Friday, August 9, 2013

Another short essay on The Female Man

The novel opens with the introduction of three different women from three substantially different versions of the Earth, two substantially different versions of the present and a utopian vision of the future. In the final section of the text, we are introduced to a fourth woman from a distinctively different future, one far more dystopian in nature, who has brought the other three women together to help her defeat the patriarchal community of men who have declared an almost genocidal war on the women of their world. She also reveals that each of the four women of the text, the ‘four J’s’, Jeannine, Janet, Jael, and Joanna, are genetically the same world, revealing the deeply constructed nature of what Gayle Rubin called the ‘sex/gender system’, or what Teresa de Lauretis wants to understand as a gender system, removing the naturalistic remnants of the category of ‘sex.’[1] Each of these women is in fact the same woman shaped by radically different social environments. The intersection of these worlds allows for a comparative analysis of the political, social, and economic systems of those worlds, along with their modes of sexuality, kinship, and child-raising. Jeannine comes from an Earth that has never left the depression ear because World War II was never fought. Joanna is a stand in for the author and comes from that world, while Janet comes from an alternate future earth in which the men of the society died in a plague. The last character, Jael, comes from an alternate earth where the men and women of the society are in a long-term war against each other, a war produced by a similar catastrophe to the one that occurred in Whileaway, albeit with radically different results. Each of these characters represents an alternative vision of a single subject and at the same time, an alternative vision of the world at large.

We enter into Joanna Russ’ novel, The Female Man through the conjuncture that is through the disruptive process of the intersection of four different temporalities, and four different world systems. In effect, the narrative cannot be simply reduced to the ethnographic exploration of four worlds through their representatives. The narrative opens with Janet’s introduction into the world of Joanna, the world that most represents the present of the text. From there, the text introduces three of four of the characters is introduced, and the novel begins to introduce each of the worlds. The next sections of the text oscillate between Janet’s exploration of the world of Joanna, and descriptions of the utopian space of Whileaway. Through those engagements the text begins a satiric critique of the present world through Janet’s continual refusal to live up to the norms of that world, and the failures of that world to enforce those norms. From there, the narrative shifts to focus on the world of Jeannine, a repressed world in which the depression continues unabated, and the possibilities for women are even more limited. In each case, the world of Whileaway creates a deliberate contrast with the limited possibilities of the worlds of Joanna and Jeannine, allowing for the reader to recognize the contingent nature of each of the worlds. The final section moves into the dystopian world of Jael or Alice Reasoner, which is defined by warfare between men and women, with each side searching to annihilate the other. At the same time, the limitations of Janet are revealed. After exploring the world, Jael reveals why she has brought the women together, to support her attempt to destroy the Manlanders. Janet refuses this proposal, Jeannine accepts it, and the narrative never reveals the choice of Joanna. With these decisions, the narrative ends with each of the characters returning to their original worlds.

The text also tracks the various transformations of each of the characters through their engagement with each other, the ability of women to profoundly change each other’s worlds through the act of collective engagement and exchange, through the substantial act of consciousness-raising. Jeannine probably transforms the most, moving from a deep investment in the restricted horizons for women in her world to contribute to the war on Jael’s planet. Joanna’s transformations, while not drastic, are similarly significant, moving from an ambivalent embrace of the women’s movement to a full commitment to the radical feminist perspective, along with a sense of health and well being gained through the rejection of the conventions and expectations of femininity, of the rejection of the restricted role of supportive reproductive labor for men. Furthermore, the narrative of each character’s process of consciousness raising produces an incredible surplus of text, as she figuratively regurgitates those very restrictive discursive structures of femininity, from the institutional structures of psychoanalysis to the informal expectations of everyday common sense. These moments of seeming free association constitute the surplus to the narrative of the text, the excess that escapes the conventions of the narrative. The transformations of the two women from the future are harder to measure, less linked to the linear project of feminist transformation, but they, nonetheless, exist. Through her involvement in the world of Joanna, Janet breaks one of the most significant taboos of the world of Whileaway, the taboo of involving oneself in a sexual relationship with one that is significantly older or younger than oneself, with her relationship with Laura Rose. She also has to confront the possibility that the foundational narratives of Whileaway might be a myth, a cover up for the profound act of genocide that Jael is planning for her world. Jael is the exception, the catalyst who brings the other three together, who change each of the rest, while remaining unchanged herself.

[1] See Teresa de Lauretis, Technologies of Gender: Essays on Theory, Film, and Fiction (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1987), Chapter One.