Masterpieces of Women's Literature The Female Man Analysis - Essay

Joanna Russ

Masterpieces of Women's Literature The Female Man Analysis

Russ provides a critique of gender hierarchy through her parodic representation of life on Joanna’s world, the alienated characterization of Jeannine, the utopian separatist vision of Janet’s Whileaway, and the dystopic exaggeration of the war between the sexes in Jael’s world. The novel also poses challenging questions in addressing the problem of “the female man,” of a female identity independent of and not defined by its relation to men. Is separatism necessary in order for such an identity to be constructed? In other words, is Janet the only female man? To suggest that Whileaway is the solution to women’s nonexistence in a patriarchal culture would seem to be a misreading of the novel. Instead, as Joanna asserts, one needs to imagine the possibility of a Janet, even if one does not believe in her reality. Similarly, it would be a mistake to see Russ’s portrait of Jael as a call to arms for the women’s movement. Jael gives a place in the novel for women’s rage—the refusal to placate or to “make nice.”

Separatism and war are not the only possibilities that the novel offers, nor are the men presented as complete scapegoat figures (though in both Joanna’s and Jael’s world they are primarily caricatures). Jeannine’s boyfriend, Cal, is given the most sympathetic treatment. He displays characteristics such as nurturance, which Jeannine sees as unmanly. Cal’s failure to fit the male model clearly shows that Russ is not painting a black-and-white portrait of inherent gender behaviors. Those behaviors, like the personalities of the four women, are constructed by the cultures of their different worlds. Thus the ending of the novel imagines a time when changes in culture have made Russ’s criticism obsolete.