#65 = Volume 22, Part 1 = March 1995
The "Straight Mind" in Russ’s The
For years I have been saying Let me in, Love me, Approve me, Define
me, Regulate me, Validate me, Support me. Now I say Move over.
In The Female Man Joanna Russ contrasts our present-day heterosexual
society with two revolutionary alternatives: a utopian world of women and a
dystopian world of women warring with men. The Female Man, both science
fiction and utopian novel, operates as what Monique Wittig in The Straight
Mind (hereafter, SM) calls a literary "war machine" (69).
The goal of such a war machine is "to pulverize the old forms and formal
conventions. It is always produced in hostile territory" (SM 69).
Russ’s war machine confronts hostile territory—the heterosexual institutions
that regulate gender—in tones that are variously hilarious, furious, and
parodic. Her purpose in The Female Man is to trick the reader into
recognizing the problem of "contrarieties": "You can’t unite
woman and human any more than you can unite matter and antimatter" (138,
In deploying this literary war machine, Russ critiques—in a manner similar
to Wittig’s The Straight Mind and her utopian novel Les
Guérillères (1969)— heterosexual institutions that regulate gender,
showing how two representatives from a world similar to ours respond to those
institutions. She also shows two alternative worlds that further undermine, but
do not offer solutions to the ways in which heterosexual institutions regulate
gender. Ultimately, Russ’s war machine succeeds by reappropriating language,
as illustrated by one character’s change into the female man.
The Female Man takes place in four worlds inhabited by four J’s,
very different women who share the same genotype: Jeannine Dadier (who lives in
1969 in an America that never recovered from the Great Depression), Joanna (who
also lives in 1969, but in an America like ours, and who merges at times with
Joanna Russ, the author), Janet Evason (who lives in the all-female utopian
future of Whileaway), and Alice Reasoner, christened Jael (who lives in the
dystopian future where Womanlanders are at war with Manlanders). These worlds
constitute "worlds of possibility," but are not linearly related, so
neither Whileaway nor Jael’s world is "our future"
(§1.6:6-7, §8.5:160-61). The novel presents multiple configurations of a
visitor-guide utopia: Janet, a visitor to America, is guided by Joanna and
Jeannine, who are in turn visitors to Whileaway, guided by Janet. Joanna,
Jeannine, and Janet are visitors to Manland and Womanland, guided by Jael. Jael
also visits America and is guided by Jeannine.
The novel constantly shifts among these worlds and voices, sometimes to such
an extent that it is impossible to identify the speaking "I." For
instance, when Janet moves in with an American family—the Wildings of Anytown—and
has a lesbian affair with the Wildings’ daughter, Laura Rose, an "I"
follows her (§4.2:58). Based on textual clues, it is impossible to determine
who this "I" is. Similarly, near the end of the novel the following
sentence illustrates this confusion: "I said goodbye and went off with
Laura, I, Janet; I also watched them go, I, Joanna; moreover I went off to show
Jael the city, I Jeannine, I Jael, I myself" (§9.7:212). As the entire
novel implies, the question of identity is intertwined with the question of
gender. This is depicted, for example, in the following description of the
statue of a god on Whileaway: "Persons who look at the statue longer than I
did have reported that one cannot pin It down at all, that She is a constantly
changing contradiction, that She becomes in turn gentle, terrifying, hateful,
loving, ‘stupid’ (‘dead’) and finally indescribable" (§5.16:103).
These narrative shifts not only displace the reader, but on another level
they raise the question of the identity of the subjective self. Identity, like
the statue on Whileaway, "is a constantly changing contradiction." In Gender
Trouble, Judith Butler discusses the relation between gender and identity
and argues: "It would be wrong to think that the discussion of ‘identity’
ought to proceed prior to a discussion of gender identity for the simple reason
that ‘persons’ only become intelligible through becoming gendered in
conformity with recognizable standards of gender intelligibility" (16).
Although gender and identity are ineluctably intertwined in The Female Man,
this paper sets aside questions of identity in order to focus on how the
"standards of gender intelligibility" in "our world" are
contrasted with and undermined by Russ’s two alternative worlds and how
language is deployed as the ultimate weapon to destroy "standards of gender
The worlds Jeannine and Joanna inhabit are ruled by standards which Wittig, a
materialist feminist, associates with what she calls "the straight
mind." Wittig asserts that the straight mind "cannot conceive of a
culture, a society where heterosexuality would not order not only all human
relationships but also its very production of concepts and all the processes
which escape consciousness, as well" (SM 28). For Wittig, there is
one category of sex— female—and this "category of sex is the product of
a heterosexual society which imposes on women the rigid obligation of the
reproduction of the ‘species’"; it also "turns half of the
population into sexual beings.... Wherever they are, whatever they do...they are
seen (and made) sexually available to men, and they, breasts, buttocks, costume,
must be visible" (SM 6-7).
