Femininity and Masculinity as Social Constructs: Joanna Russ’s “When It Changed” as a Depiction of Gender Inequality in Society
Throughout history, there have been conversations about gender and gender differences. Certain roles are ascribed to men and women, and the majority of people consider these roles to be rules. However, there are also those who believe that it is wrong to assign some functions to females and other functions to males. Even with enormous progress in technology, science, and society, it must be doubted “very much that sexual equality has been reestablished on Earth” (Russ 7). In Russ’s short story, femininity on Whileaway develops in a cultural environment that enables women to choose the roles they wish and inspires them to feel free from gender prejudices.
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For many centuries, women have been considered to be destined to look after their families, children, and husbands, while men are viewed as strong, powerful, and independent bread-winners. Despite the reconsideration of traditional duties for men and women, there are still many biases associated with gender. Because of inequality, it is complicated for women to have success in politics, law, engineering, and other such careers.
Meanwhile, men continue to be treated as invulnerable, which makes it very difficult for them to seek emotional and social support. Russ’s story depicts opposition to the traditional division of gender roles. Women living on Whileaway do not divide chores into men’s and women’s tasks because after a plague had killed all men there, only the female population remained. Thus, the range of characteristics of the planet’s inhabitants includes all features pertaining to both genders. Some women are “very fair, very shy, always painfully blushing” (Russ 2). Others can give “a cold, level, venomous look” (Russ 2) and have muscles “like metal bars” (Russ 6). Because of the particular environment on the planet, it seems evident that gender is a construct created by society.
On Whileaway, the development of femininity has been affected by the cultural environment. Women living on this planet had no choice but to share all kinds of duties without considering any of them too easy or too difficult. They even created a method of reproducing without men through the process of “merging of ova” (Russ 4). Because there is no role division, everyone is equal, and every citizen can do what she prefers. The only regret the narrator mentions is that “artists can practice full-time only in old age” (Russ 3). Still, as far as the other spheres of these women’s lives is concerned, they are quite satisfied with what they have.
Thus, when several male astronauts arrive from Earth, the population of Whileaway is not happy and feels anxious. The primary reason is that the visitors do not even consider the planet to be normal, saying that that “kind of society is unnatural” (Russ 5). It can be seen that while the femininity of Whileaway’s people has been influenced by the cultural context, the masculinity of the visitors is governed by biology.
A biased attitude toward the division of gender roles is evident in almost everything the visitors say. The intonation of one man’s question, “Where are all the people?” makes it clear to the narrator that he means “men” (Russ 3).
This is the first and probably most blatant indication of the visitors’ inability to treat women as equals, even though the men continuously mention that gender equality has been achieved on Earth. The biological government of astronauts’ masculinity is demonstrated in many other cases. For instance, when one of them says, “You’ve adapted amazingly,” referring to the absence of men, the narrator is surprised that the visitor regards living without men as a tremendous loss (Russ 4).
Another example of biological rather than cultural impact on the astronauts’ masculinity is their comment about the marriages of Whileaway’s citizens. A man says that a couple consisting of two women is “a good economic arrangement” because they both work and take care of children (Russ 5). These and other instances demonstrate that the visitors’ masculinity is driven only by biology, and they cannot understand how women managed to survive without men for such a long time.
Russ’s “When It Changed” is an impressive depiction of inequality between the genders based on biological characteristics. Whereas females on Whileaway are driven by cultural environment, the visitors are governed by biology. Numerous instances of men’s deprecation of women signify that equality between the genders has not yet been attained. The author demonstrates that the world could be more harmonious if there are no prejudices and when people’s functions are not divided into men’s and women’s roles.
Russ, Joanna. When It Changed. 1972. Web.