Inconvenient Femininity in “Parable of the Sower” (Christina F. & Colette S.)

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.

Discussion Questions

  1. 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?
  2. 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?

Works Cited

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.


11 thoughts on “Inconvenient Femininity in “Parable of the Sower” (Christina F. & Colette S.)

  1. In your original argument about needing hypermasculinity to survive I agree. Lauren’s world is built on violence and control that seems to be obtained in traditionally masculine ways. However, the example you gave contrasting Keith and Joanne does not reflect this. Although Joanne only knows how to live a traditionally feminine life I think that is because of the way her family is constructed. In contract Keith’s family uses knowledge and trains with guns. Lauren is the only female sibling in her family, which is why it seems as though Keith’s desire to go out with the older kids is mapped onto her. I believe that if there were another female sibling she would be as knowledgeable and trained as Lauren because her father taught all of his children. In this way there is a difference of what knowledge families want to pass on.

    I fully agree with your argument about Lauren’s hyper empathy syndrome being feminine. It seemed as though Lauren was a female character with many typically masculine traits and giving her hyperempathy syndrome forces a feminine characteristic onto her. I saw the characteristic as feminine even as the novel introduced more characters that were sharers. You stated ”Mora is also a “sharer.” After discovering this, [Lauren] remarks: “desperate to hide his terrible vulnerability? Sharing would be much harder on a man” (324).” In this same way I saw that the characters would expect more from a man who is expected to be masculine. By giving him this seemingly feminine trait Butler is feminizing him, as shown through Lauren’s inner monologue.

    As for the treatment of women in the novel in regards to Butler’s thoughts about the treatment of women, I don’t believe that what she did was purposeful. I feel like Butler wanted to focus her novel on the way society in general was going, and she put an emphasis on race relations. I think Butler tried to build a strong female character not realizing that the hyperempathy was placing Lauren in a feminine box. We have made progress since the 1990’s when this book was written and so I think the treatment of women in the novel was to reflect how Butler saw the treatment of women in this time. There are still women who believe that they should just grow up, get married and have kids, we still face rape, and we still have a mistreatment of women. I believe that Butler is using her time period as a basis for this and doesn’t need to extend into future thought about sexism because it was and is still relevant.


  2. I agree on the point that stereotypically male attributes and skills are needed to survive in Butler’s world, however I don’t think this necessarily limits female characters’ survival skills. In the community, girls and women are seen learning to shoot guns, learning some martial arts and patrolling on watch with the men. Where I think the gender roles come in is not on the level of the community but rather certain families. Basically I think it is common for girls in this world to be learning and to have stereotypical male survival skills, they just don’t always have the same access to them as boys and men.
    In regards to hyperempathy, I never saw it as specifically feminine while reading the book. After discussion and reading this article I can see why it would be viewed as such, but while reading I did just assume that both genders would have the disease equally. Furthermore, when Lauren thought “Sharing would be much harder on a man” (324), I did not immediately think that this would make it a feminine disease, simply one that would have more symptoms for a man.
    Overall, this was an eye opening article. Thank you for bringing these ideas to our attention.


    1. I completely agree. Men definitely have better and perhaps more expected access to the things that protect the community and overall appear more threatening, but I don’t think men’s greater access really hinders women’s ability to survive. Yes, being female means they are in a more precarious position, but I think many women in the novel are just as knowledgable as the men in most cases – as noted above with equally patrolling, gun handling, and martial arts. Both learn to garden and I’m sure some men in the community are equally invested in their children – I see the gender roles mentioned as definitely present in the community, but more so simply taken to extremes in certain cases. To take this further, I also think that men, not only women, are also expected to “grow up a little more, get married, have babies” (Butler, 87). Almost everyone is expected to work if they can and everyone is expected to carry on the nuclear family ideal as long as possible.

      I also agree with your second point – I actually didn’t find hyperempathy to be a truly feminine trait at all while reading the novel, especially as it causes Lauren to become a killer. I’d push back on the point that “she is ultimately hindered by her condition when she has to kill to survive…In this respect, she is unable to escape her femininity”. I don’t think there’s anything feminine about killing at all; the ability and responsibility to kill is generally given to men, and the fact that Lauren takes the step to kill causes her to be distrusted by Harry, specifically because she is perceived as so ruthless. Sharing would be harder for a man because it’s symptoms make you weak, something a man is never supposed to be, but I don’t think that necessarily makes the “disability” in this case innately feminine – only the stereotypical symptoms are associated with the “weaker sex”, a stereotype Lauren easily defies.

