The Human Body: A Site for Dismantling Social Paradigms in Octavia Butler’s

Fledgling, Kindred and Bloodchild

 

 November 25, 2012

 

Abstract:

            In this essay, “The Human Body: A Site for Dismantling Social Paradigms in Octavia Butler’s Fledgling, Kindred and Bloodchild,” Nikki Peoples will focus on author Octavia Butler’s use of the human body as a motif for challenging social paradigms concerning recognized societal sexual practices, gender roles and power dynamics.

 

The Human Body: A Site for Dismantling Social Paradigms in Octavia Butler’s

Fledgling, Kindred and Bloodchild

            In the case of the human body as a topic, novelists have discovered a powerful way to use literature to instigate discourse on controversial issues and seemingly forbidden topics. In fact, contradictions of a society are often revealed through the landscape of the female body (Brooks).

            The marriage of wholly differing fields like the supernatural and science gave birth to new and very popular genres of literature like erotica, horror and gothic fiction. One may argue that the popularity of these genres stem from the use of the body as a means for reframing societal paradigms. According to Dr. Marjean Purinton, a Professor of English and Associate Dean of the University Honors College at Texas Tech University, the strategy is called “Techno-Gothic Drama.” Dr. Purinton writes,

            While the malformed, hybrid, and at times carnivalesque, monstrous, and sick body of  the Techno-Gothic grotesque excited contradictory responses of sympathy and abomination, it also destabilized cultural values and norms. Scientific discourses and the        theatre played crucial roles in conceptualizations of the body, the societal functions of    bodies marked by sex and race in anatomical features (Purinton).

 

            Purinton basically asserts that art influenced by science, and conversely science influenced by art are both able to affect what is considered conventional—or at the very least get people to have a debate over existing cultural paradigms.

            I believe this to be true, and the goal of this essay is to support Dr. Purinton’s contention through the works of renowned, late author, Octavia Butler. Viewing Butler’s work through Purinton’s perspective, we will have the opportunity to see how cultural edicts may be challenged through the emergence of gothic fiction. Butler offers a unique voice to gothic fiction. As one of the few female African-American authors who wrote in the science fiction and fantasy/gothic fiction genre, Butler brings a different view to the fictional world. She shares that view through her exploration of existing societal conventions, and she questions those conventions (Backstein). Her protagonists, often female and African-American, are sexually liberated and take on non-conventional gender roles which places them in unusual positions of power. Three of Butler’s novels: Fledgling, Kindred and Bloodchild are perfect examples of how she is able to profoundly challenge society’s paradigms as they relate to sexual taboos, gender roles and power through the human body as a consistent motif in each novel.

 

Sexual Taboos

The Vampire Archetype

            When Bram Stoker’s 1897 Gothic novel Dracula was first published, it wasn’t an immediate success. In fact, Stoker died a poor man, and his widow was forced to sell some of his writings. Yet, over time the novel was adapted to film, and Stoker’s widow sued over copyright violations. This generated a lot of publicity, and Stoker’s novel received widespread attention. (Murray) Stoker’s version of vampiric folklore wasn’t the first vampire novel, the first was in fact about a lesbian vampire called Camilla who seduced lonely, young women. But Stoker’s Dracula, which was adapted to the stage by Stoker, was based on real life actor/manager Henry Irving, a european aristocratic man, with gentlemanly mannerisms and behavior (Warren). It, therefore, comes as no surprise that the vampire stories which have succeeded Dracula have been stereotypical portrayal of a european white male seducer.

            Even though the notion of  “vampirism” itself pushes the boundaries of social sexual norms, vampirism in literature follows a traditional model. Some have argued that Stoker’s “Count Dracula plays an incestuous fatherly role over the rest of the characters,” while others imply that “Dracula’s sexuality has more relation to sexual freedom and especially exogamy, rather than simple acts of lust” (Stevenson). Based on Butler’s writings, I would guess she’d argue the latter. Even so, both notions are aspects of a stereotypical Bram Stoker Dracula, an archetype that many authors seek to emulate. Of course there have been numerous offshoots and modifications to Stoker’s vampire paradigm, and this has contributed to the creation of the gothic fiction genre, but generally we are exposed to a traditional model of these characterizations—gothy, mysterious, yet GQ-esque, sexual seducers with predatory sensibilities. Often times, we see a foreigner whose sole objective is to corrupt the minds of young women, getting them to turn away from accepted social sexual standards (Stevenson). Even though the notion of  “vampirism” itself pushes the boundaries of social sexual norms, vampirism in literature follows a traditional model. Typically these vampires are caucasian males, and their prey is a mortal young caucasian female. (Backstein)  Butler’s Fledgling, however, provides us with a different interpretation of vampirism by challenging Stoker’s archetype. In Fledgling, Butler gives us an African-American female protagonist who enjoys the same sexual freedoms and embarks on even racier sexual pursuits than that of her caucasian, male counterparts. She not only enjoys multiple partners, but she is also heedless of sexual orientation, a very different approach than the “vanilla” characterization of Stoker’s strictly heterosexual Dracula.

