Tag Archives: Joanna Russ

Joanna Russ: Brilliance and Articulate Rage

Debbie says:

Joanna Russ died last week. If you’ve never heard of her, then you don’t know that she wrote The Female Man, the most important feminist science fiction novel ever written (which, to me, means that it could be the most important science fiction novel ever written). She wrote a good deal of other fiction, almost every word of it feminist, and also a lot of incisive, hard-hitting nonfiction. Perhaps her most famous nonfiction book is How to Suppress Women’s Writing.

photo of Joanna Russ

Tributes are flying around the web. There’s an excellent collection of links here, most of which I still have to read. I’m struck by Paul Kincaid’s comment: “She wasn’t important. She was essential!”

That is certainly my experience. In 1973, when The Female Man was published, I was 21 or 22. I was just becoming a part of the science fiction community, where I have spent the last forty years. I was aware that feminism was in the air (if you asked, I would have said I believed in “women’s liberation”, which was the phrase of the time) but I had never read Betty Friedan or Kate Millett or Germaine Greer. I would have read them eventually, of course, but I read Joanna Russ right then, and so many things I had never understood fell into place, the way a kaleidoscope will fall into a perfect pattern.

I just opened my old and battered paperback of The Female Man at random, and found this:

I am a woman. I am a woman with a woman’s brain. I am a woman with a woman’s sickness. I am a woman with the wraps off, bald as an adder. God help me and you.

Open again, and find this:

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 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.

So you see.

The Female Man is written from several voices. I think those two passages are from the same voice, but I haven’t checked yet.

In any event, this was a book that opened eyes, that changed minds (including my mind), that initiated fury and passion and activism and terror. A male friend of mine at the time said, admiringly, “That’s not a novel. That’s articulate rage.”

Joanna Russ is much more than The Female Man. She wrote fine novels and stories before that book and more fine novels and stories after it. “The Little Dirty Girl” just popped into my head as I wrote the last sentence. “Useful Phrases for the Tourist” is an early “phrase book” that gives you an idea of the alien civilization it was written for, is hilariously funny, and tells a story. Picnic on Paradise and other stories about Alyx created the female kick-ass heroine genre.

She was the first person to write about what we now call “fan fiction” (then “K/S” for “Kirk/Spock” and later “slash fiction”), a thriving, creative community made up almost entirely of women writing for women without the mediation of the (mostly male) publishing world. When she wrote about it, it consisted of a couple of hundred people. Now, the Organization for Transformative Works , which by no means represents all of fan fiction, has 170,000 stories by 16,000 people. I personally believe that fan fiction might never have blossomed, even with the Internet, if Joanna hadn’t turned her spotlight in that direction. I know she wrote her own fan fiction, and spent some time obsessed with Buffy the Vampire Slayer; I only wish I knew what pseudonyms she used.

Personally, she was extremely difficult: demanding, didactic, unpredictably warm or hostile. Difficult enough that even if she were male, people would have thought she was difficult. But they would have cut her a lot more slack. My own face-to-face encounters with her were few: she was ungracious to me the first time I met her, and after that I tended to sit on the sidelines and listen, rather than engage. But I listened to some fine analysis, mostly about fan fiction. I can’t remember if I heard her say, “You can’t see around corners, but you can hear around corners,” or if Teresa Nielsen Hayden quoted that to me shortly after Joanna said it, but it stays in my brain.

She was plagued with health problems–bad back, allergies, and later chronic fatigue syndrome (which kept her from writing much)–none of which made her more pleasant or easier to be around. Friends who got close to her got slapped, which is another reason I stayed on the sidelines.

I’ve read most of the words she’s written under her own name, many of them over and over. Of course, no single person most shaped how I’ve lived my life and what I believe today, but if I absolutely had to pick one, she’d be a serious candidate.

Color Change: If the Tea Party Were Black

Debbie says…

Anti-racist activist Tim Wise has been thinking about the Tea Party Movement. Specifically, he’s been thinking about what happens if the Tea Party protesters were simply re-colored.

Imagine that hundreds of black protesters were to descend upon Washington DC and Northern Virginia, just a few miles from the Capitol and White House, armed with AK-47s, assorted handguns, and ammunition. And imagine that some of these protesters —the black protesters — spoke of the need for political revolution, and possibly even armed conflict in the event that laws they didn’t like were enforced by the government? Would these protesters — these black protesters with guns — be seen as brave defenders of the Second Amendment, or would they be viewed by most whites as a danger to the republic? What if they were Arab-Americans?

He goes on in excruciating detail, bringing in many news items from the period of the Obama presidency, switching the skin colors.

First of all, the piece is brilliant. It needed to be thought of, it needed to be written, and Tim Wise was clearly the man for the job.

Imagine a black political commentator suggesting that the only thing the guy who flew his plane into the Austin, Texas IRS building did wrong was not blowing up Fox News instead. This is, after all, what Anne Coulter said about Tim McVeigh, when she noted that his only mistake was not blowing up the New York Times.

Second of all, it reminded me forcefully of Joanna Russ’s excerpt from the end of The Female Man (1973) which uses the opposite technique to provide the same strength of imagination:

It’s very upsetting to think that women make up only one-tenth of society, but it’s true. For example:
My doctor is male.
My lawyer is male.
My tax-accountant is male.
The grocery-story owner (on the corner) is male.
The janitor in my apartment building is male.
The president of my bank is male.
[and twelve more[

I think most of the people in the country are male.
Now it’s true that waitresses, elementary-school teachers, secretaries, nurses, and nuns are female, but how many nuns do you meet in the course of the usual business day?

Sometimes we can see certain kinds of things at an angle that we can’t see when we look straight at them.

Which brings me to my third point about Wise’s article. Here at Body Impolitic, one of our missions is “making the invisible visible.” We usually talk about that in physical terms: the proud visibility fat women, people of color, disabled people, trans people, and more. The phrase also applies to “the emperor has no clothes”: finding ways to show up inexcusable (and illegal) behavior for what it is, to illuminate the direction we seem to be going in, to make a point in a way more people can hear.

And this, my friends, is what white privilege is all about. The ability to threaten others, to engage in violent and incendiary rhetoric without consequence, to be viewed as patriotic and normal no matter what you do, and never to be feared and despised as people of color would be, if they tried to get away with half the shit we do, on a daily basis.

If you have people in your life who send you extremist right-wing emails, or cartoons, or polemics; if you have people who support the Tea Party and don’t understand why you don’t; if you have people who listen to Glenn Beck and his ilk and spew their hatred at you, try to get them to read this. It won’t change most minds, of course: minds are hard to change. But it’s the best thing I’ve seen in a long time to open a few eyes, to redirect a little bit of the anger, and (just possibly) to open up some real discussion of what’s happening.

Seen a few places, but Carol was first.

* Googling around to find this excerpt on line, I found a 2006 book discussion group where a woman was asking if Russ was “exaggerating for effect” when she wrote this, because it’s so different now (in some places, anyway). In case anyone reading this is wondering, no, she wasn’t.