Sunday, April 27, 2008
Of Pregnant Men and the Definition of Slavery
In the late Octavia Butler’s short story “Blookchild,” a group of humans have left Earth for an unnamed distant planet and entered into a unique social arrangement with one of the species living on that planet. Highly intelligent and evolved insect-like creatures, Tlics are about eight feet or more tall, with multiple legs and body segments and a stinger that puts those who get stung into a pleasantly numb sleep-like state in which they feel no pain. The humans (known as Terrans on this unnamed planet) have agreed to accept protection by the Tlics from elements of the planet never entirely described, although those elements include what seems to be an unpredictable climate, numerous dangerous beasts, and certain Tlics whose intentions towards Terrans are more hostile. The Tlics also offer a health-restoring drink that comes from their own unfertilized eggs. With a fountain-of-youth like effect and mild hallucinatory properties, the egg drink keeps humans looking young and feeling strong and full of a sedating if temporary inner peace.
In return for the never quite clarified protection and as much egg drink as they want, individual Terran families have entered into close, caring, but also sometimes tense relationships with individual Tlics, who become part of the family and help raise Terran children. The essential feature of this relationship is that Tlics now use Terrans to give birth to Tlic young in a startling way. Finding that they get better results than with other animals on their home planet, the Tlics choose individual Terran men to lay their eggs in. They don’t choose women because women have to give birth to babies of their own species. The men are stung to sleep, then their bodies are cut open and eggs (usually six to eight of them) are laid in the open wounds, after which the wounds are sealed up again. At the time that the eggs hatch in their bodies, the men must be stung again, cut open, and the now living Tlic babies have to be removed. The men are quickly restored to good health by the healing properties of the egg drink, which even eliminate the scars from the operation so that the men look like they were never cut. The operation is delicate and, it turns out, dangerous. If the Tlic babies are not removed right when they hatch, they will eat the body that they’ve hatched inside, causing a very painful death for their host. Sometimes a Tlic makes errors in monitoring a man, or grows sick and can’t complete the birth process, and when that happens, sometimes the man involved will die.
While the Terrans have ostensibly agreed to this arrangement, they seem to have done so only under the threat of the loss of the unspecified, vaguely gangster-like protection. Further, they are not allowed to witness the Tlic birth process. Some of them have witessed it though, whether accidentally or out of determined curiosity, and when they do they usually become permanently disgusted and angrily refuse to be part of the Terran-Tlic relationship. They often become proponents of violent revolution against the Tlics, one of the reasons that it is illegal for Terrans to carry guns, although many Terran families keep hidden guns.
Many critics have seen in the social world described in this story an allegory of slavery. Human bodies are used for purposes that humans themselves do not control and in ways that sometimes lead to a violent death, although if the operation is handled properly, they feel no pain. Further, while in theory human men volunteer for this operation, the problem of the ambiguous protection means that the arrangement is actually based in coercion. If the Terrans as a whole refused the relationship, protection would be removed, with the implication perhaps that the birthing process would become one that the Tlics would impose upon unwilling humans, although that possibility is never openly stated. The humans are clearly subject to a degree of control by the Tlics that is not marked by equal authority for both races. Further, this relationship is only maintained through a condition of human ignorance. Drug addiction also plays a role, as most humans have become to various degrees hooked on the miraculous egg drink, even though in this case the drug leads to good health and a youthful appearance. Add to all these details the fact that Butler is African-American, and the idea that this story explores the condition of slavery has become common.
Fascinatingly though, in her afterword to the story that appears in the collection Bloodchild and Other Stories, Butler denies that she thinks of the story as an exploration of slavery. Although she never says so directly, the implication seems apparent that people have assumed the story is about slavery partly because Butler, as an African American, is assumed to be writing about that subject. But Butler herself describes “Bloodchild” as the story she always wanted to write about men becoming pregnant, as well as a tale of how human and non-human creatures might be able to live together and cooperate rather than instinctively treating each other as incomprehensible and disgusting enemies. Many individual Tlics and Terrans have loving relationships. They are part of each other’s families and consult each other’s feelings. And again, no individual man is forced to give birth to Tlic babies. Those who do so have volunteered and those who don’t want to don’t have to, although if all of them refused, the agreement between Tlics and Terrans would break down. Tlics and Terrans talk to each other, tell stories and secrets and share emotional support, although the Tlics seem to do most of the nurturing and the nurturing never seems entirely benevolent.
If Butler’s afterword rejects the slavery interpretation though, her own interpretation doesn’t seem entirely satisfactory either. First, the men in the story aren’t exactly pregnant. Humans give birth through organs designed for giving birth. They don’t have embryos surgically implanted all over their bodies, embryos that grow into fetuses that will eat them alive if not removed at the correct moment. Granted, human organs for birth don’t always work perfectly, and cesarean sections, for instance, involve surgical procedures significantly similar to Tlic birth. So there are similarities to real human pregnancy both in terms of some elements of the operation itself and the physical shock it entails. Also, on some level childbirth is indeed imposed upon women, who never asked to be able to give birth, however they feel about it once they learn they have the ability. And there is also the metaphorical suggestion that parents always risk being eaten alive by the needs of their children. Nonetheless, the Tlic birthing process is one that human bodies were not designed for, one which they hate if they ever actually see it.
Second, even if the interpretation that the story is a slavery allegory is one Butler rejects and did not intend, an interpretation that was imposed on her because of her racial identity, the fact is that thinking about slavery in relation to the story raises worthwhile questions. Slavery, for instance, by definition is not accepted voluntarily. It’s the lack of volition that makes it slavery. The social situation described in the story is somewhat closer to sharecropping or servitude, in which the opportunity to choose this particular way of living is more a legal technicality than a real choice, since other options have been effectively, if not absolutely, eliminated. But even that comparison isn’t quite right, since individual humans can opt out of the Tlic birthing system with no more than emotional consequences. It’s just that changing the system as a whole would potentially lead to the destruction of human life as a whole, or at least to potentially widespread violent consequences. The system depends on the fact that some men must volunteer.
Butler’s “Bloodchild” ultimately isn’t a story about slavery, male pregnancy, or a world in which human and non-human actors cooperate with each other for mutual benefit. Instead it’s a story about the complex intertwining of love and servitude, desire and power, enforced by a social system in which one race has more control than another. It’s a story that suggests that nurturing and control, and birth and violence, go hand in hand. It’s a story that shows how people can come to love those who control them and that those who control others can feel that they do so out of love. It’s a story that shows how our most deeply felt emotions can be constructed by conditions of power that are easier to describe in their totality than to understand in specific cases. In this story, power and love are not opposites. Instead, love takes place under conditions of unequal power, and power exists in even the most apparently loving relationships.