 

Butler’s New Vampire Paradigm

What I admire most about Octavia Butler is that she isn’t afraid to push her readers out of their comfort zones: both the readers’ understanding of sexual politics and their understanding of the gothic genre. After having read some of her other novels, it comes as no surprise that Butler is able to dream up a character like Shori Matthews, Butler’s protagonist of Fledgling. Shori, an immortal vampire who has the body of androgynous-looking black female adolescent doesn’t age due to the nature of her vampirism, so she appears to be only 10 years old, but she is really 53 years old and thinks as such. She has undergone a traumatic and violent attack of her family, awakes alone in a forest cave, badly burned and scarred. She has no memory of what has happened to her. While trying to heal, she feeds on the flesh of animals and one human (who we find out later was sent by her father Iosif to look for her). She wanders to a road, where she is picked up by a young man named Wright Hamlin, whom she bites once she realizes that blood helps her heal. Wright shelters her, and the two embark on a romantic while sexual relationship despite Wright’s hesitations about her prepubescent appearance (even though we later discover that vampires live much longer lives, and they age much slower than humans). Wright becomes her first “symbiont,” a relationship through which Shori learns from him that she is a vampire. She takes his blood for nourishment, and Wright willingly gives his blood due to the pleasurable and addictive experience as well as the health benefits of slow-aging made possible by Shori’s saliva.

            After living with Wright for a while and sneaking out at night to feed on nearby neighbors, Shori is drawn back to the site of the fire that burned her. So Wright agrees to take her back to the site and investigate. While there they are attacked, but she learns from her attacker that her father Iosif is still alive and may have the answers she seeks. But when she meets Iosif, she learns that he too is unsure of who burned the enclave in which Shori, her mothers, sisters and seven human symbionts were living. Through Iosif, Shori learns that she was genetically engineered to have dark skin and can therefore experience life in a way that other vampires (called the “Ina” race) can’t. Shori is the only Ina who is black, able to survive the sun and stay awake during the daytime.

Determined to track down the people responsible for destroying Shori's entire family (including the symbionts), Iosif's enclave meets a similar fate. Shori and Wright flee to an enclave of close friends filled with more Ina vampires she doesn’t remember. During her time there, she discovers which Ina family may be responsible for the fatal attacks on her family. She also spends the time rebuilding her own family of symbionts despite Wright’s jealousies. Shori also learns the reason for her family’s deaths. Some Ina see her black skin as an abomination and a threat to the purity of the Ina race.

To fully appreciate the degree of complexity Butler’s deviation from the traditional model of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, one must understand the relationships between the Ina (vampires) and the humans in Fledgling. The Ina are only able to produce offspring with other Ina of the opposite sex, not humans. Any sexual intercourse that occurs between Ina and human symbionts is strictly for pleasure, not procreation. So Shori, a ten year old looking girl, has several human sexual partners, both men and women, while she looks for an appropriate Ina mate. Butler takes huge risks with this characterization which leaves the reader squirming uncomfortably with each passage. She delves into a host of sexual taboos that most writers wouldn’t touch by challenging conventional views about pedophilia, polygamy, sexual orientation and incest.

 

Pedophilia

            Butler’s depiction of pedophilia is disturbing in the first chapters of the novel, but I have to credit her for daring to ask the question that most authors would avoid at all costs: Should sex between an adult and a child be considered pedophilia when the child has achieved the full intellectual maturity of a full grown adult? What makes someone an adult? Body or mind? Obviously this isn’t a notion that can be proven or measured. Yet, even if it was, who’d want to? I think many would argue that a child is a child, regardless of marked intellect and maturity.

            Butler does, however, creatively explore the issue. First, she pushes the envelope through the relationship she characterizes between Wright and Shori. Through Wright’s eyes, Shori appears to be an adolescent. He is aware that Shori’s intelligence goes beyond what is normal for a 10 year old, but her youthful appearance is still at the forefront of his mind. Even still, Wright willingly engages in sex with Shori despite his misgivings. Even Wright admits to Shori, “And you're way too young," he said. "Jailbait. Super jailbait." (Butler, Fledgling, ch.2)

Not only does Butler take risks, but her characters do too, for the sake of carnal pleasure, which only compounds the dramatic tension significantly. When Shori asks Wright what will happen if they are discovered, he answers, "I don't know. Jail, maybe. You're so young. I should care about that. It should be scaring the hell out of me. It is scaring me, but not enough to make me dump you" (Butler, Fledgling, ch. 2). Butler is basically posing an important question in her challenging of this taboo. She is asking the reader to consider whether or not consensual sex between an adult and a child should be considered statutory rape if the child is fully developed mentally, intellectually. Conversely, one can’t help but consider the other side of this dilemma. If someone is physically of age but still mentally immature, is the notion of rape still applicable. Butler’s creation of Shori Matthews is wickedly clever in that she forces her reader to consider several different issues which surround just one character.

Then Butler kicks us past the edge by actually giving an explicit description of their foreplay which is in essence a description of pedophilia.

He put his hand on my shoulder and walked me over to the table. There he sat down and drew me close so that he could open one of my filthy shirts, then the other. Having    reached skin, he stroked my chest. "No breasts," he said. "Pity. I guess you really are a kid. Or maybe ... Are you sure you're female?" ( Butler, Fledgling, ch. 3)

Shori seems unbothered by the situation. In fact, she presents as a sexually aggressive and completely uninhibited, seemingly childlike vampire who is really 53 years old (but doesn’t age) and who in her sexual pursuits makes for a much more interesting character.

