Updated: Feb 5, 2021
Originally published: February 1975
Author: Joanna Russ
Publisher: Bantam Books
Genres: Novel, Science Fiction, Fantasy Fiction, Feminist science fiction
Content warning: This review contains strong language.
I've seen people argue that this book is outdated and no longer topical.
I'm really confused what rose-colored glasses they're wearing, because as far as I can tell, the majority of this book is still far too true. I've been in these places far, far too often to write off the circumstances in this book as some so flippantly have.
"Give us a good-bye kiss," said the host, who might have been attractive under other circumstances, a giant marine, so to speak. I pushed him away.
"What'sa matter, you some kinda prude?" he said and enfolding us in his powerful arms, et cetera--well, not so very powerful as all that, but I want to give you the feeling of the scene. If you scream, people say you're melodramatic; if you submit, you’re masochistic; if you call names, you're a bitch. Hit him and he'll kill you. The best thing is to suffer mutely and yearn for a rescuer, but suppose a rescuer doesn't come?
Sure, we don't have men telling us that we "belong" at home any more (or at least not as often). There are women in the army now, female firefighters, women working in construction and architecture and mathematics. But how many women are in active combat? Zero. How many women run Fortune 500 companies? ALMOST Zero (fewer than 5%). There’s still a significant disparity of women in mathematics and the sciences. We still can’t play “male” sports. We're reduced to breasts and our sex more often than even we want to admit. We're still, after all this "liberation," confined to the role of Chopin's "Mother-women" strikingly often.
In college, educated women (I found out) were frigid; active women (I knew) were neurotic; women (we all knew) were timid, incapable, dependent, nurturing, passive, intuitive, emotional, unintelligent, obedient, and beautiful. You can always get dressed up and go to a party. Woman is the gateway to another world; Woman is the earth-mother; Woman is the eternal siren; Woman is purity; Woman is carnality; Woman has intuition; Woman is the life-force; Woman is selfless love.
"I am the gateway to another world," (said I, looking in the mirror) "I am the earth-mother; I am the eternal siren; I am purity," (Jeez, new pimples) "I am carnality; I have intuition; I am the life-force; I am selfless love." (Somehow it sounds different in the first person, doesn't it?)
Honey (said the mirror, scandalized) Are you out of your fuckin' mind?
But the worst part about this--the most terrifying aspect of this book--is that the sentiment this book calls out still lay barely below the surface of, at the very least, American culture (being American, I really can’t speak to the rest of the world with much knowledge). We claim to be a "post-feminist" society, but patriarchal thinking still lurks beneath, and it takes very little prodding to bring its apologetics to light, in both men and women. It’s somehow worse that we think that this is all past us, I think, because by pretending it doesn’t exist, we’re simply letting it live. We’re letting the monster continue its devouring cycle, eating us all as we go about our lives, like the invisible aliens sucking away human brains in “They Live” that only those with the goofy glasses could see.
I’m a sick woman, a madwoman, a ball-breaker, a man-eater; I don’t consume men gracefully with my fire-like red hair or my poisoned kiss; I crack their joints with these filthy ghoul’s claws and standing on one foot like a de-clawed cat, rake at your feeble efforts to save yourselves with my taloned hinder feet: my matted hair, my filthy skin, my big fat plaques of green bloody teeth. I don’t think my body would sell anything. I don’t think I’d be good to look at. O of all diseases self-hate is the worst and I don’t mean for the one who suffers it!
Women are still considered "inadequate" in so many circumstances. Our own autonomy and ability to make decisions for ourselves regarding basic medical procedures and life choices is still not only questioned, but those rights are actively being stripped on a regular basis. And when we dare to say, "how dare you!" we get slapped in the face. We get laughed at. We get told our concerns are ludicrous.
And that’s without taking into account societies that still exist where women can be jailed for driving. The countries where mutilation of women is still allowed and accepted. Where wives are still bought and exchanged as property, where they can be beaten and bred like livestock.
But sure, we’re post-feminist. Really.
Alas, it was never meant for us to hear. It was never meant for us to know. We ought never be taught to read. We fight through the constant male refractoriness of our surroundings; our souls are torn out of us with such shock that there isn't even any blood. Remember: I didn't and don't want to be a "feminine" version of the heroes I admire. I want to be the heroes themselves.
What future is there for a female child who aspires to being Humphrey Bogart?
I wish this book were much more outdated than it is. I wish I didn't see my own experiences in Jeannine and Joanna. I wish I hadn't been to that party where I was called a shrew for saying no. In a society where a white man serves less time in prison for a rape conviction than a black man does for possession of half an ounce of an intoxicant while the woman in the assault is blamed for “inviting it,” something is still royally fucked up, and those who don’t see it are deceiving themselves.
Her secret guilt was this:
She was Cunt.
She had “lost” something.
Now the other party to the incident had manifested his essential nature, too; he was a Prick—but being Prick is not a bad thing. In fact, he had “gotten away with” something (possibly what she had “lost”).
And there I was listening at eleven years of age:
She was out late at night.
She was in the wrong part of town.
Her skirt was too short and that provoked him.
She liked having her eye blacked and her head banged against the sidewalk.
I understood this perfectly. (I reflected thus in my dream, in my state of being a pair of eyes in a small wooden box stuck forever on a gray, geometric plane—or so I thought.) I too had been guilty of what had been done to me, when I came home from the playground in tears because I had been beaten up by bigger children who were bullies.
I was dirty.
I was crying.
I demanded comfort.
I was being inconvenient.
I did not disappear into thin air.
I don't think this is just a story that speaks of the frustration of women, though. I think this is the struggle of the Other in all forms. I see this frustration in my gay friends trying to become recognized as a married couple (as people at all) in a state that has now legally endorsed segregation and discrimination on the grounds that they’re “offensive” to certain parties. I see it in my minority friends, especially those of mixed races, who try to function not as their race, but as individuals. It's the struggle of the Other, not in the 1970s, but EVERY SINGLE DAY.
If we are all Mankind, it follows to my interested and righteous and rightnow very bright and beady little eyes, that I too am a Man and not at all a Woman, for honestly now, whoever heard of Java Woman and existential Woman and the values of Western Woman and scientific Woman and alienated nineteenth-century Woman and all the rest of that dingy antiquated rag-bag?" All the rags in it are White, anyway.
The J's (as they're known later in the book) are each incarnations of the aspects of the Other who tries to remain functional in a society built against her. Some of them are incarnations of wishful thinking--the women or the self we want to be (though Russ shows the flaws in those "idealized" selves, too, much more than Gilman does in Herland), and the others are compartmentalized into the societies of the present or the past, but they make a compatible whole. They are the Same. They are still, for all their flaws and angst, us. The sooner we see the alientation we still allow, the sooner we can actually have the liberty we claim already exists.
How am I to put this together with my human life, my intellectual life, my solitude, my transcendence, my brains, and my fearful, fearful ambition? I failed and thought it was my own fault. You can't unite woman and human any more than you can unite matter and anti-matter; they are designed not to be stable together and they make just as big an explosion inside the head of the unfortunate girl who believes in both.
Russ speaks, in this book, to a demon that still feasts in society. We’re not post-feminist. We’re not all evolved past this shit, and I think she’d still say that today. We’re deceiving ourselves into thinking that we’ve evolved when we’re still clubbing each other about the heads in order to feel morally, intellectually, socially superior. Evolution’s still going retrograde, and Joanna saw it in 1975.
As my mother once said: The boys throw stones at the frogs in jest.
But the frogs die in earnest.