The Russ Test

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The Russ Test was created by Leslie Fish in March 1980 in the letterzine Interstat #29 in an essay called Feminism (Or the Lack of It) in Trek-Lit. It was one of two essays in that issue of "Interstat" addressing the topic of feminism in Star Trek fic. The other essay was by Mary Lou Dodge, and called Feminism in Trek-Lit. Both authors were very outspoken fans, and the printing of both of these essays was meant to be a discussion flashpoint.

"The Russ Test" is a precursor to the Bechdel Test.

According to Fish, "The Russ Test" was based on Joanna Russ' quote in the February 1980 issue of "Ms Magazine," and addressed the topic of feminism, of women's relationships with each other as portrayed in popular culture.

Fish extrapolated on this topic as she addressed the lack of female characters and their relationships with each other in fanfic:
"The crucial test of feminism in a work is the presence of at least two women who are friendly. Not one, and not two who are rivals. Male works which try (sometimes honestly) to be feminist almost invariable focus of the woman-man couple among male colleagues. The secret of feminism is what happens when women talk to women, advise women, love women. The two may be lovers, friends, friendly strangers, or friendly colleagues, but this is the absolute precondition for (a) feminism or (b) truth." Joanna Russ, quoted in 'MS'. Feb. 1980 issue, pg. 36.

By Russ's definition, there is precious little feminism in either ST aired episodes or fan-written stories. Lack of feminism in the aired episodes is understandable, but since no Paramount Pinhead sits over fandom, why do fan writers (90% women) still fail the Russ Test? It can hardly be for lack of experience; we've all had female friends, in fandom itself if nowhere else. What keeps us from projecting this crucial element into our ideal future?

One reason is that we don't value female friendship because our culture teaches us to devalue everything women have (except physical items depersonalized into icons). Pop culture merely reflects this. There are plenty of idealized male-male friendships on TV, but what female-female friendships do we see? Laverne and Shirley, some ideal!

But I think there's also a darker reason: A deliberate policy of Divide and Conquer. Sexist men have good reason to fear female friendship; it can lead to massive unity which could destroy their power. Therefore, ruling males (and their dutiful female mouthpieces) deliberately discourage female unity, even to denigrating female-female friendship.

[...]

Fellow-fen, if we truly want to see a future of freedom, equality and justice, — the future that "Star Trek" suggests — we should stop accepting the oppressors' opinion of the oppressed.

An Earlier Statement About Conversations Among Women

In April 1975, Russ wrote a letter to the Canadian feminist science fiction zine, The Witch and the Chameleon, commenting upon one of Andre Norton's books (possibly "The Jargoon Pard"). In this letter, Russ said:

The assumptions of [Andre Norton's] audience seem to be (and her knowledge of library sales and—I'd assume—teenage readership Is absolutely a professional's) that it's bad enough having strong, self-assertive, active, independent heroines in a book: but if such a woman had friends — and they are women — she must be a Lesbian.

This taboo doesn't really operate against homosexuality. It's really directed against friendship between women. The result of obeying this kind of taboo In literature is that any woman who steps outside the confines of conventional femininity is immediately absolutely isolated. She is the only woman in a world of men (this is certainly often literally true in work situations) and she does not even have the sexual scarcity value she'd have if she were literally the only woman in the world; there are other woman — but what is "the other woman"? Only a rival, never a friend. To escape the emotionally weighted charge Andre Norton speaks of, a woman must have only male friends, must converse only with men, and so on.

[snipped]

In fact, the taboo makes sure not that homosexuality will be absent from fiction, but that solidarity will never be shown. The message readers receive is that there is no solidarity or friendship between women, that all of women's affection, loyalty, interest, concern, compassion, etc. is given to — Who? To men, of course.

Somebody is afraid we will get together and — perhaps? — start actually talking to each other.