Wittig’s position is that there is no gender and no sex; rather, the
straight mind discursively produces these categories (see Butler 112-13,
115-16). The category of sex, Wittig says, "does not concern being but
relationships.... there is no such thing as being-woman or being-man. ‘Man’
and ‘woman’ are political concepts of opposition" (SM 29). This
is another way of saying that "there are not two genders. There is only
one: the feminine, the ‘masculine’ not being a gender. For the masculine is
not the masculine but the general" (SM 60). Butler, who agrees with
Wittig’s analysis of the straight mind, criticizes Wittig because she
"presumes the subject, the person, to have a presocial and pregendered
integrity" and because she "neglect[s] the critical dimension of the
unconscious which, as a site of repressed sexuality, reemerges within the
discourse of the subject as the very impossibility of its coherence" (29,
The category of sex and the straight mind which Wittig analyzes in her essays
are found in the worlds of Jeannine and Joanna, which is unsurprising because
their worlds are very similar to ours. For example, this monologue by Joanna
illustrates some of the consequences of the straight mind:
"Do you enjoy playing with other people’s children—for ten
minutes? Good! This reveals that you have Maternal Instinct and you will be
forever wretched if you do not instantly have a baby of your own....
Are you lonely? Good! This shows that you have Feminine Incompleteness; get
married and do all your husband’s personal services, buck him up when he’s
low, teach him about sex (if he wants you to), praise his technique (if he
doesn’t), have a family if he wants a family....
"Do you like men’s bodies? Good! This is beginning to be almost as
good as getting married. This means that you have True Womanliness, which is
fine unless you want to do it with him on the bottom and you on the top....
Joanna’s monologue echoes an earlier chapter, "The Great Happiness
Contest," a series of dramatic vignettes which includes the following:
FIRST WOMAN: I’m perfectly happy. I love my husband and we have two
darling children. I certainly don’t need any change in my lot.
SECOND WOMAN: I’m even happier than you are. My husband does the dishes
every Wednesday and we have three darling children, each nicer than the last.
I’m tremendously happy.
THIRD WOMAN: Neither of you is as happy as I am.... I’m happiest in
fulfilling my responsibilities to him and the children. We have four children.
FOURTH WOMAN: We have six children.... I have a part-time job as a
clerk in Bloomingdale’s...but I really feel like I’m expressing myself
best when I make a custard or a meringue or decorate the basement.
ME: You miserable nits, I have a Nobel Peace Prize, fourteen published
novels, six lovers, a town house, a box at the Metropolitan Opera, I fly a
plane, I fix my own car, and I can do eighteen push-ups before breakfast, that
is, if you’re interested in numbers.
ALL THE WOMEN: Kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill. (§6.5:116-17)1
Joanna says that the straight mind is the "doctrine of Nobody’s
Fault...the doctrine that Women Can Love Better Than Men so we ought to be
saints... the doctrine of It’s A Personal Problem." All these doctrines
are implicit in a heterosexual culture, just as in a heterosexual culture
women are to men as slaves are to masters—as Joanna satirically taunts:
"Selah, selah, there is only one True Prophet and it’s You, don’t
kill me, massa, I’se jes’ ig’nerant" (§7.5:152).2
Russ also depicts consequences of the straight mind in courtship or flirting,
other occasions for men to dominate women. For instance, when Jeannine goes on a
blind date, the third-person narrator states: "His contribution is Make
me feel good; her contribution is Make me exist" (§6.6:120).
Likewise, when Joanna takes Janet to a party where Janet meets a man, Joanna
says: "When I got back they had reached the stage of Discussing His
Work" (§3.2:39). That heterosexual institutions define sex roles for
courtship can also be seen when Janet and the host of the party get into a fight.
The host and Joanna furiously scramble through their copies of the little blue
and pink books given out in high school entitled, WHAT TO DO IN EVERY SITUATION
(§3.2:45-48). These books satirize the heterosexual institutions regulating
gender. For instance, in the little pink book under "Brutality,"
Joanna reads: "Man’s bad temper is the woman’s fault. It is also
the woman’s responsibility to patch things up afterwards" (§3.2:47).
Women in The Female Man are objectified as sex objects. For instance,
Joanna says, "After we had finished making love, he turned to the wall and
said, ‘Woman, you’re lovely. You’re sensuous. You should wear long hair
and lots of eye make-up and tight clothing.’ Now what does that have to do
with anything?" (§7.5:150). Joanna also notes how people stare at her legs
on the subway as if she were a cheerleader (§5.1:83).
