus on political structure as “a means to the end” (Kessler, 118). In contrast, more traditional male utopias focus on “public policy as ends in themselves” (118), assuming that people will automatically benefit, and fall into line. These differing focuses – political structure versus human benefit – create different utopias. Whileaway falls in with the female utopian tradition, commenting on the repression of women and solving the issue by imagining a fictional society of women whose independence is paramount to their culture. Happiness is arguably not the end goal. The women of Whileaway are spirited, fierce, intelligent – but not strictly happy. “Eternal optimism hides behind… dissatisfaction” (52) in Whileaway, but it cannot be argued that they do not enjoy a level of freedom unequaled by their female counterparts in other universes. Anger and violence is an explicit part of that freedom.
In a letter to the journal Frontiers written in 1979, Russ once highlighted the issue of women concealing their “female appetite in a culture which denies it and punishes us for it”. In her essay The Image of Women in Science Fiction, Russ asserts that “there are plenty of images of women in science fiction. There are hardly any women.” In bringing violence to both The Female Man and the world of Whileaway, Russ seeks to mitigate both concerns. The violence found throughout the novel is intermittently cathartic, reprehensible, reflective, and thought provoking. Janet, Jael, Jeannine and Joanna are Everywoman, attempting to make their way in society without compromising who they are, with varying degrees of success. Janet comes from the ‘perfect’ world, and will return to live her life unfettered and free, a potentially utopia despite its flaws. Jeannine and Joanna will continue as best they can, no longer attempting to abase themselves for the benefit of others. Jael continues the war, power hungry, unabashedly violent, entirely uncontrollable. Yet the conclusion of the novel is not for them, but for the reader. Russ’ last sentiment is as witty as the rest of the novel; when the book is no longer relevant, and no longer understood, when violence and repression are no longer remarkable, that is when it will have achieved its purpose.
Russ, Joanna. The Female Man. Gollancz, 2010.
Morris, William, and Clive Wilmer. News from Nowhere, and Other Writings. Penguin Books, 2004.
Bellamy, Edward. Looking Backward: from 2000 to 1887. Applewood Books, 2000.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. Herland. Women’s Press, 1986.
More, Thomas, Utopia. ed. H. V. S. Odgen. Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1949.
Kessler, Carol Farley. “WOMEN DARING TO SPEAK: UNITED STATES WOMEN’S FEMINIST UTOPIAS.” Utopian Studies, no. 2, 1989, pp. 118–123. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20718913.
Solanas, Valerie. SCUM MANIFESTO. Verso, 2016.
Russ, Joanna. “Letter from Joanna Russ.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, vol. 4, no. 2, 1979, pp. 71–71. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3346543.
Russ, Joanna. “When It Changed.” Again, Dangerous Visions, ed. Harlan Ellison. Doubleday, 1972.
Tiptree, James. Houston, Houston, Do You Read? Doubleday Book and Music Clubs, 1996.
Russ, Joanna. “Red Clay Reader, No. 7, November 1970.” The Country You Have Never Seen: Essays and Reviews, Liverpool University Press, pp. 205-218
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