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A Question of Gender in a Book by Olivia E. Butler

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Gender itself is represented in a way that adheres to the past or directly rejects it. Most gender in American roots are binary, aside from Native American cultures and a few others, have been binary for quite some time. Many may argue it’s impossible to shake that social concept as soon as it’s adopted while others argue that we are in a revolutionary time period that prides itself on acceptance of variant ideas. In older books and newer, there is no denying the evolution of thoughts and ideas. Many authors write literature that reveals the sociologically analyzed and stereotypical portrayal of women by elaborating on the psychological operations of the patriarchal society in which they live at the time; the authors' experiences inform the sociological environment their characters live in. When faced with questions of gender and sexuality, a person’s true self is brought out based on what their beliefs are. A person needs to be unique because individuality and the ability to express it is the one thing that makes people truly different from other species. Individuality is a person’s true self, the side they tend to hide in order to conform to the ideas of what society has now defined as “normal”. While gender identification and sexuality are widely accepted as not controllable, the representation and expression of which is. The way a person decides to present themselves is greatly influenced by their own views of society as well as the views of society itself in a given time. This also goes for an author’s representation of characters. Despite arguments against the potential persuasion of sociological influences, literature is often based on an author’s beliefs, desires, analyzations, or a combination there of.

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This is shown greatly in Kindred by Octavia E. Butler. Often called the “grand dame of science fiction”, Octavia Butler has won more than 10 major awards for her work. Born in California in 1947, Butler was educated in a time that was only beginning to accept people of her race and gender graduating. Zaki’s “Utopia, Dystopia, and Ideology in the Science Fiction of Octavia Butler (utopie, Dystopie Et Idéologie Dans La Science-fiction D'octavia Butler)” argues the motivations and products of Butler’s literature based in a Utopian, Dystopian, and Ideological political and social standing. Based mostly around the collective work of Octavia Butler, the author of Kindred, the work explores social influences that directly correlate to Butler’s writing styles. The author of the article, Hoda M. Zaki, begins the analyzation by quoting Butler in an interview. Butler said that she doesn’t believe that there is a subgenre for women's Science Fiction because they “wrote too many varieties of SF for their work to be labelled as one subgenre” (Zaki 239). Going into more detail about Butler, Zaki explains that Butler is a feminist that wrote a great deal of topical literature, being one of the many authors in her time that was “deeply influenced by the second (1960s’) wave of the women’s movement [that] began to use Science Fiction to explore issues from a feminist perspective” (Zaki 239). This “attracted a great deal of critical attention” (Zaki 239) to the movement. Zaki analyzes that this movement sprouted two seperate interpretations of social and political institutions. The essentialist believes that the female body is the point of difference and a “basis for unity and social change” (Zaki 240) while the materialist explains the oppression of women by looking at the social and historical premises of gender. Zaki argues that Butler specifically joins this debate by presenting her version of human nature and politics and by keeping her views consistent throughout her expressions in person and in literature. She explains throughout the paper that “[w]omen writers framed their critiques, demands, solutions, and strategies in light of the Movement's political struggles’ (Zaki 245). The author concludes that “Butler's vision of the future is a peculiar mix of utopianism, anti-utopianism, and ideology” (Zaki 247). She expresses her hopes in her works by analyzing current political standings while denying the ability of humans to change. While it’s largely based around politics, it has a great analyzation of Butler’s gender based presentations throughout her work. More specifically, Zaki’s article very much revolves around this representational concept of literature. Dana, the main character of Butler’s Kindred, has similarities to Butler in her natural time period, her profession, her race and gender, her place of residence, and her feminist views. Butler, being an African American woman, likely had to deal with quite a bit of discrimination over the course of her life. She placed many everyday struggles on Dana, making her discriminated in a way that only the author would truly understand, but many others would be able to see and relate to.

Kindred is one of Octavia Butler’s very well written and much appreciated books. Dana, a female African American writer living in California, is the main character of the book. She is continuously thrown from her comfortable life in 1976 to a Maryland plantation in a time before the Civil War. This happens many times throughout the book over the course of a series of flashbacks. It seems as though Dana is based off of the experiences of Octavia Butler. If Butler’s intent was not to directly base Dana off of herself, she could very much have intended to relay racial and gendered struggles that she had experienced to Dana’s character and in many other ways throughout the rest in the story. Being called back repetitively, Dana concludes she travels back in time specifically when her ancestor, Rufus, is in grave danger. She returns when her life is in grave danger and, finally, when her mission to keep Rufus safe was complete. Rufus himself is a very intriguing character. He has a reasonably likeable and charming personality, despite fits of rage and madness that appear sporadically throughout the novel. He's also very fair in his ownership of slaves, considering the time period. He strives to find the best in people, even saying his father is a "fair man" at times. He is, however, considered by some worthless or beneath consideration because of his drinking problems and his role in society, despite social expectations placed on him. His love of Alice, a black slave, also contributed to the antagonistic characteristics of Rufus. He has done plenty to instill fear, likely because he was supposed to. That's what his father had done and, despite the fact that he seemingly tries to evade being the monster his father was, he still ensues violence and holds power over his slaves. Dana and Kevin, her white husband, moved into a new apartment. This is about the time that Dana started time traveling. She would get a feeling not dissimilar to a fainting spell, and come to her senses within a close proximity to Rufus. She would be gone for months to her and come back to her time and realize only seconds or hours have passed.

