In Octavia Butler’s science fiction short story “Bloodchild”, she uses the parasitic relationship between the Tlic and the Terrans to parallel the historic and ongoing abuse of women’s reproductive rights. Butler draws parallels between the Tlic/Terran relationship and a heteronormative relationship between a man and a woman, illustrating how the Terrans are being taken advantage of by the Tlic emotionally and physically and paralleling this to a “normal” human relationship. This can be seen in three aspects of the text.
First, Butler draws physical parallels between human births and the “birth” of the Tlic out of the Terrans, effectively setting the reader up to compare the two scenarios. She further compares the indoctrination of the Terrans into the system set up by the Tlic with the society into which we indoctrinate our children, one that makes expecting pregnancy of women “natural”. Finally, there is a blurry line drawn between love, coercion, and obligation. Butler makes a commentary on our ability to recognize the negative consequences of power dynamics in an unfamiliar scenario, yet not acknowledge in a relationship we consider “normal”. “Bloodchild” allows Butler to make a point about how contemporary society still takes advantage of women and their reproductive capabilities, in a science fiction setting that removes the reader from immediate accountability.
To begin, Butler sets up a physical comparison of the Tlic-Terran relationship to a “normal” relationship between men and women through the use of several events in the story. This allows the reader a context in which to make a comparison between the two worlds on a societal level. Butler parallels the birth of a Tlic offspring out of a Terran to a human c-section. They are described as physically similar, though the Tlic birth would at first seem far more gruesome.
“His body convulsed with the first cut. He almost tore himself away from me. The sound he made… T’Gatoi seemed to pay no attention as she lengthened and deepened the cut, now and then pausing to lick away blood” (Butler 15).
T’Gatoi cuts Bram open and removes the offspring directly from his body. It is a horrific scene, full of blood and pain, and seems incredibly unnatural, but is in essence similar to a c-section. While the scene almost exactly parallels a scenario with which we are familiar—a c-section—it seems in this context to be abhorrent and cruel. Later in the story T’Gatoi impregnates Gan, in a manner extremely similar to the reproductive behavior of humans.
“She undulated slowly against me, her muscles forcing the egg from her body into mine” (Butler 27).
Again, the scene which in terms of human to human contact would be incredibly natural, seems wrong. The reader is left feeling repulsed. These two events almost exactly parallel normal human experience but are framed in such a way as to shock and disgust the reader. Paired with the behavior exhibited throughout the story by both Gan and T’Gatoi, the resulting feeling is one of a couple. Butler has set up the story to parallel a “normal” relationship, but slightly off, allowing us to make comparisons from things that disgust us in their world to things that should in ours.
The story has created a context in which the reader can think critically about the similarities between the Tlic/Terran relationship and a more heteronormative relationship. Butler makes a commentary on how the situational violence and abuse of power are allowed to continue, not only in the Terran world on the Preserve but also in our contemporary society. The Terrans are raised to be polite and respectful of the Tlic, animals much more powerful than they are, even though many can see the blatant control of the Terrans by the Tlic (Butler 3). Gan has an unusually close relationship with T’Gatoi, who has chosen him from birth to be the “host” for her children.
“Even my brother who had somehow grown up to fear and distrust the Tlic could probably have gone smoothly into one of their families if he had been adopted early enough” (Butler 8).
There is a cultural indoctrination of practices. Butler is making a commentary that anything can be seen as “normal” if one is exposed to it early and often enough. This is similar to the exploitation of women’s reproductive rights by men through sexual politics that are now considered rote. Society violently imposes adherence to gender norms, highlighted in an extreme sense by the events of “Bloodchild”. The Terrans have lived for so long with the status quo, even though it is a cruel, one-sided relationship, it is allowed to continue because they are raised with the idea that the Tlic are more powerful and that it is their “duty” to help continue on the Tlic progeny. Young women are likewise indoctrinated with the idea that it is their duty to be a mother, to help their husband carry on the family line. They are trapped by expectation. While the coercion of the Terrans to carry the Tlic young is more overt, Butler is pointing to the principles promoted in our society as normal and questioning them.
To say that “Bloodchild” is a straightforward parasitic relationship of physical and emotional control, however, is not complex enough. We can see through the relationship that T’Gatoi has built with Gan, as well as through the actions of Lomas’ Tlic (T’Khotgif) that there is a kind of love between partners. When Lomas’ “birth” goes wrong, T’Khotgif comes immediately to his aid. “’Lomas?’ she said harshly. I liked her for the question and the concern in her voice when she asked it. The last coherent thing he had said was her name” (Butler 18). While it is unclear whether Lomas was calling for T’Khotgif because he knew she could help ease the pain, or because he wanted her there for emotional as well as physical support, he still wanted her by his side. She in turn is not only concerned for the health and safety of her young but for him as well. But this “love” stems out of a one-sided relationship in which T’Khotgif has all the power, and from which Lomas benefits little. There is conflicting emotion, Lomas is being taken advantage of in a gruesome way, but still maintains an emotional connection to T’Khotgif. He is enduring not only physical hardship but also emotional abuse that keeps him there, a scenario that is all too familiar. Many women are trapped in a weighted relationship not just by physical abuse but by a misguided emotional connection.
Butler further complicates Gan and T’Gatoi’s relationship when they talk in the kitchen after Gan has helped with the delivery. It is time for T’Gatoi to implant her eggs. She is speaking to Gan honestly about the process. He reminds her that there is a partnership. “If we’re not your animals, if these are adult things, accept the risk. There is risk, Gatoi, in dealing with a partner” (Butler 26). In this scene it is clear that T’Gatoi is taking into account all of Gan’s fears and emotion and trying to deal with them as an equal. Yet the reader still gets a sense that in the end, T’Gatoi needs an incubator for her young, at any means possible. T’Gatoi admits that she must impregnate someone that evening, and if it not Gan she will do it to his sister. Gan is swayed at first with the promise of a partnership but in the end is coerced by a threat. He may not want to be impregnated, and yet he feels obligated to do so. Something resembling a love for T’Gatoi built from years of being around her instills a sense of obligation. He learned over and over that the Terrans are the only way in which the Tlic can effectively reproduce. In the end, this sense of obligation and coercion based on emotion are poor substitues for an open, balanced relationship in which both parties hold comparable power.
It comes down, perhaps, to a question of choice. The power dynamics are so unbalanced it is impossible for Gan to make a choice that is all his. He is forced to endure the painful, bloody birth of a Tlic from his body because he has been indoctrinated into a society that considers this normal. He is faced with a partner who holds all the power, compelling him to carry her young by coercion and a sense of obligation. At face value Gan’s situation seems abhorrent, but the real shock comes in recognizing his is not dissimilar to the lived realities of many women. In “Bloodchild”, Judith Butler creates a futuristic, science fiction dystopia through which we may learn more about our own society.
Butler, Octavia. “Bloodchild”. Bloodchild and Other Stories. 2nd Ed. New York: Seven Stories Press, 1996. 3-29.