Mar 15 2011 3:32pm

Queering SFF: The Female Man by Joanna Russ (+ Bonus Story, “When it Changed”)

The Female Man by Joanna RussThe past few reviews in the Queering SFF series have been of new books (such as Amanda Downum’s The Bone Palace), and since these posts are intended to gather history as much as they are to introduce new work, today we’re jumping back in time to the 1970s. Specifically, to one of Joanna Russ’s most famous works, her novel The Female Man, and the companion short story set in the world of Whileaway, “When it Changed.”

“When it Changed” was nominated for the 1973 Hugo Award and won the 1972 Nebula Award. It’s also been given a retroactive James Tiptree Jr. Award. The Female Man, too, was given a retroactive Tiptree Award, and on its publication in 1975 it was nominated for a Nebula.

Which isn’t to say that the reception in the community was entirely positive. Award nominations are intriguing—for one, because they show works of lesbian feminist SF getting recognition—but there’s more to the story.

Helen Merrick’s indispensible book, The Secret Feminist Cabal, touches multiple times on Russ and reactions to her work—including The Female Man and “When it Changed.” In a section titled “Contesting the texts of feminist SF,” Merrick lays out various heated exchanges from fanzines of the time. She also considers published reviews of The Female Man and Russ’s own aside within the novel about how reviewers were likely to respond to the work (which is devastatingly genius and I will talk about it in a moment).

One set of letters from a fanzine title The Alien Critic is particularly wince-inducing, in response to “When it Changed.” The story is described with words like “sickening.” The conclusion reached by the man writing the letter just has to be quoted for you to really grasp how stupid it was—Merrick also quotes it at length for the full effect. He says,

The hatred, the destructiveness that comes out in the story makes me sick for humanity and I have to remember, I have to tell myself that it isn’t humanity speaking—it’s just one bigot. Now I’ve just come from the West Indies, where I spent three years being hated merely because my skin was white—and for no other reason. Now I pick up A, DV [Again, Dangerous Visions] and find that I am hated for another reason—because Joanna Russ hasn’t got a prick. (65)

I wish I could say that I find that response as dated as it is awful, but really, I’m pretty sure we have this fight every month on the vast and cosmic internet. It’s just easier and quicker to yell stupid things now that you don’t have to write them out and mail them. QSFF has certainly provoked some similar responses, within the posts and on outside blogs.

So, despite its awards and nominations, “When it Changed” was not universally loved. It provoked nasty responses from other people in the SF field. I find that tension remarkably intriguing. On the one hand, it thrills the heart to see a work of lesbian feminist SF receive recognition. On the other, it’s so discouraging to see that the negative responses are essentially still the same, and this was nearly forty years ago.

The critical response to the text also varied. Some people, obviously, loved it. The book was a massive deconstruction of SF and its tropes. It threw received ideas about novel plotting out the window. It was postmodern; it was challenging; it wasn’t a book that people could pick up, read in a day, and forget immediately. Merrick’s collection of criticisms from reviews is eerie, because they nearly echo Russ-the-author/narrator’s own imagination of the response to the novel. It wasn’t a real novel, it wasn’t SF, it wasn’t anything, many critics said. Some managed to attack the structure instead of the content, but the undercurrent of deep unease is clear—and sometimes outright anger.

Russ’s own address to the reader begins: “We would gladly have listened to her (they said) if only she had spoken like a lady. But they are liars and the truth is not in them.” She goes on for the next page with phrases, clips and chunks of criticism she expects for her “unladylike” book:

shrill…vituperative… maunderings of antiquated feminism… needs a good lay… another tract for the trashcan… women’s limited experience… a not very appealing aggressiveness… the usual boring obligatory references to Lesbianism… denial of the profound sexual polarity which… unfortunately sexless in its outlook…

She finishes, “Q. E. D. Quod erat demonstrandum. It has been proved.” (140-141)

I picked out a few of the choice ones from the list, like the accusations of sexlessness or of “boring” lesbianism. These are criticism that have been made of books about women’s sexuality and lesbian experience before. It’s not like Russ pulled them out of thin air. Hardly.

But, but—it was a nominee for the Nebula. Russ’s peers respected and enjoyed the book enough to nominate it for one of the genre’s biggest awards. (Notably, it was not nominated for the Hugo, the popular vote award. I’m not sure if I can safely draw any conclusions there, but it seems a bit suggestive.)