The straight mind excludes females from the universal (male), a point made by
the Non Sum that Laura and Jael repeat as a mantra. Laura "Says over
and over to herself Non Sum, Non Sum, which means either I don’t exist
or I’m not that, according to how you feel it..." (§5.3:59). Jael
explodes, "It is I, who you will not admit exists.... I, I, I. Repeat it
like magic. That is not me. I am not that.... NON SUM, NON SUM, NON SUM!"
(§8.10:195).3 Because of Non Sum, men oppress and invalidate
women, as illustrated in "The Great Happiness Contest" and in the
satiric chapter composed of fragments reviewing The Female Man:
"Shrill . . . vituperative . . . ...needs a good lay . . . ...no
characterization, no plot . . . ...a woman’s book . . . ...feminine lack of
objectivity . . . ...the usual boring obligatory references to Lesbianism.....
...sharp and funny but without real weight or anything beyond a topical....
Joanna reverses Non Sum by becoming a man, a female man. She
cryptically hints at this several times (§1.5:5, §2.2:19-20) before she
explains it: "I’ll tell you how I turned into a man. First I had to turn
into a woman" (§7.1: 133). As Simone de Beauvoir says in the The Second
Sex, "One is not born, but becomes a woman" (249). Before Joanna
can become a man, she has to become a woman through societal enculturation:
I had a five-year-old self who said:
Daddy won’t love you.
I had a ten-year-old self who said:
the boys won’t play with you.
I had a fifteen-year-old self who said:
nobody will marry you.
I had a twenty-year-old self who said: you can’t be fulfilled
without a child. (§7.1:135)
At eleven I passed an eighth-grader, a boy, who muttered between his teeth,
‘Shake it but don’t break it.’ The career of the sexless sex object had
begun. I had, at seventeen, an awful conversation with my mother and father in
which they told me how fine it was to be a girl—the pretty clothes...and how
I did not have to climb Everest, but could listen to the radio and eat bon-bons
while my Prince was out doing it.... There is the vanity training, the
obedience training, the self-effacement training, the deference training, the
dependency training, the passivity training, the rivalry training, the
stupidity training, the placation training. (§7.5:151)5
Joanna thus successfully becomes a woman but cannot "put this together
with my human life, my intellectual life, my solitude, my transcendence, my
brains, and my fearful, fearful ambition" (ibid.). In describing how she
became a woman she self-consciously parodies "feminine writing," the
fluid and ludic style of writing from the body practiced by Hélène Cixous and
others to show the desire to return the the preconscious state of union with the
mother.6 Joanna rejects feminine writing because it is another
(false) mark of gender: "my diction is becoming feminine, thus revealing my
true nature...I have no structure...my thoughts seep out shapelessly like
menstrual fluid, it is all very female and deep and full of essences, it is very
primitive and full of ‘and’s,’ and it is called ‘run-on sentences’"
Joanna explains that she becomes a man as a consequence of "the
knowledge you suffer when you’re an outsider.... the perception of all
experience through two sets of eyes, two systems of value, two habits of
expectation, almost two minds" (§7.2:137-38). In other words, she must
constantly be aware not only of the universal male, but also of the female
Other.8 Thus, she becomes a female man: "To resolve
contrarieties, unite them in your own person" (138). Become your own
universal. She says, "Manhood, children, is not reached by courage or short
hair or insensibility.... Manhood, children, . . . is Manhood"
(§2.2:20). A woman reaches "manhood" by appropriating language.
Joanna describes the process metaphorically:
take in your bare right hand one naked, severed end of a high-tension wire.
Take the other in your left hand. Stand in a puddle.... When She [God] roars
down in high voltage and high amperage both, She is after your marrow-bones;
you are making yourself a conduit for holy terror and the ecstasy of Hell.
Joanna’s change into a female man appears magical, but then, so does the
appropriation of language. As Wittig points out, "One must understand that
men are not born with a faculty for the universal and that women are not reduced
at birth to the particular. The universal has been, and is continually, at every
moment, appropriated by men" (SM 80). Gender, which reduces women to
the particular, can be destroyed through language: "For each time I say ‘I,’
I reorganize the world from my point of view and through abstraction I lay claim
to universality" (SM 81). As Butler points out, "This absolute
grounding of the speaking ‘I’ assumes god-like dimensions within Wittig’s
discussion" and affords "women [the ability to] speak their way
out of their gender" (117).
Like Joanna in The Female Man, women in Wittig’s Les
Guérillères also "speak their way out of their gender." Les
Guérillères is a utopian, nonlinear novel about an anarchic society of
women warring with and eventually defeating men. The women reject myths and
symbols (30), are concerned with finding a new language (131), and with
rewriting their history, which has been falsely invented by men (110-11). In the
novel Wittig, by "universaliz[ing] the point of view of elles,
illustrates how language can be used to destroy the mark of gender. The goal of
this approach is not to feminize the world but to make categories of sex
obsolete in language" (SM 85).9
Joanna destroys gender and becomes universal when she becomes the female man.