      Lastly, in regards to your question about whether Butler’s novel says women’s progress was headed in the wrong direction, I don’t think so at all. I think it’s more of a comment on how the traditionally disenfranchised are the first to face hard times when things go wrong. This includes not only women, but people of colour, the working class, the disabled, etc. Considering third wave feminism, and the concept of intersectionality – which completely changed how we approach identity politics and systemic disadvantage – was flourishing in the 1990s, I find it very difficult to think that Butler’s inclusion of oppressed people having hard times to be a negative comment on what was an important feminist era.


  3. I agree strongly with your argument about hyperempathy being a more feminine trait and the way it is counteractive to survival in a hypermasculine society. I specifically find your argument about Grayson Mora’s hyperempathy being contradictory to masculine ideals interesting, since various characters critique Mora’s failure to act in a masculine way. Bankole comments that something about Mora is “off” from the early stages of Mora’s arrival, saying that he is “too jumpy” and “flinches if someone walks close to him” (291). Lauren criticizes Mora’s failure to act in a masculine way during an ambush situation, during which he instead runs in the opposite direction: “Where were you, man and fellow sharer, while your woman and your group were in danger?” (300). Mora’s more feminine behaviour causes the members of the travelling group to ultimately question his value when it comes to his survival.

    Mora seems to be critical of his own failure to adhere to masculine codes. When he reveals his inability to use a gun, he feels ashamed: (301). Part of Mora’s shame derives from the fact that Lauren, a female, supersedes his ability to act in a masculine way, as she can handle a gun and manages to fight others despite her hyperempathy. He insists that he should be able to keep a gun if Lauren can even though his lack of experience with firearms threatens the safety of the group (310). Mora’s fear of exposing his vulnerability and lack of masculinity ultimately leads him to jeopardize the survival of the group and instead causes him to act in a less masculine manner. Comparatively, Lauren’s understanding and manipulation of her femininity and hyperempathy, as discussed in your paper, help to inform her actions and perform masculine behaviours to help the group survive.


    1. As you’ve pointed out, Lauren is not the only character to challenge gender roles. Both of Lauren’s initial alliances also play their part in straying from gender expectations and binaries. Harry Balter is a nineteen-year-old male who displays feminine attributes: (1) Harry is the compassionate member of their group, compassion and empathy being stereotypically feminine attributes. Harry is unable to emotionally dissociate himself from events that occur outside their gated community and is uncomfortable with the idea of killing or stripping the dead for monetary means. His inability to accept these callous acts and attitudes leads him to resent Lauren, labelling her a fraud. (2) Harry is also strictly moral, adhering to the religious morals that they were taught in their gated community. He even goes so far as to quote the Commandments to Lauren in an attempt to condemn her for her casual acceptance of killing and stealing. This strays from traditional gendered tropes as society has constructed the ideal woman to be a paragon of religious morality – ie. Mother Mary. (3) Harry is also romantically driven, seeking Zahra out to be his partner and swooning from her good looks. Despite the fact that they are all in dangerous and high-risk circumstances, Harry still initiates romantic couplings with Zahra, showing that romance is a priority in his mindset – a characteristic normally attributed to females. (4) Harry is naïve, acting as a liability at times to Lauren and Zahra. Through his continual inability to adapt, Harry publicly refers to Lauren as “she” or “her,” revealing her true gender despite her desperate attempts to diminish the vulnerability of their group. Although Harry does grow to be more ruthless and knowledgeable throughout the novel, his initial character exemplifies many characteristics that stray from the stereotypical image of a man.
      Similarly, Zahra Moss’s character also exemplifies many characteristics that stray away from the stereotypical image of a woman. Zahra, having lived on the streets till she was fifteen, is a survivalist. She has immense knowledge on the types of people you encounter outside their walled community, what to do if you encounter them, and how to gather means with which the group can support themselves. This immense knowledge, survival capability, and inner strength that Zahra possesses are typically not seen in women and are typically seen as masculine characteristics. As well, Zahra is very adept at emotionally detaching herself from events, easily able to absorb the fact that Lauren has killed a man and immediately moving on to what the next step for survival is. This emotional detachment also strays away from the gendered roles of women, further illuminating that Zahra also acts as a challenger of gender roles.
      In summary, it is evident that Lauren as well as her two alliance partners all work together within the novel to survive, as well as within Butler’s social commentary on the artificiality of gendered constructs.