It likely helped that radical feminism in the 1970s was a wild and active thing. In the backlash of the late eighties and early nineties, the reception for The Female Man might have been considerably different—worse, even. I also find it interesting in a not-so-good way that most of the reviews Merrick quotes never engage with the idea of sexuality in the book, and seemingly, neither do those negative reviews of “When it Changed.” The complainants are constantly framing Russ’s text in reference to men, to male sexuality (specifically, heterosexuality), to their own male bodies, to penises. While Merrick’s book is obviously about feminism and not queer issues—it would be twice the size and unwieldy if she tried to tackle both—when I read these texts, I could not see them as anything other than queer fiction. The criticism and recollection of Russ’s work today tends to focus on her feminism to the exclusion of sexuality: it’s as if we still think the “l”-word is a negative thing to apply to a scholar and writer, or to her work. (Which is actually remarkably true in the scholarly/critical world, but that’s a post for another time.)

But these stories aren’t just works of feminist praxis. They are more.

The Female Man and “When it Changed” are queer stories—they are lesbian stories, and also stories of “women’s sexuality” across a spectrum. They are stories about women loving, touching, needing, lusting for and getting physical with other women. They are stories about women together, erotically and emotionally. They are not boring and they are not sexless. They are as queer as they are feminist, and I think that not discussing that does them and the author a severe disservice.

So, that’s what we’re going to do, now. Placing texts where they belong in history is an act of reclamation, and that’s what we’re all about here. To “queer science fiction and fantasy” is to do more than just say “we’re here, we’re here.” It’s also to say “we were here, we have always been here, and look at what we made.” In that spirit, I’d like to discuss The Female Man both as a novel and as a work of queer science-fiction.


The first thing I will say is that this is not an easy book, in any sense of the word. It is a difficult book—emotionally, narratively, in every way. For such a slim tome, it takes much longer to digest than books four times its size. That’s what blew me away about it, though; the challenge, and the rewards that come from meeting that challenge.

On a basic level, there is a challenge in the reading of it. The text is organized in constantly shifting narrative points of view, often with few tags to indicate who is speaking or where or even when or what world they’re in. (At one point, the character Laura gets a first-person bit, which throws off the previous pattern of only the J’s—Joanna, Janet, Jeanine and Jael—speaking to the reader. There are also the direct addresses from the author that pop up here and there.) The idea of “I” is put to the test in The Female Man. What or who is “I?” What makes one an “I” instead of a third person “Jeanine?” For a reader familiar with postmodernism, this won’t be as challenging as it will be for someone who isn’t prepared to let go during the act of reading.

It sounds kitsch, but you really do have to let go of your expectations and your attempts to weave a narrative framework in your head for this book. Just let it happen. Go with it. Don’t worry too much about which “I” is “I” or when or where; things will become clear in time.

I love this kind of thing, when it’s done well, and Russ does it very well. It gives the brain a workout. The book is also extremely vivid and detail-oriented; never does Russ under- or over-describe a scene, whether it’s page-long paragraphs of inner monologue or dialogue-only confrontations or sweeping passages of world-building or sparse but supremely effective erotic descriptions. It’s a gorgeous book, frankly, and well worth any reader’s time.

Aside from that basic narrative challenge, the book is tough emotionally. It is hard to read; sometimes it overflows with anguish and terror and rage to the extent that I had to put it down to catch my breath before it drew me inexorably back in. The fact that the book still has the power to evoke these intense reactions means it’s still relevant and valuable.

The last passages of the book speak beautifully to this reality, directly from Russ to the book (to the reader):

Do not complain when at last you become quaint and old fashioned, when you grow as outworn as the crinolines or a generation ago and are classed with Spicy Western Stories, Elsie Dinsmore, and The Son of the Sheik; do not mutter angrily to yourself when young persons read you to hrooch and hrch and guffaw, wondering what the dickens you were all about. Do not get glum when you are no longer understood, little book. Do not curse your fate. Do not reach up from readers’ laps and punch the readers’ noses.

Rejoice, little book!

For on that day, we will be free. (213-214)

It hasn’t happened yet. I’m a young person and I’m certainly not guffawing. I was nearly in tears at parts; I ground my teeth at others.

