Lauren, the protagonist in Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of The Sower, is represented as a powerful female character. While the world around her is crumbling she is one of few characters who seems to understand the dire situation of the world and who wants to do something about it. Her stepmother, Cory, and her friend, Joanne, both traditionally conform to female traits. They live under the rule of men, and do not question the way in which things are run. Lauren is able to question the society she is in, and even plans to leave in order to live what she hopes will be a better life. However, Lauren’s character is not able to escape the traditional roles that female characters are meant to fill, as expressed by her ‘hyperempathy syndrome,’ the fact that Lauren is a sharer. This means that Lauren is inflicted with any pain that those around her are feeling, or that she perceives is being felt.
Traditionally female characters are emotional, a trait that we have come to recognize as being part of the stereotypical female. In this way Butler has Lauren conform to the traditional female ideal through a sort of disability. We recognize empathy as a trait that girls and women are ‘meant to have,’ and so giving Lauren hyperempathy syndrome forces her to conform with that idealized femininity. If it were not for her hyperempathy syndrome Lauren would be more powerful in her fight to freedom, and it is this trait that holds her back. Without this emotional ‘disability’ Lauren would be a more powerful character, but she is restrained by her feminine conformity. We see then that a traditionally feminine characteristic has come to represent something negative, showing the negative view on the stereotypical female.
Her emotional attachment to others is seen as a disability by other characters in the novel, such as Harry who is frightened about what this disability means. Although Lauren has a syndrome that has been diagnosed even her father acts as if it is something that is not real. “He [Lauren’s father] tells me, ‘You can beat this thing. You don’t have to give into it.’” (Butler 11). It is almost as if Lauren’s father wants to ignore what is natural to her, as if this ‘feminine’ trait that Lauren is faced with is something that she can ‘beat’. Tom Moylan states that Lauren’s hyperempathy syndrome “informs and shapes her entire existence and her lifelong religious-political project.” (228). In this way a ‘feminine’ characteristic that Lauren is seemingly burdened with is what motivates her and her actions throughout the novel. However Moylan also believes that Lauren turns this syndrome into a “personal gift that endows her with the extra transformative strength that eventually informs her work as a visionary and social reformer.” (228). In this light the traditionally feminine comes to represent something good, although Lauren had to be given a ‘disability’ in order to achieve this. We come to see that the traditional feminine trait of empathy is both a benefit and a hindrance in different aspects, as shown through Lauren’s own inner conflict with hyperempathy syndrome. Lauren’s “disability” may hamper her physical strength, but this vulnerability gives her the emotional strength to navigate the complex social problems and guide her people to achieve social reform.
Throughout the novel Lauren is rendered ‘useless’ by her empathy, as she falls down, passes out, or can no longer be helpful because of the pain that she feels. Often this is the easiest way to remove Lauren from the action, her female emotions making her too ‘weak’ to be violent past the first shot. “I knew at once I’d hit him. He didn’t fall, but I felt his pain, and I wasn’t good for anything else for a while.” (Butler 296). In this way Butler is able to give Lauren some agency, while having an excuse to keep her out of the brunt of the action. Eliane Rubinstein-Avila, states that “If female protagonists assert their agency, they risk being perceived as unfeminine, unattractive—lesbians, freaks, and by definition threats to unexamined social norms.” (370). Through this line of thought it is necessary for Lauren to be taken out of the action to preserve her femininity, while still making it seem to the reader as if she were performing with a kind of agency. Lauren is already perceived as an opinionated and intense individual, and so it is with the disability of empathy that Butler constructs her as a feminine and “attractive” character to the reader. A similar example could be seen in The Hunger Games, with Katniss given a makeover to detract attention from her intense, “unfeminine” attitude.
To continue this idea, it seems as though strong female characters must be characterized as feminine in one way or another, in order to be an appealing leader. Lauren must be given the “disability” of empathy in order to satisfy the femininity requirements of society. It is as though an act of violence must be committed against a girl in order for her to fit the model of girlhood. Lauren is inflicted with the physical and emotional pain of others to satisfy the emotional need of a stereotypical woman. Similarly, Katniss’ makeover could be described as a violent attack on her character, as the unnecessariness of makeup and fancy clothing goes against the core of her being. As well, women in politics and in the media face a similar violence in a majority of interviews. They are explicitly required to detail their personal lives and maintain their composure in a way that is not asked of men. Lack of vulnerability is seen as being “too cold,” whereas emotions are seen as signs of weakness. Butler expresses these same ideas in giving Lauren the “disability” of hyperempathy. In order for Lauren to be viewed as a powerful leader she must possess empathy, and in this case it is exaggerated in the form of hyperempathy.
Octavia Butler constructs Lauren as a powerful female leader with the disability of empathy. Power is a trait that is generally considered to be masculine. Do you think that a powerful female could exist without some nod to femininity (ie. empathy, appearance, romance)?
Do you think Lauren’s disability victimizes her, and how does this potential victimization contribute to her role as a powerful female leader? How do you think this would change if she were male?
Butler, Octavia. Parable Of The Sower. Grand Central Publishing, 1993.
Moylan, Tom. “Octavia Butler’s Parables.” Scraps of The Untainted Sky: Science Fiction, Utopia,
Dystopia. Westview Press, 2000, 223-245.
Rubinstein-Avila, Eliane. “Examining Representations of Young Adult Female
Protagonists through Critical Race Feminism.” Changing English, Vol. 14, No. 3,