This resolution is not the ultimate political goal Wittig has in mind, but it is
a good short-term solution. Wittig believes we should "suppress men as a
class, not through a genocidal, but a political struggle. Once the class ‘men’
disappears, ‘women’ as a class will disappear as well" (SM 3).
This entails destroying "heterosexuality as a social system" because
"[it] is based on the oppression of women by men and...produces the
doctrine of difference between the sexes to justify this oppression" (SM
20). Wittig claims, however, that we don’t need to wait until the ultimate
victory; a short-term solution is to "declare...that women are human as
well as men.... It is part of our fight to unmask them, to say that one out of
two men is a woman, that the universal belongs to us..." (SM 56).
And this—not the ultimate suppression of men, but the short-term declaration
"that women are human"—is Joanna’s solution to the dilemma of
"unit[ing] woman and human" (§7.5:151). She becomes a "man"
because man is the universal; man is human. She says, "If we are all
Mankind [i.e., human], then it follows to my interested and righteous and
rightnow [sic] very bright and beady little eyes, that I too am a Man and not at
all a woman" (§7.2:140).
Jeannine doesn’t evolve as much as Joanna. Jeannine works in New York City
as a reference librarian for the WPA (§1.2:2). In her world of 1969, World War
II never occurred and the Great Depression and rationing linger over America.
Gender roles are more strictly inscribed in Jeannine’s world than in ours,
which accounts for her concern with her feminine appearance (she checks lines
around her eyes and worries about her age, for instance) and her obsession with
getting married. She is badgered by her mother who wants the answer to "the
really important question, viz, is Jeannine going to have a kitchenette of her
own" (§6.10:127), and her brother, who tells her to marry
"Anybody" (§6.4:116). She has a lover, Cal, but she really doesn’t
like him and tries to avoid him because he will "want to Make Love"
(§1.10:16). She daydreams that a prince will whisk her away (§6.1:109), but
after a few blind dates ends up calling Cal and telling him the answer is yes to
the marriage question he’s been asking (§6.9:129-31).
What Jeannine believes is: "Somewhere is The One. The solution.
Fulfillment. Fulfilled women. Filled full. My Prince. Come. Come away, Death.
She stumbles into her Mommy’s shoes, little girl playing house"
(§6.7:125). After she decides to marry Cal she wonders "Do you think if I
got married I would like making love better?" (§7.5:150). Jeannine has the
potential to be the most intelligent of the genotype of the four J’s, a
possibility to which Jael quips, "try to prove that to a stranger!"
(161-62). However, cultural expectations cause her to unquestioningly accept her
role as (heterosexual) wife. She says, "I wouldn’t be a man for
anything.... I like being admired. I like being a girl" (§5.2:86). She is
appalled when Janet and Laura Rose touch each other (§7.4:143), and when she
finds Janet’s dildo, Joanna tells her that it is "Infinitely
What it does to your body...is nothing compared to what it does to your
mind, Jeannine. It will ruin your mind. It will explode in your brains and
drive you crazy. You will never be the same again. You will be lost to
respectability and decency and decorum and dependency and all sorts of other
nice, normal things beginning with a D. It will kill you, Jeannine. You will
be dead, dead, dead. (§7.4:148)
Jeannine’s straight mind questions even slight deviations from the
heterosexual norm. For instance, Jeannine asks Joanna whether there’s
"something wrong" with Cal because "when he does it [makes love],
you know, sometimes he cries. I never heard of a man doing that" (84), and
because "He can’t make up his mind, either. I never heard of a man like
that" (85), and most of all, because
—he likes to get dressed up. He gets
into the drapes like a sarong and puts on all my necklaces around his neck,
and stands there with the curtain rod for a spear. He wants to be an actor,
you know. But I think there’s something wrong with him. Is it what they call
Unlike Joanna, who becomes a female man and a lesbian10 by the end
of the novel, Jeannine does not completely reject the straight mind but evolves
only to the point of questioning it. She recognizes the myth of Woman and the
necessity of feminist politics. She now gets up late and neglects housework; she
is doing just as she pleases, which doesn’t happen to coincide with the myth
of Woman (§9.7:209-12).
Russ compares the solutions Joanna and Jeannine reach to the alternative
worlds of Janet and Jael. Though these two worlds further critique and undermine
the straight mind, they fail to conclusively demonstrate a final victory. Janet’s
world of Whileaway is merely a hope and Jael’s world is a parody.