While gender was less of an issue during the current time period in the book than it had been in the past, some minor conflicts still arose in the 1976 setting of Kindred. For example, when Dana returns after a great beating without Kevin, she asked her cousin to assist her by grocery shopping. She thinks Kevin has beaten her and tells her “I never thought you’d be fool enough to let a man beat you” (Butler 116). Despite this, the time when she is home is much more equal than her time in 1819, in which she is seen as just a woman and a slave and her ‘higher-ups’ are two white men named Rufus and Mr. Weylin, son and father. They treat her as a caretaker and a cook despite her education. Dana Britton’s “The Epistemology of the Gendered Organization” describes the different occupational situations and theories of gender roles in the workplace. Elaborating on the stereotypical portrayal of woman is in America’s current society and showing how literature reflects real problems. This gives the public another way of approaching these problems in the workplace. Britton states “that gender is a constitutive element of social structure” and that the idea “has been enormously influential, and it is now quite commonplace to speak of all manner of social institutions and practices as gendered” (418). This means that it is not unusual for people to gender certain jobs or roles in the workplace. She believes that a “better understanding of each of the levels at which organizations and occupations are gendered and the specific contexts and methods through which some groups are advantaged over others may well provide insight into the mechanisms” that can be used to make a less gendered society and less oppressive living for citizens. She continues that the “role to be played by the theory of gendered organizations in this process awaits its further elaboration” (Britton 431) or, in other words, though society possess insight in order to create a less oppressive establishment, more information is needed in order to do anything about it. This concept ties into Butler’s situation and potential motivation to create a character so similar to her own self. Benjamin Robertson’s article, “"Some Matching Strangeness": Biology, Politics, and the Embrace of History in Octavia Butler's "Kindred"”, relates similarly to the Britton article, but with a different perspective on gender outside of just the workplace. “Even those attempts by critics simultaneously to engage with Kindred and Butler’s more science-fictional novels tend to eschew a consideration of the United States and its history. Rather, they explore, again following the path set by Haraway, the issues of gender and identity” (Robertson 363). This elaborates on an oppression outside of just a workplace and how it likely influenced Butlers writing in a multitude of ways.

One may say that this is an ideologically conflicted book, or that a rivalry of opposing views exists within the story. This is true, however, within a special circumstance. It has a feminist revolved view within the ‘current time’ and a patriarchal theme within the past. Kevin and Dana have the same occupation throughout the book, an occupation that isn’t particularly gendered in the American society. When Dana and Kevin meet, Kevin just sold his first book and Dana was envious. This is when he asked her out for a first ‘date’ or, in their case, lunch hour during work. The patriarch aspect of the book revolved around the past in the stereotypical behavior of males versus females. This further proves the evolution of gender concepts throughout time.

Further elaborating on the separation of social classes and their influence on literature, there are many works that authors contribute their views into. Huber does this in the article “Trends in Gender Stratification, 1970-1985”, for example. Stratification, for clarification, is “the state of being divided into social classes” according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. This article elaborates on the norms and reoccurrences in gender divisions. Specifically focused after the 1970’s, the article directly addresses the point in time that Kindred was written and was supposed to take place; creating a palate in order to focus separate commentary on. It shows all of the progress made over the course of the past, but reminds the reader that women “remain underrepresented in top positions” and if “pious egalitarian proclamations are to be realized, than several institutions need to be overhauled” (Huber 492). Stating, simply, that if society is to eradicate or at least minimize the amount of discrimination within its structures, it would need to overthrow the institutions that are currently standing in said society. In short, despite its unlikeliness, the author does believe it’s possible to overthrow the stereotypes and discriminatory behaviors throughout society. Altogether, they’re saying it’s possible to eradicate these behaviors in literature as well.

In conclusion, evidence suggests that gender can be represented in many different ways through literature, despite arguments against the possibility. This is shown in character representations in Kindred after an analysis of Octavia Butler’s life, social structures throughout society, and how those structures appear directly in literature. Gender oppression is often intentionally mirrored in literature by authors in order to bring attention to modern and past gender oppressions.

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