Rye and Obsidian: Equated Against A Male Dominated Gender Binary
In the dystopic anarchical society Octavia Butler creates in Speech Sounds, survival is everyone’s first priority. Since the goal of survival is the same for both men and women, the existence of a society without gender categories appears possible. Butler does not create such a society, however. In fact, Butler writes of her society as very traditionally gendered, in which men are better equipped for survival. The only character who does not appear to fit within a traditional gender binary is a woman named Rye. By designing a society characterized by a masculine dominated gender binary in her short story Speech Sounds, Octavia Butler is better able to point out the problematic nature of a male dominated culture through her depiction of Rye’s masculine performativity as equal to that of the male character Obsidian’s.
In order to confront the dominating hierarchy inherent in the gender binary and create a contrast to this system, Butler first creates a society in which the binary is prevalent. Butler writes into the text different stereotypes of the ways women and men ought to act. From the beginning, men are portrayed as more aggressive and violent in this society. The action on the bus began when “two young men were involved in a disagreement” (89). This dispute eventually evolved into a fight and lead to the bus being evacuated. The fact that Butler included the gender of the two combatants provides evidence of her desire for the binary to exist here. If Butler had left out the gender of the combatants, the reader would not have a clear picture of the society’s gender relations. Its inclusion suggests the relevance of men being associated with aggressiveness.
In the same scene, the stereotype of a woman in this society is also formed. When it was clear the bus driver had not yet seen the fight, “A woman shook the driver’s shoulder…Frightened, the woman drew away” (90). Here, a woman clearly does not enter the fight and instead alerts the bus driver of the action. Not only does this woman appear “well-behaved” in relation to the men, but she is also described as “frightened,” a description typically associated with weakness. She is not emotionally strong in comparison with the men described in this scene. Nowhere in this scene is a man ever described as weak or scared. Again, Butler made the decision to make this character a woman and include her gender in the story. As a result, from the onset of the story a society based on a hierarchical gender binary with strong men and weak women is established.
The final description to note that establishes the binary is the depiction of a man living across the street. Butler writes, “He had two women already—one tending each of his large gardens. They put up with him in exchange for his protection” (96). This is a classic example of an inherent hierarchical gender binary working in society: women trade their freedom for a man’s protection. The inclusion of this image creates a view of an unequal society, in which men and women are separate and men exist above women. The man is the one to provide protection, a commodity that gives him power. Thus, implying that these women are unable to protect themselves. In a society that appears to be in a state of anarchy and lacking centralized control, everyone must fight to protect themselves. If these women are described as not being able to provide their own protection, it portrays a society divided along a line of gender with males having the advantage and the power.
The descriptions of men and women mentioned above formulate a gender dichotomy in this society. The establishment of this traditional dichotomy gives Butler the ability to more directly subvert it through Rye’s masculine performativity. The first instance that the reader sees that Rye does not fit society’s gender binary is in her reaction to the bus stopping: “When the driver hit the breaks, she was ready and the combatants were not” (90). Rye is extremely perceptive to the situation and displays a great amount of “street smarts,” commonly attributed to the male gender. She acts instinctively. Although one may argue that the even more “masculine” action would be to engage in the combat, Rye’s individualistic mentality, not stopping to help others or even the kids on the bus, point to a stereotypical masculine gender performance. Rye does not appear frightened as the other woman is portrayed. Rather she is poised to deal with the situation to come, finding shelter behind a tree should the fight escalate and bullets begin to fly (91). This shows her strength and awareness of the dangerous world in which she lives.
Although it is evident that Rye does not fit into the society’s established gender binary, Butler’s strongest literary tactic is in the language she uses that equalizes Rye with Obsidian, who follows the same hierarchical gender binary as the society. Throughout Speech Sounds, Obsidian is described in a traditionally masculine way: he commands attention, owns a car, a rarity in their society, and wears a LAPD outfit, describing his desire to protect citizens in need (Butler 91). By equating Rye with Obsidian, Butler explicitly subverts the masculine dominated gender binary, since Rye, a classified woman, reveals masculine characteristics. The first example of this lies in one of their first moments of eye contact. At this point, Rye is not sure whether to trust this man or not: “Finally he looked at Rye again. She returned his gaze, very much aware of the old forty-five automatic her jacket concealed. She watched his hands” (Butler 91). They are both equally aware of the other’s weapon. Rye did not shy away; she stood her ground as the situation outside of the bus escalated. When confronted with Obsidians masculinity, Rye returns it. Further, Rye appears confident in her ownership of a gun, and her knowledge of its use. In this society centered on survival, Rye’s ability to use a gun and protect herself shows the sophistication of her masculine performativity within this society. As a contrast, the two women under the man’s “protection” do not have such skills, and therefore reliant on a man. Since both Rye and Obsidian possess guns, they are leveled as equals, calling into question whether a distinction between men and women actually exists.
Additionally, one of the men who were fighting “grouped” Rye with Obsidian, equalizing the individuals (Butler 94). Both Rye and Obsidian are considered “less-impaired” than the rest of society. Each is able to communicate in some form; Obsidian can read and write, while Rye can speak and understand human language. While grouping the two together, the man made no reference to their gender only their abilities. Since, as discussed earlier, men have more perceived power in this society because of their ability to protect themselves, Rye’s ability to communicate lifts her to a higher status in society as well her ability to protect herself. Here, the equalization between Rye and Obsidian allows Rye’s masculine performativity to become evident.
Finally, when called to action, Butler describes equal intention on the part of Obsidian and Rye. When a woman goes racing across the street in front of Obsidian’s car, clearly being dangerously followed, Obsidian races from the car to try and stop the man from killing his wife. Once Obsidian leaves the car in pursuit, Rye races after him. Moreover, after the death of Obsidian, Rye does not hesitate to kill the man (Butler 104). Although Obsidian is the first to react, Butler writes that the knowledge of the danger of domestic disputes “would not have held her back either” (106). Their instincts are the same. The typical female gender performance in this situation would have been to sit back in the car and allow the man to handle the dangerous situation. Butler does not grant Rye this gendered performance. Instead she equates her actions with Obsidians, thus, inferring a masculine gender performance.
The equalization of Obsidian and Rye is a powerful tool Butler uses to create Rye’s subversive masculine gender performance. This equalization brings out the nuances of Rye’s gender performance and provides a contrast to the traditional masculine dominated hierarchal gender binary present in their society. By creating only one character that subverts the system, Butler is able to highlights the problems with a system based on a gender binary. The society crafted in this story bases life on ones ability for survival and self-protection. Butler suggests that it is absurd to reserve this ability for only men through her depiction of Rye’s masculine performativity.
Butler, Octavia E. "Speech Sounds." Bloodchild and Other Stories. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1995. 89-110. Print.