Janet comes from Whileaway, an all-women, anarchist society (§5.7:91). The
men on Whileaway were wiped out by a plague (§1.8:14), thus, women are
(naturally) lesbians and have children through gene splicing. They marry but are
not monogamous and have sexual relations primarily outside the family (52, 53).
Janet’s visit to America inevitably leads to reversals that undermine the
For instance, when Janet is interviewed on television, the M.C.
presumptuously asks how Whileaway will react to the reappearance of men. Janet
cannot imagine "why" men should reappear. She keeps asking
"why," until the M.C. finally tells her, "One sex is half a
species" (§1.7:9-10). Janet does not comprehend this, of course, because
on Whileaway one sex is the whole species. This is the reversal of universality:
on Whileaway females are the universal. When Janet lands on Jeannine’s world,
she asks, "Where the dickens are all the women?" (§1.7:8). Similarly,
although Whileawayan children are given the last name of their mother plus
"son" (Janet’s last name is Evason), Janet tells us "Evason is
not ‘son’ but ‘daughter.’ This is your translation"
Another reversal is that of heterosexuality. On Whileaway women are lesbians
and bear children, so they have no reproductive need for men and no concept of
heterosexuality. Because of this, when the three other J’s watch Jael have sex
with her male robot, Davy, Janet exclaims, "‘Good Lord? Is that all?’"
(§8.14:198). Although one critic suggests Janet’s exclamation shows that
"sex between a person and a dehumanized object is not—and should not be
regarded as being—highly significant" (Spector 201), this interpretation
ignores the obvious parallel to the possible dehumanization of women in
heterosexual sex between "real men" and "real women."
Moreover, Janet’s exclamation can be interpreted from the lesbian perspective
that, compared to lesbian sex, "is that [heterosexual sex] all [there is to
it]?" Is it over so quickly? Is it so lacking in sensuality? And so on.
The lesbian reversal on Whileaway carries over to Joanna’s world. For
instance, before Laura sleeps with Janet, Laura carries the straight mind to its
I’ve never slept with a girl. I couldn’t. I wouldn’t want to. That’s
abnormal and I’m not, although you can’t be normal unless you do what you
want and you can’t be normal unless you love men. To do what I wanted would
be normal, unless what I wanted was abnormal, in which case it would be
abnormal to please myself and normal to do what I didn’t want to do, which
isn’t normal. (§4.11:68)
After Janet sleeps with Laura, Laura becomes a lesbian. From this
perspective, we can read Laura’s Non Sum ("I don’t exist
or I’m not that" [§§4.3:58]) as a reversal. Not only can it mean
"As a female I don’t exist because I’m not the universal (male),"
but also it can mean "As a lesbian I don’t exist in the categories of
sex." As Wittig argues, "Lesbian is the only concept...which is beyond
the categories of sex (woman and man), because the designated subject (lesbian)
is not a woman, either economically, or politically, or
ideologically" (SM 20). Joanna, who at first rejects Janet’s
advances and the possibility of lesbianism, saying "That’s different...I
couldn’t" (§3.1:31), eventually escapes the categories of sex by
becoming a lesbian (§9.6:209).
Although Whileaway’s all-women (lesbian) society undermines gender
relations in heterosexual society, it also raises the problem of separatism. In
"Recent Feminist Utopias" (1981), in which Russ discusses feminist
science fiction including The Female Man, Russ comments: "I believe
the separatism is primary, and...the authors are not subtle in their reasons for
creating separatist utopias: if men are kept out of these societies, it is
because men are dangerous. They also hog the good things of this world"
(77). The purpose of utopias, she further remarks, is to "supply in fiction
what their authors believe society...and/or women, lack in the here-and-now. The
positive values stressed in the stories can reveal to us what, in the authors’
eyes, is wrong with our own society" (81). Although Russ’s comments
expressly support separatism, Wittig does not agree that lesbian societies are
solely separatist when they are part of a larger, more revolutionary purpose:
"To destroy ‘woman’ does not mean that we aim, short of physical
destruction, to destroy lesbianism simultaneously with the categories of sex,
because lesbianism provides for the moment the only social form in which we can
live freely" (SM 20).11 Wittig creates a separatist
society in Les Guérillères, in which the warrior-women brutally defeat
the men, but accept those men who wish to "join them in their
struggle" (141, 142); in The Lesbian Body, Wittig describes a
(devouring) lesbian relationship, which Butler calls a "textual...’overthrow’
of the category of sex through a destruction and fragmentation of the sexed
Despite these separatist novels, Wittig believes an all-lesbian society is
