Thursday, April 30, 2020

Joanna Russ on Feminism and SF

I've been rereading TO WRITE LIKE A WOMAN: ESSAYS IN FEMINISM AND SCIENCE FICTION, by Joanna Russ. Although released in 1995, it contains many essays published earlier, as far back as the 1970s. It's still available new on Amazon, and you can view the table of contents with the "Look Inside" feature:

To Write Like a Woman

Of particular interest in reading these older works is noting how the image of women in popular fiction has changed since the 70s—as well as recognizing some problems that linger on to the present day. We can hope we've moved beyond the status quo described in "What Can a Heroine Do? or Why Women Can't Write" (1972), in which Russ argues that most of the plot and character archetypes familiar in novels written by and for men don't apply to female characters. An outcome defined as success for a man constitutes failure for a woman. A fictional woman (like career women in real life, at least at the time the essay was written) is apt to find herself stuck in a classic double bind; if she strives to fulfill her ambitions and actually succeeds, she's condemned as "unfeminine," but if she behaves the way a woman is traditionally expected to, she's viewed as weak. Consider how the history of "Alexandra the Great" would read. A female character in male-oriented fiction tends to fall into stereotypical categories such as the Bitch Goddess and the Maiden Victim. She can act as a protagonist in only one kind of story, a love story. Three principal genres are exceptions, according to Russ, giving characters true agency regardless of gender—mystery, horror, and especially science fiction.

Other essays of special interest are two pieces about all-women or women-dominated societies. "Amor Vincit Foeminam: The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction" (1980) surveys a batch of stories about such societies, written by men. It's amazing how silly most of them sound. Typically, the basic self-contradiction in those dystopias, which embody masculine fears about being dominated by females (in these tales, giving women equality always leads to feminine tyranny), is that women are portrayed as so powerful they can crush men completely (aside from the hero, of course), yet so weak they can be subdued and enlightened by "real" sex or even a passionate kiss. Numerous counter-examples appear in "Recent Feminist Utopias," which analyzes a selection of more nuanced, humane female-dominated societies, all but one written by women. Russ includes Marion Zimmer Bradley's THE SHATTERED CHAIN, presenting the Free Amazon subculture as one such society, even though it's embedded in the patriarchal culture of Darkover as a whole. I would have liked to see a discussion of Bradley's true feminist utopian novel, THE RUINS OF ISIS, but perhaps it hadn't been published at the time of this article.

The first three essays in the book examine science fiction as a genre and try to construct a working definition of its "aesthetic." "Someone's Trying to Kill Me, and I Think It's My Husband" provocatively analyzes the paperback Gothics so popular in the 1960s and 70s. The other pieces range over a variety of topics, including a merciless dissection of the film version of Harlan Ellison's "A Boy and His Dog." Despite the age of the material in this collection, it remains fascinating, thought-provoking, and relevant to the current status of the field. Also recommended: Russ's incisive work HOW TO SUPPRESS WOMEN'S WRITING. ("She didn't write it"; "She wrote it, but she had help"; "She wrote it, but look WHAT she wrote"; etc.)

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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