Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Gender Issues in Lilith’s Brood

“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. 


  1. I really enjoy your discussion of gender critique in Lilith’s Brood. The structure of your argument is well utilized, giving the use of gender in reference to the novel, the use of a gender neutral subject, Lilith’s position in the novel as a child bearing being, and finally your real life argument. In addition to your argument there are only a few things I think would be beneficial for you to regard.
    In your paragraph on the function of women and reproduction, I think you need to consider that the Oankali have at their disposal a plant that is entirely capable of doing all that the woman’s body does in the form of reproduction. In fact, the Oankali have already begun to create a race of children within these plants from the sperm and eggs of humans. We discover that the Oankali have been breeding humans for a while. Paul Titus says, “’’Your genetic material has been used in over seventy children.’ And I’ve never even seen a woman in all the time I’ve been here.’”(Butler, 95). However, your argument is still valid because it is clear that the Oankali intend Lilith to carry and give birth to her child.
    In addition I believe that the sex between a man, woman, and Oankali is something that you need to articulate within your paper. After mating with the ooloi, a man and woman no longer feel comfortable touching one another. In addition the humans, like the Oankali males and females, are incapable of conceiving without the mediation of the ooloi. “’They need us now. They won’t have children without us. Human Sperm and egg will not unite without us.’”(Butler, 245). This could add a lot to your paper in regard to the equalizing of male/female roles and how that applies to hierarchy.
    Other than these minor additions I feel your paper is solid, and I really enjoy the real life comparison. With all this discussion about equalizing gender roles it’s easy to forget that, because we don’t have an ooloi equivalent in real life, that it isn’t a completely realistic argument. Should you have questions or concerns feel free to contact me.

    1. this was really helpful! especially your thoughts on the sex between man, woman, and oankali. if i revise this, i will definitely include that. thank you!

  2. Overall, I think this is an interesting but somewhat overly general essay, which could benefit greatly from a stronger connection to details of the text. Because you have interesting things to say about interesting topics in the book, I don't want to quash any of it - but I'm going to give examples of things which are problematic when you stay at a very general level.

    1) You reduce Lilith to the status of a breeder (conventional gender role) very easily, completely ignoring the fact that she first becomes the leader of a tribe (essentially) through Oankali superpowers! You also neglect the details of her relationship with Joseph. Now, it remains true that bearing a daughter remains part of her role - but you aren't actually arguing that we should understand her primarily in this way, even though your argument demands it.

    2) You want to both see the 3-gender system as metaphoric (a critique of our gender system) and literal (how can things change, since the 3-gender system is still imperfect, and we have no way to create a 3rd gender). But if the whole system is a metaphor, aren't the ooloi also a metaphor, for some destabilizing force of change which threaten many things, including the gender system (if I was taking this metaphorical reading, I'd argue that the ooloi represent the destabilizing power of contemporary science and technology -- see Wilson).

    I think there are good ways to see the 3-gender system literally, good ways to see it metaphorically, and ideally, you want to see how the two relate. My point isn't that you are wrong, but that this is a very incomplete reading.

    What's my overall point? You're biting off more than you can chew in such a short essay (it's too much even for a revision, really) by trying to do at least a somewhat comprehensive discussion of gender in the novel.

    What would I suggest if you revise? Maybe zero in more closely on *either* the three-gender system, *or* on the significance of Lilith's pregnancy *in context*. The problem is that these are two very large topics, which deserve extended connection - probably the essay needs to be more centered around one of them.