not the way to destroy "heterosexuality as a social system"; rather, a
lesbian society "pragmatically reveals that the division from men of which
women have been the object is a political one and shows that we have been
ideologically rebuilt into a ‘natural group’" (SM 9).12
And while the all-woman/lesbian society of Whileaway is the utopia in The
Female Man, it cannot evade the problem of origin. How do we get there? The
men of Whileaway were wiped out by a plague that attacked only men (§1.8:12).13
This is obviously not a realistic way to destroy the heterosexual institutions
that regulate gender. Moreover, as Butler points out, a "utopian notion of
a sexuality freed from heterosexual constructs...fail[s] to acknowledge the ways
in which power relations continue to construct sexuality for women even within
the terms of a ‘liberated’ heterosexuality or lesbianism" (29). Despite
these problems, Whileaway nonetheless critiques and undermines the straight
mind, a point Jean Pfaelzer makes when she says that a utopia "deconstructs
our assumptions about social inevitability through representations that provoke
a cognitive dissonance between the present as lived and the potentialities
hidden within it. Utopias tempt us as an evocation of political desire"
(199). As Russ admits at the end of the novel, "Janet [is one] whom we don’t
believe in and whom we deride but who is in secret our savior from utter
despair" (§9.7:212-13). Whileaway, like any other utopia, represents our
Jael’s world, on the other hand, represents our fear. Hers is a dystopian
world in which men live in Manland, separated from women in Womanland. For forty
years a war has been waged between the "Haves" and
"Have-nots," the men and women (§8.6:164-65). Manlanders have more
technology, but they have no women so they buy babies from the Womanlanders
(§8.7:167). On Manland there are real-men, the changed (men surgically changed
into "women"), and the half-changed ("who keep their genitalia
but who grow slim, grow languid, grow emotional and feminine, all this the
effect of spirit only" [ibid.]). Womanland has no men, but does have male
robots, such as Jael’s Davy, "The most beautiful man in the world"
(§8.9:185). Jael herself is part robot (a cyborg) with surgical claws and steel
teeth hidden under plates that look like human teeth (§8.7:181-82).
Both Manland and Womanland are heterosexual. For instance in Manland:
"All the real-men like the changed; some real-men like the half-changed;
none of the real-men like real-men, for that would be abnormal"
(§8.7:167). Thus, unlike Whileaway, Jael’s world reinscribes the straight
mind and in Wittig’s terms, it is an unsuccessful revolution against
heterosexual institutions because it merely "substitute[s] women for men
(the Other for the One)" (SM 54-55). For instance, after Jael kills
Boss-man for relentlessly trying to seduce her ("You want me. It doesn’t
matter what you say. You’re a woman, aren’t you? This is the crown of your
life. This is what God made you for.... You want to be mastered"
[§8.8:181]), Jael thinks:
Still hurt, still able to be hurt by them! Amazing. You’d think my skin
would get thicker, but it doesn’t. We’re all of us still flat on our
backs. The boot’s on our neck while we slowly, ever so slowly, gather the
power and the money and the resources into our own hands. While they play war
Jael, like her Biblical namesake who kills the commander of the Canaanite
army (Judges 4), is an assassin (§8.9:187). The night after she kills Boss-man
she has a "didactic nightmare" of guilt: "It was the guilt of
sheer existence," of being a "Cunt." "I was very lucid in my
nightmare. I knew it was not wrong to be a girl because Mommy said so; cunts
were all right if they were neutralized, one by one, by being hooked on to a
man....." Jael dreams, "I murdered because I was guilty";
"For every drop of blood shed there is restitution made.... See? It’s me!...
Are you catching on? it is I, who you will not admit exists"
(§8.10:192-96). Like Joanna, Jael’s emphasis on "I" is an attempt
to appropriate (linguistically) the universal. Other than this one
appropriation, however, Jael does not succeed as does Joanna in becoming the
Clearly, Womanland is a dystopia. Unlike Whileaway, it hopelessly fails to
revolutionize heterosexual institutions because it merely reinscribes them.
Thus, Jael’s world shows the danger of "substitut[ing] women for
men" (SM 55). But it is also a parody of those heterosexual
institutions, and as a parody it reveals the shakiness of those very
institutions. For instance, part of Jael’s job is to impersonate Manlanders,
as she does when she acts as a Manlander diplomat in "a primitive
patriarchy on an alternate Earth" (188). Here, Jael is disguised as
"Prince of Faery." One of the native women falls in love with her, she
commits medieval acts of knighthood, and when she finally reveals "the
marks of Eve" to her "most loyal feudal retainer," he says,
"If the women of Faery are like this, just think what the MEN
must be!" (§8.9:189-91).
