“Males and females were closely related and ooloi were outsiders. One translation of the word ooloi was ‘treasured stranger’. According to Nikanj, this combination of relatives and strangers served best when people where bred for specific work—like opening a trade with an alien species. The male and female concentrated on desirable characteristics and the ooloi prevented the wrong kind of concentrations” (Butler 106).
Octavia E. Butler’s Lilith’s Brood makes several critiques on the customs of human nature and American culture specifically within the context of science fiction. One of the most interesting is the theme of gender. Very quickly within the novel Butler is exploring the concept of an alternative to the gender inequality that is still relevant in most cultures worldwide. As established by the quote above, the alternative that Butler is exploring is largely facilitated by the presence of the ooloi. The presence of a third gender in this alien race brings to light an interesting view on the appropriation of power by gender that is currently enacted in the actual world. By incorporating the idea of the ooloi, Butler, who was obviously inspired by Plato’s Symposium, changes the hierarchy of men being dominant over women that is inherit in our society. She also emphasizes the similarities between men and women instead of the differences, the latter of which continues to be a significant dividing line that contributes to sexism and gender inequality. Because of these notions, it is easy to interpret the system set up by the Oankali to be an improvement of the one currently in place in reality.
Moreover, what I find especially interesting about the theme of gender in Lilith’s Brood is that although the oolio are essential to the balance reached between men and women and thus enable a shift in gender inequality within the Oankali that is unparalleled in reality, the plot of the first book within the trilogy still centers on an aspect of the female sex that is in itself fundamental to the foundation of gender inequality: the woman’s ability to give birth. Historically, the domestication of women has hinged on the physiological capacity and cultural responsibility to reproduce. This includes the implicit convention for women to care for children within the home, a reality that has only shifted within the last half-century or so. Additionally the historical presumption of women being biologically weak and emotionally unstable is also connected to the ability to give birth due to such functions as menstruation and the presence and affects of the estrogen hormone.
Because of these facts, Butler’s choice to have one of Lilith’s main functions be to act as a reproduction tool within the Oankali’s plan to create a hybrid race that is better than the human race is somewhat contradictory with the theme of gender equality in Lilith’s Brood. On one hand we have the oolio acting as mythical outsiders who work to prevent “the wrong kind of characteristics” within men and women, and men and women being “bred for specific work” (Butler 106), and on the other we have Lilith, the human protagonist, in many ways also being “bred for specific work”: the very human convention of reproducing. While a woman carrying a child is one of the most natural occurrences within human history, within the sci-fi world of Lilith’s Brood, Butler had the authority as the author to attain true gender equality by having the main character not be defined by her reproductive skills, which, as established, is in itself the basis of gender inequality. Because of this, from my point of view the Oankali themselves have achieved a credible alternative to the basis of gender hierarchy we have in reality, but fail to incorporate the character of Lilith into that alternative in a way that is genuinely any different than the role a woman would be playing in standard American society outside of Lilith’s Brood or inside of it, in the time before the war.
Additionally, I also find it interesting that, although there are ways in which Butler is commenting on plausible traits that if emphasized by our culture would benefit the human race, in reality there is no third gender. Therefore, although Butler is making a statement on the importance of equality for women by having the Oanklani’s gender system be superior to the male-based one still endorsed by most of the world today, there remains an undercurrent of pessimism because of the fact that a third gender does not now, nor will it arguably ever, actually exist outside of science fiction. Thus, the structure Butler has created in Lilith’s Brood, which highlights the advantages of the elimination of a patriarchal based society, cannot ever be achieved in the future by humans, or exist outside fiction, at least in the same way in which Butler envisions it. That being said, if one were to treat Lilith’s Brood as a collection of ideas that undermine the wisdom perceived by our culture, particularly towards gender inequality, they would have to assess the Oanklani’s traits beyond their science-fiction nature and, since a third gender does not exist in reality, apply the core idea behind the oolio to our world: the more commonality found between men and women, the less inequality there will be.