One of the problems that seem unique to women-with-women sexuality is that it is derided as nonsexual, or nonfulfilling, or cute, or fake; any of the above. (I’m not saying that men-with-men sexuality or any other combination thereof hasn’t been derided, because it certainly has, but it’s not done in the same ways. It’s not delegitimized by calling it “not sexual, really.” If anything, the derision usually stems from an assumption of too much sexuality. But, once again, topic for another time.) This shows up early in the book, when Janet (from Whileaway, appearing in Joanna/Jeanine’s time) is on an interview show. There’s an entire set of questions with the male interviewer where he’s trying to angle without saying it that surely the women of Whileaway can’t be sexually fulfilled—he asks her why she would ban sex (aka men) from Whileaway, and she is confused. Finally, he summons up the will to say, “Of course the mothers of Whileaway love their children; nobody doubts that. And of course they have affection for each other; nobody doubts that, either. But there is more, much, much more—I am talking about sexual love.” Janet responds, “Oh! You mean copulation…. And you say we don’t have that?... How foolish of you, of course we do…. With each other, allow me to explain.” And then the program cuts her off in a panic.

Of course. After all, how often do we still hear that all a lesbian really needs is to “try out a man and she’ll see what she’s missing?” Honestly.

Janet, too, seems to be the only woman in the book with a fully realized and comfortable sexuality—though in the end, she also engages in a relationship that makes her uncomfortable, with Laura. Laura is younger than her, and that’s a taboo on Whileaway, but Laura seems to be the only other woman attracted to Janet in all the world. Janet isn’t sure what to make of the/our world’s discomfort and prudery, let alone the rude and forceful attentions of men. (The scene where she kicks the ass of a Marine at a party when he becomes overly insulting and “friendly” is rather cathartic.) The sex scene between her and Laura—Laura’s first experience with a woman—is at turns tender, erotic and humorous, as it should be. Without ever delving into explicit language, Russ makes the scene sizzle with sexuality. She describes the intensity of orgasm without having to be crude about it, and the tension, and the fluidity of it all.

How could anyone call the book “sexless” or ignore its intense, scorching sexuality? How?

The same way they always do, I suppose.

I’ll also say that there was one part of the narrative which made me uncomfortable in the not-good way: the “changed” and “half-changed” of the man’s world in Jael’s time. Yes, it’s a scathing critique of patriarchy and what men see in/use women for, what they hide in themselves. The young men are forced to take the operations, after all; it has nothing to do with choice. However—wow, can I see where that treads very, very close to transphobic territory. It doesn’t help that the attitude of second wave feminism toward transwomen was negative at best, violently hostile at worst—it doesn’t make me terribly inclined to give the benefit of the doubt. So, reader be forewarned. It’s a very short section of the book, but it’s there, and it’s got some uncomfortable tension for me as a critic/reader in 2011.

The Female Man is many things: postmodern, deconstructive, feminist, and queer, to name a few. It’s already had plenty of recognition for its feminist and narrative contributions to the field. I’d like us to remember that it is also a work of queer SFF, one of the earliest (so far as I know) to get big-award recognition and provoke a firestorm of critiques across the genre. If I can safely say one thing, it is that people knew about this book. They were reading it. I have to rely on secondary sources for that knowledge, since I wasn’t alive at the time, but as in Merrick’s book, the sources make it pretty clear: people were engaging with this book, for better or worse. We’ve seen plenty of the “worse,” but what about the “better?”

I wonder, for how many women on the brink, struggling with their sexuality, was this book a keystone? For how many did this book provide words with which to speak? I can imagine it must have been at least a few, if not more. Women who sat up nights clutching at Russ’s book with tears in their eyes, seeing yes, me, yes, me in the pages—women who found their first real representation. Not the sensual but usually sexless stories that often came before (as if women simply were not the sort of creatures who had sex with each other in stories!), but a book that showed women “doing the deed” and made it charged for female attention, not for heterosexual male titillation.

Those are the histories I’d like to hear, if they’re out there. I can only say so much. I wasn’t around when The Female Man was published; I can’t speak to what it was like to be a queer person in the 1970s. I can only imagine, and gather stories from the people who really were there.

So, if you’ve got one, or another appreciation or critique you’d like to share about this book, have at. Reclamation isn’t just about the texts; it’s also about the readers. I want to hear you.

