Four Personalities of Feminism
The Female Man is remarkable in that it approaches what it means to be a woman from four distinct worlds – or personalities. Joanna Russ, author of The Female Man, sets up a confusing, hilarious, exhausting, and Utopian narrative centered around gender and feminism. The four personalities follow: Joanna, Janet, Jeannine, and Jael (whom, at this point in the reading, I do not know much about).
Joanna lives in our world in 1969; she represents reality. Jeannine lives in a world where the Great Depression never ended, also in 1969. Janet is from a world set 900 years in the future, after a plague had wiped out all of the men. Jael, as much as I currently know, represents a woman who is unafraid, and who actively thinks about identity (I won’t be discussing her role in the novel). Through a close reading, one can interpret these women as 4 personalities, belonging to the same woman: Joanna; this will be my interpretation as well. Interestingly, Russ put her own name as one of the main personalities. I presume it is because she is trying to represent not only herself, but the woman she was told to be, the woman who she wishes she could be, and perhaps (I’m predicting here) the woman who is the warrior feminist (Ganyard, 2016).
There is a Showtime TV show, created by Diablo Cody in 2009, called “United States of Tara” (“United States of Tara”). In the show Toni Collette plays Tara, who is a wife, a mother, an artist, and a woman with Disassociative Personality Disorder. Her alters: “T,” “Alice,” “Shoshona,” “Buck,” and “Gimme.” To see these alters in action please see this video:
I want to focus on Tara’s Alice; we can draw parallels between her and Joanna’s Jeannine. Alice is the 1950’s housewife whose entire focus is around her domestic duties. She bakes; she cleans; she takes care of the children; she is pleasant in the sort of “bless-your-heart” attitude; and she wears only dresses. She has her make up done, her hair done, and she wouldn’t dare leave the house without. Jeannine is very much the same way. She is portrayed as just smitten with her partner, Cal – at least she is supposed to be smitten with him. We can also see that she is annoyed with him, and she is probably annoyed with the fact that she can’t be single. Our narrator notes, “If she got out early, she wouldn’t have to meet Cal in the room; he would want to play with the cat . . . and then Make Love; this way’s better” (Russ, p.16). Russ is leaving us a narrative about how historically women were supposed to dress and behave.
Drawing this parallel between Alice and Jeannine, I can see clearly what the purpose is. These women are devices; pitted against a contemporary character, they show us progress; they show us gender roles; they show us what women are taught to be; Alice shows us the parts of Tara that are maternal, judgmental, and domestic; Jeannine shows us the parts of Joanna that are conditioned.
So, then, what does Janet do for us? In her world, she has never missed men, she has never needed a man. Russ, here, is envisioning an alternative to the patriarchy in which she lives (in which we live). This is hilariously depicted when a TV Host is asking Janet questions about her home world,”Don’t you want men to return to Whileaway?” and “Do you want to banish sex from Whileaway?”(Russ, p. 10). Clearly, the Host is assuming that sex is only possible between opposite sexes, and that any family structure isn’t possible without men. In fact, they assume that even love isn’t possible without men. Janet answers rather matter-of-factly. Russ is claiming: duh, we don’t need men. (Down with the patriarchy!) This comes up again in the great party scene. Janet is not having any of the advances of the men in the room. In fact, she gets violent. Joanna is fighting with her (I presume internally) and telling her to just be polite, this isn’t her house, she shouldn’t cause a scene (Russ, p. 43-45). At this party, Russ is showing us the conflict between who she is, and the sort of gender role that has been projected onto her, and who she wants to be: the woman who stands up to the man, who defends herself instead of waiting for another man to defend her (Russ, p. 45). Ultimately, Janet wins. She shows us what is possible outside of the gender norms. She shows us this alternative where women gain back control and power. Women aren’t always submissive, and they shouldn’t be. That is what Janet does for us.
Russ is making these claims about what it means to be a woman. She is portraying where women have come from, how they are still expected to behave, and what is possible. This Utopian idea, presented via Janet, gives hope to women and the women’s movement.
Ganyard, Clif. Lecture. University of Wisconsin – Green Bay, 22 Sept. 2016, Green Bay, Wisconsin.
Russ, Joanna. The Female Man. Boston, Beacon Press, 1975.
“United States of Tara.” IMDb, www.imdb.com/title/tt1001482/fullcredits?ref_=tt_ov_st_sm. Accessed 22 Sept. 2016.