Another parody occurs when Jael takes Joanna, Jeannine, and Janet into
Manland for business (to make a baby deal with Boss-man). Their first stop in
Manland is at "The Knife," a "recreation center" that is
more like a tavern (§8.7:167-172). Here they meet their business contact, Anna,
a half-changed (170). He wears "a pink chiffon gown, with gloves up to his
shoulder, a monument of irrelevancy on high heels, a pretty girl with too much
of the right curves and a bobbing, springing, pink feather boa.... His green
eyes shrewdly narrowed. This one has intelligence. Or is it only the weight of
his false lashes?" (171). Jael hypothesizes that "There must be a
secret feminine underground that teaches them how to behave.... He wets his lips
again, the indescribable silliness of that insane mechanism, practiced anywhere
and everywhere" (171, 173). Anna thinks the four J’s are "real
men": "Anna bats his eyes at us and wets his lips, taking the women
inside the suits to be real-men, taking me to be a real-man (what else can I be
if I’m not a changed?)" (173). Later, at Boss-man’s, his wife, Natalie,
a changed, "clicked in with a tray of drinks—scarlet skin-tights, no
underwear, transparent high-heeled sandals like Cinderella’s—she gave us a
homey, cute smile...and stilted out" (173).
The women who dress like men and the men who dress like women are parodies of
"an original or primary gender identity," as Butler argues:
As much as drag creates a unified picture of "woman"...it also
reveals the distinctness of those aspects of gendered experience which are
falsely naturalized as a unity through the regulatory fiction of heterosexual
coherence. In imitating gender, drag implicitly reveals the imitative
structure of gender itself—as well as its contingency. (135)
Anna and Natalie’s feminine dress and coy behavior and Jael’s posturing
as Prince of Faery parody male and female gender roles, thus suggesting how
gender roles are indeterminate and contingent. This parody of a parody is
mirrored in the sex specifications the Womanlanders give the Manlanders for
their sex change operations. No "real woman" exists behind the
fantastic specifications. As Jael tells the other three J’s, "[Manlanders
have] been separated from real women so long that they don’t know what
to make of us; I doubt if even the sex surgeons know what a real woman
looks like. The specifications we send them every year grow wilder and
wilder and there isn’t a murmur of protest" (§8.7:169).
Jael’s world, which merely substitutes "Other" for
"One," is not a viable solution to the heterosexual institutions that
oppress women. Jael’s world undermines heterosexual institutions through
parody, just as Whileaway’s lesbian society undermines heterosexual
institutions by demonstrating the false nature of the categories of sex. But
even the utopian Whileaway is not the final victory for women. The Female Man
ultimately relies on the power of language to reappropriate the universal and
thus fulfills Wittig’s criteria for a successful war machine: "It is the
attempted universalization of the point of view that turns or does not turn a
literary work into a war machine" (SM 75).
Even though Russ says, "I like Jael the best of all.... who says die if
you must but loop your own intestines around the neck of your strangling
enemy" (§9.7:212), Joanna is the hero of the novel and Joanna’s change
into the female man shows that for all women, change into the female man is
possible through language. As Wittig says, "to eradicate [the lexical
symbol for gender] would not only modify language at the lexical level but would
upset the structure itself and its functioning" (SM 89). Through
language women can kill the myth of woman and abolish the class of women (and
the class of men). Like Jael, women can yell "I, I, I. Repeat it like
magic" (§8.10:195), and in this way attempt to universalize their point of
view. The Female Man suggests that women can "speak their way
out of their gender" (Butler 117). Although the conclusion of this battle
is not clear-cut, the novel provides strategy and hope. Appropriately, Russ ends
with an envoi: "Go little book...." and "Do not get glum when you
are no longer understood.... Rejoice, little book! For on that day, we will be
1. In other vignettes in this chapter, the characters are men
and women who debate the effects of the straight mind on women. The debate
usually ends when the man negates the woman’s point of view—"This
argument is becoming degraded and ridiculous" (118)—thus illustrating
R.D. Laing’s vignette in The Politics of Experience showing how men
invalidate women’s experience, which Russ uses as the epigraph of The
2. Wittig states: "The perenniality of the sexes and the
perenniality of slaves and masters proceed from the same belief, and, as there
are no slaves without masters, there are no women without men" (SM
2). Like Joanna, the women in Les Guérillères say that men are the
"domineering oppressors, the same masters who have said that negroes and
women do not have a heart spleen liver in the same place as their own"
3. Both of these passages allude to Martin Luther’s crying
out "Non Sum" in the choir. Intertextually, Russ’s non sum
relates to Wittig’s essay entitled "Homo Sum," a title which she
ironically takes from Terence’s statement "Homo sum; humani nihil a me
alienum puto" ("Man am I; nothing human is alien to me"). In both
cases, Russ’s and Wittig’s female perspective "playfully exposes"
that the words "human" and "man" have been appropriated by
the dominant group (Wittig 54, Spender 151-57).