 

Polygamy

            Butler also uses her characterization of Shori as a device to up the dramatic tension of her story. Wright becomes jealous over Shori’s divided attentions. Wright is the first human that Shori has bitten since her family was slaughtered and she woke up injured in the cave. He has therefore become her most important and closest symbiont. As a result, he is likely to be the most jealous of any of her relationships with other humans. We witness a conversation that he has with Brook, (one of Shori’s new symbionts) about another addition to Shori’s growing family. Butler’s use of dialogue here shows us how Shori as a young, black female vampire is taking over the archetypal male vampire-licentiousness:

            "I know I even know she needs the guy-or at least, she needs a few more people. But I     hate the bastard. I'm not going to do anything to him. I'll deal with this somehow, but Jesus God, I hate him!"

            "You're Jealous."

            "Of course I am!"

            "You aren't sure you want her, but you don't want anyone else to have her" (Butler, Fledgling, ch. 15).

Here we see that Butler is opening us up to the idea of polygamy as a viable way of life. She is dealing with the issues and complications that polygamists most likely deal with: jealousy, the question of ownership, sexuality, etc.  She even addresses the ambiguity of the definition of polygamy. In Fledgling she has presented the reader with a far less common type of polygamy, one which is presented from a matriarchal viewpoint. Clearly Butler is suggesting that monogamy isn’t the only sustainable form of long term relationships.  Even one of the other humans who has been a symbiont much longer than Wright claims, "The relationship among an Ina and several symbionts is about the closest thing I've seen to a workable group marriage. . . ." (Butler, Fledgling, ch. 13).

Then Shori goes onto admit that polygamy is something she is actively pursuing: “I wanted that—a home in which my symbionts enjoyed being with me and enjoyed one another and raised their children as I raised mine. That felt right, felt good.” (Butler, Fledgling, ch. 13)

 Shori aims to build a family of symbionts, and, shockingly for the reader, she is delighted with the prospect of them sharing their bodies openly with other humans. If we look at traditional polygamous relationships, even one where the family head is male, it is understood that his numerous wives are committed solely to him. Polygamy has a set of sexual rules in and of  itself. While the family head is free to enjoy several partners, the expectation is that those partners will remain committed solely to him. Here Butler has not only presented us with a sexual taboo, but she has challenged the taboo itself. She is thereby suggesting that maybe the term taboo itself is nebulous.  Science has shown us that humans are not biologically predisposed to be in monogamous relationships. Physiologically, the concept of “property” introduced into sexuality —the premise that sexual partners can’t or shouldn’t be shared—is a relatively new concept (Rogers). In suggesting that this is a concept we should consider, Butler shows us the beauty of gothic fiction.—a genre that allows writers to accepted societal practices and explore taboo topics. Butler expertly use of non-human characters shows us how she is able to explore several themes that would otherwise be distasteful to consider through human characters. The use of vampires rather than humans allows the reader to consider the idea of polygamy from an objective place. By way of a new context, we are stripped of our own expectations and preconceived ideas and, therefore, allowed to enjoy Butler’s storytelling capabilities.

 

Sexual Orientation

What’s also interesting about Butler’s story is that she doesn’t seem to be making any specific commentary about bisexuality or homosexuality. Unlike the typical heterosexual male vampire who pursues the submissive human female, Shori is a female vampire who actively pursues both male and female humans as well as male vampires who she will eventually procreate with when she is “of age.” Due to the sexually liberated nature of the vampires in her story, sexual orientation is really just an inevitable aspect of the Ina lifestyle. At one point Shori asks one of the human symbionts, Martin, a large black man who is symbiont to a male Ina (and who is also the father to the new male symbiont that Shori is about to claim) whether he minded belonging to a male Ina. Martin’s response is, "There are plenty of women here. . . I married one of them shortly after I decided to stay." (Butler, ch. 19). Butler is clearly implying that sexual orientation (bisexuality in this case) is an insignificant matter, that it is really just about the connections that exist between people on a level that pervades what has been preconditioned within us by society’s dictates. By suggesting the insignificance of sexual orientation in her fictional vampire world, Butler has shown us to what degree we place an importance on sexual orientation in the real world.

Incest

Butler challenges sexual paradigms again with another taboo topic: incest. When Shori meets her Ina brothers, she informs them of her desire to leave, a desire rooted in sexual frustration. She feels strangely uncomfortable around her brothers, and yet she is attracted to them. She’s uncertain of her feelings, so she broaches the subject with her father:

"As your body changes, and especially as your scent changes, you will be perceived more and more as an available adult female."

"By my brothers?"

He nodded, looking away from me. (Butler, Fledgling, Ch. 8)

Butler doesn’t hold back in exploring every possible sexual taboo. Through a traditional lens, critics would admonish Butler’s characterizations. By normal societal standards, Shori is a victim of pedophilia (even though she clearly isn’t a “victim” as Butler has characterized her), and she is a child engaging in polygamous behavior with both genders which by default makes her bisexual, and she is prone to possibly engage in incestuous behavior. All of these taboos are defined differently, but all share the common burden of being considered perverse and/or unacceptable by western society’s standards. Furthermore, they all share an aspect of forcing the reader to ask the question of what should or should not be considered normal sexual practices. Butler seems to be implying that sexuality shouldn’t be defined or normalized and that what is unacceptable for us as a western society maybe different for another society. In Fledgling, Butler nudges the reader to strip away ideologically-based judgements and to consider the story for what it is: an exploration into sexuality.

