The dystopian society in Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower is set in a future that retains traditional gender roles. The women stay within the community, while their male counterparts adventure beyond the walls. This becomes problematic when everyone is forced to leave. Unlike her peers, Lauren defies gender expectations, with the exception of her hyperempathy, a condition that is considered a feminine vulnerability because it makes her experience the pain of others. Lauren disguises herself as a man, but due to her hyperempathy, she can never be completely masculine. Through Lauren’s narrative, the novel critiques societies that expect women to maintain feminine traits in a world that requires hypermasculinity to survive.
Lauren’s society enforces gender roles that limit women in terms of survival skills. While women are expected to marry and have children, men are expected to protect themselves and their families. Lauren remarks that “Bianca’s chosen life is one of my options. It’s not one that I intend to exercise, but it is pretty much what the neighbourhood expects of me…grow up a little more, get married, have babies” (Butler, 87). Lauren is the only one of her friends that refuses to conform to these gender roles. For example, Joanne embraces her role because she knows that survival outside is impossible if “all you know how to do is take care of babies and cook” (53). Eventually, when everyone is forced to leave, Joanne is clearly not equipped to survive. In contrast, Keith is eager to leave in order to prove himself. One day he angrily declares, “I’m a man! I shouldn’t be hiding in the house, hiding in the wall” (92). Unlike Joanne, Keith believes that it is his duty to leave the community. The contrast between the characters’ desires demonstrates the strict gender binary in their society which prepares men for the outside world, while women remain inside. This is extremely problematic when communities are torn apart and both men and women have to survive outside the wall, allowing for a critique of the effects of gender binaries.
Despite her masculine skills, such as how to use a gun, Lauren is still limited as woman and so she must physically portray a man in order to survive. When she tells this to Zahra, she agrees that it would be safer. Lauren states that thugs “prey on old people, lone women or women with young kids, handicapped people…they don’t want to get hurt” (202). In this society, women are as unthreatening as less able bodied groups because of the limited roles they are given. Later, when Lauren is explaining to Natividad why she disguised herself as a man, she explains that “out here, the trick is to avoid confrontation by looking strong” (212). If Lauren looks like a female on the outside, predators will assume she is vulnerable, but if she disguises herself as a man, she will be protected by the assumption that she is a threat. In short, this aspect of the novel demonstrates the challenges women face when they are raised to strive for an identity that hinders their ability to survive.
While Lauren hides her exterior femininity, she cannot get rid of her inner hyperempathy, which is considered a feminine condition. Her struggle contributes to the critique of societies that pose the impossible task of retaining traditional notions of femininity in a traditionally masculine society where aggression and competitiveness are necessary. Tom Moylan notes that Lauren is a “realist character portrait of a non-white, non-male…in a sexist capitalist society” with a “particular genetic disability that shapes every minute of [the] protagonist’s life” (Moylan, 227). Lauren does not conform to the expectations of her society, but her hyperempathy is a factor in all of her decisions. She tries to avoid hurting others because the resulting pain is “empathetic agony” but she is ultimately hindered by her condition when she has to kill to survive (Butler, 234). In this respect, she is unable to escape her femininity. Keith bluntly tells her to “marry Curtis and make babies…out there, outside, you wouldn’t last a day. That hyperempathy shit of yours would bring you down” (110). Even Lauren admits that her hyperempathy is both crippling and feminine when she discovers that Mora is also a “sharer.” After discovering this, she remarks: “desperate to hide his terrible vulnerability? Sharing would be much harder on a man” (324). Hyperempathy is clearly perceived as feminine and thus, it is more socially acceptable to be a woman with this condition. Lauren only views hyperempathy as a negative trait within the context of her society, however, explaining that if everyone had it “people couldn’t do such things…if everyone could feel everyone else’s pain, who would torture? Who would cause unnecessary pain?” (115). Jerry Phillips agrees that hyperempathy can be positive, stating that “indeed, in a hyperempathetic world, the other would cease to exist as the ontological antithesis of the self, but would instead become a real aspect of oneself” (Phillips, 306). The novel therefore critiques the society rather than the condition, or in other words, masculinity rather than femininity.
In Parable of the Sower, the novel takes issue with the requirement for women to embody female traits, such as emotion and maternal instinct, while surviving in an animalistic society. The difference between how men and women are raised to behave and the aspirations they are allowed to have is demonstrated by Lauren’s peers. When the community falls apart, masculine qualities are favoured, and characters such as Joanne are not equipped to survive. Although Lauren tries to escape her limited role in society and increase her chances of survival through disguise, she is continuously feminized by her extreme ability to feel empathy. Put simply, women are not set up to succeed in Butler’s imagined world, but that is not to say that stereotypically feminine traits are negative qualities, but rather that strict gender roles are problematic, especially in a society where only one gender can truly succeed.
- While reading the novel, before encountering the male characters with hyperempathy, did you think that it was innately feminine, or did you consider that men might have it as well?
- Do the issues of gender in Parable of the Sower suggest that Butler believed progress for women was headed in the wrong direction in the 1990s?
Butler, Octavia E. Parable of the Sower. Grand Central Publishing, 1993.
Moylan, Tom. Scraps of the Untainted Sky: Science Fiction, Utopia, Dystopia. Octavia Butler’s
Parables. Westview Press, 2000, pp. 223-245.
Phillips, Jerry. The Intuition of the Future: Utopia and Catastrophe in Octavia Butler’s “The
Parable of the Sower”. A Forum on Fiction, Vol. 35. Duke University Press, 2002, pp. 399-311.