4. Russ has previously written about how men invalidate and
silence women’s works in How to Suppress Women’s Writing, and Spender
writes about the same thing in chapter seven of Man Made Language. Wittig
makes the point about lesbian works in her essay "The Point of View:
Universal or Particular?" (SM 62-63, 65).
5. This is similar to the things Laura Rose’s mother tells
her and what she experiences (§4.9:65-68).
6. For a discussion of feminine writing, see Todd (53).
7. Wittig also criticizes feminine writing because it "merg[es]
a practice with a myth, the myth of Woman" (SM 59).
8. One aspect of this, as Spender explains, is that because
"the registers for discourse are male decreed and controlled, women who
wish to express themselves must translate their experience into the male
9. Wittig uses the plural feminine pronoun elles to
replace the general (male) plural pronoun ils. Unfortunately, the English
translation of elles in Les Guérillères is "the
women," which Wittig laments because "when elles is turned into
the women the process of universalization is destroyed" (SM
86). (For a brief discussion of Wittig’s strategic use of j/e in The
Lesbian Body, see Butler 120.)
10. I don’t believe the two are necessarily linked, even in
Wittig’s thinking. This issue is addressed below in the discussion about
11. Both Butler and Fuss criticize Wittig’s concept of
lesbianism as essentializing. Butler notes that, in effect, Wittig sees the
lesbian as "a third gender" (113); Fuss points out that Wittig "tend[s]
to homogenize lesbians into a single harmonious group and to erase the real
material and ideological differences between lesbians" and is reluctant to
destroy the category of lesbian (43).
12. As Butler argues, the point of The Lesbian Body
"is not to call attention to the presence of rights of ‘women’ or ‘lesbians’
as individuals, but to counter the globalizing heterosexist episteme by a
reverse discourse of equal reach and power" (120).
13. The Whileawayan history of the plague is contradicted by
Jael, who tells Janet, "Whileaway’s plague is a big lie"; "I,
I, I, I am the plague.... I and the war I fought built your world for you"
(§9.7:211). Jael’s version of history—women warring against men—is
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion
of Identity. NY: Routledge, 1990.
De Beauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex. 1953. NY: Bantam,
Fuss, Diana. Essentially Speaking. NY: Routledge, 1989.
Pfaelzer, Jean. "Response: What Happened to
History?" Feminism, Utopia, and Narrative. Ed. Libby Falk Jones and
Sarah Webster Goodwin. Knoxville: U Tennessee P, 1990. 191-200.
Russ, Joanna. The Female Man. 1975. Boston: Beacon, n.d.
_____. How to Suppress Women’s Writing. Austin: U
Texas P, 1983.
_____. "Recent Feminist Utopias." Future Females:
A Critical Anthology. Ed. Marleen S. Barr. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green
SU Popular Press, 1981. 71-85.
Spector, Judith. "The Functions of Sexuality in the
Science Fiction of Russ, Piercy, and Le Guin." Erotic Universe:
Sexuality and Fantastic Literature. Ed. Donald Palumbo. Westport, CT:
Greenwood Press, 1986. 196-207.
Spender, Dale. Man Made Language. 2nd ed. London:
Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985.
Todd, Janet. Feminist Literary Theory. NY: Routledge,
Wittig, Monique. The Lesbian Body. Trans. David Le Vay.
Boston: Beacon, 1986.
_____. Les Guérillères. 1969. Trans. David Le Vay.
NY: Viking, 1971.
_____. The Straight Mind and Other Essays. Boston:
In The Female Man Russ contrasts our present-day
heterosexual society with two revolutionary alternatives: a utopian world of
women and a dystopian world of women warring with men. The novel functions as
what Monique Wittig calls a "literary war machine" because it tries
"to pulverize the old forms and formal conventions." Specifically,
Russ critiques the "straight mind"—heterosexual institutions that
regulate gender—by showing how two representatives from "our world"
respond to those institutions. She also shows two alternative worlds that
further undermine, but do not solve, the way heterosexual institutions regulate
In responding to the straight mind and to the consequences of
being the female Other, one character from "our world," Joanna,
changes into a female man. Joanna becomes the female man by appropriating
language and therefore "resolv[ing] contrarieties, [by] unit[ing] them in
her own person," and in this way she destroys gender as Wittig describes by
"lay[ing] claim to universality."
Russ contrasts Joanna’s solution with the alternative worlds
inhabited by Janet (on the all-women utopian Whileaway) and by the cyborg Jael
(on the dystopian world of warring Manland and Womanland).
Russ’s literary war machine deploys various weapons against
the Straight Mind. Of these, the most successful is language, which allows women
to kill the myth of Woman and to abolish the class of women. In short, Russ
demonstrates Judith Butler’s suggestion that women can "speak their
way out of their gender." (SA)
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