Feminist/Queer Theory

Octavia Butler’s, “Speech Sounds,” an Overlooked Feminist Icon

 Emily Rubio

Octavia Butler’s story, “Speech Sounds,” contains numerous hidden feminist undertones and was written during a time when women where subject to heavy prejudice and violence. As violence against females has been persisting throughout human history. Such as foot bindings in Ancient China, which was a common practice that involved breaking a woman’s foot and binding it to restrict her ability to run, serving as a status symbol. Additionally, honor killings, in which a relative kills a girl for engaging in pre-marital sex, exemplify the ongoing violence. Thus, “Speech Sounds” critique of other prejudiced writers and their sexist practices earns it a place as an overlooked feminist icon. As women, having endured such pain and suffering for such an extended period, have chosen to stand up against the violence and the prejudice.

Before we can delve into the feminist undertones, it is important to understand the historical context of the time period in which Butler authored her story. According to James Henslin, at the time of the United States’ founding, women were considered nothing more than property to their husbands or fathers. Therefore, the first wave of feminism emerged in 1920 with suffragists fighting for equal rights in a male-dominated world. Despite them facing strong opposition, they ended up succeeding in securing the right to vote for women. The second wave of feminism, which had begun in the 1960s, focuses on combating gender inequalities such as the gender pay gap and biased laws that subjugated women. This movement remains relevant today, with many different organizations leading the fight. Both the second and third waves of feminism continue fighting, with many different organizations leading. During the third wave, women critique the societal morals and values that promote masculine over feminine qualities: “Some feminists argue that competition, toughness, calloused emotions, and independence represent “male” qualities and need to be replaced with cooperation, connection, openness, and interdependence” (Henslin 287). This wave emerged in the 2000s and also addresses the plight of women in underprivileged countries who still endure practices such as honor killings and female genital mutilation, whereby men mutilate female genitalia to exert control over them.

Octavia Butler wrote “Speech Sounds” between the second wave and third wave of feminism. During this turbulent time, women were heavily confined to the domestic sphere, and any deviation from it was viewed as a betrayal to society. They were assigned to household duties such as cooking, cleaning, and child-rearing, bound to their husbands, and denied their basic human rights. Regrettably, they were perceived merely as appendages to their husbands, devoid of individuality, hopes, and dreams. Consequently, their publications often revolved around the mundanity of their lives. The repetitive nature of their daily experiences over the years could drive anyone to the brink, leading them to seek alternative outlets for their free time. Consequently, numerous short stories and poems emerged from this time period. Kerrian Baker asserts that due to the restrictions and severe consequences if caught participating in the maledominated world, women had to modify men’s genres and publish their own work discreetly. They subtly altered the genres to evade detection by men, while still allowing other women to recognize their contributions.

Octavia Butler made a courageous choice by featuring a double minority as the main character in her work, rather than a white man. Simply featuring a black protagonist was enough to draw criticism from many other writers. Baker points out that during that time period, white male writers had dominated the field, and they predominantly used white male protagonists to convey their messages. Their biases became very apparent as they relegated characters of any races other than white and women to side characters in supporting roles that reinforced stereotypes about minorities. Therefore, Butler’s decision to have her protagonist be both a woman and a black character was revolutionary within the literary landscape at the time. Despite women constituting half of the world’s population and encompassing diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, they are still regarded as a minority. As Henslin states, “Every society sorts men and women into separate groups and gives them different access to property, power, and prestige” (Henslin 279). Gender has historically served as a primary dividing line among people worldwide, consistently favoring men over women, as women (as a group) have never had decision making power over men (as a group). Men have always held more power than women. Traditional narratives often depicted men as the ones embarking on adventures while women were relegated to being slaves to their emotions. Butler subverted this narrative completely by placing minorities in the spotlight. In doing so, she effectively challenged other writers who confined female characters to the sidelines and support roles, perpetuating the notion that women were only capable of serving as their husbands’ maids and property. Butler demonstrated the falseness of this narrative.