This is a huge departure from traditional vampire lore, and Butler’s use of the taboo both courageously reveals that what we as a society understands about sexuality is limited. Grunberg points out, “there are not that many taboos anymore. In the name of literature, anything can be said.”  But Butler’s work still holds shock value, while keeping her readers entertained with a unique voice to speculative fiction. Her consideration of sexual orientation, polygamy and pedophilia are obvious attempts to consider the human body as a viable motif for challenging societal standards.

 

Gender Roles

Introduction

            Any discourse regarding Butler’s exploration of sexual taboos should naturally lead to some discussion of how gender plays a role in her literature. According to Bornstein,“sexual orientation/preference in our culture is based solely on the gender of one's partner of choice,'' in effect confusing orientation and preference. She argues that “the culture may not simply be creating roles for naturally-gendered people, the culture may in fact be creating the gendered people.''

            In her novel Bloodchild, Butler attempts to completely deconstruct our accepted notions of what it means to be male or female. Butler use of the human body again reinforces the idea that the issue of gender is not an issue of the physical but rather more of our relationship within our own social hierarchy. Bloodchild takes a look at a group of humans (Terrans) forced to leave Earth for unknown reasons. They are taken in by an alien race, the Tlic, who keep them in a ‘Preserve’ and then use them for incubation and procreation. Primarily the Terran males are used by the Tlic to incubate their young, and the women are saved from the horrific task of incubation for the sole purpose of procreating more human males. In essence, the Terrans, who are physically and politically weaker than the Tlics, are destined to carry the latter’s eggs while the Tlics need human hosts to survive. The female humans are saved in order to procreate with men, so that there are more men to incubate. The protagonist of Bloodchild is Gan, a young male terran (human) who is coming of age and is destined to carry the children of the alien “protector” of his family, T’Gatoi, a female centipede-like being of the species, the Tlic.

            In Kindred, we are introduced to Dana Franklin, a 26-year-old African-American woman living in California in 1976. On her 26th birthday she is suddenly transported from her home to begin several involuntary trips back in time to the antebellum south. She discovers that each trip is a “summoning” which is an unconscious call by Rufus Weylin, the son of tyrant slave owner, Tom Weylin. Dana is of biracial ancestry, and she and Rufus share common ancestry. Dana is drawn back repeatedly whenever Rufus’ life is in danger. This trips span Rufus’ entire life, from child to adult. Each time Dana goes back, she is there to rescue him from immediate threats to his life. Over time Dana must make a decision. She must either learn to coexist as a slave on Rufus’ plantation and influence Alice to have a child with Rufus, who will become Dana’s direct ancestor or kill him. Yet, protecting Rufus will not only ensure her ancestral line, but it will reduce the likelihood that the families of slaves on his plantation will be broken up. Rufus has become an increasing physical threat. His moods have become more violent, and he is becoming more and more like his abusive father. At one point, he has even suggests the possibility that he will rape and beat Alice (as well as sell her remaining children, a threat he has repeatedly used to keep her on the plantation) if Dana can’t convince her to go to his bed willingly.

            In both Bloodchild and Kindred, we have protagonists who are compelled to adhere to their expected roles within society and who must consider the consequences of stepping out of those roles. Upon consideration of their roles, both Gan and Dana are both forced to weight the implications of childbirth as well as the limitations of their expected roles within their individual familial hierarchy.

 

Childbirth

            Butler’s Bloodchild explores the switching of gender roles here. Where Gan assumes the traditional societal female role of “child-bearer,” T’Gatoi assumes the mantle of “protector” and “matriarch”—although Butler’s characterization more closely resembles that of a patriarch in which T’Gatoi is the monetary provider for Gan’s family. The idea of us being forced to consider our roles in society through the perspective of the opposite sex is an intriguing one, and Butler does makes a noble attempt at getting us to consider how gender plays a role in our individual destinies. Just like women are biologically destined to bear children for the survival of the human race, the male Terrans in her Bloodchild are given the same role (Crossland). While childbearing is something that many different species experiences, Butler is considering it from a human perspective, a phenomenon that has associated social and political complications. Butler’s Bloodchild forces us to shed the typical glamorous characterization of childbirth and ask the important questions: Are the associated risks of childbirth worth the outcome? Butler explores this question when we witness the childbirth that one of the male Terrans, Lomas, endures. He is opened up during a gruesome scene and gives birth to several Tlic larvae.           

            Upon witnessing the gruesome circumstances surrounding Lomas’ delivery of a litter of Tlics, Gan is compelled to ask the same question regarding the merits of chilbearing:

            “And she opened him. His body convulsed with the first cut. He almost tore himself away from me. The sound he made … I had never heard such sounds come from anything human. T’Gatoi seemed to pay no attention as she lengthened and deepened the cut, now and then pausing to lick away blood. His blood vessels contracted, reacting to the chemistry of her saliva, and the bleeding slowed. I felt as though I were helping her             torture him, helping her consume him. I knew I would vomit soon. . .She found the first    grub. It was fat and deep red with his blood—both inside and out. It had already eaten its own egg case but apparently had not yet begun to eat its host. At this stage, it would eat any flesh except its mother’s. Let alone, it would have gone on excreting the poisons that had both sickened and alerted Lomas. Eventually it would have begun to eat. By the time it ate its way out of Lomas’s flesh, Lomas would be dead or dying—and unable to take revenge on the thing that was killing him. There was always a grace period between the time the host sickened and the time the grubs began to eat him. T’Gatoi picked up the writhing grub carefully and looked at it, somehow ignoring the terrible groans of the man.             Abruptly, the man lost consciousness. . .She felt nothing. And the thing she held … It was limbless and boneless at this stage, perhaps fifteen centimeters long and two thick, blind and slimy with blood. It was like a large worm. T’Gatoi put it into the belly of the achti, and it began at once to burrow. It would stay there and eat as long as there was anything to eat.” (Butler, Bloodchild, 16)