Brit Mandelo is a multi-fandom geek with a special love for comics and queer literature. She can be found on Twitter and Livejournal.

Cheryl Morgan
1. CherylMorgan
The way in which Russ talks about trans people in the book is pretty much in line with how Feminism viewed them at the time the book was written. It was widely assumed that trans women were a product of a male plot to do away with "real" women and replace them with compliant "fake" women (and trans men didn't exist). Thankfully the world has moved on a lot since then, and Russ apologized publicly during an interview at Wiscon. Of course there are still Feminists who hold that view, but they are now much less influential.
2. Delafina
The one thing I wish had been in this discussion was a brief synopsis of what The Female Man and When It Changed were about. :-)
Pamela Adams
3. PamAdams
I haven't read The Female Man (so many books.......), but I've always loved When it Changed. The opening line is spinning through my head right now- "Katy drives like a maniac..."
4. Rob T.
I first read "When It Changed" in 1984 in the Again, Dangerous Visions anthology and didn't especially care for it; thought it narrowly applied to women and didn't have anything to say to me (with "as a man" the unspoken addendum). When I read it again in 1990 in the Best of the Nebulas anthology I realized it was a story about establishing one's identity as opposed to having someone else establish it for you. While I still understood the story to be specifically about women's struggles (and gave me some needed insight into them, I hope), I also realized that the basic theme applies to men as well, though not necessarily in the same way or to the same degree.

It should perhaps be noted that there were 18 nominees for the 1975 novel Nebula, for some reason known only to better-informed awards mavens than I. Not that this "devalues" the nomination for The Female Man, but its significance is obviously different from being one of a set of the usual six. (The Female Man placed 10th in the Locus poll for that year.)

On the other hand, The Female Man has probably been among the most-read of the 18 nominees over the years, along with Joe Haldeman's winning The Forever War, Samuel R. Delany's Dhalgren, Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle's The Mote in God's Eye and E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime.
6. Teka Lynn
Oh HELL yeah, The Female Man and "When it Changed" meant so much to me when I was a teenager in the early 1980s. I checked out The Female Man from the library over and over again, recited passages aloud, fantasized about visiting Whileaway. It really spoke to me at a time when I needed images of lesbian visibility, and to know that I was not alone.
Brit Mandelo
7. BritMandelo

It's good to know that she did apologize; I hadn't heard that. While Russ's wasn't the most blatant (ie, folks like Mary Daly and Janice Raymond) nastiness I've ever seen in second wave texts, it was still present. (I hate how so many otherwise vital and engaging texts from the second wave have so much bigotry in them.)


Hrk, sorry! I didn't think of that. On the plus side, there are fairly decent Wikipedia entries for both that provide the basic info.

@Pam Adams

I read "When it Changed" first, too, by a couple of years. That first line does stick.

@Rob T.

Huh, I hadn't realized that about the awards that year, but I find it really interesting that it was up with Dhalgren and The Forever War, both stories that contain queer content also. Hmmm. Interesting year.

@A lesbian SF Fan

That's your opinion; that's cool. But I would revisit that section of the book if you think she was "whining about bad reviews." That's pretty much the opposite of the point.

@Teka Lynn

Thanks for sharing--that's valuable stuff to hear. *g*
Roger Silverstein
8. RogSS
According to the DeVore Hugo, Nebula and WFA Awards book,
the top four novels in the 1975 Nebula voting were:
1.The Forever War
2.The Mote in God's Eye
4.The Female Man
(only the top 4 novels in the voting were released)

The Female Man was not just one of 18 novel nominees, it was in SFWA's top 4.
Matthew Sanborn Smith
9. MatthewSanbornSmith
I haven't read The Female Man, though I will, whenever I get my hands on a copy. I did read When It Changed many years ago and didn't know the two were related. I'm a middle-aged straight white guy. I don't pump my fist for queer or feminist issues when I read a science fiction story. I just like a good story. When It Changed was a really good story. It was powerful and it stuck with me, mainly because it raised issues I hadn't considered before I read it. After I read it, I realized that if I was one of these women, I would be unhappy as hell to see men again too. I completely understood where they were coming from even though I'd never considered such a situation before.

