Study Guide

The Female Man Tone

By Joanna Russ

Tone

Satirical, Ironic, Humorous

The Female Man can be laugh-out-loud funny, but most of its jokes depend on our ability to recognize the novel's ironic and satirical tones. The scripted scenes that appear throughout the novel are perfect examples of the way the book combines satire, irony, and wit:

EIGHTEEN-YEAR-OLD MALE COLLEGE FRESHMAN (laying down the law at a party): If Marlowe had lived, he would have written very much better plays than Shakespeare's.

ME, A THIRTY-FIVE-YEAR-OLD PROFESSOR OF ENGLISH (dazed with boredom): Gee, how clever of you to know about things that never happened.

THE FRESHMAN (bewildered): Huh?

OR

EIGHTEEN-YEAR-OLD GIRL AT A PARTY: Men don't understand machinery. The gizmo goes on the whatsit and the rataplan makes contact with the fourchette in at least seventy percent of all cases.

THIRTY-FIVE-YEAR-OLD MALE PROFESSOR OF ENGINEERING (awed): Gee. 

(Something wrong here, I think) (5.9.2-6)

On the whole, this scene satirizes the way men are socialized to assert themselves forcefully, while women are socialized to defer to men's opinions and arguments. Nowadays, we call this "mansplaining." (And hey, why not check out a freelance linguist's thoughts on the "splaining" phenomenon here?) Overall, the scene's formal structure suggests that this kind of behavior is so regular, it may as well be "scripted." And, by holding these social scripts up for us to see, Russ gives us an opportunity to recognize them as the strange and ridiculous things they are.

On its own, the first half of the passage is satirical, but not all that funny. It's the addition of the eighteen-year-old girl and the male professor of engineering that gives us good reason to laugh, because the girl's technological know-how is about as sophisticated as Princess Ariel using her dinner fork as a comb. The obvious silliness of the girl's statement and the male professor's awed response are an ironic inversion of the first conversation, and a great way to make a point about the comparable silliness of the male freshman's thoughts about Marlowe.

The point here is that no one would expect a man with advanced degrees in engineering to be impressed by a young woman's groundless assumptions about machinery, whereas people in Joanna's world do expect a woman with advanced degrees in English literature to be impressed by a young man's groundless assumptions about Elizabethan drama. Satire, irony, and playful humor work together in many passages like this one throughout The Female Man, and give the novel its unique blend of scorn and wit.