            Butler gives us a graphic description of childbirth that is extremely unsettling. Her description is cleverly horrific because it forces the reader to reconsider the physiological nature of childbirth, its associated risks, and how it affects one’s position in social hierarchies.

            Butler’s Kindred explores the same issues regarding childbirth: Are the associated risks of childbirth worth the outcome? In the case of the Kindred, the risk of childbirth is not only death and intolerable pain, as it is in Bloodchild, but there is also the risk of losing one’s child to the slave trade. In Bloodhchild the men who are incubated have zero emotional attachment to their offspring; however, in Kindred the familial ties are strong between child-bearer, child and descendants.

            Slavery occurred during a time when medical care wasn’t as advanced or available—especially for slaves. There was certainly the risk of death for the mother (and of course pain) during childbirth. However, the real threat was the loss of a child whom the mother has established a strong emotional bond with. Additionally, the burden of feeding another mouth also existed.

            But Butler takes us one step further as she exams the long term implications of childbirth. At one point, when Dana discovers that Rufus is her ancestor, she says, “Was that why I was here? Not only to insure the survival of one accident-prone small boy, but to insure my family’s survival, my own birth” (Butler, Kindred, 29) Dana is forced to weigh the prospect of her own survival against the birth of her own nemesis.

            Butler uses childbirth to not only show the circularity of life but also the connections we have with others through both life and death.

 

Familial Hierarchies

            Bloodchild, is a symbolic consideration of what our actual roles are within our families and, therfore, society. As the male in the family, Gan’s role is contradicts what we have typically seen. He is not the provider. In fact, his value is tied to his fertility —a role typically reserved for females. Accordingly, the nature of his role is self-sacrificial.  Butler basically flips our paradigm of gender roles and creates a storyline where the female is the provider and the man’s role is to freely give his body as a vessel for producing offspring. Through Gan’s narration, we learn that T’Gatoi is the matriarch who uses Gan to build her family.,

            “Only she and her political faction stood between us and the hordes who did not   understand why there was a Preserve—why any Terran could not be courted, paid,       drafted, in some way made available to them. Or they did understand, but in their    desperation, they did not care. She parceled us out to the desperate and sold us to the rich      and powerful for their political support. Thus, we were necessities, status symbols, and an             independent people. . .I had seen the desperate eagerness in the way some people looked at me. It was a little frightening to know that only she stood between us and that   desperation that could so easily swallow us. (Butler, Bloodchild, 5).

            The fate of Gan’s family clearly depends on his ability to bear alien children. Not only does Gan’s status within this world, as T’Gatoi’s property, keep his family protected, it puts him higher in the social hierarchy of humans. His inevitable role as a child-bearer is similar to that of many women throughout time: concubines, surrogates, wife of convenience, etc.

            At one point Gan loses his nerve and considers suicide. T’Gatoi, in response, considers impregnating his sister Xuan Hoa (who insanely wants to be incubated by T’Gatoi), but Gan stops her.  He makes a personal sacrifice —something we typically see with female characterizations—to fully accept his obligations and put loved ones before himself. T’Gatoi is clearly the family head in, and Gan is the nurturer who will do whatever it takes to save his brother and sister from the same fate. Butler illustrates this through Gan’s narration:

            I shook my head. “Don’t do it to her, Gatoi.”

            I was not Qui. It seemed I could become him, though, with no effort at all. I could make Xuan Hoa my shield. Would it be easier to know that red worms were growing in her       flesh instead of mine?

            “Don’t do it to Hoa,” I repeated. She stared at me, utterly still. I looked away, then back at her. “Do it to me.” I lowered the gun from my throat and she leaned forward to take it.   (Butler, Bloodchild, 26)

            Despite the horrific nature of childbirth in this story, Gan acknowledges his role. The role that Gan takes on becomes more about survival and less about any sense of “motherhood” or a need to experience the beauty of childbirth.  The role becomes less about sexual identity and more about his function in society.

            Butler’s use of the human body in this story is symbolic of how childbearing limits the childbearer’s role in society. The childbearer is not only handicapped by the physiological implications of childbearing, but Butler also shows us the financial dependency of childbearer on the individual who impregnated him/her. Again Butler has skillfully used childbearing as motif for the circularity of life. Childbearing enables the parent to create life but it also opens the parent to the possibility of being devoured by the process.          

