Rye: Challenging the Gender Binary and the Social Construction of Femininity

Think about the word feminine and a tornado of traits, items, and people come to mind: mother, kind, make up, pink, flowers, and so on.  Think about the word masculine and a storm of words come up for that: courageous, strong, blue, confident, man.  The gender binary assumes that women are only feminine and men are only masculine.  The social construction of femininity assumes traits to women which are deemed opposite of masculine and lesser.  Femininity is characterized by someone who places a higher value on others rather than oneself and one’s whole being is dependent on the value placed on the other.  Also it assumes that one is a responsive, submissive, giving, and maternal person.  In the short story Speech Sounds, author Octavia Butler challenges the social construction of femininity.  Butler’s antagonist Valerie Rye challenges the notion that women are weak and that women place a high value in others more than themselves by showing that she is not subordinate to men through power and .


Speech Sounds is a feminist science fiction short story set in a dystopia where speech is lost and the world has fallen into chaos because of it.  The story begins with Rye taking the bus to Pasadena where she hopes to find and reunite with some family.  When a fight breaks out on the bus Rye decides to step out and wait for the chaos to cease.  It is then that Rye meets Obsidian, a bearded man in an LAPD uniform.  After restoring order Obsidian offers Rye a ride in his car, Rye weighs her options and accepts his offer and continues her way to Pasadena.  Along the way Rye learns that Obsidian can read and write, and he learns that she can speak.  Next Rye asks Obsidian to go home with her following an intimate moment.  Afterwards, Rye and Obsidian see a woman being chased by a man with a knife.  Rye and Obsidian intervene but aren’t quick enough to save the woman.  Obsidian wounds the man with the knife but the man manages to take Obsidian’s gun and kill him.  Rye kills the man before he can target her.  Suddenly, two children rush out to the fallen woman, and Rye, devastated that she lost Obsidian as fast as she met him decides to give him a proper burial.  Rye gets Obsidian’s body into the car, and decides to give the woman a burial as well.  One of the children yells at Rye to stop and not come any closer and her brother stops her from talking any more out of fear.  Following this discovery Rye reveals to the children that she can talk as well, and takes the children along with her with intentions to protect them.  


Ex feminist Bobbi Wingham of states that confidence and courage are both traits of masculinity.  Jason Fonceca of states that surrender is a feminine quality and independence and logic as masculine qualities.  An instance where Rye transcends these ideas is found in the episode in which she is approached by a man outside the bus.  “The man who had made the gesture started toward her.  She had no idea what he intended, but she stood her ground.  The man was half a foot taller than she was and perhaps ten years younger.  She did not imagine she could outrun him.  Nor did she expect anyone to help her if she needed help” (Butler, 95).  Though his intentions were not known to Rye or to the reader, Rye does not step back from the possible threat he could be.  Rye displays logic by assessing the situation and not running away from the approaching man; putting into account the man’s youth and size compared to hers and her weapon.  Rye displays courage, confidence, and independence simply by not running away.  All of the people on the bus were strangers and Rye didn’t expect help from anyone if she needed it.  “Nor did she expect anyone to help her if she needed help” (Butler, 95).  The “if” plays onto that Rye did not need help and had the situation under control.  Furthermore, Rye does not surrender and give into the feminine stereotype but rather Rye is in a position of power. “She gestured once--a clear indication to the man to stop.  She did not intend to repeat the gesture.  Fortunately the man obeyed” (Butler, 95).  The man’s obeying presents a sense of equality between him and Rye or could be seen as the approaching man being the subordinate.


Gillis Triplett of website The Author’s Den speaks of an honorable man as a protector.  In the opening of the story Rye is on a bus to Pasadena in hopes of finding her brother and his two children.  It’s not said specifically told as to why she wishes to reunite with them until later in the story.  A major theme in the story is companionship.  It is not protection that Rye seeks.  Rye denounces any thought of the need of protection when she reflects on her neighbor across the street.  “She thought of the man who lived across the street from her.  He rarely washed since his bout with the illness.  And he had gotten into the habit of urinating wherever he happened to be.  He had two women already—one tending each of his large gardens.  They put up with him in exchange for his protection.  He made it clear that he wanted Rye to become his third woman” (Butler, 96).  The fact that Rye is not with her neighbor proves that she is not in need of protection. 