Fan Comments

The feminism "debate" seemed artificially limited by Leslie's quote that she used to define the subject. Ms. Russ is a well known SF writer, with at least one award winning story to her credit—"When It Changed"— that fits her definition. But Trek-lit seemingly always uses at least one of the three main characters. If a person wishes to write about two female friends, perhaps another universe would be more appropriate. On the other hand, a woman (or two or ten or twenty) interacting in a strong positive manner with the obviously male-dominated society of the Federation, would seem a reasonable goal for a writer interested in feminist concerns. Mary Lou seems to believe that feminist by definition means "man-hater." And somehow "woman-hater," though I find it hard to take Eric Severeid as an expert—a man who brought new meaning to the word pompous. I also can't see what women putting their children in day care centers so that they (perhaps) can work outside the home for money to (perhaps) stay off welfare has to do with Trek-lit. No woman of my acquaintance who works full time outside of the home even has a full time maid or housekeeper—much less is able to pay her $20,000… And I don't know where Mary Lou hangs out but I've never met Janice Lester anywhere. She wasn't "selfish" and "neurotic", she was psychotic and a murderer. Calling her a womens' right advocate is like calling Adolph Hitler an expert on population control. [1]
I have a batch of things to comment on from I#30, all having to do with the question of portrayal of women in Treklit. First, in principle I am all with [Roberta R's] comment that we are under no obligation to support any particular philosophy in our Treklit. Nonetheless, I find it grating on my sensibilities like nails on a blackboard when some whose work otherwise corresponds to my own fantasy, as Roberta so rightly puts it, breaks not into male chauvinism, but into anti-feminism. We can all tolerate idiosyncrasies in people whom we respect--but am I the only person who found it incredible that an intelligent woman like [Mary Lou D] could seriously propose in I#29 "bringing about the world of Star Trek by having today's women retreat from the status they have so painfully won into the old domain of kinder, kuche, kirche? In the world of Star Trek that I saw on both the large and small screen, women were Star Fleet officers, doctors, lawyers, scientists, explorers, soldiers, etc. Where did those women get their role models if their mothers and grandmothers were all housewives?... That brings me to the development of women in my own Treklit, and [Cheryl R's] comment, "Trek-lit seemingly always uses at least one of the three main characters." Ahem. Kirk, Spock, and McCoy play very minor roles in the NTM universe. However, I developed that universe after many years of writing other kinds of stories. "Visit," "Parted From Me," and other of my early stories always concerned the Big-Three—and never had Joanna Russ's requirement of female friendship. The reason the Russ criterion that Leslie Fish quoted seems so right to me is that I can see the development in my own work from conscious attempts at feminism to the unconscious genuine feminist attitude as I slowly came to trust women as much as I did men as partners in writing and business. At first I tried to write strong women, and to play up some of the anti-feminist problems I had run into in my own career. For example, I have been "Jean," never "Jeannie," since I entered high school. When one of my male colleagues attempts to denigrate me by calling me "Jeannie," (and, believe it or not, this happens!), I respond by calling him "Billy," "Johnny," "Davy," or whatever. But, if Jimmy Carter can be President, why can't Mary Louise Webster captain a starship (EPILOGUE)? Sorry, Mary Lou, I invented Molly Webster several years before I heard of you; it is neither tribute nor parody. In another story I had a captain named Mary Jane. These names, and the roles, were quite deliberate. As to the Russ criterion, my early stories simply never had friendships between women. By the time I wrote EPILOGUE, I gave Molly a best friend, Margie Jones, but I neglected to give Margie a role to play! I just said she was Molly's best friend; I didn't show it. By the time I wrote THE NIGHT OF THE TWIN MOONS, however, something had happened to my subconscious. The female-dominant Penthesilean society, Amanda's role as Ambassador-- those things are the conscious feminist aspects of the novel. But how about Rille, Velinde, and Shira? I had never heard of Russ's criterion (how could I, if she didn't formulate it until last year?), but like all the best criticism, her comment makes me say, "Of course! Why didn't I see that for myself?" Ever since NTM, all my heroines have had female friends. In FIRST CHANNEL, Kadi's best friend is Carlana. In SAVAGE EMPIRE, Aradia's best friend is Lilith. My point is not to brag about what a great feminist I am (I'm not a feminist at all to the most radical feminists), but to point out that I began writing female friendships into my books unconsciously. Damnitall, I'll be doing it consciously from now on, but the original natural outgrowth of my relationships in fandom was the quite unconscious development of female friends in my writing. I'm sure I'm not alone, this kind of development is most certainly taking place among other women in fandom. Why doesn't it show in their writings? How many other women writing Treklit today published their first stories in 1968. As I said, it's not an instantaneous change. Furthermore, back in the dark ages there were stories about female friends in Treklit. The two-girls-aboard-the- Enterprise stories were a staple in the early days of fanzines. [2] Usually, though, one got either Spock or McCoy, and someone came along and labeled them "Mary Sue stories" and scared them out of the fanzines. Too bad. Had they had a normal development, we might be seeing two-women-aboard- the-Enterprise-who-remain-friends-and-find-fulfillment- in-some-way-other-than-marrying-one-of-the-Big-Three stories. And I don't mean lesbian stories. [3]
