Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Woman People Didn't See

“The Women Men Don’t See” is alternately hilarious and depressing. Tiptree uses Don’s abrasive, ignorantly anti-feminist remarks brilliantly. He compares “the women” he is stranded with to his image of what women should be. After the plane crashes, he checks the women for signs of hysteria - an illness only associated with women. He is “irritated” when he realizes that “the damn women haven’t complained once” (120). When he begins to grow suspicious of Ruth Parson’s actions, Don writes off his subconscious thoughts, and reassures himself that Ruth is “a decent ordinary little woman, a good girl scout,” even though he knows something creeps “under the careful stereotypes” (130). The remarks become more jarring when he is “surprised” that Ruth leaves her daughter alone with their pilot - she claims that the pilot is a “very fine type of man,” and Don only notices that she doesn’t defend her daughter as a “good girl.” It is okay, then, for Don to judge the little women, but it is strange for Ruth to judge a man. The story takes a more obvious feminist satire slant when Ruth and Don discuss women’s lib, and Don expresses his concern that Ruth wants to be “some kind of professional man-hater” (133). My favorite obnoxious line of all: “Well, what’s wrong with any furtively unconventional middle-aged woman with an empty bed?” (133). I’ll restrain myself from quoting all of Tiptree’s brilliant lines.

Despite all of Don’s annoying-lecherous-old-man comments, he really hits the message of the story home when he asks at the end of the story “How could a woman choose to live among unknown monsters, to say goodbye to her home, her world?” (143) Obviously, he misses the point. Ruth speaks of men as an alien race - she can analyze Captain Esteban as a very fine type of man, just as she can appreciate that hating men is like hating the weather - there’s no reason to despise a different species. She explains that “Women have no rights, Don, except what men allow us” (134) - women are the oppossums that live everywhere, alive only because men don’t perceive them as threats. At one point, Don notices that “She’s as alien as they” (the “real” aliens) (138), but he seems to forget that observation when he laments that she’s choosing to live with unknown monsters. The story makes it clear that Ruth does not consider Earth to be her home, her world, or anything that could ever belong to a woman. I say that it’s “depressing” because, although Ruth’s solution to women’s problems is funny in its extremity, it is also a hopeless view of the world and women’s present/future place in it.

I think this story works brilliantly alongside the article “Who is Tiptree? What is he?” Sheldon, writing as Tiptree, narrates this story through the eyes of an old man (presumably the “type” of man that Tiptree was assumed to be), uses exaggerated comments to show how men can construct crippling stereotypes to analyze women, and through those stereotypes, they can refuse to “see” them as anything but “the Other.” On another level, Sheldon is “the woman no one saw,” someone who could operate cleverly within gender stereotypes and burst somewhere beyond them. My favorite part of “Who is Tiptree? What is he?” is the quotes from Joanna Russ - someone asks her if Tiptree was a woman, “by which I gather he can’t recognize a female point of view if it bites him” (3); Russ also believes that Tiptree has ideas that “no woman could even think, or understand, let alone assent to” (3). I found myself wondering how Russ could think that if she read “The Women Men Don’t See,” but perhaps she could argue that seeing the women men don’t see requires a separation from or transcendence of that gender binary.


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