In addition, as mentioned before in the episode with the man approaching her suspiciously, Rye stood her own ground and furthermore, Rye is known to carry her own gun and is more than willing to use it if she needs to.  This is evident in her reflection on domestic disturbances after Obsidian had died.  “Some of the most dangerous calls they went out on were domestic disturbance calls.  Obsidian should have known that—not that the knowledge would have kept him in the car.  It would not have held her back either.  She could not have watched the woman murdered and done nothing” (Butler, 106).  Assessing the situation, Obsidian had made it clear he was being a cop, assuming the responsibilities of being a cop and taking action.  Though there is somebody there who has accepted the role and responsibility, Rye registered that she was not going to sit back.  This demonstrates equality between man and woman and dispels the notion of only man as protector.


When considering how Rye fits into the gender binary, it is true that Rye’s quest to Pasadena is dependent on men, Rye does have sex with Obsidian, and Rye seems to fit the idea of a mother when she takes the children in the end.  However, Rye does not fall into the gender binary. 


The fact that the men are driving Rye around does not fulfill the gender binary.  It is made clear that transportation is a rarity.  “Buses were so rare and irregular now, people rode when they could, no matter what.  There might not be another bus today or tomorrow” (Butler, 91).  “Cars were rare these days—as rare as a severe shortage of fuel and of relatively unimpaired mechanics could make them” (Butler, 91).  This fact that transportation is rare nullifies any thought that Rye is at the mercy of men.  In fact mentioned later is that Rye can drive herself.  “She went back to the car.  She could drive home, at least.  She remembered how to drive” (Butler, 105).  The fact that Rye can drive puts to rest that she needs men to be able to get around.


When considering the intimacy between Obsidian and Rye or their interactions in general, Rye is always seen as an equal.  Rye does not obey Obsidian or the likes of any man.  An instance where this is true is when Obsidian first asks for sex.  “He sighed, reached toward the glove department.  She stiffened, not knowing what to expect, but all he took out was a small box.  The writing on it meant nothing to her.  She did not understand until he broke the seal, opened the box, and took out a condom.  He looked at her, and she first looked away I surprise” (Butler, 100).  Rye is shown to have the agency to reject without fear or doubt.  Rye consents to sex with Obsidian and later instigates it.  Putting out an example that women can desire sex as much as men. 


Finally, John and Micki Baumann of John and Micki’s Metaphysical Site state that a quality of femininity is that one is willing to help.  After the death of Obsidian, Rye intends to leave.  “She had been about to drive away and leave them.  She had almost done it, almost left two toddlers to die” (Butler, 105).  This indicates that Rye was not willing to help, in fact she was going to leave them to die thus rejecting the notion of women being maternal.  Her ultimate decision in taking the children is not to be a mother, but to be a protector.


One more significant thing to consider is Butler’s decision to have Rye be able to talk.  When considering agency, power, and subordination; it is usually the men who are powerful and can speak whereas women are the ones who are seen as the subordinate who lack a voice.  Butler’s decision to remove speech from the male characters strips down the believed to be powerful into impatient individuals with little agency.


Rye is a prime example of proving the gender binary as false.  Through her interactions with men, by the way she looks out for herself, and by the abilities she possesses, Rye challenges the gender binary and creates an individual who is woman but masculine. 



Works Cited


Baumann, John, and Micki Baumann. "Masculine & Feminine Side." Understanding the Masculine and Feminine Side. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Jan. 2013.


Butler, Octavia. "Speech Sounds." Blood Child and Other Stories. 2nd ed. New York: Seven Stories, 2005. 87-110. Print.


Fonceca, Jason. "12 Top Feminine And 12 Top Masculine Traits That Could Change Your Life." Ryze Online. WordPress Plugins, n.d. Web. 25 Jan. 2013.


Triplett, Gillis. "40 Things Every Woman Must Know About Men, Love, Sex and Relationships." AuthersDen, Inc, n.d. Web. 25 Jan. 2013.


Wingham, Bobbi. "Nine Traits of Masculine Men -" Atom. N.p., 14 May 2009. Web. 23 Jan. 2013.



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