I've got to say that I'm not so sure about Leslie's argument. I'm thinking in particular of the source of her remarks? Before I can credit Miss Russ with a valid argument, or statement, I've got to ask, who is she, and what makes her statement valid? So far, I see no reason for even wanting to pass the "Russ test". Secondly, while the point is interesting, that feminist literature is about women's relationships with other women, it is not at all complete. Nor is it realistic. After all, women are not the only people which women associate with, and in limiting the definition of feminist lit to the above definition is irresponsible. It also seems to be a bit ludicrous. Good literature should encompass the entire spectrum of relationships, not just one part of it, and in this world/ women do have to associate with men [4]
Feminism happens to be the belief that women should be granted social and political rights equal to men. While Joanna Russ is a fine writer, her definition of feminism is not the definition of feminism, so we can scrap Leslie's piece right there.... Mary Lou did a hair-shade better...but only that much. She seemed to work from her own definition of feminism, twisted though it may be. To Mary Lou it seems that someone who holds the rather innocuous belief that people should not be discriminated against because of sex, should be classed as some sort of modern-day-Medea. I get the feeling that said individuals should subsist on nothing but their children so that they can pay their cleaning women a decent wage (a wage they themselves don't earn... Is there then anti-feminism in Trek-lit? There was anti-feminism in aired Trek...male animals were more equal than others. This was not so much intentional as that it was the way it was in 1966. It also just so happens to be the way it is in 1980. I don't think that Treklit is full of anti-feminism so much as it is full of indifference to feminism. We are all creatures of 20th century Terra. Those of us who consider woman's place in 20th century Terra important will write whatever woman's place we damn well please in 23rd century Milky Way. And those of us who don't, well, they'll write woman's place in 20th century Terra into 23rd century Milky Way. As a human I know that if someone were to give me three wishes, there are plenty of things I would change. As a writer I know that each time I sit down to the typewriter I can play God. I can create anything I want, make it the same or different. The key word here is 'want'. And I think that a lot of Trek writers don't want a change in women's status very badly, or they would change it themselves.... At Mos'Eastly there was a panel dealing with anti-feminism in Trek lit, and among the things covered, two points stand out. The first was the quest for role models. The group seemed to want more women, but were unsure about writing them. It was suggested that alien women often fare better than human women, and that there seem to be few human female role models to work from. This is a fact of our history: not that women didn't participate in heroic events, but that their parts were all too often excluded in the retelling of them. If we wish to seek for sources, more and more are becoming available.... The second point that stands out is a question: How can we write good women when we, as women, don't have a very good self-image? I like to think I can answer this one, because I like to think that I created a good woman. The prospect initially terrified me: this woman was nothing like me, how could I possibly write her? By combining two real women and one fictional one, and firmly telling myself over and over that I was not writing me, I managed to write. Soon she started to write herself. Some time later I had a completely bizarre realization: damned if that woman didn't start to sound more and more like me. But how could she? She was heroic. She was admirable. She was one tough babe. And then I looked in the mirror, and I heard myself say, "That's right, toots, and don't you ever forget it." [5]
I think the time has come for someone to stand up for science fiction and science fiction fans. There has been a myth circulating for a long time that sf fans are evil carnivores who eat Trekfen for breakfast. I believed this myself until about two years ago, when someone coaxed me to a sf club. My fan activities are now split about 50/50 between Trek and sf. I think this qualifies me to speak from experience on both sides. I almost wrote this letter after reading the Fish/Dodge debate about feminism in Treklit (U29) , when I read that Ms. Dodge had "never heard of ... Ms. Cass" . (Underlining mine--I hope this was a typo, rather than an inability to read or spell Ms. Russ's name correctly.) [6] Joanna Russ is rated one of the top sf editor/writers of our time . As a Nebula award-winner, university (of washington) professor, and respected critic. her talent in this tough field is unquestionable . I was shocked that a supposed literary expert like Ms. Dodge would dismiss her so off-handedly. [7]

References

  1. Cheryl R in Interstat #30
  2. One example are the Dorothy-Myfanwy Stories in T-Negative.
  3. Jean Lorrah in Interstat #31
  4. Rebecca H. in Interstat #31
  5. Mindy Glazer in Interstat #33
  6. Actually, Dodge didn't refer to Ms. Cass, she wrote Ms. Russ, so this fan is misremembering this perceived misspelling.
  7. Susan Writes in Interstat #37