The premise of Butler’s apocalypse story is that an illness swept through the human population, leaving everyone without the ability to communicate. As Butler writes, “The illness, if it was an illness, had cut even the living off from one another… Language was always lost or severely impaired” (Butler 5). However, this illness serves as a metaphor for women having their voices silenced in society. Women are born with the innate ability to speak and communicate with others. It is only as they grow older that they start to feel the pressures society has imposed upon them—the pressure to conform to traditional gender roles. These roles include staying in the kitchen, maintaining their husband’s house, taking care of the children, and leaving external matters to the men. Society begins exerting this pressure from an early age through mass media, such as books and TV shows. Anything that deviates from these roles is rejected by society. This pressure compels women to try and strive for unattainable beauty standards and prevents them from stepping out of line. Due to this pressure to conform to traditional roles, women’s voices are deemed much less valuable than men’s. Traditionally, women have been subservient to men, resulting in them having less power. The inability of women’s voices to carry significance has caused them to become a marginalized minority group without the ability to communicate meaningfully. Now that both men and women are unable to communicate meaningfully, reduced to mere grunts and gestures that hold little meaning, it signifies an apocalypse.

Language holds significant importance as it enables communication and collaboration among our species. Unlike any other animal or species, homo sapiens possess exceptional capabilities for clear communication. Through this ability, we can sustain the society we have built, including cities, communities, and transportation systems. Christina Smith asserts that “language is the most essential binding element of any complex society” (Smith 45). Without effective communication among our species, these systems would be completely unsustainable, thus leading to the utter collapse of everything our species has achieved. Our society as we know it would cease to exist, giving way to a new world order. Humanity would regress to a primitive fighting state, resorting to the nonverbal communication of grunts and growls, deprived of the ability to clearly communicate with one another. As Butler writes, “Could she speak? She nodded and watched his milder envy come and go” (Butler 7). Considering the crucial role language plays in maintaining society, it is intriguing that in Butler’s apocalyptic world, it is a woman who retains the ability to speak, rather than a man who society has elevated to a pedestal. The power of speech and communication holds significant sway in this apocalyptic world, with the remaining humans engaged in an unending struggle for power. Granting this power to a woman challenges society’s preached ideology that women are incapable or unworthy of wielding such authority, as Butler clearly demonstrates their capacity to do so.

“Speech Sounds” by Octavia Butler has many hidden feminist undertones. The story was written at a time when women were heavily discriminated against and only considered capable of being their husband’s maid and property. Butler’s choice of a black woman as the protagonist in an apocalyptic setting challenges the prejudices of writers who engage in sexist practices. For example, the illness featured in the story serves as a metaphor for how women’s voices are silenced in society. By giving the power to a black woman, Butler proves that language is crucial, and women are equally deserving of having their voices heard. Her decision was revolutionary in the genre and challenged the sexist norms that relegated women to secondary roles. Women can take center stage, and it is imperative to represent them accurately, making “Speech Sounds” an unsung feminist icon.

Works Cited

Baker, Kerrian. “‘Speech Sounds’: How Octavia Butler Found Her Voice and Shook up Science Fiction.” Nu Harvest Journal, Nu Harvest Journal, 1 Dec. 2020, nuharvestjournal.org/harvest2020/2020/11/25/nbspspeech-sounds-how-octavia-butlerfound-her-voice-and-shook-up-science-fiction#.

Butler, Octavia. “Speech Sounds.” Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine. vol # 73, 1983

“Gender and Age.” Essentials of Sociology: A down to Earth Approach, by James M. Henslin, 10th ed., Pearson, 2013, pp. 274–298.

Smith, Christina Jean. “What Disappears and What Remains: Representations of Social Fluidity in the Post-Apocalypse .” NC State Repository, North Carolina State University, 2007, repository.lib.ncsu.edu/bitstream/handle/1840.16/2918/etd.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y.

Chat GPT assisted with grammar and syntax correction throughout this essay.  https://chat.openai.com/chat


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