            Gan also agrees out of a misplaced sense of love for T’Gatoi. I say “misplaced” because even though at one point he agrees to let T’Gatoi incubate him after having doubts, he still decides to love her to spare his brother and sister the same fate. Gan chooses, in the end, to not kill himself or T’Gatoi. The relationship is unequal in which T’Gatoi is in a position of power and Gan is as a result faced with very few choices. It is, and it isn’t an unconditional love. He agrees to incubation to protect his family, but he also agrees because he can’t stand the thought of her being that intimate with someone else. (Crossland) He even admits, “The thought of her doing it to Hoa at all disturbed me in a different way now, and I was suddenly angry.” (Butler, Bloodchild, 27)

            For Gan, loving T’Gatoi is a simple choices, despite it being the hardest, physically.

            In a way, Butler has put a man in the same difficult role that many women have found themselves in—one in which a woman might be conflicted about the person fathering her child. She may, on the one hand, feel a sense of familial obligation, but, on other hand, she may feel some reluctant spark of love or affection for the person impregnating her, thus making it easier to make the latter choice for the good of all others.

            In Kindred, Butler illustrates the same notion:that the role of child-bearer can be both a blessing and a curse. In some cases, the slave master made arrangements to provide freedom, education and even a dowry for their illegitimate offspring. The slave master in essence became the “protector” of the slave (against his wife, other slaves, society, etc.) who mothered his children. The slave, the mother of the slave master’s illegitimate children, however, would also find herself in a delicate position much like Gan in Bloodchild, where she is compelled to return his affections or risk the fate of all her loved ones.

            In Kindred we see one of the characters, Alice, face a similar fate but with the ending being anything but beneficial to Alice. As the object of Rufus’ affection, Alice becomes trapped.  At one point, Dana tells her, “’Well, it looks as though you have three choices.  You can go to him as he orders; you can refuse, be whipped, and then have him take you by force; or you can run away again’” (Butler, Kindred, 166-67).  

            This text cleverly supports Bornstein’s claim that society does in fact define our gender and not our sexuality. Even Alice points out to Dana that “He liked me in bed, and you out of bed’” (Butler, Kindred, 229).  Alice references the fact that while Rufus has no interest in Dana sexually, he still expects her to fulfill certain obligations as a female slave on the plantation (in this case, his own personal life-saver, a confidant and teacher). Even though Rufus knows she is a free woman who has traveled to the past (his present) from another time, that she is highly educated (not only for a slave but by comparison to his own education), he still seeks to have her maintain her role/status as a black female. He disregards his knowledge that she is from the future and is ostensibly more educated and sophisticated than he is. He is convinced that his own survival is reliant upon her physical presence.

            Alice, on the other hand, must fulfill her role as lover and mother to Rufus’ children. She not only despises Rufus for selling her husband, she also fears her inevitable fate.  In the end, Rufus’ actions place Alice exactly in the position she doesn’t want to be in. They have children, and Rufus begins to use them as a tool for manipulation of Alice. Sarah, who for years was manipulated by Tom Weylin (Rufus’ father) and had her own children sold away, warns Dana of Rufus’ intentions: “I’m tellin’ you, he uses those children just the way you use a bit on a horse.  I’m tired of havin’ a bit in my mouth’” (Butler, Kindred, 236).  Rufus does at one point send Alice’s children away as a way of punishing her, but this causes her to commit suicide.

            During enslavement, the birth of children can be both a delight and a burden. Butler uses this idea as away of further playing up the associated issue of prescribed gender roles in society. While mulatto children, the children of slaves and slave owners, were often well cared for (of course, many were wholly ignored by their slave owning fathers), the necessity of caring for a child came with certain burdens (Tenzer and Powell). Having a child during slavery, particularly one born to a slave master (which could further the position of the mother in some case), guaranteed the mother would have even greater ties to the plantation she worked on. The burden of having a child—especially multiple children—made it almost impossible for them to consider escape (Cotugno). The fact that Alice hangs herself in the end shows how Butler astutely uses the human body as a landscape for unraveling many conflicts associated with the gender role of child-bearer, lover, mother, etc, particularly during slavery.

            Both Bloodchild and Kindred support Bornstein’s assertion that gender (which she distinguishes from sex) is a cultural rather than a natural phenomenon. In other words, gender is a result of our roles in society rather than anything having to do with our sexual anatomy

 

Power

Introduction

            Butler often likes to explore the dynamic of power struggles within her stories. The abuse of power through enslavement is a common theme throughout Butler’s literature. The struggle for power against that abuse is what shapes many of the protagonists in her novels. Fledgling, Kindred and Bloodchild are no different. Yet, Butler shows us the many ways in which people establish power over others: addiction, ownership and the strength of numbers. She employs this theme often to introduce conflict by way of the human body.

 

Addiction

            In Fledgling, enslavement isn’t quite as overt as in Kindred and even Bloodchild. In Fledgling, enslavement comes subtly in the form of physiological addiction. Ina essentially own humans because of the addictive attributes of their venom. Humans bitten by Ina are much more compliant and easily manipulated. The humans practically find themselves enslaved by this addiction, illustrated in one scene when Shori bites a human who has been sent (by another Ina) to kill her and her family. The bite is expected to make him more compliant and answer her questions truthfully. When she questions him, he becomes frightened and tells her that he doesn’t want her to bite him again, and when she agrees to this, he responds,  "No, I'm lying. I do want it again, tomorrow, now, anytime. I need it!. . . But I don't want to need it. It's like coke or something" (Butler, Ch. 17 ).