It blows my mind that people took this story as a personal attack, a story with an agenda or anything like that. If it was the only type of story being produced, I could understand people getting sick of the message. But it was one story in a sea of thousands of very different stories. You like to think that science fiction fans are open-minded and can discuss ideas reasonably, or just say, "Cool!" An equivalent attitude which we would all see as plainly ridiculous would be to attack an author as "anti-human" who wrote a story about aliens who see humans as bad news.

I'm not a person who jumps in with words like "sad" and "broken-hearted" whenever someone gets their feelings hurt online. It's a tough world, get over it. I am, however, a person who shakes his head and thinks, "Jesus, what a bunch of dumb-asses live in this world."
Michael Grosberg
10. Michael_GR
For the sake of those who haven't read it, it might be nice,when discussing a book, to drop a line or two about, y'know, the plot n' stuff. I read the entire article and I have no clue what this novel is about, except I now know some characters' names and that they're gay (which is not something that in and of itself would make me rush to read it).
Brit Mandelo
11. BritMandelo

Good to know. Thanks!


>It blows my mind that people took this story as a personal attack, a story with an agenda or anything like that.

Unfortunately, the sheer existence of queer folk is considered a personal attack by many, many people--let alone us talking about ourselves and telling stories where we're main characters. You get kind of used to it.

Interesting perspective, thanks for sharing.


It doesn't have a plot, in the conventional sense. Which makes discussing the plot sort of hard, if I wanted to do it in less than a paragraph, but I see your point. In short, it's about these four women from different times and worlds encountering each other.
Wesley Parish
12. Aladdin_Sane
The first stories of Joanna Russ' that i encountered were the Alyx ones. I'll bet that Fritz Leiber enjoyed having his Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser S&SF parodies so expertly.

I enjoyed reading "When it Changed" when I discovered it in a copy of Again, Dangerous Visions. I think I've only ever read The Female Man once, as I don't have a copy. Some things I disagreed fervently with - that "heterosexual biological robot" Jael uses in one of the final chapters revolted me. I hope that was its intention.

I also remembered feeling a little bemused at the age taboo of Whileaway: in a society such as she describes, with fertility firmly in the hands of the female, it should not have been a problem - but it may have been a personal issue with Joanne Russ.

Another thing about her - she reacted quite severely to a story of Phillip K. Dick's on abortion, a sort of a thought experiment of his, and reportedly threatened to beat him up over it. After reading
We Who Are About To... and The Two of Them, I felt she needed a gentle hug, more than anything else. The Two of Them is one of the most depressing and self-contradictory stories I have read - but that's another story.
13. Eric Saveau
I've never read The Female Man, though I've read plenty of other SF works that deal with gender or queer issues (Middle-aged hetero male here, for the record), and over the decades I have noticed the reactionary responses noted above. And I've never understood them. Maybe it's different for younger fans now, but as a born-fannish child and adolescent in the Seventies and beyond I had a helluva perspective on being different. And it seemed - and still does seem - completely inexplicable to me that other fans (not to mention other writers) would not also instinctively get at least something of what it means to be The Other, and the need to speak honestly about one's self and in one's own language.

A few years ago I put it in exactly those terms to a man I knew whose daughter had just come out, and it brought him up short and made him think. He wasn't being overly negative about it, but he wasn't getting it and was in a bit of a "damage control" mode with regard to the rest of their family. After I sent him a long email about "You don't need to get being gay, but you should get being different and here's why," he got it and understood that he didn't need to figure her out as his gay daughter, but to just accept and love her as his daughter like he always had.

Obviously that won't work for everyone. But it ought to work for fans/geeks/nerds/whatever we call ourselves in any given generation, and I'm truly dumbfounded that it so often doesn't.
14. Emily H.
"When It Changed" meant an enormous amount to me when I was fourteen, not necessarily at that age as a queer text or a feminist text but a story about how we don't need to be defined by other people's definitions of us, how our own reality is so often invisible to others. I love Russ's nonfiction but haven't yet read "The Female Man" -- I'm very much looking forward to it.
15. Dirk Broer
While you can read almost everywhere that "When it Changed" won a retro-Tiptree, when you look it up (http://tiptree.org/?page_id=193) it appears NOT to be the case. "We, who are about to..." won a retro Tiptree, and is hardly ever recognized for it.

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