Bloodchild by Octavia Butler and the Harm of Gender Roles

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Octavia Butler was a prolific science fiction writer who wrote several texts covering a range of concepts. In her revered short story ‘Bloodchild,’ Butler portrays the reversal of the conventional stereotypical gender norms and inequalities of power in modern-day society. This reversal signifies how the limiting reality of customary gender roles, specifically, blind obedience to notions of male dominance, deprives one of the power and agency that they are seeking within their life. However, no matter which role we take on and how much power comes along with it, taking the necessary steps to develop our role can result in us playing a more active part in deciding how to fulfill our obligation. I justify this idea by arguing that one’s ability to redefine their role will ultimately allow them to attain a greater sense of control. Through depicting Terran males as mothers and Tlic females occupying a dominant, masculine position, I claim that Butler’s short story ‘Bloodchild’ critiques gender roles, along with the inequality of power, as they are not pre-determined genetically. Furthermore, the story also recognizes that someone’s willingness to amend their role will inevitably enable them to feel equal as a partner. It is an essential idea to demonstrate that one can have agency and control even when placed in a seemingly restrictive role. Butler critiques gender roles and the inequality of power through the character Gan who goes from a place of ignorance, to awareness, to anger and resentment, to wanting to escape, and then ultimately, deciding how to fulfill his role on his terms.

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Butler demonstrates how blind ignorance and submissiveness can force an individual’s awareness to arise. Gan persuades T’Gatoi, well into the course of Bram Lomas’ crisis, that although he is unaware of the horrific events that are about to occur, he must “stay [there]” and that “maybe he can help” (10). Additionally, one could also interpret this through T’Gatoi’s perspective and infer a counter-argument by implying that she allows Gan to stay rather than him believing that he genuinely persuaded her, which permits Gan to retain a sense of power and agency briefly. When Gan does not abide by T’Gatoi’s orders, after she clearly states that “[she] does not want any argument from [him],” she “knocks [him] across the room” (11). Because of this, Gan explicitly ‘[feels] stupid for having ignored her warning’ (11). Without a doubt, Butler is stating that a clear division of agency and power exists between Gan and T’Gatoi. Gan implicitly condones T’Gatoi’s actions and takes full responsibility for the conflict between them both instead of recognizing her aggression as mistreatment. This is exemplified throughout many abusive relationships today where, in order to comply with the disparity of the current predicament, the (usually) female partner will attempt to justify the abusive actions of her male companion by ultimately shouldering the blame herself.

Having witnessed Bram Lomas’ gruesome “labour,” Gan questions his role within their relationship after his older brother Qui conveys to him that he is “just [T’Gatoi’s] property” and that the sole purpose of men is to operate as reproductive host animals (18, 21). One could say that the reversal of gender roles, as shown by the Terran males bearing the responsibility of the Tlic females’ young, represents a transfiguration of agency and power in which the Tlic females are the ones asserting their leverage over the Terran males. This transfiguration inverts the roles of a patriarchal society, whereby the dominant man of the household makes the critically essential choices for the rest of the family. Gan’s awareness of his role within his unequal relationship with T’Gatoi arises when he states that the role of Terran men is more than just shouldering the role of a host animal, while at the same time self-consciously asking himself if it really is. This self-conscious thought exemplifies how Gan begins to realize that he has been ignorantly taking on his role without any control over how much power and agency he has.

After realizing what his role demands of him, Gan expresses his anger and resentment when he informs T’Gatoi that ‘[he] [does not] want to be a host animal’ and that ‘[she] uses [the Terrans]’ (24). Because of this, Gan threatens to ‘escape’ his role by committing suicide when he takes his family’s rifle and positions it directly ‘under [his] own chin’ (24), which ultimately portrays how Gan realizes that he can redefine his role in his terms. These emotions are a way of transporting him from being powerless and submissive to more in control.

Despite his emotional outburst towards T’Gatoi and wanting to commit suicide, Gan agrees to take on the horrific responsibility of bearing her eggs. However, Gan takes a risk by trying to deny T’Gatoi the opportunity to take hold of his rifle after he makes a choice not to end his own life when he asserts to her that ‘there is risk, [Gatoi], in dealing with a partner” (26). Unquestionably, Butler is demonstrating how, by denying T’Gatoi the chance to take it, the rifle itself is symbolic of Gan’s agency and power. This demonstration of denial illustrates how Gan wants T’Gatoi to recognize him as an equal partner, and primarily, to fully appreciate his capacity to make decisions. Furthermore, this also exemplifies how one can have agency and control even when placed in a seemingly restrictive role at first. A counter-argument to this is that T’Gatoi is simply giving Gan permission to retain possession of the rifle rather than him believing that he denies her from taking it. This argument exemplifies how T’Gatoi is making a sacrifice in order for their relationship to move closer to being a partnership by accepting the risk of allowing Gan to keep the rifle. After Gan allows T’Gatoi to impregnate him, he states that he made this choice so that he could also “keep [her] for [himself]” which indicates that Gan could not consider her as a desired partner until he was able to fully gain a firm sense of control over his role in being able to make decisions on his behalf (28).

In the short story “Bloodchild,” author Octavia Butler demonstrates how the reversal of customary gender roles can restrain an individual from acquiring the agency and power that is necessary for them to secure more control over their role. The plot acknowledges that the ability of somebody to alter their role will leave them feeling closer to being equal within their relationship. Even if an individual, such as Gan, takes the responsibility of a stringent role, it is essential to acknowledge that they can still have agency and control. 

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