Study Guide

The Female Man Genre

By Joanna Russ


Science Fiction, Satire and Parody, Coming-of-Age

Science Fiction

The Female Man is a lot of things, but the genre that makes it possible for so much weirdness to come together in one place is the fantastic, the marvelous, the out-of-this-world science fiction. Without the concept of probability travel to tie everything together, the novel just couldn't compare and contrast four women's radically different lives with such ease.

As a genre, science fiction gives authors an infinite amount of room to work with so that whatever social issues or politics or questions they want to explore, they can do it through any worlds and creatures they're pleased to imagine. It would be fair to call The Female Man a feminist Bildungsroman, a utopia, a lesbian love story, a dystopia, an anti-patriarchy polemic, a scathing satire on the ways of the world, or a laugh-out-loud comedy—all of those labels fit.

Plus, it's got hovercrafts; it's got super-advanced genetic engineering; it's got reconstructive surgeons churning out women with fangs and claws; and it's got enemy lasers going pew pew pew! (Okay, not that last bit.) The point is, by establishing a fictional universe in which humans can move back and forth between different versions of Earth, Joanna Russ gives herself a whole lot of room to maneuver. 

Satire and Parody

It would be hard to see the humor in The Female Man if it weren't clear that all of the terrible misogyny in the book is being ridiculed. The men in this book are laughable because they're so predictable. They condescend, they patronize, they make sexual advances with or without women's enthusiasm or consent, and they turn violent and mean when women resist them. Men like the Host of the party on Riverside Drive and the Manland Boss are particularly strong symbols of male privilege and aggression, and when they're trounced by superwomen like Janet and Jael, we're invited to take pleasure in seeing patriarchy cut down to size.

Feminist Coming-of-Age

Back in the 1960s and '70s, one of the most important tools used by the new feminist movement was the consciousness-raising session. These sessions were organized meetings where women could come together to talk about their experiences at home, in the workplace, or out in the street, and where they drew on one another's support as they worked to shape a new feminist consciousness and plan for action and activism. For many women, these sessions were opportunities to learn new vocabularies and ideas that could help put words to their oppression. For some, learning to think of themselves as feminists took a lot of courage, because it could mean being vilified as an extremist, a man-hater, a ball-breaker, a lesbian, a Bad Wife and Mother, etc.

Although coming-of-age stories usually follow a young person as they enter into adulthood and learn how to behave as a grown-up human being, The Female Man is a feminist coming-of-age story in the sense that it follows a woman who slowly grows into feminism in the same way that characters like David Copperfield or Jane Eyre grow into mature adults. As the novel's "female man," Joanna is the real center of focus. The metamorphosis that takes her from being a mixed-up Manhattanite living for The Man to being a woman who can shut a door on a man's thumb (and fantasize about erotic play with other women too) is really pretty spectacular.

Together, Janet, Jeannine, Joanna, and Jael form a consciousness-raising foursome, and although they part ways at the end of the novel, their personalities are reconciled in Joanna—the "spirit of the author" herself.