  4. Taking up the notion of how labour is gendered as well as how gender roles influence what skills are learned and valued offers a lens through which to view survival in “Parable of the Sower”. The gendered nature of labour and skills leaves the women in the neighbourhood community ill-equipped to survive outside the community on their own and places them in a precarious position. This leaves them either dependent on a man for protection or requires them to perform masculinity in order to not be perceived as weak. Their world is built on violence and injustice and requires the performance of hypermasculinity to obtain power. As stated in other comment responses, the women and girls of the community learn how to shoot guns, how to defend themselves, and participate in patrols with the men of the community and are not completely ill-equipped for the outside world. These are traditionally masculine traits and actions which they must perform in order to survive. To push your argument and this lens further, it is not just women who are disadvantaged by the system but also racialized people, poor people, and people with disabilities. These individuals face more hardships due to the structural inequalities built into their world. They too must perform and tap into the power structures of the privileged in order to survive, just as the women in the community must perform and tap into masculine power structures. Based on the structural inequalities in the system and the violent and unjust world they live in, performance and projections of power are essential to survival.


  5. Christina and Colette,

    Within your post, you put forth an interesting reading of hyperempathy by arguing that it prevents Lauren from emerging as a completely masculine character in a world that requires hypermasculinity to survive. In doing so, you assert that “Lauren’s society enforces gender roles that limit women in terms of survival skills,” (para. 1) however, I do not think this is necessarily true in Parable of the Sower. For example, Lauren tells us that she goes to the hills for target practice with Joanne and Aura Moss, among others (Butler 36). The fact that women are included in this target practice suggests that they, too, are taught survival skills. In this way, women are not entirely limited as you suggest.

    I do agree, though, that hyperempathy, because it is a disease characterized by intense emotionality, is presented as an inherently feminine disease. In response to your first discussion question, regardless of whether or not men are hyperempathetic, I still assert that hyperempathy is presented as an inherently feminine disease; men being hyperempathetic doesn’t necessarily make it less feminine. Hyperempathy, as Lauren describes it, is feeling another person’s pain and pleasure as if it were your own. Her internalization of the emotions of the people around her is debilitating, especially when it comes to feeling pain. Excessive emotion, which is essentially what hyperempathy is through the way in which Lauren, for example, adopts the emotions of other people, is typically a trait associated with femininity. Women who show no emotion are often considered “cold,” whereas men who show emotion are often considered effeminate. That said, because of how I first read hyperempathy, I did not think men would have it as well. The fact that Bankole is hyperempathetic is perhaps a critique of the binary thinking that is espoused in the constructions of masculinity and femininity.


  6. I agree with your that Butler demonstrates through her female characters that women flourish when less concerned with the social implications of having sex. Sex does not define Lauren or any other woman, and this allows for other aspects of their character to define them. In our society, women’s sex lives are too heavily regulated and are forced to focus on their sex lives. Women are told not to have sex, who they can have sex with, what is considered too much sex, and how to have sex. Women’s self worth is based on their sex lives. Women have to spend a great deal of time and effort to adhere to these regulations, if not they face the social implications.
    I like that Butler had Lauren concerned about getting pregnant and had her buy and use condoms. Sex isn’t always sexy. I’m glad that an author took the time to show the unsexy side of sex. That Butler talked about contraception and brought up that protect is important.
    Since contraception is expensive, why is vaginal-penile sex still considered to be the normative sex? Why wouldn’t they be having oral or anal sex? This way they could still have orgasms, but there would be no fear of getting pregnant. Wouldn’t the ideas of what sex is have changed over time, when contraception became expensive and harder to find?


  7. I was intrigued by the parallels you drew between hyperempathy and femininity, since I had not examined the condition as particularly feminine, but rather a way to make Lauren more humane despite her tough exterior (which I understand had to be constructed as a defence mechanism against those wishing to use her hyperempathy against her). I would argue that it makes her appear more masculine, since she is able to carry on functioning (despite how hard it is for her) beyond the wall, and survives as well as kills. I have no doubt males (characters or otherwise), too, have feelings and empathy, but because societal expectations dictate they must conceal them, I found Lauren to help me understand this point of view. Although things may be difficult — because of empathy, hyperempathy, or feelings in general — they must be concealed as a protection mechanism.

    Regarding the sex comment, I found that Lauren’s concern about birth control and her clear enjoyment of sex was empowering for women. I also find it interesting that Lauren’s hyperempathy, which was argued to be feminine, is the reason why she enjoys sex so much and is so empowered by it, unlike feminine social expectations.


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