What defines a female and a female’s role in society is explored in the novel The Female Man by Joanna Russ. The weight of the little book is heavy and pregnant with notions of what it means to be a woman in multiple points in history, and how they are all vaguely the same. With Joanna’s character Janet, we see the female body exploited and the self denied.
Janet is a character in the novel that demonstrates power. She is strong and hails from a world known as Whileaway, where men no longer exist. This paradigm is immediately called into question when Janet is transported to an earlier time period in America. She is questioned by a man, and is attempted to be kept down by a condescending interview. The interviewer asks Janet if she expects men to start visiting Whileaway after it was discovered, she asks him why? The man then asks her the following pompous questions: “For information, trade, ah–cultural contact, surely. (laughter) I’m afraid you’re making it rather difficult for me, Miss Evason. When the –ah–the plague you spoke of killed the men on Whileaway, weren’t they missed? Weren’t families broken up? Didn’t the whole pattern of life change?” (10). Here immediately the man is honing in on sexual relations and that the lack of men would equal a lack of families in the Whileawayan society. This type of rhetoric leaves women controlled by a sexuality foisted upon women by male society, and excludes women from participating in that society without the male counterpart. This argument essentially concludes that women cannot become full selves or a fully operating society without male intervention. Women cannot exist on their own.
The man further emphasizes this notion by saying to Janet: “One sex is half a species, Miss Evason. I am quoting (and he cited a famous anthropologist). Do you want to banish sex from Whileaway?” (10). This again prohibits women from initiating their own sexual experiences, family circles, and society in general. It keeps them literally from being a whole species. Men must complete women. Yet how does he explain the high success of the colony of Whileaway? When the man expounds of sexual relations to Janet she responds in utter confusion: “I’m married. I have two children. What the devil do you mean?” (10). Janet has assumed the role of a complete self and it baffles the men of our society entirely. The tool that is wielded to control and keep women down has been lost in the society of Whileaway, and the men are grappling to even communicate properly with a woman who has assumed another plateau of intelligence as well.
Janet is able to determine herself, and fully inhabit her body and her person. She uses physical power as well as intellectual power when she beats up a man at a party who made inappropriate sexual advances on her, which when she rejected them, she was called names such as ‘prude’. As this is a man’s attempt at controlling female virility through sexual exploitation.
Janet is portrayed in The Female Man as a penultimate female to make her own decisions and come to her own conclusions. She is thrust into a society which she knows next to nothing about, and barges through with her lofty goals and opinions held high as though a lighted torch guiding the way. She is not swayed by male control or held under their dominion by word or deed. Janet inhabits herself and achieves personhood through the total eschewing of male dominance, both physically and mentally, and I think Joanna Russ makes this an important point and theme. The very fact that Janet comes from a futuristic society makes one wonder if it is merely a matter of time before men will finally allow women their freedom, or if like the novel, it is merely a science fiction fantasy.