A Manly-Man’s Reaction to Joanna Russ’s “When It Changed”

17 06 2011

What follows is in no way a formal criticism or review. This is simply a narrative of my reactions to “When It Changed” by Joanna Russ.  While I haven’t formally taken “The Russ Pledge,” I have been reading more short fiction by women authors lately and have been intending to write about my experience – I started doing this last month on my own before “The Russ Pledge” became the buzz in genre blogs all over the Internet. Keep in mind, I’m doing this just for fun. If you have not read “When It Changed,” I encourage you to do so before reading further. Spoilers lie ahead…

I can’t claim to be a long-time fan of Joanna Russ. I came to her work fairly recently to be honest. In fact, I read her lauded short story “When It Changed” for the first time last month. Since her recent passing, I had read many articles about her and her enduring legacy within the world of genre fiction, and most of these articles and blog posts mentioned this story. So, I decided to give it a try. My initial impression: Anger. Later, after thinking about it: Understanding. Now: Appreciation. Let me explain:

Anger – A sampling of my initial thoughts: Huh? All men are evil, huh? Women would be happier in a society devoid of men? Huh? Really, we’re all that bad? Seriously? All men should be feared and hated? And why the hatred towards men? If this society has never known men before, I’d think they’d be more curious about us than they were. Sure there might be fear there, too: a fear of differences, fear of change. But really, why do all men have to be described as gorillas? Sure, as I get older I find hairs growing where they don’t belong, but I’m not an ape dagnabbit! I gathered from the text that these women had libraries and that is where they learned about the evils of men, but was this library of many historical and religious texts so edited that there was not a single text remaining which detailed a good man? Sure there are lots of bad guys in history, but many heroes, too, no matter how you look at it. If this story was written about a society exclusively made up of men instead of women would the reaction to this story have been different? Huh? To be honest, any story that seems to promote fear and hate and harsh criticism of a particular race, gender, etc. is likely to leave a bad taste in my mouth. This one just seems so bitter…

…Then, later…

Understanding – I think the problem with the story (and it’s not so much a problem with the story as it is a problem with some readers – myself humbly included), is that, taken at face value, on its own, it just seems so harsh a critique against men altogether. Makes me feel all mangry. However, when taken in the context of a larger history of science fiction, it starts to make more sense. Roland Barth, in his essay “The Death of the Author,” indicated that the author’s intent should have no bearing on interpretation. Jacques Derrida famously stated “There is nothing outside the text” when planting the seeds that became the Deconstruction school of literary theory. However, this is one of those stories in which authorial intent is everything. Context outside the text matters. This is a reactionary story, and that distinction – and an understanding of that distinction – makes “When It Changed” understandable and deserving of the respect it has garnered over the years. It must be an impressive story on some level if it manages to be talked about thirty or so years after initial publication. And this is a good story. Thought provoking.

…And finally…

Appreciation – “When It Changed” is controversial in all the right ways: It does not rely on shock content, gore, or explicitness to provoke an immediate response from the reader. In fact, it’s just about a G-rated piece of short fiction. Okay, maybe PG. Yet, it remains controversial. Anyway, one must think about all those space operas from the “Golden Age” of science fiction to truly understand what is happening here. How many stories, written by men for men (or perhaps written for thirteen-year-old boys?) have there been where a group of astronauts crash land on a planet made up entirely of women? How many fantasies involve men discovering islands of Amazonian-type women? The women are always portrayed as buxom and fair, usually scantily clad, and do one of two things when men appear: They either lust after these men greedily and let the men take over as rulers, or they lust after the men greedily and then make the men their sex slaves. One way or the other, in so many of these adventure stories, the women appeared ONLY as figures to titillate and create sexual tension. You know, if I were a woman growing up with this portrayal of women, I might be pretty angry, too. I personally don’t like anger. I think it pollutes the soul and can stifle communication, but anger can be understandable as long as it is taken in context. So, taking this story in the context of a woman writing in a field dominated by men who might be a little … uhm… insensitive when it came to fair portrayals of women, I think the anger here is justifiable. Also, the text isn’t as bitter as my first impressions led me to believe. In fact, when taken as a whole in context, the story is kind of funny in a strange way – almost a satire. My initial impression was just my mangst bubbling to the surface, a reaction on my own part, a matter of anger begetting anger. But that provocation was part of the point of this story, and “When It Changed” made its points well. Russ put the shoe on the other foot and says to all those men who write stories about astronauts crash landing on planets full of women or other similar fantasies: “See! This is how it feels! It’s not fun to be turned into a stereotype!”

 …But still, I’m not a gorilla! I’m not a beast! That kinda hurt. I’m not really all that hairy. Honestly. Though Mrs. McIntyre might disagree…

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