The Female Man

Joanna Russ
The Female Man Cover

Still Relevant and Powerful


If I taught SF literature in high school, I'd make this book mandatory reading, knowing my students would hate me for it. it's not an easy book by any means; its structure is complex and obfuscated on purpose, and its subject matter is uncomfortable and necessary. But really, this is why SF exists in the first place.

The book has been heralded as the quintessential feminist SF, and it saddens me to know that this automatically reduces its reach. It's true that the book is singularly concerned with subjects articulated by feminism, but I think it should be required reading for everyone of either gender. I wish I could go back in time and force fifteen year-old me to read this. And boy, is there a lot of piss and vinegar in this book. Sometimes the anger just radiates off the page. It's a visceral book of raw nerves and flayed skin. It's amazing.

The SF elements are more than merely allegorical. Ms. Russ spent a lot of energy building her woman-only utopia of Whileaway. The result is fascinating in its own right, and not entirely as one-sided as a feminist polemic would imply. Likewise, Alice's dystopia is fascinating SF in its own right, even as it serves as allegory for our world.

The novel, albeit short, is a difficult read, but I don't mean this in a bad way. The author obviously meant to confuse the reader with her narrators, and I quickly learned not to worry too much about figuring out what was going on. The book often swerves into pure polemical flights of fancy, and these packed quite a rhetorical and philosophical punch. It's gut-wrenching stuff for me as a man: a woman speaking directly to me, with no filter on her anger, her hopes, her hatred.

Some reviewers accuse this book of no longer being relevant, to which I can only laugh. We live in an era where female pornstars are conceived by the mainstream as feminist icons, where CNN eulogizes the career of teenage star athletes condemned for rape, and where male lawmakers still try their best to legislate vaginas. There is one aspect where I feel the book is dated, and it has to do with the scope of its feminism; there is no room here for a larger discussion on privilege that encompasses race, for instance. Also, the aspects of the novel dealing with transgenders are downright offensive. But even these elements do not ultimately take away from a powerful, socially relevant book.