            Butler establishes this human symbiont dependency on vampire venom in a way that resembles drug addiction. The symbionts in her story are comparable to “junkies” who, if they don’t continue to feed their addiction, will go through withdrawal. Yet, in her story withdrawal leads to death. We learn of this when Shori’s father, Iosif speaks to her about her vampiric nature:

            . . .We addict them to a substance in our saliva-in our venom-that floods our mouths          when we feed. I've heard it called a powerful hypnotic drug. It makes them highly        suggestible and deeply attached to the source of the substance. They come to need      it. . .They die if they're taken from us or if we die, but their death is caused by another            component of the venom. They die of strokes or heart attacks because we aren't there to    take the extra red blood cells that our venom encourages their bodies to make. Their            doctors can help them if they understand the problem quickly enough. But their    psychological addiction tends to prevent them from going to a doctor. They hunt for their     Ina-or any Ina until it's too late. . .And even if they find an Ina not their own, they might   not survive. They die unless another of us is able to take them over. That doesn't always    work. (Butler, Fledgling, Ch. 8)

            The relationship between Ina and human is similar to that of a drug dealer and his customers. The humans need the Ina’s venom (after being bitten just once), and the Ina come to need the humans. The Ina must continue to feed for sustenance, and they become somewhat dependent on their symbionts both emotionally and physiologically. One of Shori’s symbionts, Brook, reminds her of this after she has been out in the sun and is in pain from a little blistering, "You need to touch your symbionts more. . .You need to touch us and know that we're here for you, ready to help you if you need us . . .And we need to be touched. It pleases us just as it pleases you. We protect and feed you, and you protect and feed us. That's the way an Ina-and-symbiont household works, or that's the way it should work” (Butler, Fledgling, Ch. 17). This is the check and balance and where one example of power struggle begins. The bonds between Ina and human symbionts are so strong and mutually beneficial that the antagonists of the story use this bond as a means of manipulation.

 

Property/Ownership   

            It is important to note that while considering the Ina-human relationship as a metaphor for the drug dealer-junkie relationship, we should remember that drug dealer needs his customers only for the money they bring to him. His own dependency isn’t fatal whereas his customers’ dependency inevitably is.  The same is true of the Ina in this story. If an Ina loses a symbiont, he can find another. Although emotionally painful, he is still able to move on and create more relationships with symbionts, just as the drug dealer might with new customers. The symbionts, on the other hand, only have one Ina whom they’re a committed and depend on. This is where Butler shows us that true ownership exists which enables the Ina to wield power over those humans whose bodies are physiologically dependent on them.

            When one of Shori’s symbionts, Theodora, is killed, she learns that it is a means of intimidation to scare her away from the only power she wields over the other Ina. She can walk in the sun, stay awake during daylight hours. She’s also incredibly intelligent and female, which means her venom is even more toxic, given her greater manipulative abilities over human and the power of attraction over some of the male Ina. The death of her symbiont is a message of disapproval for her own power she wields.

            Butler shows us that ownership is not only a means for power, but it is also a power that can be used against the owner. Furthermore, Butler has attempted to shift a paradigm because in this case, Shori, is the owner. She breaks the mold of the typical paradigm of human ownership. Generally when we think of ownership, the owner comes in the form of a male whether its through a relationship, enslavement, indentured servitude, etc. This is certainly true of Kindred and Blood Child. Butler (after having dismantled traditional gender roles) takes the idea of property, focusing on the body as “property” and shows writers how the idea can be used to illuminate the tendency towards power struggles.

            In Bloodchild, we see a power struggle. Two species, the humans (Terrans) and the Tilcs (aliens creatures) must compromise. While the balance of power is uneven, there is still a clear struggle. T’Gatoi who was once childhood friends with Gan’s mother is clearly in control.  Gan’s mother and T’Gatoi’s relationship becomes strained because of the power she wields. When T’Gatoi offers Gan’s mother (who appears malnourished) an egg to revive her energy, the mother refuses. Gan notices and points out that “One of my earliest memories is of my mother stretched alongside T’Gatoi, talking about things I could not understand, picking me up from the floor and laughing as she sat me on one of T’Gatoi’s segments. She ate her share of eggs then. I wondered when she had stopped, and why” (Butler, Bloodchild, 5). T’Gatoi’s power increases within the Preserve and the need for human males to incubate also increases, but T’Gatoi protects Gan’s family from Tilcs freely use them as long as Gan agrees to be her own personal surrogate.

            When Gan has second thoughts about being impregnated (after having witnessed a rather gruesome incubation), he and T’Gatoi argue over the seemingly unfair power struggle that exists between the Terrans and the Tilcs. Gan accuses T’Gatoi that her protection of his family is actually a charade because he in essence really has no choice. He and his family’s security depends on his willingness to be incubated. He implies that the use of his body for her purposes of building a family is a form of unfair manipulation and coercion. But she tries to defend against this accusation:

            And your ancestors, fleeing from their home-world, from their own kind who would have            killed or enslaved them—they survived because of us. We saw them as people and gave      them the Preserve when they still tried to kill us as worms. (Butler, Bloodchild, 25)

            Again, Butler shows us a another example of ownership and mutual symbiosis. Both species depend on each other, but the balance is still not even. And once again, Butler uses the human body as a site for conflict. Gan’s body, a vehicle for incubation, is valuable to T’Gatoi, but Gan realizes what the actual incubation process entails. He becomes scared and aware of how he is being used as property. Of course, Butler has attempted to break the normal expectation here of the male being the one in power and the female’s body being used as the sight for conflict. There are numerous examples where the woman is the surrogate, coerced or forced into becoming a piece of property used for the sole purpose of creating offspring.

