Joanna Russ Gerald Jonas - Essay

Gerald Jonas

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["The Female Man" may be categorized as serious "women's lib S.F." The author Joanna Russ] has never been one to deny the importance of basic biological facts in determining sex roles; she also understands how easily such facts can be compensated for once their existence is acknowledged. For instance, her heroines tend to be castrating females in the most literal sense. They take for granted that Tarzan will never really consider Jane an equal as long as he feels he can beat up on her whenever he chooses. "The Female Man," which plays with a marked deck of alternative universes, offers no less than four heroines….

With her obvious grasp of the biological givens and her command of so many science-fictional weapons, Russ might have produced a truly provocative study of "woman's fate." Unfortunately, she keeps slipping into the easy rhetoric of mainstream feminist tracts. There are long passages describing the despair of the unliberated Jeannine that might have appeared in any back issue of Ms. magazine. Nothing seems so lame in an S.F. context as yesterday's social protest. Russ makes clear that her purpose in writing this book was primarily polemical: she is angry about the "inferior" status of women in modern society. But she commits a tactical error when she lets the polemics blur the distinction between the social and the biological factors that contribute to "keeping women in their place." It is precisely this distinction that "women's lib S.F." could clarify. (p. 50)

Gerald Jonas, "Of Things to Come," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 4, 1975, pp. 49-51.