            Kindred is a more extreme representation of the abuse of power as it relates to property and ownership. When people become property (i.e. slaves), those who own slaves are clearly in power and are prone to abuse that power:

            As masters applied their stamp to the domestic life of the slave quarter, slaves struggled to maintain the integrity of their families. Slaveholders had no legal obligation to respect the sanctity of the slave's marriage bed, and slave women —married or single — had no formal protection against their owners' sexual    advances. ...Without legal protection and subject to the master's whim, the slave family was always at risk. (Berlin, 122-3)

            In Kindred, Alice is a slave and, therefore, the property of Rufus. Dana is ostensibly a slave because she is thrust back into time and must play the role of slave in order to survive. We see this when Rufus demands that Dana convince Alice to willingly submit to his sexual advances.

            “Help me, Dana.”

            “I can’t.”

            “You can! And nobody else. Go to her. Send her to me. I’ll have her whether you help or             not. All I want you to do is fix it so I don’t have to beat her. You’re no friend of hers if        you won’t do that much!” (Butler, Kindred, 164)

            Throughout history, women have literally been viewed as men’s property. As ‘property’ their primary roles in society were to cook, clean, bear and raise children. Laws even allowed men to legally beat and rape their wives (Crossland). We certainly see this in Kindred with Alice and to some extent with Dana.

 

Strength in Numbers

            Butler goes own to show us how Rufus’ abuse of power leads to intra-relational struggles amongst the slaves. When Dana tries to escape in the middle of the night, one of the slaves, Liza, tells the master in an effort to take revenge on Alice and in order to regain her place in the household as a sewer (Alice has been allowed to stay and sew while Liza must go work in the fields). In turn, the slaves beat Liza to teach her a lesson. Dana recalls the moment with horror:

            I was startled. I had never had a serious enemy–someone who would go out of her way    to get me hurt or killed. To slaveholders and patrollers, I was just one more nigger, worth      so many dollars. What they did to me didn’t have much to do with me personally. But       here was a woman who hated me and who, out of sheer malice, had nearly killed me.   "She’ll keep her mouth shut next time," said Alice. "We let her know what would happen to her if she didn’t. Now she’s more scared of us than of Mister Tom." (Butler, Kindred,       178)

            This reveals the power struggle between the slaves and the power that a group of slaves could hold over another group or individual (Asunder). Again, Butler uses the human body here as a mode for upping dramatic conflict. Liza goes from the safety and comfort of working in the house to the harsh working conditions of the fields. Then for her treachery, she endures bodily harm, beaten by the slaves for “snitching” on Dana. The slaves use bodily harm as a way of controlling her and wielding their own power.

            Power over human property is used as a tool for manipulation in all three stories. Butler shows us this in Fledgling where addiction is used as a means of establishing power. Likewise, in Fledgling we see how ownership is used to manipulate the owner. In Bloodchild Butler addresses the idea of ownership and property and how it creates an uneven power balance. Finally in Kindred, we see where enslavement leads to direct abuse of power upon the person being owned, and it engenders intra-relational power struggles. In all three stories, the human body is used as a  vehicle for considering power as a theme.

 

Conclusion

            In his 1889 essay The Decay of Lying, writer Oscar Wilde argued that "Life imitates art far more than art imitates Life." This phenomenon has persisted throughout time, across many continents and different cultures, and much of this can be observed through the different mediums seen in the art world. The human body as an expression of beauty has remained a constant symbol in art throughout time. Either stationary or mobile, in pleasure or in pain, the human form offers artists a vehicle for expression. Oil and water-based paint, cast iron, clay, fiberblass, steel, charcoal are just a few of the countless materials used to portray the complexities of human expression. Through these variations artists explore many different themes like: love, vanity, alienation, fame, ambition, politics, race, religion, and many others. Contemporary artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Lucien Freud, Antony Gormley and Vladimir Kush are examples of painters and sculptors who have expressed their ideas through the use of the human form. But writers can too —and they have. The influence of art on the public has shown novelists the power they have on affecting social climates. One could argue the truth of this statement based on the fact that our present culture is influenced by ancient grecian theatre. The theater has been a prime place for thinking about the body, and for performing with it. Our preoccupation with bodies isn’t new but another classical inheritance, and it is used as an instrument for critiquing social and political standards set forth by society  (Goldhill, 2004). The same may be said of science. Historically, science’s grip on theater surfaced due to the need for stage enhancement through scientific production strategies and discoveries. Conversely, theatre was appropriated by science as a means for demonstrations. Freak shows, oddities of nature, medical discoveries and experimentations that might otherwise have been kept hidden from the public were presented for exhibition through theater (Purinton). These exhibitions provided scientists and physicians alternate means (both monetarily and facility-wise) for continuing unorthodox and often illegal research. More importantly, they were opportunities for writers to challenge societal taboos using the human form.

            Butler takes this to heart and uses the body as a site for challenging entrenched societal codes and traditions. She expertly introduces dramatic conflict by pushing the boundaries of sexual paradigms, exploring gender roles and illuminating power struggles as they manifest through ownership of human beings and symbiotically dependent relationship exists.

           

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